Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hollywood and the Return of the Cold War

Recently Hollywood released three major movies which all have Russians as the “bad guys” and which focus on the Cold War as their context. Meryl Streep portrays Cold Warrior Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” Gary Oldman roots out a dangerous Soviet mole from the British intelligence service in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and Tom Cruise works furiously to prevent a Cold War-style nuclear exchange between America and Russia in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”

As Jason Apuzzo, Co-Editor of “Libertas Film Magazine,” notes in his article in The Huffington Post (January 13, 2012): “These films form part of a major Hollywood trend toward reawakening memories of the Cold War – an era that is suddenly returning with a vengeance on the big screen, with long-term implications for our popular culture.”

Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” tells the story of legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s running battle against the Communist Party’s infiltration of the United States and a whole series of Blu-rays are now available of films made in 2011, a watershed year in Hollywood for portraying the struggle between America and the Soviet Union – such as “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Apollo 18,” and “The Kennedys.”

Apuzzo asks the obvious question: What’s going on here? His response: “The simplest answer may be that the old Soviet Union is gradually replacing Nazi Germany, Imperial Rome and space aliens as Hollywood’s favorite antagonists.” He points out that Hollywood is hesitant to make films about today’s war on terror and memories of the Second World War have faded. This leaves strong-armed Russian leaders as the new safe, consensus villains.

This trend began in 2008, Apuzzo notes, with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which featured Soviet Communists as the enemy. This sent a signal to the left-of-center filmmakers that depicting Communists as villains was okay now. Soon to follow was Angelina Jolie pursuing Soviet agents in “Salt,” Ed Harris and Colin Farrell escaping a brutal Soviet gulag in “The Way Back,” and Richard Gere and Martin Sheen hunting down a Russian mole in “The Double.” With more to follow!

While the Russians are not the only villains in American films – they are sometimes replaced by the Chinese or North Koreans, as in the remake of “Red Dawn” – the Cold War revival in film signals an important shift among Hollywood filmmakers. In previous decades, filmmakers often depicted the Cold War as a struggle between two paranoid nations who had distorted images of each other. Ronald Reagan was often portrayed in this way. American militarism was to blame for the conflict with the Soviets, as is clear in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), and American paranoia was made light of in ‘The Russians Are Coming, the Russians are Coming” (1966).

Newer, younger filmmakers seem less ideologically driven, according to Apuzzo, and they see the Cold War as fertile ground for storytelling – particularly stories about the struggle for freedom. They are assuming that they can create film plots for younger people than will attract them in the same way World War Two films drew in the older generation.

Filmmakers see a link between the Communist governments of the last century and the new repressive regimes of today. President Putin, a former KGB officer, who is now in charge of Russia and authoritarian Communist regimes in China and North Korea make easy targets in a world were popular revolutions against dictators are happening in the Middle East and northern Africa.

The trend is now moving to TV as well. Apuzzo reports that both HBO and FX are developing competing series about Soviet spies in the United States and HBO has another series in development about Cold war spies in Berlin.

As we witnessed during the height of the Cold War, the media in Russia is a mirror-image of that in the United States. Anti-American propaganda is widespread in Russia today, but the difference is that Russian TV and movies are largely controlled and funded by the Kremlin, whereas Hollywood filmmakers are independent and are not controlled by the party in power in the White House.

The power of popular culture, especially images generated by the film industries in both countries, makes the task of building constructive relations between America and Russia even more challenging. People-to-people networking through organizations like the Russian-American Institute is as important now as it was during the difficult days of the Cold War.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

“Hoover’s Boys” in the USSR – The Forgotten Rescue

ARA Relief Truck
Ninety years ago, Russia experienced a famine that was one of the greatest human disasters in Europe since the Black Death of the mid-14th century. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Civil War, a terrible famine devastated Russia and for two years (1921-22) hunger and disease spread rapidly across the country from the major cities in the West to the Pacific Coast.

Most people, including Russians and Americans, have little knowledge of this famine and the American relief effort that was extended to Russia, despite the hostility that existed between the two countries after the Communist Party toppled the Romanov dynasty. It is a little known fact that Herbert Hoover, head of the American Relief Administration (ARA) at that time, managed an emergency food program that saved more lives than any person in history.

The Story Now Told 

Stanford University Professor Bertrand Patenaude did years of research to document this amazing feat by the American government coming right on the heels of the end of World War I. The author’s hero is Herbert Hoover, who is often criticized for his early Depression-era presidency. Hoover, a Stanford graduate who earned a degree in geology and later traveled the world as a mining engineer, was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to help organize relief efforts for 7 million Belgians who were living under German occupation. Once the war ended, the United States was asked to feed millions of people in 21 war-torn countries and Hoover was invited to lead the newly created American Relief Administration.

In July 1921, Herbert Hoover received a plea for food aid from the Russian novelist, Maxim Gorky -- a plea sent to other Western nations as well -- and Hoover responded immediately with a promise of support. Hoover and his colleagues, however, were not prepared for what they discovered about the new Soviet Union. While the famine that began in 1921 resulted from the destruction from the First World War and the subsequent violence of the revolution and the civil war that followed, it was made worse when the Bolshevik leadership began a mass requisitioning of grain. As the rural areas were stripped of their grain, the death toll rapidly mounted and 100,000 people a week died. Soviet estimates from the 1920s claim that somewhere between 5-10 million people lost their lives in the famine.

The first American relief ships arrived in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in September 1921, and the relief workers were some of the first foreigners to witness the devastation caused by the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed. They were shocked to find a badly fractured railway system, a mistrustful Bolshevik government that spied on American relief workers, and famine that was threatening the lives of up to 16 million people by the winter of 1921.

The “Hoover Boys” 

ARA Supply Caravan, 1922
When Hoover realized the extent of the crisis and heard widespread reports of cannibalism, he convinced the U.S. Congress to approve the purchase of $20 million worth of corn and wheat to feed starving Russians. Over 300 relief workers, called the “Hoover Boys,” arrived in the Soviet Union to assess the food needs and logistical challenges, and to build storehouses for the millions of bushels of corn and tons of seed which began to arrive in early 1922 and were shipped across the Russian heartland.

By August 1922, the ARA and its “Hoover Boys” were feeding nearly 11 million Russians a day in 19,000 food kitchens. The ARA also hired 120,000 Soviet citizens to help distribute the food. One survivor said: “People used to call that food ‘America,’ so we were handed out ‘America’ . . . My father used to say, ‘See, the Americans did the right thing, sent us help.’”

In July 1922, Maxim Gorky wrote Hoover to praise him for this remarkable relief effort. He wrote: “Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians who you have saved from death.” But that, of course, did not happen. Soviet leaders wanted to forget this tragic episode in their history and subsequently accused the Americans of sending spies into Russia to commit sabotage under the guise of kindness.

Professor Patenaude spent 14 years researching this forgotten piece of Russian-American history and his book, The Big Show in Bololand (which is what the “Hoover Boys” liked to call Bolshevik Russia), lays out this remarkable humanitarian effort, a relief mission largely unknown to the people of both countries.

* PBS has a 60-minute DVD entitled “The Great Famine” that tells the story of the ARA relief effort in Russia with graphic film footage.

** For a story of a related rescue mission to save hundreds of Russian children during this time, see my “Reflection on Russia” posted on January 26, 2012, and entitled “The Story of a Secret Rescue Mission.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Modern Russian Masterpiece: “The Master and Margarita”

Mikhail Bulgakov
One of the most popular books among Russians in the 1990s was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, first published in late 1966 and early 1967 – 26 years after the author’s death. As I traveled to Russia and visited many university campuses during this period, I often asked Russian students: “What is your favorite book?”  I was astonished at how many times I heard, “Why, of course, The Master and Margarita!”   I know several Russian students who have read this book more than twenty times.  Can you imagine?  Do you know any American college student who has read any modern novel more than five times?  The affection for Bulgakov is deeply rooted.  One young Russian literature professor told me: The Master and Margarita is a perfect book.  You cannot subtract one word from this book.  You cannot add one word to this book. It is perfect!”

The Author: Bulgakov

First some background on Bulgakov.  Mikhail Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891, the son of a professor at the Kiev Theological Academy.  He was trained as a medical doctor, but abandoned his medical practice after two years in order to devote his life to writing.  He chose to remain in Russia after the revolution of 1917, accepting Bolshevik rule but not actively supporting the Communist regime.  Bulgakov was one of the first Russian writers to be censored by the Communist authorities.  By the mid-1920s, his novels and plays were banned, barred from both publication and theater performance.  Although he is one of Russia’s greatest writers of the 20th century, Bulgakov did not see a single line of his work published during  the last thirteen years of his life.

Despite the censorship and the humiliations that accompanied it, Bulgakov labored for twelve years on his greatest work, The Master and Margarita.  Although ill and often suffering from nervous exhaustion, he wrote ands rewrote this novel without any hope that it would be published – at least in his lifetime.  He died in 1940.  Twenty-six years later, Bulgakov’s crowning achievement was finally published in Moscow and it immediately became an international best-seller.  Now, more than thirty-six years after its publication, the book’s influence continues.  What is there about this book which has led to such lavish praise and such heated debates about its meaning?

The Storyline

The Master and Margarita is a complex novel which masterfully weaves together three different plots.  The first plot is about Satan’s visit to Moscow in the person of Professor Woland, a professor of black magic who, together with his accomplices, wreaks havoc on the capital city.  In the chapters which tell the story of Woland’s adventures in Moscow, Bulgakov cleverly ridicules life under Communist rule with its crass materialistic philosophy.  The second plot is the story of the confrontation between Pontius Pilate and Yeshus Ha-Notsri,  a figure resembling Jesus but with enough differences from the Gospel narratives to leave some doubt.  These four chapters, dispersed among the thirty-four, are worth the price of the book, in my judgment.  The third plot is indicated in the book’s title and concerns the relationship between a weak passive young man and his girlfriend.

A Brief Sampler

The first chapter opens with a meeting between the editor of an important Russian literary journal and a young poet who writes under the pen name of Homeless.  The two meet in a park to discuss a project in which the journal editor has commissioned the poet to write a long anti-religious poem denying the existence of Jesus.  After awhile, they are joined by a stranger (Satan in the person of Professor Woland) who rudely interrupts their conversation.

 “Forgive my importunity, but I understood that, in addition to all else, you  don’t believe in God either?” Woland asks in a hushed voice.

 “No, we do not believe in God.” Berlioz (the editor) replies.

 “You are atheists?” asks Professor Woland, throwing himself back against the  park bench.

 “Yes, we are atheists,” Berlioz responds.  “In our country atheism does not  surprise anyone.  Most of our population is intelligent and enlightened, and  has long since ceased to believe the fairy tales about God.”

 The conversation continues about proofs of God’s existence until Professor  Woland says: “But what troubles me is this: If there is no God, then, you  might ask, who governs the life of men and, generally, the entire situation  here on earth?”

 The young poet Homeless hastily responds: “Man himself governs it.”

 “Sorry,” the stranger responded mildly, “But in order to govern, it is, after all,  necessary to have a definite plan for at least a fairly decent period of time.   Allow me to ask you, then, how man can govern if he cannot plan for even so  ridiculously short a span as a thousand years or so, if, in fact, he cannot  guarantee his own next day?”
The first chapter concludes as Professor Woland leans over and whispers to Berlioz and Homeless, “And keep in mind that Jesus existed . . . There is no need for points of view. . .  He simply existed, that is all. . .  There is no need for proof, either.”

A Sign of Hope

I agree with Calvin College professor Edward Ericson’s judgment, despite some opposing views by other literary critics, that “The Master and Margarita is Mikhail Bulgakov’s spiritual – specifically Christian – testament.”  The bottom line is this: only fools believe that they live in a world without God.  Bulgakov creatively uses the reality of Satan to prove the existence of Jesus.  No wonder the Communist Party banned this book for so long!

I find much hope in the fact that this book was a favorite of Russian university students in the 1990s, but I am less sure about its popularity now.  It is in the richness of Russia’s literary heritage, with its deep Christian spirituality, that a moral foundation can be rediscovered upon which the New Russia can be built.  Western secularism is no answer.  An enlightened and revitalized Christian faith, separated from the power of the state, is the best hope for Russia’s future.

* Revised text: originally published in August 1994.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Dostoevsky: God’s Existence and the Problem of Evil

Fyodor Dostoevsky
One of the most powerful and insightful dialogues that takes place in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, The Brother Karamazov, is located in Chapter 3, Book V.  Two of the three brothers, Alyosha and Ivan, meet in a restaurant and Ivan, the second oldest son, decides it is time to get to know his younger brother better.  Their dysfunctional family and the struggles with their oppressive father set the context for this conversation.

Ivan, the Intellectual Skeptic

Ivan is clearly the studious intellectual in the family and he decides to share some of his deepest struggles with his twenty-three year-old brother who he has come to appreciate and respect.  He tells Alyosha that he has an intense desire to embrace life, but is distressed by the disorder and injustice he encounters everywhere he goes.  He sees that Alyosha has “an inordinate appetite for life,” and this makes Ivan “want to live and go on living, even if it is contrary to the rules of logic.  Even if I do not believe in the divine order of things. . . “

Alyosha, the spiritually-minded brother, responds enthusiastically, “I’ve always thought that, before anything else, people should learn to love life in this world.”  Ivan responds: “To love life more than the meaning of life?”  Alyosha fearlessly answers: “Yes, that’s right.  That’s the way it should be – love should come before logic, just as you said.  Only then will man be able to understand the meaning of life.”

The discussion then moves to Ivan’s views on the existence of God and immortality.  He believes that “man has invented God.  What is so strange and extraordinary is not that God really exists but that such a thought – the very idea of the necessity of God – should have occurred to a vicious wild animal like man. . .”  Ivan further elaborates his argument: “It is not God that I refuse to accept, but the world that He has created – what I do not accept and cannot accept is the God-created world.”
Ivan then passionately raises the issue of evil in the world, and he focuses particularly on the evil and injustice that children suffer.  How can there be a creator God who allows this to happen?

The Grand Inquisitor

When Alyosha reminds Ivan that he has forgotten Jesus, who “gave his innocent blood for all,” Ivan launches into a narrative he had created based on the 16th century Inquisition in Spain.  He describes a Christ-like figure who heals the sick and lame, but is arrested by an old Cardinal (Pope) of the Church – the Grand Inquisitor -who later enters Jesus’ darkened cell and severely reprimands him for appearing again and hindering the work of the church.

The Grand Inquisitor attacks Jesus for giving humanity freedom of choice and states that the mission of the church is to remove “the awful burden of freedom.”  He ridicules Jesus for expecting men and women to voluntarily choose to follow Him.  The Grand Inquisitor argues that now the Church has to correct this error and take away humanity’s freedom in exchange for happiness and security.

The Conclusion

In Ivan’s telling of this story, the only person to speak is the Grand Inquisitor; Jesus remains silent during the entire monologue with all of its accusations.  Then, in an unanticipated move, Jesus approaches the old Cardinal and kisses him on his dry, withered lips.  The Grand Inquisitor responds by freeing Jesus, but telling him never to come back again.

When Ivan finishes his long narrative, he realizes that he has put his younger brother into a difficult position and thus might have ended their friendship.  Alyosha’s response, however, is to lean forward and kiss his brother.

Alyosha recognizes that his brother Ivan has given considerable thought to these fundamental questions facing humanity and that they are not easily answered.  He also sees Ivan’s deep love for humanity and his pain over all of the suffering in his family and in the world – qualities of a person worthy of redemption.
My brief summary of these forty-five pages of Dostoevsky’s novel doesn’t do justice to this masterpiece, but I wanted to share the conversation between the two brothers to illustrate its depth and importance for addressing some of the most important issues of its time – and our time as well.

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Russian Literary Treasure: The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1862
One of the great classics of world literature is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (New York: Bantam Books, 1970), a novel written only one year before his death in 1881.  This compelling and complex story revolves around a patricide and four sons that remain, each one with a motive for murdering their father.  Much of the novel focuses on the relationship between the three brothers -- Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha -- with less attention devoted to the twisted and cunning bastard son, Smerdyakov.  Dmitry is portrayed as the sensualist, Ivan, as the intellectual, and Alyosha, as the spiritually-minded youth.  Throughout the elaborate tale of sordid love affairs, pathological obsession and courtroom drama, Dostoevsky creatively interlaces his own search for truth about God’s existence, the meaning of life and humanity’s role on earth.  The excerpts which follow are illustrative of the richness of this masterpiece.

A World In Which “Everything Would be Permitted”

Early in the story, the three brothers attempt a reconciliation with their father at a monastery where Father Zosima, the spiritual elder of the youngest brother Alyosha, serves as the mediator.  During this abortive reconciliation effort, Dostoevsky inserts a conversation in which Miusov, a cousin of Karamazov’s first wife who is instrumental in having the oldest son Dmitry taken away from his abusive, unloving father, tells a story about the middle son Ivan, the intellectual who questions all values of life:

“Let me .... tell you another little story, this one about Mr. Ivan Karamazov himself, an interesting and characteristic story, I think.  Well, not more than five days ago, in a company consisting mostly of ladies of our town, he solemnly declared, in the course of a discussion, that there was nothing on earth to force men to love their fellow men, that there was no law of nature that a man should love mankind, and that if there was love on earth it did not stem from any natural law but rather from man’s belief in immortality.  And here he added parenthetically that if was any natural law, it was precisely this: Destroy a man’s belief in immortality and not only will his ability to love wither away within him but, along with it, the force that impels him to continue his existence on earth.  Moreover, nothing would be immoral then, everything would be permitted, even cannibalism.  He went even further, finally asserting that, for every individual -- people like us now, for instance -- who does not believe in God or immortality, the natural moral law immediately becomes the opposite of religious law and that absolute egotism, even carried to the extent of crime, must not only be tolerated but even recognized as the wisest and perhaps the noblest course...”
“Just a minute!” Dmitry shouted unexpectedly.  “I want to get it straight: crime must be considered not only as admissible but even as the logical and inevitable consequence of an atheist’s position.  Did I get it right?”
“You’ve got it right,” Father Paissi (a devoted friend of Father Zosima) said.
 “Every One Of Us Is Responsible For All Men”

In addition to Dostoevsky’s insightful criticism of atheism, which is a recurring theme throughout the novel, the Gospel message is also clearly articulated.  Father Zosima, the revered monk, is most often the mouthpiece for Gospel truths.  Zosima’s words are absorbed by the young Alyosha, who grasps them through the difficult trials of his own life and later teaches others what he has learned.

After the failed reconciliation attempt, Alyosha returns to the monastery to find Father Zosima ill and near death.  Father Zosima recovers briefly and devotes his final moments to summarizing his philosophy of life, a moment which Dostoevsky records in great detail.  The following excerpts, remembered by Alyosha, illustrate the heart of Zosima’s teachings -- teachings which profoundly affected the life of this youngest brother:

“Love one another, fathers.  Love God’s people.  We are no holier than those outside, just because we have shut ourselves up behind these walls.  Just the opposite, by coming here, each of us acknowledged to himself that he is worse than those who remain outside, worse than anyone in the world.... For I want you to know, my beloved ones, that every one of us is responsible for all men and for everything on earth, not only responsible through the universal responsibility of mankind, but responsible personally -- every man for all people and for each individual who lives on earth.  For monks are no different from other men, and they must be what other men ought to strive to become.  Only then will our hearts be moved by a love that is infinite and universal, and knows no surfeit.  Then every one of you will be able to gain the whole world by his love and wash away the world’s sins with his tears.... Do not hate atheists, or teachers of evil, or materialists, whether they are wicked or good -- for many among them are good people, especially in our time.... Never cease to explain the Gospel to the people... Have faith and defend its banner. Raise it, raise it high.”

As these excerpts illustrate, Dostoevsky was offering to the Russian people (and eventually the world) an alternative view of life, a perspective that took seriously the teachings of Jesus about the power and efficacy of love.  He prophetically foresaw the bankruptcy of a materialistic worldview and warned of the crime and violence that would surely befall a society built on atheism.

As Russians search for truth following the collapse of their failed ideology, Marxism-Leninism, it is to the richness of their own literary heritage that they must turn.  It is easy to understand why the Communist Party had difficulties with the writings of Dostoevsky and other 19th century Russian authors.  His words were a scathing indictment of their promised “utopia.”  Dostoevsky’s words also challenge the secularism of the West, with its empty promises of happiness in material possessions.

Originally published in March 1996

Friday, May 4, 2012

Orthodox Christianity: An Overview

Global Christianity: The Big Picture
The Church of Christ the Savior
& the Kremlin Cathedrals
In December 2011, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a major study entitled “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.”  I found the report to be fascinating and I was particularly interested in how the analysts compared current data with data from 100 years earlier, so the reader gets the sense of key trends in religion worldwide.

This comprehensive demographic study concludes that there are 2.18 billion Christians of all ages in 200 countries and this number represents nearly a third of the estimated 2010 global population of 6.9 billion.  The number of Christians around the world has more than tripled in the last 100 years (from 600 million in 1910), but because the world’s overall population has also risen rapidly, Christians make up about the same portion of the world’s population today (32%) as they did 100 years ago (35%).

Christians are the largest religious group and Muslims are the second largest, making up a little less than a quarter of the world’s population.  Within Christianity, Catholics are the biggest group (50.1%), followed by Protestants (36.7%) and Orthodox (11.9%).

 The report highlighted a “momentous shift” within world Christianity.  Unlike a century ago, Christianity today is “truly a global faith.”  Here are a few highlights that document these changes:
  • “Though Christianity began in the Middle East-North Africa, today that region has both the lowest concentration of Christians (about 4% of the region’s population) and the smallest number of Christians (about 13 million) of any major geographic region.”
  • “Nigeria now has more than twice as many Protestants . . .  as Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation.”
  • “Brazil has more than twice as many Catholics as Italy.”
  • “Although Christians comprise just under a third of the world’s people, they form a majority of the population in 158 countries and territories, about two-thirds of all countries and territories in the world.”
  • “About 90% of Christians live in countries where Christians are in the majority; only about 10% of Christians worldwide live as minorities.”
A startling set of statistics from the Pew Forum report about this “momentous shift” in global Christianity caught my eye: “A century ago, the Global North (commonly defined as North America, Europe, Australia, Japan and New Zealand) contained more than four times as many Christians as the Global South (the rest of the world).  Today . . .  more than 1.3 billion Christians live in the Global South (61%), compared with about 860 million in the Global North (39%).”  
Orthodox Christianity in the Global Context
As noted above, Orthodox communions comprise 11.9% of the world’s Christians, an estimated 260,430,000 adherents (3.8% of the world’s population in 2010).  Thirty-nine percent of these Orthodox Christians reside in Russia, the country with the largest number of Orthodox.  I was surprised to discover that the second-largest number of Orthodox Christians (36 million) live in Ethiopia – more than three times as many Orthodox as in Greece!  Turkey, where the original seat of the Orthodox Patriarch was and is located, has a small Orthodox population (about 180,000).

After Russia and Ethiopia, the next three largest Orthodox populations are in Ukraine, Romania, and Greece.  These five countries comprise 74.4% of the world’s Orthodox population.  If you add the next five countries on this list, these ten countries hold 87.4% of the world Orthodox population.

Unlike other major components of the global Christian movement, Orthodox Christianity is heavily concentrated in Europe (which includes Russia in this study), where 77% of the Orthodox reside.  The other interesting finding is that most of the countries with large numbers of Orthodox Christians have an Orthodox majority, except for Ethiopia and Egypt.  Orthodox Christians make up a majority of the total population in 14 countries.

What Lies Ahead for Orthodoxy?
While I claim no expertise in Russian Orthodoxy, my experience over the last twenty years in that country leads me to anticipate the following trends in Russia, trends that are probably not applicable to other Orthodox countries:
  • After 70 years of severe persecution by the Communist Party in the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church is now free from government censorship and control.  Its leaders are now struggling with the issue of how the church should relate to the government – an issue in many different countries.
  • Its top leadership -- Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion – has considerable expertise in ecumenical relations and their diplomacy will create new friends for the church worldwide, possibly stimulating the further spread of the Orthodox faith.
  • There are evidences of grassroots cooperation between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant leaders and joint work is already underway in the area of child welfare and orphan care issues and this networking will continue, in many cases driven by local parish-based activists.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Russia’s Role in the Outbreak of the First World War

Conventional Wisdom on the Origins of the First World War

Constantinople During World War I
Conventional wisdom, among both scholars and general readers, is that the war of 1914 was essentially “Germany’s war” and histories that describe the outbreak of the war focus largely on Berlin and, secondarily, Vienna.  Russia is often viewed in a passive role and the blame for the war rests largely on Kaiser Wilhelm and his military advisers who were fearful of the “Slavic hordes” of Tsarist Russia.  In order to meet this threat, the Germans took preemptive action by mobilizing their forces, which caused a chain reaction that pulled England, France and Russia into the conflict.

A new study by Sean McMeekin, The Russian Origins of the First World War (Harvard University Press, 2011), dramatically challenges this conventional wisdom and, aided by the newly opened archives in Russia, offers a startling new perspective.  McMeekin points out that “the gap in public knowledge of Russia’s war aims owes much to the deep freeze into which her revolution and civil war thrust historical scholarship on the war generally” (p. 2).
Soviet scholars were reluctant to examine too deeply the reasons why the Bolsheviks pulled the country out of the war and surrendered to Russia’s enemies.  This subject was so awkward that in the seventy years of Soviet rule no official history of Russia’s military performance was ever published.  Nor has it been even today, although military history is slowly emerging in Putin’s Russia.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian and western scholars have discovered vast documentary collections in the tsarist archives – in fact, there is now more formerly secret material available on Russia’s war aims in 1914 than on those of any other power.  Current reports from Russia indicate that the first volume of Russia’s official wartime history will not appear until 2015.  In the meantime, Russian and western scholars now have access to these secret archival materials, so a fuller story is now being told.
Russia’s War Aims

Conventional wisdom makes the case that Russia chose to defend Serbia, for reasons of “Slavic honor,” after Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were murdered in that country on June 28, 1914, and a putative response by the Hapsburg leadership in Vienna to punish Serbia for this crime was announced.  Public rhetoric aside, McMeekin argues that defense of Serbia and “Slavic honor” had nothing to do with why Russia chose to go to war in 1914.

For Russia, the war of 1914 was always about dismembering the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the area that now includes Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq.  To secure this great strategic prize, 1914 seemed ideal for enlisting French and British power to neutralize the growing German threat to Russia’s ambitions, while Russia went after its long-time goal – Constantinople and control of access to the Black Sea.   The Ottoman Empire, known as the “sick man of Europe,” was clearly dying and the Russians seized the opportunity.

We now know that five full days before the Germans made the critical decision to mobilize their forces, the Russians had secretly mobilized their army bordering on Austria-Hungary and their naval fleets in the Baltic and Black Seas.  To blame Germany for mobilizing to gain a battlefield advantage simply does not square with what scholars have discovered.  In fact, the Russians never did concentrate their forces on the eastern front against Germany, to the great frustration of the French and British.  Less than one-third of Russia’s forces were deployed in the European theater, which meant that France, with a population base one-fourth the size of Russia’s, had to bear the brunt of the battle against the Germans.
As early as November 1914, Tsar Nicholas II laid out his vision for the postwar world to the French Ambassador, and in the record of this meeting, the Tsar is very clear that Constantinople must be made an international city under Russian protection and that the Ottoman Empire would be reduced to a “mere Asian rump.”  The Russians did not hide their war aims – conquering Constantinople and the Straits were their clear goals – and Russia’s principal allies, France and Britain, had little choice but to accept them.
When Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 2, 1914, and the Ottomans followed suit eight days later, it was a “rare sort of war,” according to McMeekin – a war everyone wanted.  For Tsar Nicholas II, Russia’s date with destiny had arrived and it would now be a struggle – a Holy War -- between Christianity and Islam.  Russia’s desire to expand their empire was now justified as a war against a pagan and hostile religion.
The End Game
The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, as planned by the Russians, French and British, never occurred as the Russian Foreign Ministry had hoped.  The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent decision by Lenin and his advisers to withdraw immediately from the war ended all hopes of annexing Constantinople and securing control of access to the Black Sea.
Here’s McMeekin’s conclusion: “For decades, historians, politicians, and arm-chair strategists have focused their fire on Imperial Germany as the primary instigator of the European conflict [World War I]. . . . It is high time that Russia, too, receive its fair share of scrutiny for its role in unleashing the terrible European war of 1914 and for helping to spread this war into the Middle East. . . . the First World War was the inexorable culmination of a burgeoning imperial rivalry between Wilhelmine Germany and tsarist Russia in the Near East, each lured in its own way down the dangerous path of expansionist war by the decline of Ottoman power.  In the end the war destroyed both regimes. . . .” (p. 243).
I agree with McMeekin, “to tell the truth about the origins of the war of 1914 is the least we can do to honor its victims.”  This is true of all wars and war’s innocent victims deserve at least this much respect.  Working hard to prevent armed conflict would even be a better course of action.

Friday, April 20, 2012

America's First Expert on Russia

An Explorer Discovers Russia 

George Kennan was born in Norwalk, Ohio, in 1845 and at the age of twelve began working in the telegraph office of a railroad company near his home. When he was nineteen, he was offered an exciting job with the Russian American Telegraph Company and was given the task of surveying a route for a proposed telegraph line through Siberia and across the Bering Strait.

After two years of traveling across Russia, especially in distant places like Kamchatka where very few Americans had ever visited, he returned to the States and became well-known through his lectures, articles and a book, Tent Life in Siberia, in which he described the history and ethnographies of many native peoples who lived in this unknown land.

In 1870 he returned to Russia, a land that he had come to love, and this time traveled to the Caucasus region that had recently been annexed by the Russian tsar. He was one of the first Americans to travel to this region and meet with Muslim craftsmen and sheepherders. When he came back home, he shared stories of his travels in public lectures and became a popular, charismatic speaker. He was fascinated by the diversity of the Russian people and their vast, beautiful country and showed little interest in Russian politics at this point in his life.

In the 1870s and 1880s, very few English language translations of Russian authors were available to American readers. Kennan, having mastered the Russian language, decided to help fellow Americans overcome their ignorance of Russian literature. Ivan Turgenev was the first Russian author to be translated into English on a wide scale, although few of his works were available at this time. His powerful novel, Fathers and Sons, eventually was translated into English by Eugene Schuyler and Kennan attempted to translate a number of other Russian authors himself, but was unable to find a publisher for his translations.

 Kennan’s “Radical Conversion” 

Because of his love of Russia and his desire to educate Americans about this largely unknown land, Kennan became well-known by Russian officials and was given special treatment as a guest in their country. He was supportive of the Romanov tsars and believed the Russian Empire was a “civilizing presence” as it expanded across the vast Eurasian territory. He was convinced that the native peoples of Siberia, for example, would benefit from their inclusion in the Russian Empire. He engaged in arguments with critics of Russia who increasingly highlighted its repressive government and exile system, but Kennan insisted that the “evil revolutionaries” who opposed the tsar needed to be repressed. In his mind, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 proved his point. Kennan defended all things Russian.

All of this dramatically changed as a result of Kennan’s fifteen-month investigation of the Siberian exile system. The debate he carried on with critics of Russia’s exile system had piqued his interest and he decided to travel there to examine this system firsthand. His trip began in May 1885 and included a ten-month-long examination of thirty Russian prison camps in Siberia and personal interviews of over 100 exiles who were eager to tell their stories, and ended with meetings in London with notable Russian revolutionary émigrés. Kennan came to understand the enormity of the Russian exile system and its brutal treatment of both convicted criminals and people who were judged by Russian officials to be “politically untrustworthy” – a judgment made without benefit of a trial. From 1823 to 1887, a total of 772,929 exiles were sent to Siberia, including women and children. What impacted Kennan the most was the suffering of the political exiles, who he originally viewed as troublemakers, but later came to respect. In his opinion, many of these political exiles were “well bred, cultivated, reasonable, loveable human beings . . . yet a human being whom the Russian Government regards as so dangerous that it has banished him to this remotest part of Asia.” He was also amazed that many of the political exiles were “well-versed in American subjects” and discovered many Western books in their prison huts.

What further inspired Kennan was the cheerful acceptance of their tragic exiles expressed by many political prisoners. One female political prisoner said to him, “Yes, Mr. Kennan, we may die in exile, and our grand-children may die in exile, but something will come of it at last.” After listening to them and seeing the brutal living conditions in the camps, Kennan swore to publicize their suffering for the sake of freedom in Russia. As Kennan’s biographer notes, “His complete conversion to the side of the Russian political opposition would make him the most implacable non-Russian opponent of the Russian government in the English-speaking world, if not the entire world.”

Shaper of American Public Opinion 

When Kennan returned to the States, he wrote a series of articles for Century magazine on “Siberia and the Exile System” that began in May 1888 and ran through the fall of 1891. In December 1891, his book of the same title was published. His articles were in the format of a chronological travelogue and, while he focused on the plight of the political exiles, he described the entire Siberian exile system in all its cruelty and the arbitrary use of power that supported the oppressive penal structures.

Between 1889 and 1898, before audiences that numbered approximately one million, Kennan delivered over eight hundred lectures. His platform presence was conversational and his talks were mesmerizing, aided by his common lecture apparel of a prisoner’s garb with chains around his ankles and latched to his waist. At one lecture before the Washington Literary Society, Mark Twain got so aroused that he rose to his feet and shouted out: “If dynamite is the only remedy for such conditions, then thank God for dynamite.” This response was a prophetic statement about the activities of the Russian opposition that increasingly decided it had no choice but to use violence against the autocratic Russian regime.

Some observers referred to Kennan’s book and lectures as “The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Siberian Exile.” His writings came to symbolize non-Russian support for the revolutionary cause in Russia, just as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book had symbolized the abolitionist movement. Kennan, America’s most renowned expert on Russia, had a profound impact on American public opinion and convinced many that Russia, while a beautiful country, was oppressive, anachronistic, and deserved the opposition of the American government. The days of a harmonious relationship between the new American Republic and the Romanov dynasty were coming to an end.

For a biography of George Kennan, who is related to the later U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, George F. Kennan, see Frederick F. Travis’s George Kennan and the American-Russian Relationship, 1865 – 1924 (Ohio University Press, 1990).

Friday, April 13, 2012

Russia Sells Alaska

Check used to pay for Alaska,
Worth $7.2 million
The surprisingly cordial relationship that developed between President Abraham Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II, a relationship described in previous “Reflections on Russia,” subsequently lead to the Tsar’s decision to sell Alaska to the United States in 1867.  The negotiations and the sale that took place, once the American Civil War ended, mark a high point in the history of Russian-American relations.

Russia’s Perspective

For the Tsar and his closest advisors, there were many factors that convinced them that it was time to sell Alaska to their friendly neighbor, rather than lose it to the British whom they fought in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and whose navy controlled the high seas.  Russia’s principal commercial enterprise in ”Russian-America” (as they called it) was the Russian-American Company, but it was badly mismanaged and was forced to sign contracts for food and supplies with businessmen in San Francisco for their northern outposts and to serve as the company’s principal markets.  While this company struggled to survive – in fact, it never made any money -- commercial interests in California and New England argued that it was time for America to move in – a logical extension of its “Manifest Destiny.”

The distance from St. Petersburg and the mismanagement of the Russian-American Company were key factors in the Tsar’s decision to sell Russia’s only overseas colony.  There was also the realization that Americans were quickly moving across their vast country and would probably take over this territory in time anyway.  The growing friendship with the America, the exchange of naval visits, and the desire to keep the British out of the North Pacific were all part of Russia’s strategic thinking.

At a meeting in the Russian Foreign Ministry on December 28, 1866, the Tsar and five key Russian officials met for less than an hour and the only comments made on the possible sale of Alaska were positive.  After hearing all the advice, Tsar Alexander II agreed with the recommendation to send one of his top advisors to Washington with the authority to sell Alaska for no less than $5 million.  The only stipulations he added were that natives and employees of their company had the right to leave the territory, if they desired, and to retain their religion (Russian Orthodoxy), if they stayed.

Painting by E. Leutze depicting
negotiation of Alaska Purchase
Once the Russians decided to sell Alaska, the negotiation process with the Americans was kept secret and was brought to a successful conclusion at the end of March 1867.  They concluded after an all-night session and the treaty was signed at 4 a.m. on March 30 with a purchase price of $7.2 million – or approximately 2 cents per acre.

A Win/Win Agreement

With their expansion into Siberia, Russia’s growing presence on its Pacific coast, and the buildup in Vladivostok that made it into a modern naval base, the Russians considered Alaska a diversion and too far away to adequately defend.  The Far East was a priority now, not Alaska.  Russia liquidated a financial and strategic embarrassment for $7.2 million and the stock of the Russian-American Company soared so they were able to pay off all of their debts.  The Americans now had control of this region and they were not viewed as a threat; the troublesome British were now shut out of the Pacific North.

American expansionists were thrilled with this purchase, and while some leaders were critical of the decision, calling this purchase “Seward’s Folly” (so named because of the key role played in this decision by Secretary of State William Seward), the acquisition of an area of 586,412 square miles was soon recognized as a major achievement.  Although adding a territory twice the size of Texas immediately excited some Americans; others didn’t recognize its potential until 1896 and the great Klondike gold strike.

“Close Friends in Separate Spheres"

From the 1760s to the 1860s, Russia and America experienced 100 years of harmonious friendship, highlighted by the sale of Alaska.  The national interests of both countries were congruent, not in conflict; both countries also had a common antagonist – Great Britain.  There was also a realization, especially on the part of the Russians, of the limits of their power and the need not to expand beyond their defensive capabilities.  In addition, this was a period when differing political ideologies – democracy vs. autocracy – did not influence diplomacy in either country.

Over the next fifty years, leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, all of this began to change.  But that’s another story.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Abraham Lincoln and Tsar Alexander II: Part I

In the summer of 2008, Marge and I visited the Oshkosh Public Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to see a special exhibition entitled “The Tsar and the President: Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln – Liberator and Emancipator.” It was a fascinating exhibit presented by The American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation and it was subsequently moved to the Kansas City Union Station Museum after three months. We both enjoyed the exhibit and gained new insights about the history of US-Russian relations.

A Surprising Friendship

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than existed between the United States and Russia in the middle of the 19th century. The vast Russian empire was celebrating its millennium and the new American Republic was not yet one hundred years old. In addition, the two systems of government were diametrically opposed. Russia was ruled by a hereditary monarchy and America by an elected president. Tsar Alexander II was well groomed and carried the persona of royalty that was in complete contrast to the lanky, homespun figure of Lincoln.

There are six letters in the National Archives from Alexander II to President Lincoln, each written in two languages, French and Russian, and signed “Your good friend, Alexander.” Also preserved in the National Archives are hand copies of Lincoln’s replies, signed “Your good friend, A. Lincoln.”

Alexander II’s Interest in America

Tsar Alexander II was a well educated man. He spoke four languages, including English, and was trained from birth to understand his responsibility to rule the Russian Empire. He was 37 years old when he ascended to the Russian throne in 1855, and was described as “tall and very handsome” by the American Minister in St. Petersburg.

The Tsar had long been fascinated by America and this interest began when the Siberian missionary to Alaska, Father Veniaminov, visited the Winter Palace and shared his experiences in the Russian colony in North America. One impressive piece of evidence indicating the Tsar’s interest in America is that when he was crowned Emperor, “Tsar of All the Russias,” one of the first letters he wrote was to President Buchanan, expressing the hope that he “would be given the same consideration that was extended to his father,” Nicholas I. The Tsar’s first letter to President Lincoln is dated September 21, 1860, just a few weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration. It is a friendly letter in which the Tsar tells the new American President about the birth of his son, Grand Duke Paul. By the way, there are altogether 21 letters of Alexander II to American Presidents in the National Archives.

An important factor in US-Russian relations was the Tsar’s appointment of Prince Alexander Gorchakov as Chancellor and Foreign Minister. He was a distinguished statesman and historian who had great respect for the United States. “The American Union,” he said, “has exhibited to the world the spectacle of a prosperity without example in the annals of history.” Gorchakov became the Tsar’s right hand man in foreign affairs and helped to shape constructive relations between the two countries.

Russian Support During the Civil War

When the Civil War broke out, both England and France considered hostile intervention on behalf of the South and they tried to convince the Tsar to join them. Alexander II’s refusal was critically important because the British and French then decided to abort their plans. This was the second time that Russia refused to undermine the new American Republic. The first was during the War for Independence when the British asked Catherine the Great to send 20,000 Cossacks to help put down the rebellion in their colonies and she refused.

Eleven days before the first battle of Bull Run, Chancellor Gorchakov sent the following message to the Russian Envoy in the United States, Edouard de Stoeckl: “ . . . for more than eighty years that it has existed the American Union owes its independence, its towering rise, and its progress, to the concord of its members, consecrated, under the auspices of its illustrious founder, by institutions which have been able to reconcile union with liberty . . . . In our view, this Union is not only a substantial element of the world political equilibrium, but additionally, it represents the nation toward which our Sovereign and Russia as a whole, display the friendliest interest, since the two countries located at the ends of two worlds, during the previous period of their development seemed to have been called to a natural solidarity of interests and leanings which they have already proved to each other.”

As a sign of the Tsar’s moral support for the President during the Civil War, he sent two squadrons of Russian naval vessels to America in September 1863, one that landed in New York and the second in San Francisco, where they remained for seven months. The visit by the Russian fleet was seen by the Lincoln administration as a great encouragement during the difficult days of the Civil War.

The Russian Envoy in Washington sent regular updates to Chancellor Gorchakov that he shared with the Tsar, who often noted his comments in the margins, in one case writing “Bravo!” Despite one leader serving as the ruler of an autocracy and the other as leader of a democracy, these two remarkable men became friends who shared their admiration for one another. They also both took the revolutionary steps of freeing their serfs and slaves, but that story will follow.

NOTE: This essay is based on the booklet “The Tsar and the President: Alexander II and Abraham Lincoln – Liberator and Emancipator,” published by The American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation.

- Originally released in May 2009

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Russia and America: Getting Acquainted

In the early decades following the War of Independence with Great Britain, Americans felt drawn to Russia for numerous reasons. Although Russia was expanding East and the United States was expanding to the West, the two countries established a friendship not across the Pacific Ocean, but rather across “Old Europe.” The leaders of the young American Republic appreciated Russian assistance in the war against the British and both nations gained from a growing trade relationship in the early 1800s. In the 1830s and 1840s, ships from New England poured Cuban sugar into Russian ports on the Baltic Sea, returning with loads of Russian rope, tackle, cotton canvas for sails, and native iron.

Direct information about each other’s societies was limited, however, and the number of travelers from either country was very small. The formal opening of diplomatic missions in Washington and St. Petersburg took place in 1808-9, and the popular attitude of each nation toward the other was positive. Mutual cooperation in opposition to the British and French helped solidify the early friendship, enhanced by a growing sense that both nations were the newly-emerging world powers, as Great Britain and France -- the worn-out powers of “Old Europe” -- declined.

Learning About Each Other Through Literature

For Russians, direct information on the political ideas and institutions of the United States was limited by government censors, although some materials did slip through tsarist censorship or were smuggled into the country. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, for example, was circulated among Russian radical thinkers, shaping their images of the new democracy. It is interesting to note that harsh treatments of the United States were viewed by the tsarist government as more dangerous than favorable ones, since criticism of slavery invited comparisons with Russian serfdom.

Russian publishers, restrained from political commentaries by ardent censors, instead emphasized American literature and poetry, and educated Russians began to develop an extensive familiarity with the world of American writers. Washington Irving was the first American author to win a substantial Russian following; his Rip Van Winkle was a standard discussion item in intellectual circles. James Fenimore Cooper’s books, especially The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, and The Pathfinder, gained a wide readership in the Russian capital and among nobility in the provinces. The same was true of the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

Russian writers rarely met with their American counterparts and had even less opportunity than American authors to visit the far-away lands of the New World. This was one reason why Russian literature was scarcely known in the United States. Rarely were a Russian’s works translated into English, and when they were (usually by the British), copies were difficult to find. By the middle of the 19th century, direct contacts between the two countries had increased in number and the Russians, in particular, became zealous in their efforts to learn more about their new commercial and political ally, the United States.

Russians had another distinct advantage during the mid-1800s: there were many more educated Russians well versed in English than there were Americans literate in Russian. Russian nobility developed a strong taste for reading American literature in its original language, not in translation.

By the 1860s, while Cooper, Irving and Poe remained the favorite American authors of educated Russians, new names had been added to the list, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Undoubtedly, the most popular American book in Russia by the 1860s was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin -- a book not easy to publish in Russia for fear of peasant revolts!

“Close Friends in Separate Spheres”

The Russian sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867 symbolized the growing friendship between these two nations during the first 100 years of America’s existence. Through trade, political cooperation and increased knowledge of each other’s literature, the two nations gained substantially from each other. The perception of Russia as America’s essential friend was popularized in a book by the Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Charles B. Boynton. Boynton made the following assertion, which won wide acceptance in both countries:

When Europe has been taught that these Americas are the rightful and exclusive domain of Americans, the theater for an American civilization, which will brook no foreign dictation, the United States, as the leader of a grand alliance of American States, may present to all nations the type and model of a Christian Republic, while Russia, let us hope, will exhibit to Europe and the East, a Christian monarchy and a national Church administered so as to bless, instruct and elevate the people. If so, America and Russia will be the two great powers of the future.

As historian Norman Saul noted, these laudatory words represented the culmination of the previous one hundred years, a century during which America and Russia were “close friends in separate spheres.”

NOTE: These “Reflections” were based on Norman E. Saul’s book Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763-1867 (University of Kansas Press, 1991).

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Early 19th Century Russian-American Relations

Russia and America: “Two Great Nations”

Alexis de Tocqueville
In his book, Democracy in America written in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville made a remarkable observation about Russia and America:

There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans. . . All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and only to be charged with the maintenance of their power; but these are still in the act of growth; all others are stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these are proceeding with ease and with celerity along a path to which the human eye can assign no term. . . . Their starting point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”

Alexis de Tocqueville’s commentary reminds us that Russia and America were not always bitter rivals. The animosity of the Cold War and the hostility between the United States and Russia that had grown since the Bolshevik Revolution has erased from the memories of most Americans and Russians the harmonious relations that had existed between them for the previous 150 years.

The New American Republic And Its Ties With Tsarist Russia

The first American Minister to Russia was John Quincy Adams, who served in this capacity for six years (1809-1815). Although he never traveled outside St. Petersburg, Russia’s capital at that time, he did meet with Russian nobility and merchants, visit their churches and cemeteries, and tour Russian factories. He also established close working and social relationships with Tsar Alexander I and his advisors. The principal topic of conversation was the increase in American shipping to Russian ports, not politics, and Russians were eager to develop contacts with this emerging New World power.

Ambassador William Pinkney
When former Senator Adams returned to the United States to pursue his political career, which later included terms as Secretary of State and President, his replacement as American Minister was William Pinkney, an experienced diplomat from Maryland. Shortly after his arrival in St. Petersburg in 1817, Pinkney met with Alexander I and found him to be very cordial. Pinkney noted: “The Emperor conversed with me for half an hour and expressed himself from time to time in the strongest terms of regard for our country and frequently declared his desire to cultivate with us the most friendly relations.” The Tsar pointed out to Pinkney that there was “a striking analogy” between their two countries and this became a common theme throughout the 19th century. Pinkney also articulated another thought which became a common theme of many other American visitors to Russia in the 1800s -- a deep admiration for the person of the tsar. Several decades later, Americans visiting Russia who met with the autocratic Tsar Nicholas I often favorably compared him with their own “democratic” Andrew Jackson.

Growing Russian-American Affinity

In the early 1800s, American knowledge of Russia was very limited. Most of the reports about Russia were from British sources and were characterized by a decidedly anti-Russian tone. One of the earliest American commentators on Russia, who signed his columns “Tacitus” and was later identified as William Darby, condemned the distorted European perspective on Russia. He set the tone, shared by many Americans of his time, with the following observation: “The facts are, that as long as Russia stands a great Eastern Power, any serious collision with the United States will be avoided by both France and Great Britain. Russia is, from both position and power, the only real and natural ally the United States can have in Europe.”

John Lloyd Stephens, one of the first American writers to publish accounts of his travels in Russia, concurred. While traveling through Tsarist Russia in 1835, Stephens wrote that “to an American Russia is an interesting country. True it is not classic ground; but as for me, who had now traveled over the faded and worn-out kingdoms of the Old World, I was quite ready for something new. Like our own Russia is a new country, and in many respects resembles ours.” These two observations, together with Tocqueville’s commentary, became the standard American perception of Russia in the early 1800s.

What is also fascinating is that Russian visitors to the United States shared the same view. Platon Chikhachev described his impression of the New Republic to Russian audiences in the 1830s with these words: “During my stay in North America I often thought of my country. The wealth of resources with which each of these two states has been endowed by providence, the stability of the basic principles upon which their prosperity is built, and finally, the youth of their population, keen-witted and full of life, often led me to compare them to each other. . . . one may affirm that Russia and the United States are two states before whom there is opening up a most promising future. . . Having emerged only recently into the light of history, they have already secured for themselves a place in the future, moving with a firm and stately tread towards their goal.”

NOTE: These “Reflections” are based on Norman E. Saul’s book Distant Friends: The United States and Russia, 1763-1867 (University of Kansas Press, 1991).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

John Quincy Adams in Russia: Part III

Russia Withstands Napoleon’s Attack

While America was engaged in another war with the British, Adams was a witness to the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in June 1812. In a letter to his mother Abigail, Adams argued that in the course of human history since the creation of the world, he could not think of a greater, more sudden, and more total reversal of fortune ever experienced by man that what Napoleon faced as a result of his attack on Russia. Over the course of twenty years he had been a leader with unparalleled success. Then, on June 24th, he entered Russia at the head of an army of 300,000. On September 15, he took possession of Moscow, while the Russian armies retreated before him, but not without a fight. Of the two battles between French and Russian soldiers, one “was perhaps the bloodiest that has been fought for many ages.”

In Adams’ judgment, Napoleon appeared to believe that all he had to do was reach Moscow and the Russian Empire would fall prostrate at his feet. Instead, to his great surprise, Napoleon realized that he was in trouble. Moscow was destroyed in part by his troops and in part by the Russians themselves. First his communications were interrupted by small detachments of Russian troops. Then he found re-constituted Russian army groups on his flanks closing in on him while he spent an idle six weeks in Moscow. Napoleon soon found himself with a starving and almost naked army 800 miles from his frontier, exposed to a rigorous Russian winter. On October 28, Napoleon began his retreat but it was too late. Thousands of his men perished by famine, thousands from the deadly winter, and thousands simply threw down their weapons without a fight. Adams concluded that if Napoleon “has a soul capable of surviving such an event, he will probably be a prisoner himself.”

In a letter to Secretary of State James Monroe, Adams extolled the courage and fortitude of the Russian people during their courageous battle against the invading French army. He wrote there was “little to censure and much to applaud and admire” in the conduct of Alexander I, the nobility, the citizens, the peasants, and the Russian army. “The spirit of patriotism has burnt with the purest and most vivid flame in every class of the community. The exertions of the nation have been almost unparalleled; the greatest sacrifices have been made cheerfully and spontaneously.” He continued: “In the most trying extremity they have been calm and collected, deeply anxious, but uniformly confident and sanguine in their hopes of the result.”

As Adams reflected on the consequences of the defeat of Napoleon and the march of the victorious Allies (Russia, England and Austria) into Paris, he predicted that revolutions would follow in Germany, France and Italy and that Alexander I would become the “Arbitrator of Europe.”

Russian-American Relations After the Wars Ended

As his five years of service in St. Petersburg came to an end, and the defeat of Napoleon was assured, Adams had high expectations for the Russian Tsar. He wrote that he placed “great reliance upon the moderation, equity, and humanity of the Emperor Alexander,” and he confessed that “I have confidence in nothing else.” Adams was convinced that the Allies on the European continent “must be governed entirely by him” and that Alexander I must resist the policy of severely crippling defeated France.

While Russia was involved in the struggle against Napoleon, Alexander I offered to mediate the peace negotiations between the Americans and British who had been at war since 1812, a war that resulted in the burning of the White House by British troops. Repeatedly his efforts at mediation were accepted by the Americans, but rejected by the British. Finally the British agreed to direct negotiations with the Americans and the Treaty of Ghent was eventually signed on December 24, 1815, without Russian involvement.

The high expectations of Alexander I that John Quincy Adams had when he left St. Petersburg to become Minister to the Court of St. James in London and then Secretary of State vanished in subsequent years. The second half of the reign of the Russian Emperor was much different than the first half. He abolished many of his own liberal reforms and become more arbitrary in his behavior while serving as one of Europe’s most powerful leaders. “Liberty,” he maintained, “should be confided within just limits. And the limits of liberty are the principles of order.” Until his death in 1825, Alexander I increasingly became more autocratic and no longer was admired by American leaders.

Commercial relations continued to grow between America and Russia in the early part of the 19th century, but the mutual admiration that had previously existed between the young Alexander and President Jefferson was over. As Secretary of State in the cabinet of President James Monroe and later as America’s sixth President, John Quincy Adams faced a much less friendly neighbor. Alexander I’s successor, Nicholas I, had no sympathy for democracies or constitutional governments and American leaders were equally disinterested in a close relationship with a rigid autocratic regime.

- Originally released in January 2009