God save us from national ideas

Can you name a single Western European country that has a succinctly expressed national idea? Britain? France? Holland?

Ivan Okhlobystin, Renaissance man

Germany had one back in the 1930s, but few would give her a retrospective pat on the back for it. You may say that was an example of a bad national idea, but I can’t for the life of me think of a good one. (For fear of alienating my American readers, I’ll for once leave their Declaration of Independence alone.)

This isn’t to say that civilised countries stand for nothing. It’s just that they stand for so many things that any attempt to express them in a few sentences will fail. It’s impossible to unscramble the ganglion of synapses accumulated over centuries in the national mind. When such attempts are made, they deliver nothing but vulgar statements of jingoism.

A civilised nation can be defined historically and existentially, but never ideologically. When it can be so defined, it’s not civilised.

Characteristically, an attempt to codify a national idea will fail even if undertaken by a clever man. For example, the émigré religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (d. 1948) wrote a whole book The Russian Idea, in which he described the 1936 Soviet Constitution as “the most democratic in history”.

Called ‘Stalin’s constitution’, it was actually written by one of the top Bolsheviks Nikolai Bukharin. By way of gratitude, Stalin had him shot two years later.

“The Russian messianic conception,” wrote Berdyaev, “always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity and would accept a place in the service of humanity.”

Therefore, “recent changes in Russia, the changed attitude to religion and to the country’s traditions, make it not only possible but right for Christian Russians to rally to the Soviet government.”

The same government, in other words, that had already murdered 60 million Russians (including tens of thousands of priests and millions of their parishioners) and enslaved the rest. Not bad for a religious philosopher and, incidentally, the darling of Soviet dissidents.

If you think I’m going too far back, you’ll be happy to know that the Russian national idea has recently been worded concisely and cogently, at last. The man who achieved that improbable feat is Ivan Okhlobystin, one of Russia’s best-known personalities.

Looking at Ivan’s CV, one realises how little one has accomplished. Even Renaissance men like Leonardo would feel humbled.

Okhlobystin’s Wikipedia entry describes him as an “actor, director, script writer, playwright, writer, TV show host, radio show host, politician, ordained priest in the Russian Orthodox Church”.

In his 55 years, Ivan has starred in some 50 films, scripted 22 others, appeared in countless TV shows, written 12 books, served as parish priest – and still found time in his manic schedule to define the Russian idea.

I shan’t keep you in suspense any longer. Here is that elusive idea according to Ivan:

“The Ukraine must disappear, the West must be brought to its knees and forced to do penal labour for the benefit of the Russian Empire, the rest of the world must prove its support for us and share our concept of the future for some two hundred years to come. This is precisely how the Russian idea sounds today. All other ideas are from the devil.”

Berdyaev was a celebrated philosopher and accomplished stylist, yet even he fell short of Ivan’s rare ability to say so much in so few words. Berdyaev had to envelop the same basic concept in a fog of prolixity, whereas Renaissance man Ivan cuts right to the chase laconically and forcefully.

If you ever wonder why so many Russians support Putin’s bandit raid on the Ukraine, just reread Ivan’s credo. This isn’t the rant of a drug-addled madman, but a sample of the intellectual fare fed to the Russians round the clock in every available medium. All other dishes are strictly off the menu.

“The Russian messianic conception” has been a dominant idea in that country since the 16th century, but at least under the tsars it wasn’t the only one. In 1917 it, in a different guise, ousted all competition and has ruled the roost continuously in one form or another ever since, with only a couple of years’ hiatus in the early 1990s.

The great literature of which the Russians are justifiably proud expressed this messianism with greater mastery than Ivan did, but with no more equivocation. Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Turgenev all glorified the saintly Russian peasant towering spiritually and morally over the godless West. And, especially in his Diaries, Dostoyevsky pushed that notion into the territory adjacent to one later occupied by such Germans as Julius Streicher and Joseph Goebbels.

When such sentiments are planted at the grassroots, sooner or later they’ll produce a bountiful harvest. All it takes is fertilising the soil with uncontested fascist propaganda, while sprinkling it with herbicides to exterminate all dissent.

Please ponder this next time you read yet another hack saying that the problem lies just with Putin, not the Russian people. Putin has effectively marshalled the attitudes residing in the Russian breast. But he didn’t put them there.

3 thoughts on “God save us from national ideas”

  1. I recently read a rather good book on Dostoevsky, written by Rowan Williams (yes, that one) A great deal of it focuses on the Russian pysche. Dostoevsky seems to have been almost incapable of accepting that the world outside of Russia was even real, never mind containing anything of value.

    1. You are a better man than I am: I found Williams’s prose unreadable. But you are right about Dostoevsky: one of his Karamazovs talks about getting down on his knees and kissing the sacred stones of Europe, in the full knowledge that neither those stones nor the people who put them up have anything to do with Russia. Within the same book, in his sublime Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, he launches a virulent diatribe against Catholicism as embodiment of Europe (not against religion in general, as is commonly believed). And speaking for himself, not through his characters, Dostoevsky sputtered hatred at Europe in his Diaries. He was an egalitarian hater: it was hard to tell whom he detested more, Jews or Poles, Germans or Catholics — even the British, especially since their PM at the time was Disraeli, whom Dostoevsky calls Israel, cockroach, beast and so on. Still a magnificent writer though, and we aren’t going to cancel him for such little idiosyncrasies, are we?

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