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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Brilliant Richard Lourie Exposes the Fraud that is Russia

Writing in the Moscow Times, the brilliant Richard Lourie once again lays waste to the illusion of Russia:

Read Dostoevsky." That was the advice presidential deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, reportedly President Vladimir Putin's top ideological aide, offered Westerners seeking to better understand Russia. What exactly did he mean? And why Dostoevsky instead of, say, Gogol, whose characters, grotesque in their greed, would be right at home in post-Soviet Russia?

That Russians elude understanding -- because they are too different, too deep or too irrational -- is an image promoted by both Russians themselves and foreigners. Winston Churchill called Russia "a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Fyodor Tyutchev, the 19th-century Slavophile poet and diplomat, wrote that Russia's essence was invisible to the "foreigner's haughty eye." And 20th-century philosopher Nikolai Berdayev went as far as to say that the Russian psyche was structured differently from the European; the Russians had their unconscious where the Europeans had their consciousness and vice versa. But it is Dostoevsky's characters who best embody the Russian people's unique and irrational elements. The rationalistic, moralistic self-interest of the bourgeoisie was alien to the Russian, whose soul was as broad and open as his native land. The Russian needs to be swept up by something greater -- a cause, a faith, an idea.

There's something to all this epic mystic booziness, of course -- Russia did come up with Stalin and Rasputin in the same century. But the real purpose behind Surkov's statement was to deflect criticism from Russia's obvious return to centralized authoritarian government. You can't criticize us because you can't understand us. Read Dostoevsky to understand Russian contradictions. (When the opposition political parties recently complained they weren't being given proportionate media coverage, Putin spoke out on their behalf and they were soon being lambasted at length in prime time.)

Surkov wants it both ways. Not only should Russia not be judged too quickly or harshly because of its Dostoevskian exceptionalism, it still is just another member of the European family. "Russia's version of European culture is of course a specific one, but no more specific than Germany's, France's or Britain's," Surkov said.

Surkov can have it both ways because contradiction is the essence of the Russian psyche. His own career proves it. Surkov used to be an aide to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos, before he was destroyed by the same Kremlin Surkov now serves.

It's true that Russia has a specific history that shapes its present and that amnesiac Americans should take that history into account. But it is also true that statements by presidential advisers, no matter how intelligent or true, have but a single purpose -- to serve the people and the party in power.

Putin is the one in power, and questions abound whether he will relinquish that power in 2008. A friend in the U.S. State Department who met Putin early on said of him: "He's the second most unreadable person I've ever met." (Former FBI director Louis Freeh was No. 1). Putin's administration displays some of that unreadable quality because things are becoming better and worse at the same time. But its overall goal is clear -- the return of Russia as a power to be reckoned with.

Russians have always been great readers and writers, and perhaps the key to today's Russia is indeed to be found in literature, though not in Dostoevsky, nor in the post-communist renaissance that failed to materialize. According to its web site, the Federal Security Service is currently sponsoring a contest for the best works of literature and art about the "activities of the organs of the Federal Security Service." Manuscripts should be sent to Lubyanka.

It wasn't so long ago that it was authors themselves who were being sent to Lubyanka. So what do those inscrutable, contradictory foreigners have to complain about?

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."

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