By Gaither Stewart
“With Russia it’s always like that,” writes contemporary Russia’s most read author, Viktor Pelevin. “You admire it and you cry, but when you look at what you admire up close, it can make you vomit.” That’s Pelevin, and others of the young generation. A mixture of compassion and fury. The rage of a young Russian against the post-Communist society that missed the curve and stuck the country in a repugnant swamp. But it’s also compassion for the Old Russia that he defends against superficial criticism and despite his violence he is solidary with its misery and its grandeur.
Strategically located at the crossroads of Eurasia, Russia’s geographical position enhances its power and influence which again today extends over much of the planet. Its military-industrial complex equals that of America and besides it has the world’s greatest natural gas reserves. America cannot afford to underestimate Russia on the basis of the economic collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago. Now Russia is back and is here to stay.
1. In the immediate post-World War II years American policy-makers agreed with defeated Germany that the United States had fought the wrong war. Until the last moment German generals had hoped that the Allies would allow Germany to surrender to the West and then fight the “real war” in the East, together. American generals too were hankering for the right war, and this time against Soviet Russia. Even “rusting arms too dreamed of wars,” wrote the young German Wolfgang Borchert on his return from the Eastern front, (Verrostet träumen Waffen von Kriegen.) Now, together, shoulder-to-shoulder, Germans and Americans should fight the real enemy: the Russkies.
The common enemy for Americans and Germans alike was Communism and the USSR
When I say “Americans,” of course, I mean the American ruling oligarchy, the US ruling class, not the masses, who, benighted for generations, are essentially propagandized by the corporate media to love or hate whomever or whatever such privileged class deems necessary to their strategic goals. Long before the war started, as is true for all class wars, some American political leaders (as well as British) began to consider WWII as a war against Communism not against Nazi Germany and sided with the Nazis against the Communists. According to one view of history, the war against Communism began with the German invasion of Russia in 1941 and ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Germany and Japan had fought the first part of the war; from 1945 the USA took over. (Others, with ample justification, put the beginning of the war against Soviet communism to the formation of the first Soviet government in 1917, and the cordon sanitaire and military expeditions that followed.)
As many of our readers will recall, after the war America was so dependent on Nazi Intelligence—Gestapo, SS and Abwehr—for information about Russia that it built the new CIA around Hitler’s intelligence chief in East Europe, General Reinhardt Gehlen. Gehlen had held intact Germany’s spy network in the East and saved for the new times German intelligence documentation about the USSR. Gehlen sold his data to the USA and his organization produced propagandistic materials used to justify growing American intelligence budgets and at the same time sharpened US/USSR hostilities by a systematic exaggeration of the Soviet Communist menace. This soon bloomed into a cottage industry, in a fertile soil of extreme gullibility and vast pools of reactionary political agitation lodged at all levels of American society, from academia to back country hillbillies.
So what is this thing about Russia anyway? The Russian “threat” that provokes intervention? Like Napoleon and Hitler, also America’s two-gunned General Patton had the dream of a triumphal march straight to Moscow. Nach Moskau! incited Gehlen. To Moscow! echoed Patton. Though Patton didn’t get marching orders, for subsequent decades the United States followed Nazi policies in the East. Nazi war criminals and their collaborators in East Europe became America’s allies and colleagues. Some were parachuted into the USSR. Others staffed US intelligence gathering organizations. Ex-Nazis were also sent to the USA and used to fuel anti-Communism. Film and literature has described how the Gehlen Org, aided by the USA, Vatican and Red Cross, set up postwar “rat lines,” or “Operation Odessa”, an escape route to save SS and Gestapo men from war crimes trials, changing their identities and sending them off by submarine to sanctuaries in Argentina and Paraguay and Chile to organize for the next round against Communism and Russia.
2. One can imagine that the hostility America bears toward Russia derives from something buried deep in America’s puritanical chromosomal-genetic make-up. One has to wonder who these Russians are that America feels it has to encircle, circumscribe and contain, and dictate and preach to and look down on. Is it really only competition for world domination? Maybe it is also jealousy. Envy for Russia’s still vast lands. For its great culture. Perhaps it is something Russia has that America lacks. The cynic would say that today it has to do with the great natural gas reserves in Siberia. However that may be, the source of the perceived Russian threat is a mystery.
We now know that the Cold War subtly deformed countless immature minds
Not only two generations or more of Americans were brainwashed and hoodwinked; a whole world was hoodwinked. Yet, despite the brainwash and the Cold War, despite what was instilled into our generation about Stalin and Communism gone wrong, there were people who loved Russia anyway. Some came to understand that Russia would always be Russia.
In his beautiful book, Dictionnaire Amoureux de la Russie, editions Plon, Paris, 2007, Dominique Fernandez describes the dance, la danse, as much more than a pastime in Russia. Speaking of the extraordinary ability of the world’s greatest dancers, Nijinski and Nureyev, to levitate and hang suspended in the air for several instants, Fernandez writes, “It is a necessity of the (Russian) soul, impatient to break away from the weight of matter, the battle of the spirit against the body.” This French writer and lover of Russia chose the dance as emblematic of the indomitable spirit of Russians to rise above normal human limitations, a national characteristic shown over and over again throughout Russian history. The Italian Slavist and poet, Angelo Maria Ripellino, hoped to compile a history of Russian letters based on the dance, a repetitious and obsessive theme in Russian literature: the dancing feet in Pushkin, the obscure leaps of Lermontov’s characters, Blok’s serpentine dances, Bely’s mountebanks.
In a discussion of Russian’s values, Fernandez writes, “For him food, money, vacations are necessities, not values. Books, theater, music, hikes in forests, gathering mushrooms, family solidarity, hospitality, voilà Russian values.” The Soviet period did not undermine these basic values; it enhanced them. One important achievement of the Soviet system, Fernandez notes, was low prices for culture enjoyment. Culture in Russia has no relationship with wealth. Even people with low incomes fill theaters and opera houses, concert halls and museums still today. And the state lavished support on artists of all types, a fact recognized even by Nureyev at one point, despite his ostensible defection to the West, chiefly for career advancement reasons.
Paradoxically this people of the far north are mentally people of the South. Russians love especially Italy, and in their emotionality they often resemble them. Maybe because Russians also have a penchant for disorder, procrastination, inefficiency, qualities more than redeemed by their fantasy, poetry, nobility and confidence in life. In his book, La Tregua (The Truce. Abacus, London, 1987), Primo Levi, the great writer from Turin, describes his liberation from Auschwitz by Russian soldiers and the subsequent errant train voyage in the joyous chaos of Russian troops returning home from the war which first carried him north through Poland and Ukraine. Levi and the liberated Italians observed the Red Army soldiers homeward bound in a kind of “disorderly and multicolored biblical migration….” So what is their strength, Levi wondered? “It is an interior discipline born from the harmony, reciprocal love and love for their homeland; a discipline that triumphs—precisely because it is interior—over the mechanical and servile discipline of the Germans. It was easy to understand why they prevailed.”
According to Primo Levi “even the Soviet bureaucracy was an obscure and gigantic force, not ill-disposed toward us (the Italian enemy) but only suspicious, negligent, ignorant, contradictory, and in fact blind like a force of nature…. The Soviet Union (at war’s end) is a gigantic country that harbors in its heart gigantic ferments, among others, a Homeric faculty for joy and abandonment, a primordial vitality, a pagan talent, virgin, for manifestations, rejoicing, country fairs.”
Both Fernandez and Levi mean that the characteristics of the Soviet era did not represent a dramatic rupture with Tsarist Russia. Now that enough time has passed and some minds are free of Cold War brainwash, we can see that the Soviet Union was ALSO the continuation of Tsarist Russia, only with a more “modern” state, that is the Communist state. Authoritarianism, Caesarism, bureaucracy, social inequalities and privileges, all enduring Russian realities, remained in the Soviet Union, albeit not in the same acute dimensions as under the Tsars, as they are today in the Capitalist Russia Pelevin depicts. Today as yesterday, and the day before, such traits belong to Russia, not to a specific political system.
Russians are used to suffering, especially from authority. But they lack in critical spirit (in this they are not exactly alone as witness whom we elect in the US and in Italy and France these days) and always have. Russians follow the rules only as much as they are forced to.
So is their obedience based on innate conformity? On resignation? Or is it laziness? Mental habits forged by authority? Dominguez writes that the positive traits remaining from the Communist system are gradually being erased today: austerity and moral dignity are ceding to the vulgarity of imports from the West. Still, degradation is slower than elsewhere because Russians have an exceptional force of both passivity and resistance. Maybe also because of the enormity of the country and the isolation of entire regions in the long winters thus far it has been saved from the fate of Prague, once one of the world’s most beautiful cities, which thethirst for money has transformed into a tourist souk. The callousness of today’s new Russia is predictably most visible in the big cities, especially in Moscow, now as yesterday a state within a state. Or maybe it is just the sensation of an emptiness left by the disappearance of the old eras.
Those qualities and characteristics of Russians, noted by non-Russians and Russians themselves, account for the feeling of the “differentness” of the Russian people and also for the Asiatic quality of Russian Communism. Communism elsewhere, Russia’s philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev, rightfully predicted, would be less integrated than in Russia, more secular and less likely to try to take the place of religion … and most likely more bourgeois.
Bourgeois! The theme running through Russian letters reflects the people’s instinctive hate for the bourgeoisie. The Anglo-Saxon worship of reserve and even dissimulation is distant from the Russian mentality. Reserve—as observed in Britain, for example–is considered a false social role. One reason for the initial success of the Bolsheviks around the world was their overt hate for the false bourgeoisie. Russians mistrust the surface of things. The raw and crude is more likely to be free of deception. Form is suspect. Form exhibits the lie while concealing the truth. Human greatness and a too well turned phrase are suspect. Systems ands rules are departures from the human. Russians prefer living life to playing roles. They live interiorly.
Despite the threats, America’s hostility and the temptations of capitalist values
These northern people with a southern mentality and a capacity for levitation has returned. The Russians are back, and how!
3. Liberationism of East Europe became the theme of the so-called Free World after WWII. In that period, one said, the USA “stopped beating a dead Nazi horse.” America convinced itself with its own propaganda that war with the USSR was inevitable. The atmosphere in rubble-infested Germany, a country of military uniforms and military vehicles everywhere, resembled the carefree spirit of wartime. It was as if the hot war had not really ended. Or it was just a hiatus, a pause while everyone rested up from the previous effort before the war would resume in earnest.
Ultimately the Soviet attempt to unify East Europe (mainly as a defensive buffer) failed. The geo-political future was again uncertain. After the break with Russia in 1989 the nations of former East Europe wondered whether the national states would return or were destined to pass from Russian domination into the hands of expansive Germany, into former Mitteleuropa. “Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians at Ulm,” the Germanist and historian Claudio Magris told me in an interview in Trieste in that same 1989, “was the victory of modern Europe of unification over the old Hapsburg-Danubian Europe of separate states, of the totalizer over the particular. Napoleon signified the modern fever for everything new; Austrian civilization instead defended the marginal, the secondary.”
Hitler’s defeat and the ultimate economic collapse of the USSR (chiefly as a result of being forced to join an arms race it could ill afford) continue to condition Europe today. Both events—as anticipated by American planners– strengthened American hegemony. Today the dilemma remains: unification and sameness in Europe or national states and the particular. People in the East want the material wealth of the West, they want it now, but like Dutch and French and Irish and Italians, also Poles and Czechs are cautious about surrendering their separateness, the particular. That is Europe’s quandary: an economic super-state of multinationals or the particular and separateness.
While it re-gathered its forces after the collapse of the USSR, Russia remained silent, aloof and apart, a wounded animal, fearful of its future but preparing for its resurrection.
The reasons the USA joined in so gleefully in the bombing of Belgrade—a contemporary European capital—during the Balkan wars of the 1990s are now clear. Russia was the reason!
Time lends transparency to historical events that are jumbled when they happen. Russia then was still defenseless. The USA could do as it liked in the world. Russia had lost many other lands during the watershed years from 1989. But it supported Serbia, the home of the Southern Slavs, Russia’s brothers, and a nation which still, defiantly, refused to embrace the neocon siren song of unbridled capitalism as the solution to all social questions. Actually Serbs were hardly more cruel and criminal than Croats and Bosnians and Albanians in the widespread slaughter in disintegrating Yugoslavia of the 1990s. But USA-dominated NATO decided to bomb, with America in the role of chief executioner. It was determined to crush Serbia and detach from it the cradle of the Serbian state, Kosovo, destined to become another American vassal state and the host of one of America’s biggest military bases in Europe. Thus, in 2007 Kosovo became another link in the chain of America’s encirclement of Russia.
Old habits of containment of Great Russia are hard to break!
Yet some people understood that Russia was not the enemy. It was their enemy, the enemy of America’s neo-liberal policymakers. Nor was Socialism the enemy. It was theirs, too. Sometimes events get out of control. They just seem to happen, caught up in the swirl of history. But still, we try to interpret and to understand. And then take a stand for or against. Understanding is like discovering a new world, like converting to a new faith. Revolt invades your life and everything is different from what it once was.
To be continued
Gaither Stewart is Cyrano’s journal’s European correspondent based in Rome. A longtime admirer and student of slavonic cultures, he maintains a particular interest in the developments affecting Russia after the overthrow of communism.
In a weary world of endless US military interventions, sanctions, trade tariffs and chaos, let’s pause and take stock of the shining house on the hill