A life stolen

Many commentators don’t realise that any information on the number of Russian tanks is misleading. For, unlike the Americans, the Russians don’t melt down the previous, superseded generation of their armour.

Don’t nick the kit, lads

Thousands of those slightly obsolete, but still perfectly usable, machines are mothballed in storage for future emergencies. One such emergency has now arrived, and the other day a Russian regiment was supposed to take delivery of newly reactivated tanks.

Waste not, want not is a sound idea that should work in all walks of life, including the military. Alas, this sensible practice is defeated by a Russian tradition of long standing: thieving.

You see, many electronic components in modern tanks contain precious metals, gold, platinum, that sort of thing. The temptation to steal those parts is strong, and it becomes irresistible when the mark stays in a dark warehouse for years.

Who’s to know? ask Russian soldiers, taking their pliers and screwdrivers out. A tragic answer to that frivolous question was delivered yesterday. The officer ordered to put those tanks back into service, that’s who’s to know.

The officer in question, the regiment commander, arrived with his crews at the storage facility near Bryansk, only to discover that 90 per cent of the tanks, their electronics long since stripped, were now useless lumps of armoured steel.

Out of desperation, the officer shot himself, thereby partly redeeming Russia’s martial honour, badly tarnished by this war. His suicide also proved yet again that an army isn’t a law unto itself. It’s a microcosm of society, reflecting and often magnifying its features.

One feature of Russian society has since time immemorial been the urge to steal anything not bolted to the floor or nailed to the wall. One story springs to mind.

Back in the 1820s, Alexander I asked his court historian Nikolai Karamzin how provincial officials were going about their duties. “Ils volent, sire,” replied the historian laconically (“Thieving, Your Majesty,” as translated from the official language of the court).

This, by the way, is one of the differences between the Russian and Ukrainian national characters. Today’s Ukraine is almost as corrupt as Russia, but there theft is still seen as an aberration rather than the norm.

In Russia, larceny is an ontological, rather than existential, trait. It originates from the historically cavalier treatment of private property, that cornerstone of Western polity.

That explains the initial popularity of communism and anarchism there. A Russian is emotionally and, if you will, historically predisposed to agree with Proudhon’s maxim about property being theft. The idea of dispossessing the rich and giving all their money to the poor has an instant appeal to most Russians.

If you read practically any great Russian writer, you’ll find echoes of that attitude. For example, Dostoyevsky describes in his Diaries how a Russian peasant ties up his wife and beats her to a pulp with a stick until she stops moaning and moving.

Correctly identifying such behaviour as brutish, Dostoyevsky adds that this violent savage is still purer, more spiritual than “a German Vater who works hard all his life and saves up to provide for his Kinder.” This wasn’t so much an endorsement of domestic violence as a statement of contempt for hard, remunerative work (and, of course, the West).

Tolstoy felt burdened by his baronial estate all his life and tried to give it away (or gamble it on a single hand of cards) on many occasions. Only his wife’s threat of legal action prevented the writer from beggaring his family.

Russian folklore has a whole thesaurus of proverbs on the same theme: work is useless, wealth is shameful. Off the top:

“Work isn’t a wolf, it won’t run away into the forest”; “You won’t get a stone house by honest work”; “Poverty is no vice”; “He who doesn’t nick, doesn’t eat”; “Wealth is made on people’s tears and misery”; “You can’t tell a rich man from a thief”; “Wealth is dirt, brain is gold”; “Money, like stone, lies heavy on the soul”; “If your family counts, forget about money. If you count your money, forget your family.”

Without delving too much into history, such economic anomie was cultivated over centuries by the nature of the Russian state. The country never had European-style feudalism. The tsar related to the aristocrats the way the aristocrats related to their serfs.

Implicitly, every estate in the country belonged to the tsar, who could bestow it on his favourite today, then take it away tomorrow. (Thus, dacha, the Russian for country house, is a cognate of the Russian for ‘give’. Country houses were given, not earned.) Catherine II, for example, rewarded her more ardent lovers with whole provinces. At the same time, most prison sentences included total confiscation of the convict’s property.

Peasants had at best a leasehold on their parcels, with the landlord keeping the freehold in his hands. Any peasant could be instantly dispossessed by the landowner, who in turn could be just as easily dispossessed by the tsar.

Also, even now most Russian villages are made of wood, whereas as recently as in the 19th century so were the towns. This explains the ease with which the Russians burned down Moscow (including 30,000 of their own wounded being treated in its hospitals) before surrendering it to Napoleon in 1812.

This also explains why fires were pandemic throughout Russia, often claiming up to 80 per cent of all houses in a town. Moscow papers in the 19th century didn’t even bother to report fires burning down less than 10 per cent of all buildings.

Hence, property in Russia was difficult to acquire, but easy to lose. That left a mark on the Russian character, and it still hasn’t been expunged.

For example, most Russians who find themselves in the West don’t understand the concept of not being able to afford something. That, to a Russian, means not to have the physical wherewithal to buy.

A Russian is likely to be baffled when his English friend tells him he can’t afford a £1,000 bottle of wine. “Don’t you have £1,000 in the bank?” he’d ask with genuine surprise and a touch of derision.

It stands to reason that people so contemptuous of their own property are unlikely to respect anybody else’s. Russians know that theft is a crime but, for them, it’s a malum prohibitum, not a malum in se.

And theft of public property is almost a badge of honour. “Public means belonging to everybody, right? I’m one of the everybody, so it belongs to me too.” Such is the unspoken – and often spoken – attitude to such matters.

There we have it: a grounded tank regiment, and its commander with a bullet in his head. All as a natural continuation of a fine Russian tradition – that is universally despised in the Ukraine.

P.S. For my linguistically gifted readers, here’s an obscene but hilarious Ukrainian song on this very subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSvUdCAHia4

3 thoughts on “A life stolen”

  1. Any great national character biographies that you’d recommend of the kind, for example, written by Emerson, Tocqueville, Barzun, Von Keyserling, but on Russia? Or shall I wait for the one that you’ll be writing?

    1. Two great books spring to mind offhand: one by Marquis de Custine, the other by Joseph de Maistre. The former is easier to get. There was also an earlier work, by the Elizabethan Giles Fletcher. I actually wrote quite a bit on this subject in my book on Tolstoy.

  2. I think the city of San Jose gleaned their sewer water to extract the precious metals as a product of the integrated circuit industry. Produced a profit from such a business each year.

    Thieves in Law Russia at work in this case?

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