Remembering Russia


It is difficult to forget Russia, given the proclivity of the state, real and imagined, to meddle in America elections and to violate egregiously the Monroe Doctrine by sponsoring illiberal client states such as Cuba and Venezuela that are organized on a socialist model.  From 1946 to 1991 Russia was an existential threat to western Europe. Its nuclear arsenal is now larger than that of the United States and it has the only other strategic air force in the world. Its manner in politics is bullying, and its leaders still consider the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in the words of Vladimir Putin, the greatest tragedy of the twenty-first century.  Russia, at least the government, although looking in many respects like a western liberal democracy, is in fact a band of accomplices united in criminal activities. Disagree and you may disappear.  

Russia, even under the Tsars, was, in the nineteenth century, like the United States, always  expansive, occupying at different times Finland, Prussia, Lithuania, Alaska, California, and Poland, which was a grand duchy under Russian rule until 1919.  In the nineteenth century the Tsars had exerted authority beyond Russia’s southern border with the creation of Kazakhstan, Turkistan, and other ‘stans.’ The attempt to recover the Ukraine is only the latest.  Be it remembered that Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1872, and that signs of Russian colonization, including signs of the missionary activity of the Russian Orthodox Church, appear a far south as California.  The behavior during the post-World War II years was only exacerbated when the new-found messianic impetus was added to the traditional Russian character as a very dangerous neighbor. The Germans knew the difference between being occupied by Americans and Russians; one of the mini-migrations of the twentieth century was the flight into the arms of the advancing American army to avoid life under the Russians, a possibility more than a few Germans greeted with suicide.  Bullying often seems to be a Russian characteristic. In 1943 Stalin proposed that the top 50,000 Germans be shot. One of the most endearing western characteristics is the tendency to run shy, when necessity does not require it, of pushing the adversary to the wall and rejoicing in his destruction. There is such a thing as national character; Americans did their share of rape and pillage but it was small stuff in comparison with the brutality of the Russians. There was always a note of cynicism about the Soviet Union.   If Stalin did not say that one death is a tragedy while a million deaths is just history moving on, it nonetheless represents his thinking. He did capture the essence of the appeal of socialism in these words: 

 “It is difficult for me to imagine what “personal liberty” is enjoyed by an unemployed hungry person. True freedom can only be where there is no exploitation and oppression of one person by another; where there is no unemployment, and where a person is not living in fear of losing his job, his home and his bread. Only in such a society personal and any other freedom can exist for real and not on paper.”   

Well, of course the liberty of such a person is, characteristically, the liberty to get himself employed. Perfect security is not a natural feature of life on earth and an inordinate desire for it may be a pathology.  Better to be oppressed occasionally by one’s neighbor than systematically by a utopian government. And of course we need to help those who cannot find work, but not by making them into a permanent underclass on behalf of which society is organized.  The preferential option for the poor does not mean that they are the only part of society with rights and just expectations.  

Historically, the ambiguous nature of Russian history represented by the tension between Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, which has always been just slightly western-looking—Poland is its neighbor – and the vast Russian landmass in which Moscow and St. Petersburg, on its western perimeter, are the important cities.  Christianity came to Russia in the tenth century through the Roman mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius, and it is to them that the Cyrillic script in which the orthodox liturgy is written is attributed. Kiev adopted the liturgy of Constantinople just in time to go into schism in 1054. It is a constitutive part of Russian self-image that Muscovy, the Russian land,  is the third Rome, inherited in the aftermath of the fall of Old Rome to heresy and of Constantinople to Islam in 1453. This appears first in 1492 and was crystalized in 1510 in the writing of the monk Pilotheus of Pskov, who assured the Grand Duke Vasili III: 

Two Romes have fallen.  The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom.”  

The Tsars took as the arms of Russia the double-headed eagle of Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empire.  This is at best useful bosh. It is true that Russia inherited from Constantinople the tendency to see the Church as an instrument of state policy, and the Orthodox Church of Russia has fulfilled this expectation.   Patriarch Kyrill has contributed to the tendency to absolve Stalin, and hence the Russian past, from the catalogue of atrocities that accompanied the utopian vision. We shall probably never have more than a round number of deaths; estimates vary from thirty to seventy million.  But, after all, Stalin was the ‘father of victory’ in the great patriotic war and one must break a few eggs to make an omlette. In February 1943 Russia had withstood the German invasion and broken the advance toward Stalingrad, but the Russian victory was a near thing and in September of that year, needing every resource of national energy that could be found, Stalin reversed his anti-religious policy, made a concordat with the Patriarch, released the clergy from prison and opened churches.   That alliance continued, to be intensified in the days of Vladimir Putin, who, somewhat irrationally, allowed the canonization of the Romanovs, whose murder had sealed the success of the revolution in 1917.          

Russia was always an authoritarian state but its rulers were not always barbarians.  The Romanovs were absolute in the eighteenth -century sense. Peter the Great, a convinced westernizer, required the nobility summarily to adopt western dress and to cut off their beards.  Through the creation of the Holy Synod, he effectively made the Orthodox Church an instrument of state policy. In 1800 there were about forty million Russians of whom ten million were serfs.    

No one other than the nobility could own land until 1804, at about which time 48% of factory workers were serfs.   Serfdom was not abolished until 1861, and then the land available to the newly freed was what their former masters did not want, and that at an extortionate price.   


Socialism was not invented in Russia, although the vast difference between rich and poor, the presence of so many freed serfs, and the shock given an essentially faux medieval culture by the industrial revolution made Russia a promising matrix in which the virus of socialism, at the heart of which is always state ownership of economic and cultural assets, presented as fairer and more productive, was able to grow.   If one seeks a founder, Charles Fourier, whose Socialism was tested in the Paris Commune of 1871 is a good candidate. But the socialist inspiration was everywhere after the European revolutions, or attempted revolutions, of 1848. What made Russia especially vulnerable was the pig-headed insistence of the Romanovs that the autocracy must be maintained, coupled with historical circumstances such as the October 5, 1905 shooting of peaceful protesters and the defeat of Russia by the Japanese in the same year, to which was added the humiliation of the ineptitude and failure of Russia’s part in the war against the Central Powers in 1914–1916.  

There were many varieties of Socialism, ranged from the English Fabians, through the International Workingmen’s Association to Lenin, who believed that the Socialist Utopia would be, must be,  brought in by violence. It is arguable that Lenin was the inventor of terror as an effective political weapon. We know the rest of that story, which is mentioned here as background for the unusual cultural development of Russia during the last half century of the Tsars.   Begin with Alexander Pushkin, the Russian Shakespeare, who paved the way for Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is improbable that you can take a degree in literature without reading Chekhov and certainly Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov And we might ask with good purpose just how American and Western European symphonies generally would be able to fill the hall without Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Prokovief, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich.  And in philosophy there is Nicolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Soloviev, and Solzhenitsyn. These have tended to reprobate Soviet Communism while at the same time pointing out the spiritual weaknesses in western capitalism.                        .    

Several of these were born in the twentieth century, but as a group they are the product of or were influenced by this period of cultural failure and revolution.   One is reminded of the commonplace about Switzerland: five hundred years of peace and only the cockoo clock. It also brings to mind a favorite theory, that great artistic and literary achievement are more likely to occur when the tectonic plates of culture are moving.   But this may be specific to the nineteenth/twentieth century period and may simply mean that revolutionary destruction brings out the best in those who possess poetic vision.              

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