‘I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:
I deeply sympathize.’
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size
I read a lot of Russian literature, I have for many years. Writers who care naturally gravitate to Pushkin and Grossman and Mandelstam and Pasternak. You eventually get to an age when reading Clive Cussler or Dan Brown does to your brain what a frozen burrito does to your gut. I arrived there sometime during my season in Nigeria.
Which is why I was surprised that I was surprised by Putin’s war. Russia is still, even in 2022, like “A Road to Calvary” by Aleksey Tolstoy. We think things change, we believe our own “end of history” hype, we like to find comfort in our weird, anti-natural post-civilizational malaise that has settled around us; a world where great struggles never really occur and we can recline into our plastic animal-less environments and complain about perceived slights until somebody presents us a utopia of somebody else’s making.
Russians define themselves by their great privations, if their novels are to be believed. The tremendous suffering of people resisting the Tsar; the terrible ordeals of the Gulag and Siberia; bread lines and famine and war. The Black Sea basin is haunted by these privations; the wreckage of ships pile up one upon the other in the depths of the darkness while above rages a freak summer storm, an Ivan Aivazovsky painting come to life but this time its not the Black Sea Flower but the Moskva headed to its oxygenless grave.
I have never been to Russia, but I did live in the former Soviet Union for several years. One thing that I have cherished since are the wellsprings of reserve; the joy found in simple things like a barbeque with good meat on a Sunday afternoon beside a high-mountain lake or the walk down a leafy Eurasian city in the fall. The quiet, though not through a lack of bustle; something like a historical quiet, a civilizational silence of the spirit that somehow doesn’t chafe like we do in the west at missed opportunity of advancement or significance or a perfect utopia of prosperity always just over the horizon. Russian literature captures this well. “And Quiet Flows the Don”, “Resurrection” – village literature like Grant Matevosyan’s “Orange Herd”: stories about war and hard work and sacrifice that ennoble.
We have this idea of government in America. That government “…is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community” as George Mason wrote in his own “Declaration of Independence” and from which Jefferson cribbed. Government for the people; the mighty power of the state wielded to improve the lives of citizens; the tremendous imperial armies at the service of the protection of butchers and bakers. These are not historic ideas of power. Power, imperial power, has never been concerned with the lives of citizens and peoples. Conquest, that has always been the main task of an emperor. Seizing pieces of land from others, subjugating them and placing them at one’s service. Feats of construction that tell tales of greatness: Peter the Great building the city that still bears his name through the toil of 500,000 serfs (read slaves) over 18 years – 100,000 of them buried under the walls of the “City of Bones”.
And “public administration” over which we judge our own emperors? Keeping the power running; making sure the supermarkets don’t want for milk; that there are no holes in the roads? The role of book-keepers and bean-counters; of modern “administrators”, our new managerial bureaucracy seeking to justify their place as new aristocracy not through obeisance to the Tsar but through the anonymous organization of a life become increasingly complicated. But more than ever I think that this is only for us, here in the Empire Wilderness.
Because there’s something ancient and timeless in Putin’s war – a reminder that America’s re-definition of what government means was never really accepted by Moscow or Constantinople or Karakorum. Of imperial wars; peasant suffering; and the ennobling work of the novelists. I have no doubt great novels will come from Putin’s tragic war, after the dust and horror settle. The dissidents who dare write about the new mad emperor will soon join the ghosts of Solzhenitsyn and Akhmatova; their long tomes gracing the next generation of bookshelves as a permanent reminder that things really don’t change very much, and we must look to art and literature to understand them. Lest future generations too forget, and are again caught unawares.