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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Psycho Russia, Qu'es que c'est?

The following is the thought-provoking, review by the Times of London of Geoffrey Hosking's new book Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union (436pp. Belknap Press. $35). The important conclusion: Russia is a major headcase of a nation, desperately in need of the world's biggest couch. In other words: They're mental. Apparently, Hosking is basically saying that they're so mental, they might not even be "human" as we understand the term, but some other species.

Russia, and its people, are once again powerfully present on the world scene. Geoffrey Hosking, long known as a distinguished Russianist – or one might say Russianologist, or Russianosopher – has produced, in Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union, a uniquely rewarding overview: not history in the formal sense, but a profound look at the whole of the Russian phenomenon. A central theme is that Russia has generated two "messianisms", and that the two proved incompatible, indeed bitterly opposed to each other. Furthermore, each of them overlapped only partially with the community spirit of the Russian people. Hosking’s point about the absence from both his messianisms of even a residual feeling for community, let alone for a civic or plural order, is crucial. In the twentieth century, the conflict between these three powerful forces burst into the open and reached its climax. That is why Russian twentieth-century history has been so turbulent. The problems – to this day – are not primarily economic or even political. Nor can they be fully or fruitfully understood by uninclusive analytics.

So, once again, as Hosking sees it, we are having to ask ourselves what are the deeper Russian motivations, perhaps not fully known even to themselves. We are driven to look once more at the particulars of their psychology, or psychologies, and dig more deeply than ever into their historical past. Only through some such understanding can we grasp their, and so a major part of the world’s, inheritance (and so of its future). But what are we looking for? – a nation’s consciousness, or some such, is always a slippery subject, a mobile target. We are all too inclined to look at Russia with our own established notions of common sense, of probability, of cultural inevitability. But, as George Orwell wrote, more than half a century ago, "Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that human beings are very much alike, but in fact anyone able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs from country to country. Things that could happen in one country could not happen in another". This general point applies even to long-standing geographical and cultural neighbours such as England and France, as anyone knows who has really experienced both – and the deeper the sympathy, the deeper that feeling.

Hosking expertly examines and illustrates all aspects, past and present, of Russia’s and Russians’ behaviour, thought and feelings. What emerges is the big picture achieved through smaller brushstrokes, as he considers and often reconciles the contradictory views of the Russian experience. Much of the story over the whole epoch is given by Russia’s writers, on whom (among other good witnesses) a great variety of direct support for the narrative devolves. This is shown here as true of past centuries, as also of the Stalinist, and Suslovist, attempted suppressions of such memory or thought, as with the post-war campaign against Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova. And it is good to see here, for example, the record of Joseph Brodsky’s day in court to be sentenced as a "drone" for being an unregistered poet.

Ronald Hingley, in The Russian Mind (1978), saw the fictional and the real Russian as living in great dullness, interspersed with, or accompanying, extreme outbursts (proizvol), but also possessed by a view of the country’s past and present as admittedly deplorable yet containing as recompense a wonderful, if rather improbable, distant future. A complementary trait often reported is the fear that a Russian, or Russia, is being deceived or cheated, or is the target of a hidden conspiracy – the sort of thing we see in Gogol’s Dead Souls, and in Soviet xenophobia. As Hingley puts it: "Must one then conclude that it was the Russian mind which moulded the authoritarian state? Or is the Russian mind rather the outcome of that authoritarian state? All one can assert with confidence is that the two phenomena have interacted for at least half a millennium". The country’s recent and present political structure derives in part from the entire Russian background and in part from the specific Communist inheritance. The ruling elite are the product of centuries of history, of personal and collective experiences, of indoctrination, and of psychological suitability to surviving those experiences and accepting that indoctrination. Chekhov famously wrote of Russia’s "heavy, chilling history, savagery, bureaucracy, poverty and ignorance". And, later, in the century that followed Chekhov’s verdict, the country has gone through much that was even worse. It is sometimes said that the German consciousness never fully recovered from the Thirty Years War. Modern Russia had a comparable experience. One – again hardly "analysable" – result is that, as Richard Pipes once put it (and as is still largely true), the country is "utterly exhausted".

The Russian State, as it emerged after the defeat of the Mongols, had an intensely Christian and national character, but was firmly set in the political ways it had learnt from the khans. Thereafter, the Great Russians lived in an almost permanent state of mobilization, as the frontier against the continual menace from the steppe. As Pavel Miliukov wrote, "Compelling national need resulted in the creation of an omnipotent State on the most meagre material foundation; this very meagreness constrained it to exert all the energies of its population – and in order to have full control over these energies it had to be omnipotent". There is nothing, or nothing much, "ethnic" in such descriptions of the Russian past. The merchant cities of Novgorod and Pskov, which had emerged beyond the Mongol reach, were regarded by the Hanseatic cities as particularly creditworthy. This trait disappeared on their annexation to Muscovy. The Hanse now forbade all credit to Russians. It was observed that cheating became endemic. This was a commonplace in report after report over the centuries. A British ambassador to St Petersburg in Catherine the Great’s time remarked more broadly: "The form of government certainly is and will always be the principal cause of want of virtue and genius in the country, as making the motive of one and the reward of the other both depend upon accident and caprice". Accident and caprice on the part of apologists for autocracy survive.

Hosking’s general theme is that Russia has, since the Middle Ages, been gripped first by this traditional "messianism"; then, after 1917 by the new, and on the face of it quite different, version. Today he finds what amounts to a melding of the two. He sees this as to some degree arising almost from the start of the Soviet era, though the new, Marxist-Leninist idea specifically fought against Russian Orthodoxy – with even Khrushchevite persecutions, both architectural and human, of religion (every Soviet student had to take a course in Scientific Atheism). Yet Hosking rightly argues, when the old order went, those who needed a Russian State had little choice, whatever their beliefs, but to accept the Communist equivalent. And the Soviet inheritors, especially from the 1930s, used much decorative and superficial material from the past.

But still, this remained a minor addition to the radically different Leninist-Stalinist enterprise. Hosking fascinatingly advances as "two distinguished interpreters of the Russian national identity" Nicholas Berdyaev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the former asserting a Russian "imperialist temptation" as easily assimilable to the messianic Soviet myth, the latter denying this as an un-Russian importation from the West. (I have always treasured Berdyaev’s comments on the country’s Revolutionaries, long before they drove him into exile, in that splendid contrarian manifesto of just a hundred years ago, Vekhi: "Scientific positivism, and everything else Western, was accepted in its most extreme form and converted not only into a primitive metaphysic, but even into a special religion supplanting all previous religions".) Hosking covers, very relevantly to Stalinist history and feeling and thinking, the ideology-driven destruction of the peasantry in the early 1930s. And when it comes to the equally ideological Terrors (and the Gulag) he illuminates, at the human level, the whole story – together with the lasting social consequences of the post-Stalin resentment between the immediate victims and the rest of the population.

One of the troubles in 1917 was that there was almost no one with any experience of real politics (so that Lenin won against very poor competition). One point perhaps understressed is the mental effect of prolonged stupefaction that characterized the post-1917 regime. The often literally lethal suppression of truth and of thought, and the endless imposition of falsehood and dogma were, as is sometimes at least partly forgotten, central to the whole Soviet inheritance. The Stalinist attitude to the Jews, also to some degree reflecting the traditional, needs clarifying. Stalin was not anti-Semitic in the Nazi sense, but "Judaeophobic" in the traditional way, at its most vicious. (Though Hitler-style anti-Semitism was also in effect encouraged – there are horrifying examples from high Secret Police voices in interrogations.)

Hosking handles the Soviet Union in the Second World War fully, with Stalin’s relaxation of the anti-religious line, and the strong emergence everywhere, after the behaviour of the Nazis, of a powerful resurgence of patriotism of a traditional type. We are shown both the disasters produced at the fronts by the regime, and the way in which victory left the veterans ill-supported, or neglected, by the leadership.

Nevertheless, memory of their war is among the principal experiences still – or until recently – powerfully embedded in the Russian mind. The veterans had no other source of pride, and this has also permeated much of the population. (Ironically, one new factor in today’s Russia is the deterioration of the actual present-day army.) Though its supporting ideology may have disintegrated, the old apparat and its habits are still there, carrying on by sheer momentum. One newish, or revived, direction taken by present messianism is the popularity in some Moscow establishment circles of "Eurasianism" – not so much a form of traditional expansionism, though there is that too, as a declaration of independence from a Western-style world.

So, much of the Soviet-style messianism has been given up; but too much remains. The failure of the Soviet economic side is, to a large degree, accepted; but there are influential thinkers, if such they can be called, who are still under the older influences. And the Russian Foreign Ministry, too, contains hold-overs from the old days. An important manifestation of the various powerful messianist elements in modern Russia is in the military establishment. When, in the Yeltsin years, the power struggle left much disorganization, the Army Chief of Staff, Anatoly Kvashin, a powerful voice arguing the anti-Western line during the Kosovo war, effected what was fortunately the unsuccessful pro-Serb Russian military intervention against the NATO allies at Pristina. And, of course, this thinking was, and is, to be seen in Chechnya – and in threats elsewhere. It is seen, moreover, as a means of rallying opinion, or feeling, against the various potential oppositions in Russia.

Hosking takes both the old messianism and the later Leninist version as products and producers of the Russian mind – their clashing and adapting as essential background to the country’s modern history. And one sees what he means. But this does tend to downgrade Russia’s other options – liberalism or pluralism. As Pasternak put it, in the 1880s came "the birth of an enlightened and affluent middle class, open to Occidental influences, progressive, intelligent, artistic". There are many historical and modern examples of this more "Western" style of thought in Russia, now deep-set, and though often disenchanted, continuing to offer a more viable and civilized future. Even the present leadership has, at least to a large extent, given up Soviet-type economics. But one can have "reform" without liberalism – as with Peter the Great and Piotr Stolypin. What is still missing is anything more than a parody of civic life. Above all, we are still far from the rule of law – much more important than "democracy".

Hosking describes well the long-developing struggle for the open society, the open mind. Other elements in the Soviet socio-political world – Andrei Sakharov, "dissidents" like Vladimir Bukovsky – are well presented. So is the partly positive heritage of the politically and economically, but also intellectually, chaotic Yeltsin interlude. Is there no chance of that Russian Enlightenment, never wholly extinguished, surviving, or reviving, as an alternative? Five generations have seen an extraordinary amount of sheer bad luck, beginning with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, which enabled reactionaries to procure the abandonment of the Loris Melnikov reforms tending towards a civic order: the first of so many such failures. Geoffrey Hosking is not exactly optimistic: but he still gives us some hope of a better future, with the Russians perhaps evolving into a "community". At least, as he concludes, "they are now building a nation state few of them wished for. They have no choice, though". That would be a start.

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