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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why are Russians Such Cowards? Part I: Hor & Kalinitch

Between 1847 and 1851, a series of short stories by Ivan Turgenev was published in a Russian journal called The Contemporary. The following year the stories were collected in a single volume and published as a book called Notes from the Hunt. Almost immediately after the publication, Turgenev was arrested and exiled to his family estate called Spasskoye in the Oryol region. Apparently, what he was "hunting" for in Notes was not something the Tsar wished him to find.

The lead story in the translation of Notes from the Hunt by is called "Hor and Kalinitch." The two title characters are serfs and the story involves their interaction with the Narrator, a visiting nobleman who has come to hunt with his local friend, their lord and master.

At one point, the Narrator says this about Hor:

We discussed the sowing, the crops, the peasant’s life.... He always seemed to agree with me; only afterwards I had a sense of awkwardness and felt I was talking foolishly.... In this way our conversation was rather curious. Hor, doubtless through caution, expressed himself very obscurely at times.... Here is a specimen of our talk.

“Tell me, Hor,” I said to him, “why don’t you buy your freedom from your master?”

“And what would I buy my freedom for? Now I know my master, and I know my rent.... We have a good master.”

‘It’s always better to be free,’ I remarked. Hor gave me a dubious look.

‘Surely,’ he said.

‘Well, then, why don’t you buy your freedom?’ Hor shook his head.

‘What would you have me buy it with, your honour?’

‘Oh, come, now, old man!’

‘If Hor were thrown among free men,’ he continued in an undertone, as though to himself, ‘everyone without a beard would be a better man than Hor.’

‘Then shave your beard.’

‘What is a beard? a beard is grass: one can cut it.’

‘Well, then?’

‘But Hor will be a merchant straight away; and merchants have a fine life, and they have beards.’

‘Why, do you do a little trading too?’ I asked him.

‘We trade a little in a little butter and a little tar.... Would your honour like the cart put to?’

‘You’re a close man and keep a tight rein on your tongue,’ I thought to myself. ‘No,’ I said aloud, ‘I don’t want the cart; I shall want to be near your homestead to-morrow, and if you will let me, I will stay the night in your hay-barn.’

In an odd contrast, Khor and Kalinitch then have their own related discussion about their owner, Polutikin:
It was specially curious to hear Hor and Kalinitch dispute whenever Mr. Polutikin was touched upon. ‘There, Hor, do let him alone,’ Kalinitch would say. ‘But why doesn’t he order some boots for you?’ Hor retorted. ‘Eh? boots!... what do I want with boots? I am a peasant.’ ‘Well, so am I a peasant, but look!’ And Hor lifted up his leg and showed Kalinitch a boot which looked as if it had been cut out of a mammoth’s hide. ‘As if you were like one of us!’ replied Kalinitch. ‘Well, at least he might pay for your bast shoes; you go out hunting with him; you must use a pair a day.’ ‘He does give me something for bast shoes.’ ‘Yes, he gave you two coppers last year.’ Kalinitch turned away in vexation, but Hor went off into a chuckle, during which his little eyes completely disappeared.
So, when the two serfs speak together about their master Khor, better-off one points out how the master abuses Kalinitch, the worse-off one (the Narrator says: "At supper I began again to talk of Hor and Kalinitch. ‘Kalinitch is a good peasant,’ Mr. Polutikin told me; ‘he is a willing and useful peasant; he can’t farm his land properly; I am always taking him away from it. He goes out hunting every day with me.... You can judge for yourself how his farming must fare.’), and in a manner of speaking urges him to rebellion. Khor seems infuriated by the careless attitude of his oppressed brother Kalinitch But when Khor speaks to a noble, and the noble points out how he is being kept in a condition on slavery, Khor takes a very different view. He indicates he has no wish to become free and his response degenerates into what might be called classic Russian gibberish.

Little wonder that Turgenev was arrested for writing this story and sent into exile. His obvious point is that the level of a person's education and sophistication determines his appetite for freedom. Russian peasants, kept in a deep state of ignorance not unlike that of the current residents of Russia are kept in to this day relative to the outside world, simply had no idea of what "freedom" even meant, nor did they understand how their lives might be different if they lived another way. And indeed, there is a darker side to the problem. Turgenev writes:
Thanks to his exceptional position, his practical independence, Hor told me a great deal which you could not screw or—as the peasants say—grind with a grindstone, out of any other man. He did, in fact, understand his position. Talking with Hor, I for the first time listened to the simple, wise discourse of the Russian peasant. His acquirements were, in his own opinion, wide enough; but he could not read, though Kalinitch could. ‘That ne’er-do-weel has school-learning,’ observed Hor, ‘and his bees never die in the winter.’ ‘But haven’t you had your children taught to read?’ Hor was silent a minute. ‘Fedya can read.’ ‘And the others?’ ‘The others can’t.’ ‘And why?’ The old man made no answer, and changed the subject.
At some point, Hor realized that he needed to keep his own inferiors in the same state that his masters kept him, the better to exercise control over them. Hor states, talking about himself in the third person: "‘If Hor were thrown among free men,’ he continued in an undertone, as though to himself, ‘everyone without a beard would be a better man than Hor.’" In other words, instead of using his relatively privileged status to obtain his freedom, he chooses to become complicit in the system of slavery. Many Russians took the same attitude in dealing with Stalin, and many take the same attitude today in dealing with the dictator Vladimir Putin.

This is the tragedy of Russia.

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