Russia as an ideology

The other day I watched a Russian-language documentary about the British historian Nikolai Tolstoy, Russkiy graf iz angliskoi glubinki (Russian Count from English Backwater).

Russia isn’t just birch trees, golden domes and embroidered shirts

Tolstoy has written a number of interesting and informative works. But he became famous after the publication of his books The Victims of Yalta (1977) and The Minister and the Massacres (1986).

There he dealt with one of the most shameful betrayals in British history: the forced handover to Stalin of hundreds of thousands of Soviets held in POW camps – and thousands of Cossacks who had never even been Soviet citizens.

The handover, handled with ruthless perfidy, violated not only the Geneva Accords but even the Yalta Treaty – in their haste to mollycoddle Stalin, the British delivered more than he had demanded.

In The Minister and the Massacres, Tolstoy actually named those directly responsible for that monstrosity. One of them, Lord Aldington, sued for defamation.

The British establishment closed ranks behind him, some key documents miraculously disappeared from the archives, and Aldington won his suit. He was awarded £2 million in damages and legal costs, driving Tolstoy into bankruptcy.

My sympathies were and still are with Tolstoy. But the documentary, most of it a running interview, depleted much of the goodwill capital his books had built.

For Tolstoy came across as an ideological Russian chauvinist – possibly because his claim to being any other kind of Russian is less than ironclad. The count was born in England to a Russian father and English mother, and his stepfather was the novelist Patrick O’Brien.

Educated at Wellington College, Sandhurst and Trinity College, Dublin, he speaks his mother tongue, English, in perfect upper-class cadences. As to his ideological tongue, Russian, he hardly speaks it at all, beyond a few heavily accented words.

Still, a man is entitled to consider himself anything he pleases. The heart’s genetic memory reinforced by cultural inclinations may trump linguistic deficiencies and the accident of birth.

However, Count Tolstoy’s heart has led him not only to a Russian identity, but also to Russian jingoism, of the kind that defies reason, morality and – lamentable in such a good historian – even elementary education.

The British, complained Tolstoy, have always treated Russia as a backward country, “a land of tyrants and slaves”. Actually, this last phrase comes almost verbatim from a poem by the Russian poet Lermontov (“Farewell to thee, my squalid Russia, a land of masters, land of slaves…”).

So it wasn’t just the dastardly English who noticed the traditional Russian dichotomy of tyrants and slaves – in fact, the list of such perceptive individuals in Russia herself is endless, and it even includes some of Count Tolstoy’s illustrious ancestors.

It takes a woeful misreading of history not to see that the notion of sovereign individuals is alien to the Russians. Power in the country (vlast’, which is a cognate of the English weal) has always been monocentric, concentrated in the hands of tsar, emperor, general secretary or president.

The parallel centres of power that have always, if at times intermittently, existed in the West, such as aristocracy, councils of elders, church, people’s assemblies, have in Russia always been epiphenomenal extensions of the Weal. That’s why the English enjoyed in the thirteenth century many of the liberties the Russians still don’t possess in the twenty-first.

In any case, it wasn’t because of their supercilious attitude to the Russians that the British committed the crime that Count Tolstoy correctly regards as such, the forced repatriation of people seeking freedom.

But, said Tolstoy, the West is still looking down on the Russians. After they got rid of communism, the West still commits aggression against Russia: the Ukraine is being drawn into NATO, Western soldiers are stationed in the Baltics, missiles are based in Poland – all because Russia is regarded as backward.

At this point, we enter the realm of madness caused by maniacal chauvinism. The West, sir, takes precautions against Russia not because it’s backward, but because it’s dangerous. She has shown willingness to pounce on her neighbours, while keeping the West at bay by nuclear blackmail.

Getting rid of communism also meant getting rid of the communist Soviet empire. The good count touts the former but clearly wishes Russia had kept the latter – one can’t help detecting a logical solecism there.

His chauvinist heart simply can’t accept that the Ukraine and other fiefdoms of the Russian, then Soviet, empire are now sovereign nations. As such, they are free to join NATO, the EU, NAFTA or even, if accepted, the Organisation of African States.

Preventing this exercise of independence by brute force, which is Russia’s wont, shows contempt for international law and common decency.

If Tolstoy could read Russian, he’d know that the official media (all others are suppressed) are spouting nuclear threats against the West in a continuous stream of effluvia.

There are signs that Putin’s kleptofascist gang is preparing to test NATO’s resolve by trying to reconquer the Baltics, all NATO members. Both Putin and Patrushev, his Secretary of the Security Council, issue threats every day, repeating endlessly that a nuclear war is both possible and winnable.

But of course, Putin can do no wrong for the Tolstoys – he’s just the kind of ruler the family cherishes. In fact, the count’s son Dmitri attacked me some time ago for saying about Putin the sort of things I’ve just said. In several idiotically febrile e-mails, he demanded that I go back to Russia (which I left long before he was even born) and fight for its future.

Now, I’m considerably more British than any of the Tolstoy clan are Russian, and Russia’s future interests me only inasmuch as it presents a threat to everything I hold dear. Dmitri (who’s only a quarter-Russian, by the way) and his father feel differently, but one still detects no willingness on their part to settle in their ideological motherland and share its destiny.

But never mind Russia in general, continued Nikolai Tolstoy. Even the Russian peasants were far from being primitive. As proof of their cultural attainment, he held up a shirt beautifully embroidered in the nineteenth century.

I can only put this down to the count’s advanced age, a condition known to cause lachrymose sentimentality. By his chosen criterion, no such thing as a primitive culture exists: even some African tribes with objectionable dietary habits are eminently capable of producing beautiful artefacts.

Russia, boasted Tolstoy, created a great culture, which America, with all her money, has been unable to do. It’s true that during the century in which most of Russia’s great culture was produced, roughly 1820-1920, it was second to none.

Yet the Russian literary language was created by Francophone writers. They transposed into Russian the French lexical and grammatical patterns, much to the amazement of the perceptive writer Prosper Mérimée, who translated Pushkin’s prose into French.

In a letter to Pushkin’s friend Sobolevsky, Mérimée wrote: “I find that Pushkin’s phraseology is completely French… Could it be that you boyars first think in French and then write in Russian?” Well spotted.

Russian culture was created by perhaps one per cent of the population, the thoroughly Westernised elite most of which came from the same social stratum as the Tolstoys. That tiny group produced a sublime sub-set of European culture, and it’s in Europe that their antecedents are to be found.

This isn’t to deny the sui generis genius of Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Levitan, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and many others. It’s just that the presence of such giants in no way protects a country at large from backwardness – nor prevents it from plunging into evil.

Anyway, it’s pointless arguing serious points with the likes of the Tolstoys. Russia to them isn’t a real country in flesh and blood – it’s an idol and, even worse, an ideology. And when ideology speaks, reason is silenced.

6 thoughts on “Russia as an ideology”

  1. I must say Count Tolstoy somewhat reminds me of Sean Connery; the (Knighted!) Scottish (nationalist!) who resides in the Bahamas. What? is John o’ Groats not up to scratch, Sean?

    Dmitri’s demand sounds amazingly fanatical coming from the son of a predominantly English gentleman.

  2. Russians [even if by ancestry] are sentimental people? You can take the Russian out of Russia but you can’t take Russia out of the Russian.

    Cossacks slit their own throats when told they were being handed over to the Soviets. Slit their own throats with their hands tied behind their backs. You may ask: “how is such a thing possible?” You butt your head against window glass to shatter the glass, then rub your neck on the shattered and sharp opening. Remember how to do that if you are being returned to Russia one day.

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