Culture against civilisation

russiancultureSome readers have taken exception to my describing Russia as uncivilised. Russia, they replied, is as civilised as any other country, just look at Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

It’s all my fault. Most words have multiple meanings, and it’s incumbent upon a writer to define his terms, especially those used in a potentially controversial context.

There’s no doubt that Russian culture is one of the world’s greatest. But culture and civilisation aren’t so much synonymous as practically antithetical.

The kind of culture that produces a Tolstoy or a Dostoyevsky is created for few by fewer. At the time those two gentlemen were writing, close to 90 per cent of Russians were unable to read their novels, or anything else.

A similar observation could be applied to any culture. Perhaps the minority of Englishmen or Frenchmen able to contribute to culture either actively, as creators, or passively, as consumers, was greater than in Russia. But it was – and remains – a minority nonetheless.

Cultural disfranchisement in Russia was exacerbated by the servitude in which most Russians lived throughout their history. De facto slave owners, all those noblemen followed by the commissars, didn’t want their chattels to read Tolstoy and get ideas above their station.

The commissars did insist that the slaves learn to read, but they made sure that the newly acquired skill was applied only to learning the latest Party directives. Dostoyevsky didn’t come into it.

Civilisation is altogether different, not to say opposite.

It’s a method of organising life without any group having to resort to arbitrary force. This is replaced by an intricate ganglion of laws, custom, prescription, prejudice, equity, consent, civility (another cognate of civilisation), respect for others, good manners – it would take a long book even to enumerate all the components.

While culture thrives on esoteric exclusivity, a civilisation can’t last unless it includes all, or at least most, members of society. Some may drive it, some may sleep in the back seat, but they all must be inside.

Russia’s historical tragedy is that she borrowed the small cultural component of Western civilisation without also borrowing its entirety. Partly that’s the West’s fault: the quasi-Western cultured Russian was born at a time when the West proper was already becoming senile, its own roots severed by the Enlightenment.

Russia forged ahead culturally with youthful vigour, emulating the West’s path, but skipping many intermediate steps. Whenever things looked as if they’d take too long to develop, the youngster would simply borrow them ready-made, making more or less good use of them.

Thus Catherine II was involved in a lively correspondence with Diderot and Voltaire. That most absolute monarch of her time routinely described herself as a republican and sought Diderot’s advice on how to weave the ideals of the Enlightenment into the Russian political fabric. (This didn’t prevent her extending serfdom to the Ukraine.)

Yet Catherine didn’t succeed in making Russia Western. It was too late for that. Had the westernisation started not with Peter I but with Ivan the Terrible, Russia would have had many useful things to learn from the West at its peak, and the gap between her and, say, England would never have grown so wide.

As it was, the Russians succeeded in turning their country into a mirror image of the West. The mirror is both concave and convex, so it distorts the picture, but not beyond recognition. It’s rather like an impersonator conveying the character by accentuating the most salient traits.

The Russians mixed Western hand-me-downs with the bric-a-brac from their own attic. Hence where the West had social unrest, Russia had manor houses burnt to cinders; where the West had the Bastille, Russia had molten pitch down the throat; where the West had Fourier, Russia had Lenin.

If the West is Dorian Grey, Russia is the portrait. Even as Wilde’s character was horrified by the grotesque mask into which his vices had turned the portrait, so should Westerners look at Russia not with scorn but with the sadness of someone whose soul has been turned inside out and its depravity revealed for the world to see. That’s a good way to look at Russia’s history and the animus behind it.

The difference is that over millennia the West built up a capital of civilisation. That is now rapidly being frittered away, and we’re cutting deep into the principal. How long the capital will last is anybody’s guess, but there’s definitely some left.

Russia has no such capital, and don’t let Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky mislead you. They’re a lot less representative of Russia than Stalin and Putin.

For, in the absence of the multifarious ganglion I mentioned above, culture isn’t a civilisation’s meat. It’s its poison, or rather an abortion-inducing drug.

The brisk musical life in Moscow or Petersburg tells you less about Russia than the brown streaks one sees on the walls of public lavatories away from those cities’ centres. The presence of a literature is nothing as compared to the absence of just laws.

All this may sound too abstract, but the upshot of an uncivilised, if cultured, Russia is a concrete danger to the West. Beware of the uncivilised barbarian with “a lean and hungry look”.

4 thoughts on “Culture against civilisation”

  1. “A similar observation could be applied to any culture. Perhaps the minority of Englishmen or Frenchmen able to contribute to culture either actively, as creators, or passively, as consumers, was greater than in Russia. But it was – and remains – a minority nonetheless.”
    The BBC are of course trying to change this situation, especially on Radio Three?
    From Classic Music magazine –

  2. You must have never visited Russia. It is the countries of the West that are (relatively) uncivilised and barbarous. I should know – I am living in voluntarily imposed exile in Russia today for precisely that reason.

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