I love Russian literature. Much of it is pessimistic, of course. If a bright future lies ahead, it will come in another lifetime. Certainly, that’s the view of Anton Chekhov. (Click)
At the very least, I find this point of view eccentric. A Russian countess in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, for example, professes to love humanity but holds most individuals in low regard. Then, there’s the unnamed protagonist in Notes From the Underground. The entire work is a peon to a life dedicated to being spiteful.
Given the rich, truculent inner lives of these artist’s creations, I’ve long wondered why the country has a history of submitting to Czars and tyrants. Perhaps geography plays a part. Cut off from the sea, locked in what often is a frozen tundra, the country seems to pride itself in its isolation. Even winter conspired to defeat invaders. (Click)
True, Catherine the Great (Click) ransacked Europe for its art treasures, and Joseph Stalin (Click) did the same. Yet like the character in Notes from the Underground, they seemed impelled to do so, not from admiration, but from spite.
Democracy seems to have no place in the Russian psyche. Certainly, the country’s flirtation with it was probably one of the shortest in human history. Says Michael Kimmage, who reviews three recent books about that nation, Russia is mesmerized by its undemocratic past. (The People’s Authoritarian,” by Michael Kimmage, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2018, pgs. 176-182.) It prefers the whip of a strong ruler because it hopes that whip might also break the west. Vladimir Putin, he concludes, isn’t a tyrant of his own making but a creation of Russian expectations. To appear hesitant before the masses is to invite defeat. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin learned this lesson well. (Ibid, pg.181.)
While we in the west stand amazed, Putin enjoys enormous support among his people. Eighty-eight percent cheered his invasion of Crimea. By challenging us, he fulfills the country’s aspiration: to see itself as unique and superior. With or without Putin, Kimmage insists, “The Russian population will tolerate major sacrifices for the sake of prevailing in a confrontation with the west.” (Ibid, pg. 182.)
He may be right. Given what we glimpse through its literature, the Russian people seem to expect little personal happiness. Perhaps that’s why they are hostile to us. We are too positive. We exude too much hope
Though the populations of east and west are composed of the same species, our cultures may have driven us far apart. Sending ambassadors to seek common understanding may be like asking Cro-magnon man to share a world view with Neanderthals.
(Originally published 8/14/2018)