I read a lot of Russian literature and history. It is after all the great unknown; a land that lies behind a snowy curtain long after the Iron Curtain fell. A place of philosophy as deep as the cold dark winters, of misty characters and murky ideas and shadowy dealings across great windswept plains. The cultural glorification of suffering – passionarity Gumilev calls it. A land of epic abuse, causing the suffering which so defines them in a circular story which would seem to have no end. Did you know that Russia’s slaves (they were called serfs) were freed only two years before Americas? And while America had 3.9 million, in Russia they were 43 million. Russia’s problems are always epic, like the land upon which it sits.
I’m reading a history book “In The Shadow of the Winter Palace”, about the period between the December revolution and the October revolution. 100 years that shaped modern Russia – defined by Nicholas I and II and Alexander II and III. Their struggles to balance the tension between liberalism and tradition; between industrialization and nobility and autocracy. Ultimately unsuccessfully, leading to revolution – but not always in bad faith. I’ll do a review later.
What strikes me so far is the role of the novelists in Russia’s liberation story (a stillborn liberation, to be sure). How Herzen and Turgenev and Tolstoy and Pushkin served well the role of shepherds and voices. They were very often the only opposition to the disastrous policies of the Tsar. And they suffered.
I recently finished “Dr. Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak. As I look back upon the novel with an appropriate distance of time, I find that the fulcrum around which the entire story rotates is a period when Zhivago is trapped by winter inside a broken down old house, finding utopia at last through inspiration as his pen begins to write of its own. He was hungry and cold and had no future. His life was a wreckage. There was no publisher for his poems; he had no hope of any readers, any fame – he was not working under a deadline. It was just him. I’m reminded here of the real life story of Osip Mandelstam who was banished (thanks to Pasternak’s intervention not immediately killed) over a poem he wrote about Stalin – and who Stalin eventually did killed, Pasternak’s opposition notwithstanding. Mandelstam, who was betrayed by somebody, perhaps Anna Akhmatova (Gumilev’s mother) or perhaps not (Russia’s dictators have spies everywhere). A private poem, the scrabbling of a man who Stalin thought might be a genius (in a famous call to Pasternak, that is what he asked) but whose work was unlikely to ever reach anywhere. It certainly was no threat to Stalin, or was it? Here I insert a line from my own book “The Burning of San Porfirio”, in which the dictator addresses the owners of the newspapers as he threatens them “We are not concerned with blood; it’s ink that we fear.” The Tsars, perhaps more than any other royal line, exemplify this statement.
It is extraordinary that it is still Russia that dominates our thinking. More than 100 years after the last Tsar. More than 30 years after the fall of the USSR. The empires of the United Kingdom; of the Sultans; of Napoleon; of the Shahs of Persia; the Austro-Hungarians – the German empires of Bismarck and Hitler have all fallen away making way for an American empire of sorts – and still it is Russia, Russia that we have always feared. Immutable, inscrutable Russia – reckless and violent and proud.
We do hope for better times for Russians and a better set of leaders who can help Russia be a part of the solution – Russia that forever has been part of the problem. Imagine being able to harness the depth of discipline that gave us Pushkin and the broadness of vision that gave us Turgenev and the incredible talent that gave us Tolstoy and unfathomable sacrifice that bequeathed to us Solzhenitsyn and unleash these forces for the good of humanity. We could change the world.