Thus commented the Marquis de Custine in his Russia, 1839, one of the most perceptive books ever written on this subject by a foreigner.
Custine saw right through the smokescreen laid by the Russian authorities to deceive visitors to their shores. “The profession of misleading foreigners is one known only in Russia…,” he wrote, “everyone disguises what is bad and shows what is good…”
However, Custine missed one salient point: wars against Russia’s neighbours come and go, but one war remains constant: the one between the rulers and the ruled.
Uniquely among leading world powers, Russia kept most of her people in serfdom until the Emancipation of 1861: out of her population of 23 million at the time, 21 million were serfs. (The Emancipator Tsar, Alexander II, was by way of gratitude blown in half by a terrorist bomb.)
Though their legal status was technically different from that of the slaves in the American South, in reality this was a distinction without a difference. Actually there was one difference: the black slaves in America weren’t regarded as Americans, or indeed even as fully human.
But in Russia the slaves were the same Orthodox Christians as their owners, which affected both groups in unique ways, none of them ennobling. The situation continuously dripped fuel into the fire of the millennium-long war, and the fumes were driving Russia crazy.
The slaves, aka serfs, stole their masters blind, burnt their property or even, given the slightest chance, killed them.
That fate befell, for example, Dostoyevsky’s father, a doctor and landowner known (presumably only in the latter capacity) for excessive cruelty. Dostoyevsky-père made the mistake of taking his eyes off the ball, as a result of which laxity one of his serfs stuck an axe into his head, orphaning the future writer at an early age.
Nor was it just isolated acts of violence. When opportunities arose, the peasants would rise not only in rebellions but in full-fledged wars against the government, such as those led by Ivan Bolotnikov (1606-1607), Stepan Razin (1670-1671) and Yemelian Pugachev (1773-1774). In addition, there were at least 200 small-scale peasant rebellions in the nineteenth century alone.
Since most Russians learn the history of the 1812 Napoleonic war from Tolstoy’s fictional and ideologically inspired account in War and Peace, they generally believe that at least, when threatened by invaders, the serfs closed ranks, joined forces with their masters and picked up what Tolstoy called “the cudgel of people’s war”.
So they did, but the cudgel was swung not at the French, but at the Russian landlords. The peasants burned manor houses en masse, killed their owners and hid their grain away from the starving troops – their own, not just the French.
In fact, having suffered horrendous losses at Borodino and abandoned Moscow, the Russian High Command had to dispatch some of their depleted troops on punitive missions against peasant uprisings.
Now that the Putin regime has chosen the Russian Empire as its propaganda figurehead, the tendency is to describe the post-Emancipation life as going from good to better. The epoch of Nicholas II in particular is singled out as a period of bliss.
It’s true that the Russian economy was growing more rapidly than just about any other at the time, but this datum is misleading because the country started from an extremely low point. By analogy, a chap who has £100 to his name and then earns another £20 shows an economic growth of 20 per cent, while a billionaire who earns £20 shows no growth at all.
One way or the other, Russian peasants, no longer serfs, clearly didn’t feel their lot was blissful. As far as they were concerned, the perennial war was still in full swing.
During 1907-1909, impoverished peasants torched 71 per cent of all gentry estates and 29 per cent of farms belonging to wealthy peasants.
The owners of surviving properties must have heaved a sigh of relief, but it was premature: in 1910-1913, 32 per cent of the remaining estates and 67 per cent of the remaining wealthy households were burned down as well.
What Pushkin once described as a “Russian revolt, senseless and merciless” wasn’t just contained within the countryside. Between 1901 and 1916, some 17,000 state officials were murdered or crippled by terrorists.
None of this even began to compare with the cannibalistic mayhem of the ensuing Bolshevik regime, which over the next 35 years murdered 60 million people and enslaved the rest, effectively reintroducing serfdom.
But the Bolshevik seeds fell on a ground all too ready to receive them: the Russian Empire was rotten to the core.
Its people were corrupted by centuries of despotism and penury. Thus when Stalin declared war on the kulaks (industrious peasants who resisted collective farms), he found no shortage of willing executioners. Nor was Lenin’s war on the Church short of volunteers: 40,000 priests were murdered on his watch by yesterday’s Christians.
And so the situation has remained in all its guises, including the present kleptofascist regime. For all their cloyingly professed Christianity (or, as an interlude, commitment to universal equality), Russian rulers have never grasped the concept of each individual possessing a sovereign value.
People to them are but material, out of which are built the power and wealth of the ruling elite. Hence the proud possessors of huge yachts and Nice estates don’t mind it that most Russians subsist on coolie wages (by various estimates, the average salary there is $300-500 a month, and the gap between the rich and the poor is the widest this side of some African fiefdoms).
They are satisfied that the decades of Bolshevism knocked rebelliousness out of the people, while increasing their receptiveness to nauseating propaganda.
In the distant past, its focus was on Christian submission to tyranny and acceptance of abject poverty in the hope of eternal salvation. The Bolsheviks retained the millenarian nature of the message, but swapped salvation for militarised imperial grandeur ultimately bringing about world communism.
Today’s lot have kept the accent on militarised imperial grandeur, but added the extra dimension of the Russians’ unrivalled spirituality (it’s hard not to notice that most Russians shed their spirituality the moment they arrive in the West and start getting mortgages).
The powers that be have throughout history accompanied their propaganda with whipping up hostility towards the soulless West that’s for ever harbouring aggressive designs on Russia.
Apart from the first 25 years of the Bolshevik regime, the rulers have always been ably assisted in their mission by the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s entirely consistent that its present head, Patriarch Kirill, is a lifelong KGB/FSB agent – as were the other two aspirants for his job.
I have no doubt that the Putin junta isn’t long for this world – and it won’t take 70 years to self-destruct as the Soviet Union did. But there’s little hope for Russia unless she undergoes changes that cut much deeper than simply a regime change.