Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Russia’s Binary Character

In the introduction to his new survey of Russian history, Professor Geoffrey Hosking describes the geopolitics and the ecology of the Eurasian landmass and highlights features of the national character of the Russian people, features that have developed over their thousand-year history. One of these insights in particular stands out, as it is an insight I also observed during my years studying Russian history.

Peter the Great
Professor Hosking notes the “binary nature” of Russian culture, its tendency to seek extreme solutions to problems and to lurch from one set of cultural patterns to their diametric opposite. He gives three examples from Russia’s history to bolster this argument: the abrupt replacement of an eclectic paganism with Orthodox Christianity during the reign of Prince Vladimir toward the end of the tenth century; the radical reforms of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, when the young tsar forced Westernization on his people; and the Communist revolution of 1917, when radical Marxists announced the formation of a new socialist state with its “new Soviet man and new Soviet woman.”
Vladimir Lenin

Hosking then suggests that the post-Soviet transformation in Russia in the 1990s may come to be judged as yet another of these radical, binary actions. “In each case,” Hosking writes, “the new was presented as the complete supplanting of the old, the dismissal of absolute evil and the introduction of absolute good.” As he studied Russian history, Hosking observed the problems this caused over time. “In a society marked by such extreme discontinuities, the elites, animated by one kind of mentality, would try to introduce reforms, conceived as being for the benefit of everyone, but would come up against the mistrust and conservatism of the masses.”

For the bulk of the Russian population, struggling for survival in a harsh climatic and geographic milieu, novelty and experimentation could be hazardous, even disastrous. Their resistance caused conflict between the elite ruling classes and the masses, and, as a result, rulers resorted to force and violence to make the changes they wanted. Such a society, Hosking claims, tends to generate utopias and anti-utopias.

Hosking notes that the same duality is present in Russian folksongs and folktales. Very often, the tragedy or humor evident in folklore is the contrast between a world of order and culture and another world characterized by poverty, hunger, nakedness or disorderly conduct. In Russian popular culture, the world of darkness is often used as a device to shed light on the world of morality and convention.

Russia’s Cultural Life

Interestingly, Dr. James Billington, in his book The Face of Russia, makes a similar observation. Billington notes that the Russians produced “a culture of explosion,” of unpredictable outbursts – “flash fires in endless snow, sensational creativity amidst senseless suffering.”

Billington’s book analyzes five periods of Russian art and concludes that, in each period, Russian artists followed a similar binary pattern. First, without much warning, Russian artists took over some new type of creative enterprise from a more advanced foreign civilization that they previously reviled. Second, having taken over someone else’s art medium, they suddenly produced a stunningly original and even better version of their own. This often happened, Billington notes, at the same time people elsewhere had given up on the artistic medium suddenly embraced in Russia. Finally, after having established a new and higher art form, the Russians threw it down and broke it apart, leaving only fragments behind for later generations.

Billington’s book and accompanying video trace this pattern through the lives and work of five innovative Russian artistic pioneers – the medieval painter Andrei Rublev, the early modern architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the early 19th century writer Nicholas Gogol, the late 19th century composer Modest Musorgsky, and the 20th century filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

Insights Gained

Understanding this characteristic of the Russian people provides helpful insights and may give us some hints concerning how Russians are addressing their current problems. Will the Russians, having taken over the democratic model of their previous enemy, create a new and distinctive Russian variant that will serve their country in the decades ahead? Or will they destroy their own experiment and revert back to the authoritarian tradition of the past?

After reflecting on these insights, I interpret them in a positive light. The Russians are the ones who will shape their own future. While outside forces can have limited impact on the margins, it will be the Russians themselves who will figure out what path to follow. If the West is waiting to see their institutions copied and transplanted in Russia, there will be much disappointment ahead. The most important change that is needed in Russia, in my judgment, is for the welfare of the people to be determined by the people themselves. Russia’s history has been one of “reform from above,” reform forced on the masses. When change begins to generate on the grassroots level, and slowly builds support among the people, then perhaps the extreme swings of Russia’s binary character can be moderated and a healthy civil society built.

References: Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A History (Harvard University Press); James H. Billington, The Face of Russia: Anguish, Aspiration and Achievement in Russian Culture (TV Books).

Originally circulated in July 2002

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Russia and the Pattern of Revolutionary Change

Yeltsin & Gorbachev
The level of frustration that many in the West have regarding Russia’s post-Communist transformation is unreasonably high, and this frustration is evidence of a lack of historical perspective. As a historian, I am often troubled by the views of journalists who apparently never took any history or political science classes and suffer from a disease best described as “presentism.” “Presentism” is a preoccupation with current developments without any comparative frame-of-reference or any understanding of historical context or antecedents. Reading the work of these writers, it is as if Russia does not have a past, only a present.

Russia’s Revolutionary Experience

The dramatic changes that occurred in the Soviet Union when Communism imploded are truly remarkable. Russians experienced five revolutions simultaneously: a political revolution, when the one-party Communist system was replaced by free elections and new parliamentary institutions; an economic revolution, when the planned economy was replaced by a free market; an imperial revolution, when the Russian government freed up its Eastern European satellites and the USSR dissolved into fifteen independent nations; a social revolution, when all of the supporting social systems maintained by the Communist Party dissolved, leaving families without the only assistance they knew; and finally, a moral and spiritual revolution, when Marxist ideology was discredited, leaving a moral vacuum and ending seventy years of official atheism. Few nations in the world have ever experienced trauma of this magnitude. Few nations have ever gone through radical changes like this without considerable bloodshed.

Medvedev & Putin
To expect Russia to become a democracy with a free market economy in fewer than twenty years shows little understanding of the complexity of change on this scale and demonstrates a lack of sensitivity to the legacy of history and how characteristics and qualities in Russian culture need to change before political, economic, social and moral transformations can occur.

America’s Revolutionary Experience

Think about American history. Twenty years after the American Revolution, the United States was engaged in its first foreign war against the Barbary States, and opponents of Thomas Jefferson were fighting against his plan for a national navy for fear that the federal government might use this military force against the states.

From its birth, Americans had a Constitution and a country before they had a nation. Until the Civil War, as historian Jay Winik has noted, America remained a fragile artificial state, or to be more exact, a series of states and potential separate nations. It is no accident that the word “nation” appears nowhere in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Forty years after the Revolutionary War, the election of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, confirmed the nation’s support for a strong and unified federal government. Forty years later, not twenty or thirty. It took time – decades – for America to develop into a unified country.

There’s a Pattern Here

Forming a new nation and building its infrastructure of laws and governing agencies is never a quick process. Professor Richard W. Bulliet of Columbia University made this argument very convincingly a few years back when he pointed out the following historical parallels:
  • Twenty years after the surrender of Charles I to Parliament in the English Revolution, Charles II was back in power. But forty years later, the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 ended the Stuart Dynasty and established a firm new relationship between the ruler and the people of England.
  • Twenty years after the French Revolution, Napoleon had transformed the First Republic into an autocratic empire. But forty years later, the principles of the French Revolution were inspiring similar revolutions all across Europe in 1830.
  • Twenty years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the USSR was experiencing Stalin’s purge trials and the decimation of the Red Army officer corps. But forty years later, the USSR put the first Sputnik into space and openly challenged the United States for world leadership.
  • And finally, twenty years after Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist revolution, the People’s Republic of China was being torn apart by the violence of the Cultural Revolution. But forty years later, the country was experiencing a successful transition to the free market and prosperity was spreading across this huge nation.

The writings of many commentators make it clear to me that they have little understanding of the difficult process involved in creating democratic and free market institutions. Democracy and capitalism cannot be generated in any nation without the construction of a moral base upon which these political and economic systems can be built. Systematic change of this magnitude does not happen quickly, certainly not in fewer than twenty years.

We need patience and an understanding of history. For those of us who are Americans, it would also help if we knew the history of our own country.

Originally circulated in November 2007

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Russian Literary Treasure: The Legend of the Three Hermits

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy,
Ilya Efimovich Repin, 1887
An old legend from the Volga District tells of a Bishop who was traveling from Archangel to the Solovetsk Monastery. While on board the ship, he overheard a sailor telling other passengers about three hermits who lived on a remote island along the route of the ship. When the Bishop inquired about the story, he was told that there were rumors about these three hermits who lived on this island for the “salvation of their souls.”

The Bishop’s curiosity was piqued, so he decided he wanted to visit the three hermits. He instructed the captain of the ship to trim the sails and take him to this island. The captain dutifully complied. As the Bishop approached the island on a rowboat powered by a crew from the sailing ship, he saw the three hermits (“the tall one,” “the short one” and the “old one”) standing on the shore hand-in-hand.

After they bowed and he blessed them, the Bishop said, “I have heard that you, godly men, live here saving your souls and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.” The old men smiled, but remained silent.

“Tell me,” said the Bishop, “what are you doing to save your souls, and how do you serve God on this island?” The old hermit responded, “We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.” “But how do you pray to God?” asked the Bishop.

“We pray this way,” replied the hermit. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy on us.” And when the old man said this, all three hermits raised their eyes to heaven and repeated: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy on us.”

So the Bishop began to teach the three hermits the Lord’s Prayer. All day long he labored, saying each word and phrase over many times. He did not quit until they could repeat the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety. As night approached, the hermits were finally able to say the Lord’s Prayer without error, so the Bishop said farewell and returned to the ship.

That night the Bishop could not sleep, but sat near the rear of the ship watching as the island disappeared from sight. As he gazed into the dark, he noticed a light sparkling on the water. It grew in intensity and became brighter and brighter. It was as if a ship were rapidly approaching and overtaking them.

To his amazement, the Bishop suddenly realized that it was the three hermits running upon the water, all gleaming in white with their grey beards shining. When they saw the Bishop, they said in one voice, “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”

The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the side of the ship said, “Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.” And the Bishop bowed low before the old men and they turned and went back across the sea.

Rediscovering Russia’s Rich Heritage

This legend, recaptured by Leo Tolstoy in 1886, is one example of the rich literary heritage of Russian culture. Efforts to build a New Russia and to educate a new generation of Russian leaders must begin, not by looking to the West for answers, but by rediscovering the wealth of its own literature, which addresses the critical spiritual and moral issues of life in profound and creative ways. This short legend, which is provocative as well as delightful, is just one example.

The influence of Christianity on Russian culture is pervasive, despite the seventy-year effort to ignore and even obliterate its influence. Building a New Russia must begin with its citizens rediscovering their own rich heritage. Education will be one of the keys in this process of rediscovery.

Originally circulated in May 1994

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Russia’s DNA: Unsettled Identity

*Note: This is the sixth and final in a series of essays on 'Russia's DNA.' The first essay 'Russia's DNA: Fear of Invasion' explains the background for this series."

Is Russia an Enigma?

To outsiders, gaining an understanding of Russia can be a challenge. Many of us take refuge in Winston Churchill’s famous statement that Russia is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Russia often seems to be a remote country, with a history that is not easily understood by foreigners, but as journalist Robert Kaiser wrote more than twenty years ago, “This is a myth, encouraged by the Russians themselves, who would prefer that no one discover who they really are and how they really live.”
Recently, President Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Vladislav Surkov, offered this advice to Westerners who wanted to better understand Russia: “Read Dostoevsky.” Because Dostoevsky’s characters are such complex and sometimes irrational people, Surkov might be suggesting that Russians elude understanding because of their uniqueness.

The Great Russian Debate

For centuries there has been an ongoing debate in Russian leadership circles about how Russians should identify themselves. Historians have labeled the two opposing poles in this debate “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles.” “Westernizers” are those who believe that Russia is a European nation and that it should follow Europe’s path of development. “Slavophiles,” on the other hand, argue that Russia is unique, it is not like Europe, and it should carve out its own special path of development. For some, Russia is a “Eurasian power,” a nation that straddles Europe and Asia.

In the 19th century, this debate often focused on the top-down radical reforms of Peter the Great, who is a hero to the “Westernizers.” For the “Slavophiles,” Peter is no hero, but rather a cruel ruler who tried to force Slavic people to be like Europeans. The debate during the Gorbachev years reflected some of these same tensions. Supporters of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms often argued that Russia needed to catch up with the West, to adopt capitalism and democracy, and to reach the level of development that the rulers of the Soviet Union promised but never delivered. Critics opposed the perestroika (restructuring) reforms of Gorbachev on the grounds that Russia was not a part of the “European family,” and that its future was distinctively different.

When this debate is being argued among knowledgeable Russians, the “Westernizers” praise the leadership not only of Peter the Great, but also of Catherine the Great and Alexander II, the “Tsar Liberator” of the serfs. The “Slavophiles,” in response, accentuate the reigns of Alexander I, who defeated Napoleon and taught Europe a lesson about power, and Nicholas I, whose slogan was “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality.” These two rulers looked down on Europe and clearly were convinced that Russia was a superior nation. In a similar way, the Bolshevik leaders who came to power in 1917 were committed to offering the world a model socialist society populated by “new” Soviet men and women. The USSR was an experiment in social engineering that its rulers believed was the wave of the future – and not a copy of the West.

Russian Federation
For some, the two-headed eagle that symbolizes the Russian Federation illustrates Russia’s uniqueness: one eagle is facing west, the other east. For others, the two-headed eagle represents the problem: Russians cannot figure out who they are. Unlike other dominant cultures – such as China, with its strong sense that it is indeed “the Middle Kingdom” in this world, or the United States, where there is no identity crisis to speak of – Russians have not settled this question. Are they truly Europeans who just need to catch up with their neighbors to the west, or are they unique in the world, in which case they should forge their own special path?

Russians Learn from Others

As James Billington, the Librarian of the U.S. Congress and a leading authority on Russian history, has observed, Russians have repeatedly ended long periods of passivity with sudden, large-scale innovations in areas where they had no previous experience. They have demonstrated the ability to adopt wholesale the key institutions of their previous adversaries. For example, they raided Byzantium before taking over its culture, fought the Swedes before adopting their method of government, adopted French as the court language for a century before Napoleon attacked Moscow, and copied German modes of large-scale industrial organization while fighting them in two world wars. Whether the United States will serve as a basic model for Russia’s attempt to build a federated democracy is still an open question, but it is the only example of a democracy with a market economy on a continental scale with a multiethnic population.

While historical patterns that are centuries old only change slowly, they can change. Cultures can change over time, and it is yet to be seen how Russia’s new generation of youth and its emerging middle class will find their identity. Up until now, one strand of Russia’s “DNA” has been its unsettled identity.

Originally circulated in July 2007