The Idea of Russia

In Victor Pelevin’s novel Babylon (2001), a mafia bandit worries that Russia’s image problems stem from loss of “national id-en-tity”—some twenty years before a similar idea seized Americans about America. He asks an advertising copywriter to invent a slogan Russia can sell to the Americans:

some nice, clear simple Russian idea, so’s we can lay it out clear and simple for any bastard from any of their Harvards … and we’ve got to know for ourselves where we come from … Write me a Russian idea about five pages long. And a short version one page long.1

The instructions seem close to those for cabinet papers, so perhaps all sympathetic groups of readers are pressed for time. Whether this is true or not I could not say, but short of an encyclopaedia, the guidelines are good for Russia. Herewith the short version.



The “Russian Idea” used to be Gogol’s image of Russia as a troika blazing across frozen wastes in a spume of snow, thundering across bridges, and because mystical, vanishing into the infinite skies. Postmodern Russians are more modest: “cultural and psychological shifts in the Russian consciousness” have changed life into a “calm, patient gliding of a boundless iconostasis”, symbolised perhaps in Kasimir Malevich’s sentient 1915 painting Black Square.2 Post-postmoderns are “post-atheist”, “post-capitalist”, even “post-Russian”. All overlook Russia’s historic obsession with speed, space and mission. Gogol reflects this best, along with Russia’s clear and simple call for nations in her path to step aside.3


The Rus genome came from seventh-century Kiev-on-the-Dnieper, trekked north for a thousand years through unlimited forests and empty steppes, across rivers broad as lakes and lakes broad as seas, crossed the low “Stone Wall” Urals, and by 1733, the narrow straits to Alaska. Spaces occupied by the non-Rus genome were called empty: Russia, though three times as large as America, treated its East somewhat as America treated its West, for similar paradoxical reasons: frontier folk crave empires without borders walled by religion. The Rus were Orthodox Christians, the Americans Protestant sectarians (who annexed Texas in 1846, and bought Alaska in 1864 for a fist full of pennies.) In both, southern or central accents limited careers. Earlier, like 1066 in England, 1240 was a defining moment for Rus when Mongol invaders taught them to “kiss the stirrup”, though unlike Normans in England, they let Rus keep language and religion. Lessons in violence, burnings and torture might have spread further West, had Moscow and the Teutonic Knights not absorbed the first Mongol shock. The Germans packed them off to the Balkans and Crimea, where they continued to teach—everyone knows Balkan wars.

This essay appears in a recent Quadrant.
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The child is prologue to the man. Russia’s childhood years show archetypes blazing (for Jung, they blaze) in the Russian mind today. First, a permanent war footing.4 From the Pacific to the Baltic (and Biarritz), no natural barrier keeps out enemies—Mongols, Germans, Poles, Swedes, Turks, French, British, Japanese … Thomas Friedmann thought the world flat, a natural error, as glancing at the map shows mainly Russia, but it is Russia that is flat. Moscow-on-the-plains is a regime in search of security, a state and if possible, a warm-water port.

Second, autocracy. With numberless subsistence peoples in forest and steppe and rivalrous princes (still today), Moscow princes called themselves King of Kings—Tsar—ruler by divine right of many peoples, lands and heaven, with God as junior partner. Moscow became the “Third Rome”, its Mission saving Earth, and Orthodoxy blind obedience—no unruly priests here. Count Uvarov, Nicholas I’s minister of education, set down the Russian Idea as total subjection to “Autocracy, Nationality and Orthodoxy”, and in that order.5

Uvarov may have been right. His mantra has echoed ever since. Long isolated, Russia received no Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment humanity until the nineteenth century when it got them all at once and straightway composed world-beating novels, plays, music and dance, well, intellectuals do what they can if rule is reserved for autocrats only. A world-beating scientific heritage—invention of the Periodic Table, non-Euclidean geometry, the Kondratieff curve, speeding into space—came in the next century.

Echoes reverberate through the failed or stolen revolutions, the Death of God and serial acts of foreign ostracism. Stealing Marxism, Lenin and Trotsky then stole the first democratic revolution, restored autocracy and replaced Orthodoxy with the blind secular religion of communism. Stalin stole both and initially at least, restored nationalism.6 After the fall (of communism) another democratic revolution sank in chaos and oligarchic capitalism, the latter intact under autocratic patterns linked to the Putin era, not set to end any time soon. The failure of secular religion reignited Orthodoxy (to Tolstoy no less blind than any other), seen in the spanking new Supremacist Cross in Ekaterinburg’s city square. Russia has known democracy a few months; Autocracy, Nationality and Orthodoxy a thousand years.7

Russia’s knowledge of the West, like the West’s of Russia, reduces to cycles of mutual fear, demonisation and enthusiasm—think Napoleon, Foch, Wilson, Winston “poisonous Russia” Churchill, Gorbachev … and now Emmanuel “Eastward Ho!” Macron.8 Between anxiety and paranoia, Roderic Braithwaite, former British ambassador, hopes it’s time to stop spinning wheels, yet spin they do. Claude Blanchemaison, former French ambassador, slates Russia for abandoning her heritage to live off oil, a commodity for which he claims the price is set by others, notably America. Postmodern Russian writers oddly agree with both: materialism rules, perhaps, but tired of satirising Wild Capitalist Moscow “where every cigarette brings planetary triumph of the Russian idea a little closer”, they have added “Boring West” to the dartboard, though here it’s hard to beat Dostoevsky already.9

Russian poets know “the river of time … bears away all the affairs of men, and drowns nations, kingdoms and kings in the abyss of oblivion”.10 But in Russia as in America writers are only writers. Russia’s masters of the ends of history know Russia sinks in the abyss but surfaces fast, if only to show its superiority complex indestructible. Why return to Tsars, say Russians, if Putin is doing all that is necessary now? Autocracy and nationalism are back and the Death of God, it seems, was greatly exaggerated. The very latest Russian writers are not only post-postmodern, they are “post-atheistic”, moving from “apophatic theology to ‘minimal religion’”.11 If so, can Mission—saving Earth from the boring West—be far away?

If you have something better to do, now is the time to stop reading and go and do it. For others, the long version goes like this.


Scholars like to say nobody, even Russians, knows where Russians come from. But scholars have nodded off. Research shows life first emerged in (now dry) lakes near Adelaide, and humans from the Olduvai Gorge or nearby. Then, over a million years and four great glacial eras, peoples were pumped up, down, back and around Eurasia by alternating retreats and advances of ice. Slavs—timid forest dwellers, Russians strongest of them to Balzac—ended up in the vast basin north of Crimea, along with the early Indo-Europeans and many others.

Yet they are not like Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons, Celts, Latins—and descendants in Canada, Australia and New Zealand—peoples with pre-Christian roots who under the banner of Christianity honour the old pagan festivals, albeit fewer of them today; there used to be 150 public holidays per year.12 With no pagan gods or rites of their own—old Russian tales, like all folk tales, are recent—Russians do not have this depth. The Teuton Freud thought Russians unusually “psychologically fluid”, like young people, without explaining why, but the absence of historical depth may be the reason Russians seem young compared to those with roots in older cultures (cultures that some fear, perhaps wrongly, now played out). Russians are a recent people without a central core, Orthodoxy grafted onto a blank slate. Forever young, they resemble younger brothers who toy with stuff elder brothers already know leads to trouble but, when tackled, turn out to be stronger than you knew.

As a nation Russia began in a small way in the 680s, in Kiev, a ford in the Dnieper, a traditional riverine route connecting Northern Europe with the Black Sea and Constantinople, an early monopoly of the Vikings. Monopoly, the gift that goes on giving, dominated trade for centuries until hammered by the Latin Crusades, which diverted money-making and the beautiful tomorrow to Western European rivers, the Po, Rhine, Rhone, Loire; travel was faster, fairs bigger and credit, then as now, more creative.13 Traders got away with disrespecting tradition because for centuries trade itself was disrespectable—money lust was a cardinal sin to Augustine, boring to Machiavelli, innocuous to Dr Johnson, virtuous to Adam Smith, and angelic to oligarchs in any country.14 Back on the Orthodox Dnieper, economic decline, not over today, prompted young “Kievan Rus” to seek fortunes and found new families in empty Russian forests and plains North and East. The Western plains were barred by the Teutonic Knights, who caught straying Rus to work on farms. Legend was that Slav derives from slave but this is likely hagiography.15

Tomes have been written on the importance of frontier to the American mind but the same thing in Russia is overlooked. This is a mistake. On a moving frontier far from Kiev, migrating Rus families also proved anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Families quarrel, it would be no use here to pretend they never do, and old Russian tales do not pretend. In wandering political laboratories, young Rus solved issues of regime change between fathers and sons, younger and elder brothers, wives, sisters by moving out. Young sons become old sons; ever younger sons moved ever further into the forest. In monasteries, where only brothers quarrelled, young dissidents could and did move out to found new Orthodox monasteries. Over time vast estates and wealth accumulated over generations of first movers, secular and religious, just as in England, France …

Not all human problems, alas, were solved. Tales about those left behind—the men and women from somewhere—tell now of cross old women, and then of cross old men; for every tale about a cross old woman there is one about a cross old man. Happily married youngsters suffered too: “good people rejoiced to see them and the bad people were jealous”. Of course, modern people do not worry about this or any other human factor as the genius of Progress means there are no more bad people.16

The first Rus empire—Dnieper-Moscow-Crimea-Caucasus—formed at the same time as Charlemagne’s, and lasted longer. Russians first attacked Byzantium in 860, but according to Clausewitz victory in war is never one-way or even final. Just as barbarians won the war against Latin Rome but lost the politics—for Clausewitz, war by other means—military Russia was no match for old Byzantine money and courtly manners. In 988 Prince Vladimir married the Byzantine princess Anna in the Crimea where, Pelevin claims, the “night … is astonishingly beautiful”.17 Vladimir accepted Orthodoxy, copied Byzantine court forms and prescribed transcendental, absolutist rule for Russia, which has never forgotten the night.

Pelevin thinks a philosopher such as Krylov had a point when he said to Chaadev, the “origins of debate between East and West … should be sought in the division of the church”.18 Tender about the night, Pelevin is too modest here. Accepting Orthodoxy set Russia and the Russians on a quite different course from that of Western Europe set by the Latin Church’s thousand-year struggle against the Eastern Church. Rome, then a poor, unlearned Church living amid a collapsed Roman civilisation, held a weak hand against the rich, learned and fabulous East, which at its peak eyeballed Rome from Ravenna. Rome won.

The facts of Church history are easily gleaned from standard texts. But facts are not important here; meaning is important. The Latin Church was the first ever to establish the right of rebellion against superior power and authority, including against secular power. It learnt the techniques of resistance, invented instrumental reason, and worked out how to form alliances. Heat of philosophical battle within the Church forged those defining Western values, independence, individuality and optimism about change. The sense of drama, contest and dynamism in life and thought is flaunted in Renaissance paintings in Rome. Contrast this with the still lives and static ideals of transcendental, totalitarian hierarchies down the road in Ravenna, frozen mosaics, icons and Pantocrators. Or with, say, the strictly unapproachable Islamic god; dispassionate aeons of Indian transcendence; or Japanese notions of human reality as a mere “segment of reality … around which is void from which it appears and into which it disappears”. 19 (old 20) The Western mindset is flexible, drawn to the human scale of life and cannot but think the world real; it is usually repelled by Eastern abstraction, unless attracted by its very strangeness, like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Jung, Eliot, Yeats in his later poetry, most recently, Yuval Noah Harari.20 – old 21 Resistance requires allies; seeking them in Spain, Southern France, England, Ireland and the Rhine lands, the Latin Church made Western Europe, and unawares, perhaps, taught Latin lessons in revolution for later.21 – old 19

In Russia, by contrast, Mongol invasions reinforced Easternisation. Population explosion drove the Mongols east to take China, then west in a bid to take Europe. In the west they got as far as Poland before pony disease broke out, which held them up long enough for the Teutonic Knights to re-group. When the Mongols returned, the Germans diverted them down to the Balkans and Crimea. But in 1240, it was Russia that absorbed the first shock of invasion, sapped the forces eventually met by the Knights, and saved Western Europe.

Textbooks history wrongly rate the Mongol invasion a disaster for Russia. Muscovy took the brunt of attack but faced by superior weapons, horses and riders, gave in to avoid certain extinction. Nikolai Karamzin, a Russian historian, surely underplays the fight in Moscow when he says, “unhappy Moscow, like a defenceless widow, looked only to God in her misfortunes”.22 Are Russians really defeatist, or extremist? Or do they too wait and play weak cards as well as they can? Mongol horses hated forest fodder and their riders found nothing to like in nine months of winter. Moscovy helped the Khans shift to the warm south where they built a new capital and imposed levies from a distance. Moscow continued to “kiss the stirrup” and to help by collecting levies from other Rus princes on their behalf. As other princes were Moscow’s rivals, this was a pleasure. Re-armed by 1480, Moscow kicked against the stirrup and collected taxes for itself. Russian towns and villages were sacked and razed but the Mongols taught Russia Eastern lessons in power and how to use levies to finance vast disjointed territories. After two centuries, Moscow turned defeat into victory.

This assessment is more Hegel than Rousseau but then Rousseau’s perfervid dreams of shared powers concerned small towns like Geneva or countries like France and Poland, not empires of 100 nationalities and 150 languages. Hegel fits Russia better in several ways. He thought history a “slaughter bench” unrelated to “happiness”, which he called history’s “blank pages”, and possibly few other countries have been on this bench more than Russia. Famously, he also claimed peoples, nations and events were always working unknowingly for freedom, tomorrow if not today. Lessons of the Mongol invasions put muscle on ideas of Autocracy, Nationalism and Orthodoxy, and in the circumstances, secured Russia freedom.

At the same time desolate frontiers laid a pessimistic shadow over the Rus spirit. The idea that geography determines character came from Montesquieu, easily rebutted as his ideas usually are. Yet the colour and nonchalance of gentler English, French or Italian landscapes are missing from Russia, replaced by grimness and anti-types of infinite suffering, endurance and submission—shown later in Dostoevsky’s Idiot, and in the fleurs du mal stories of new Russian writers, such as Victor Astafiev, whose Lyudochka surveys today’s urban jungles and dying villages. Isolation and separation made communal self-help mythic Russian memes.23

Russian immensity meant Russian villages were small, remote and barely connected. Strategic locations were military garrisons—one became Moscow—and acted merely as administrative centres, surrounded by hovels. There was and is none of the dense inter-layering, independence and sheer size of town classes in England, Holland, France, Italy and Germany where globalising city air made free. Self-sufficient merchants—“deplorables” to those Westerners today who forget their Johnson and Smith—could thumb their noses at yesterday’s men and women in the castles indebted to … merchants. In Russia, however, rural poverty and garrisons let princes keep a grip on both political and economic power.

As in religion and government, different commercial worldviews between Russia and Western Europe sharpened in time. The mean merchants and landowners of Dostoevsky, Gogol or Tolstoy, for example, do not resemble the mean entrepreneurs, traders and bankers in Balzac, Dickens or Thomas Mann. The former are rentiers but the latter have the energies, talents and mindsets that stem from innovating first, speculating later. The same disjunction applies today. Curzio Malaparte, an Italian diplomat, records how tired aristocrats in the 1930s survived by selling off unimproved assets, Louis Quinze furniture and silk underwear, on Smolensky. According to charts and analysis in the Economist, after the privatisation of state property in the 1990s, Russian billionaires still derive their revenues overwhelmingly from rents, both absolutely and as compared to those of billionaires in Western countries whose returns mainly come from technology and innovation. Even Russia’s space centre and program are still running on the old technology.23

Unlike populous close-knit towns, a subsistence village cannot thumb its nose at a garrison. And old Russian tales teach resignation: moaning in the streets instead of getting on with the job spreads misery without helping anyone. In Holy Russia stresses had to be extreme to stir up real rebellion, something like famine in the Ukrainian bread-basket, or succession dog-fights for supremacy among Moscow princes. (Churchill, who may have known little history but had a painter’s eye, likened Moscow power struggles to “watching dogs fight under the carpet”.) Lermontov said Russians were simply not interested in the European rat race, a view Liah Greenfeld, a modern historian, thinks is still valid: Russians get bored not with money but with the need to work for it, a talent sometimes found among other peoples and Western adolescents though rarely among elders charged with putting bread on the table.24

In Russia sheer size produced a paradoxical mix of rigid authoritarianism at the centre with ineffective control at the periphery, a dynamic seen in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet early Russia had the seeds of both democracy and the market economy. Russia had, for example, the democratic Wetsche, a town body run by dominant families which took all decisions on town matters. Five hundred years before Adam Smith, the medieval southern town of Chasaren was a market economy, and heavily multicultural with a Hebrew people once thought to be the “missing tribe of Israel”; as one is entitled to expect from a biblical people, the town was run as a democracy. Through the centuries of geopolitical discord, the country mir—peasant village council—continued to take its own advice on its own decisions whatever central powers ordained; kulaks—peasant middlemen—whose extermination as a class became official Communist policy, had nothing if not the innate tendency to barter their neighbours’ goods. All this was due not to political idealism but to brute fact: Russian climate changes randomly produced feast or famine for crops, animals, infrastructure and peoples. Village interdependence was vital. Local democracy and its discontents make up a major primitive layer of the Russian mind.25 According to Konstantin Aksakov:

order in Russia is not maintained by governmental measures, nor has it ever been, and it is not in the spirit of the people to wish to disrupt it … The Russian people have no wish to govern … [nor] do the Russian people possess a political spirit.

Anarchists in Boris Akunin’s Not Saying Goodbye (2018) see Russians as “natural anarchists. They don’t need any regime over them. They know how to impose order in their own commune and defend themselves against outsiders.” For writers, the state should not interfere with people nor people with the state.26

The Mongol invasions blocked Russia from these ideas and from Europe; ever since it has been trying to get back. Efforts have been genuine, if fateful. Like any peripheral or developing country, of which Russia was historically the first, Russia sought to exploit the “late-comer’s advantage”—modernisation by copying West European and later American science, including Charlie Chaplin films seen at first by Russians and American industry unions alike as true documentaries.27 It is often thought that Peter the Great spread Enlightenment in Russia but this is wrong. He supplied his military with modern weaponry, conjured the brilliance of St Petersburg out of the marshes, and set up basic school and university systems. But, for Aksakov, the brilliance was “superficial”, like Versailles, and the benefits of education reached only the top 0.0001 per cent of Russians. Catherine the Great was a fair-weather friend of Enlightenment: when the French Revolution showed her what enlighteners really meant, she stopped writing letters or offering breakfast, and put them in jail. Until the nineteenth century, Russia had no Renaissance, Reformation or Enlightenment. Of course, few will hold this against Russia, now Enlightenment is again an “intellectual blood-sport”, and instrumental reason shown to plumb every shallow of the human mind.28

The Russian nineteenth century, however, produced what might be called the world’s eighth wonder: generations of writers, artists and musicians, intellectuals showing insight into the human mind, the fate of humanity and—to them the same thing—where Russia came from, what it is and where it is going. To Westerners these might sound like philosophical questions, perhaps because Aristotle first set them down in the West—or at least was first to set them down in writing, for the ruins of ancient Middle Eastern civilisations, so fascinating to the upstart Greeks, show these philosophical questions have always existed. But Vladimir Solovev said, “What is philosophical in Russian works is not philosophy, and what is Russian … has no relation to philosophy.” Erofeyev claims it is “pseudo-philosophy … to do with rescuing your own self”, as Dostoevsky said. Like Japanese and American philosophy, Russian philosophy doesn’t technically exist because their writings are mostly commentaries on or responses to Western European philosophies of one kind or another. Russian exceptionalism lies not in abstract philosophy but in the art, music and literature of human experience. For a while, however, Russia cornered the market in national ideas.29


Today, some think Russians and Americans are getting more like each other, and not just because old enemies usually come to resemble each other. They may never have much differed. If The Idiot and Resurrection show strangeness in nineteenth-century Russia, Twain’s Gilded Age and Life on the Mississippi highlight strangeness in America. A.J.P. Taylor, an English historian, said Woodrow Wilson “was as much a Utopian as Lenin” and equally disposed to use “force” to make Europeans see reason.30 Vladimir Nabokov, a White Russian exile who wrote in English in America, perhaps embodied both countries in one man: Lolita is “hymn to the otherness of the United States, the seductive freedom of its highways, motels, language and diet”, as Frank Kermode reminds us.31

Unintended consequences mirror each other. Those who sailed for America wanted to create a communitarian paradise but got the epicentre of global capitalism instead; Russia copied democratic capitalism but got the world’s first centrally planned dictatorship. A Russo-American journalist, Gregory Feifer, notes shoddiness in Russian goods and services, smelly drains, defective justice in Russian law, and the dependence of success in business and government in Russia on personal contacts and influence. Marvin Harris, an American anthropologist, reveals decades of shoddy goods and services in America; annual reports note America’s armies of lobbyists; and media reporting exposes “negotiated” justice in America bearing little or no resemblance to common or civil law jurisdictions. International “lawfare”—economic war by other means—includes the punitive use of American extra-territorial laws and America’s forcible demands that foreigners purchase American goods and services.32

But mostly, Russia and America now seem tired of saving Western Europe. Russia has done so five times: the Mongol invasions; capturing Napoleon’s Paris in 1815 after chasing him out of Russia; destroying the Balkan Ottomans in the 1870s; exhausting the Kaiser’s army in Russian Ukraine in 1917; and in 1945, capturing Hitler’s Berlin. America has done so twice, in 1918 and 1945, though scores should not be counted yet as Russia started first. Beating Napoleon once might be legitimate self-defence but doing so twice begins to look like carelessness, especially if you start to scorn others who have not done the same thing.

Both Russia and America may now be wising up, as their combined age suggests they should be. It is possible Western Europe cannot be saved. In 1784 the Russian philosopher Chaadev thought Europe in decline, as did Odoevski in 1844, Herzen in 1853, and Oswald Spengler in the early twentieth century. A hundred years on, Hans-Peter Martin, Euro-parliamentarian, thinks Europe still not finished with declining. Emmanuel Macron thinks NATO “brain-dead” and Osman Balkans a part of Europe not fit for EU membership.33 England’s Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s special adviser, seeks to use democracy to bring about a purely technocratic government beyond democracy, smashing rules and policies against the wall to see “what happens”, just like old Russian communists.34 If you think Europe can be saved, you haven’t been paying attention.

Fading interest in Europe—for Putin, the G7 is so yesterday—marks a return of that ineffable sense of Russian superiority, equalled in history only in England by the English, and partly against the run of play, in France by the French. But superiority complexes belie inferiority complexes, as Russian literary careers sometimes show. A hundred years ago, in September 1920, Bertrand Russell prophesied capitalism would not last “another fifty years” but he has been out so far not only in timing but in direction. Despite recurrent crises, capitalism is now global and has taken on more forms—some with social democratic and some even with Chinese characteristics—than Russell foresaw. Russia’s GDP is now $2 trillion, America’s is $21 trillion, and Russia’s defence spending perhaps one tenth of America’s. Herzen may have seen furthest: “progress will find fitter means in America or Australia”. The luckiest countries are defined less by wealth, albeit sine qua non, than by the sense of personal freedom on the streets and in the privacy of the home. This sense is invisible, hard to define, goes beyond laws on paper: its essence is captured in the memoirs of Christopher Mallaby, a former British diplomat in Moscow, as the freedom to laugh British-style at pompous authority, mismanagement and spies, and assert life shall be lived on one’s own terms.35 That laughter is not yet possible in Russia but its modern writers show they would like it to be.

Could the Russian identity yet shift? Larissa Miller thinks not: in her recollections of life in 1950s Moscow:

Tsar or Prince, King or Queen, Bootmaker or Tailor … each of them was indeed a King ruled by a code of honour … an inheritor of the “cursed past”, a relic whose very distinctiveness had been protected by some miracle from the state’s repeated attempts to eliminate all identity.36

But Herzen claims no historical law says national character is set forever, only that if it changes, the pace is slow.37 No pre-determined answer exists. Few or none now agree that reason alone reveals reality and speeds progress, an ancient Pythagorean delusion fatal to ancient science, and revived today by an odd mix of Enlightenment Bentham and atheist scientists such as Stephen Pinker or Richard Dawkins. Troikas speed too but Plato—a Pythagorean—cautioned chariots are drawn by two horses, the white horse of reason and the black horse of unreason.38 If the troika picks up pace, which horse will get the whip?



1 Babylon, London, 2001, Andrew Bromfield (trans.) pp.137-8; first published as Generation P, Moscow, 1999. “P” is for the drink “Pepsi” but as Pelevin makes clear, modernization in the form of drinking Pepsi or its homologues is by no mean the same thing as Westernization. Modern parameters for this very ancient culture puzzle were set last century by Samuel P Huntington, who claimed civilizations would violently diverge, and Francis Fukuyama, who claimed Western liberalism won out peacefully but felt, like Kierkegaard, it stored up only boredom and trouble for the future – in respectively, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 1966, 2003, and The End of History and the Last Man, London, 1992. Fukuyama was not triumphal (a common misunderstanding usually found in those who have not read the book) but Niall Ferguson is, in Civilization, The West and the Rest, London, 2011. My essays “Fear and Loathing in India,” Quadrant, July, 1919, and “Is Japan Politically Correct?”, lean in Pelevin’s direction, noting ways of historic interchange without Huntingdon’s war. Those, and there are some, who prefer such judgements to come from professional scholars (not from novelists, or me) may wish to review Richard E Nesbitt’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, London, 2003.

2 Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls, (End of Pt I); Dostoyevsky quotes the image to support Myshkin’s vision of a religious vocation for Russia, in The Idiot; Victor Pelevin, The Hall of the Singing Caryatids, 2008, New York, Andrew Bromfeld (trans.) 2011, pp.63, 44; Victor Erofeyev, Good Stalin, 2012, London, 2014, Scott D Moss et al (trans), 2014, p.100.

3 Victor Erofeyev repeats that Russians see Russia as “the spiritual centre of the world”, and adds “not all Russians are rude”; Good Stalin, 2012, London, 2014, Scott D Moss et al (trans), 2014, pp.232,140.

4 Martin Sixsmith, Russia, A 1000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East, London, 2111, p.126. Alexander Herzen, a Russian thinker in exile in Europe, saw similar goals and contrasting methods: unlike America, Russia “is not a colony, not an overflow, not a migration, but an independent world, advancing in all directions, yet sitting tight on its own soil. The United States, like an avalanche torn away from its mountain, carries everything before it, every step gained by it is a step lost by the American Indians. Russia saturates all about it like water, surrounds races on all sides, then covers them with the uniform layer of the ice of autocracy – and under it makes worshippers of the Grand Llama defenders of orthodoxy, of Germans uncompromising Russian patriots.” (Historically, as France “civilized” Germany, Germans “civilized” Russia, part of the Eastward migration of civilization.) My Past and Thoughts, Memoirs, 1863, Constance Garnett (trans.), London, 1947, 2008, 6 vols, vol. 9. p.90.

5 Good Stalin, op cit, p179. Pobodonostsev, Alexander III’s tutor and a pinched reactionary whom Tolstoy made into Karenin in Anna Karenina, said “sovereigns embody a rational will” while “liberal democracy” brings not only “infidelity” but also “disorder,” violence,” “materialism,” anarchy” and “parliaments”. Cited in Sixsmith, op. cit., p.150. Maurice Paléologue, a contemporary French ambassador, noted that Russia’s « new » Penal Code of 1904 made any attempt to change the system of government punishable by death; Un Grand Tournant de la Politique Mondiale (1904-1906), Paris, 1934, p.109. Soon after having committed revolutionary murder, however, Joseph Conrad’s fictional Haldin asserts “his soul …shall not perish” but “will go on warring in some Russian body until all falsehood is swept out of the world. … The Russian soul … has a future. It has a mission.” Under Western Eyes, 1911, London, London, 1957, p.26. Conrad wrote in English but as Polish and former neighbour of Russia exposes lethal Polish views of Russia, and mot for the first or last time, elemental complexes in Europe. Russians give as good as they get. In “Zhenka’s A to Z”, Erofeyev’s narrator notes when “intelligent Poles are asked if they would prefer their daughter to marry a German, a Jew or a Russian (all these nations are unloved and represent alien religions) … the Russian came a poor third”, and then opines with lurid details: “Poles are not a talented people, they’re exhausted, as if by self-abuse, by an unfortunate geopolitics”; in Penguin Book of New Russian Writing, Victor Erofeyev (ed), Penguin, 1995, pp. 353-54. Stuarts, Tsars and even ministers of education perhaps pale before the later General MacArthur, who ordered the divine Japanese emperor to make speech saying he wasn’t God after all, just an ordinary person, and in 1946 the said speech was duly made.   

6 Lenin distorted Marx and his legacy: it seems largely forgotten that Marx and Engel’s dire prophecies failed because pre-empted by Western countries, all of which implemented nine of their ten Manifesto points one way or another; only the first point – abolishing private property ownership – remains (rightly) unimplemented but even here public ownership or part-ownership of public assets has had its vogue in Western countries at different times, including in America in times of crisis; Communist Manifesto, London, 1848. On nationalism, Erofeyev wants to draw a distinction between Hitler, who wanted to impose distorted German nationalism, and Stalin, who wanted “socialism in one country” first before moving “to reshape the world” on his own terms, although this overlooks that role of civil populations in both who knew and assented to what went on; Good Stalin, p.254. the issue here is that Germany has taken steps to national truth and reconciliation while Russia so far has not. Arno J Meyer considers peoples internalize national revolutionary experiences for the long term – in The Furies, Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions, Princeton, 2000; and in The Challenge of Revolution: Contemporary Russia in Perspective, Oxford, 2001, Vladimir Mau and Irina Starodubrovskaya explore some of the paradoxes arising today from Russia’s revolutionary history.

7 “Russia’s liberal resource is too small- again, it is undeveloped and untested, from a historical perspective.” Good Stalin, op cit, p. 180.

8 Hannes Hofbauer sets out centuries of “error” in Europe’s demonisation of Russia as “the bear”, “half-Asiatic” etc in Feindbild Russland, Geschichte einer Dämonisiering, Vienna, 2016; Vittorio Hösle asserts the “errors” are not errors and that Russia is still a threat to Europe, in Russland 1917 -2017, Kultur, Selbstbild und Gefahr, Basel, 2017; Barbara Löwe rejects both views, asserting Russia is neither more nor less alien nor amical than another country but simply … Russian, in Ein anderer Blick auf Russland, Geschichte, Lebensformen, Denkweisen, Heidelberg, 2018, as does Marc Ferro in Les Russes, L’esprit d’un peuple, Paris, 2017. Mark B. Smith in The Russia Anxiety, and how history can resolve it, Oxford 2019, largely agrees with Löwe and Ferro. All these writers are Russian-speakers who have lived and worked in Russia. Dmitri Trenin, who is Russian, also shares this view, albeit cautiously, in Should we Fear Russia? Cambridge, 2016, What is Russia up to in the Middle East? Cambridge, 2018, and Russia, Cambridge, 2019. Trenin, it should be noted, is director of the Moscow Carnegie Institute, and in The Anglo-American Establishment, Books in Focus, 1981, Carroll Quigley famously adduced evidence tending to show anything by-lined by such institutes, the Council for Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs, Royal Institute of International Affairs, All Souls Oxford, Chatham House could be seen as a concerted international design to realise the Legacy of Cecil Rhodes; on this, Neill Ferguson considers Carroll a conspiracy theorist, and those who know the sometimes anodyne flavour of such bodies might agree, but this factor counsels caution too; Civilization, London, 2011, p.298. De Gaulle’s idea of “Europe from Biarritz to the Urals” was revived by Macron in his annual address to French diplomats (the day after rejecting Russia for the 2019 “G7” in Biarritz).

9 Mark B. Smith, The Russia Anxiety, and how history can resolve it, Oxford, 2019. Roderic Braithwaite, Armageddon and Paranoia, The Nuclear Confrontation, London, 2019; Claude Blanchemaison, Le débat, France 24, 16 January, 2020, 19 26 UT, and Vivre avec Poutine, Temporis, 2018; both repeat a call with pedigree, first made a century and a half ago by Alexander Herzen (op. cit. p.73), and likely to be repeated for the next century and a half. Victor Erofeyev, “Russia’s Fleurs du Mal,” in Erofeyev (ed) New Russian Writing, London, 1995, p.xiv. Babylon, op cit, p161. Although one of the world’s greatest dyspeptic reactionaries, Dostoyevsky famously exposed naivety in English Utilitarians and French Enlightenment positivists in his Notes from the Underground, Grand Inquisitor’s speech in Karamazov, portrait of Stavrogin the nihilist revolutionary in The Devils …, in his Diary of a Writer, Boris Brasol (trans.) Salt Lake City, 1985, and correspondence, Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky to his Family and Friends, Ethel Colburn Mayne (trans.), London, 1914, 1927. J S Mill, once a leading Utilitarian, later courageously testified to anguish at the political naivety of faith in ignorant masses, to the emotional naivety of his own and Bentham’s views, and to the nervous breakdown to which these views led him: Autobiography and Bentham or Coleridge? (Ironically, Bentham got his fantastical idea for a “Panopticon” system for prison surveillance – inmates were to feel under permanent surveillance even when not – from a management system he saw in a Russian shipyard; also evident in today’s internet of algorithms, under which every user is under real permanent surveillance, and in the “Cloud” which creates a real-time mirror of every users’ life.) Granovski, a Russian historian made similar recantation about Comtism and St Simonism, also purely positivistic modes of knowledge that deny personality, that Granovski felt took too much from human life; Seelenwende, op cit, p.164. Caught between contempt for Europe and ignorance of the masses, Alexander Herzen yet embraced the logic of positivism; op cit.

10 The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, 1962, p.63. Erasmus had earlier assessed the high risks of political descent when he observed that, at Folly’s nod, “all things sacred and profane are turned topsy-turvy … war, peace, empires, plans, judgements, assemblies, marriages, treaties, pacts, laws, pacts, sports, important matters …; The Praise of Folly, 1517, in The Essential Erasmus, John P Dolan (ed. and trans.) New York, 1964, p. 103. Equally famous perhaps is the speleology of Nietzsche, who upon looking into the abyss, found it looking back (Jenseits von Gut und Böse, 1886, Berlin/New York, 1993, p.98). Afterwards, he said this had been helpful to him: “one emerges as a different person” and “returns new-born, having shed one’s skin, more ticklish and sarcastic, with a more delicate taste for joy with a more tender tongue for all good things, with gayer senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more child-like and yet a hundred times more subtle than one has ever been before.” Nietzsche contra Wagner, in English in Walter Kaufman (ed. and trans.), The Portable Nietzsche, New York, 1954, p.681.

11 “Post-Atheism: From Apophatic Theology to ‘Minimal Religion,” in Epstein (ed), Russian Modernism, New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture, New York, (rev ed) 2016, pp. 431-479. Strong continuities exist in Russian history: themes of the “Third Rome” and “Holy Rus” based on Tsar, State and Orthodoxy echo in history and folklore – Peter J S Duncan, Russian Messianism, London and New York, 2000, p.142. Victor Aksakov, a philosopher, thought Russia and the Russian people re-enacted Hebrew themes of political submission and spiritual freedom, only better: “the Russian people do not possess a political spirit. … As perhaps the only Christian people on earth (in the true sense of that word) … [and] leaving, therefore, the kingdom of this world in the hands of the state, the Russian people, as a Christian people, chose for themselves a different path, one which led to inner freedom and spirituality, to the kingdom of Christ”; W J Leatherbarrow and D C Offord, trans. and edited, A Documentary History of Russian Thought, From the Enlightenment to Marxism, Ann Arbor, 1987, p.97. Those falsely accused by Stalin came to feel repentance for crimes not committed; Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, London, Daphne Hardy (trans.) 1983, p.122. Vladimir Sharov’s novels, written in the 1980s, now being published and translated, repeat the idea of Russian suffering as recapitulation of Jewish history, making Holy Lands and Peoples out of both; Before and During, Sawtry, Oliver Ready (trans.), 2014; The Rehearsals, Sawtry, 2018. Viktor Astafiev’s old women, alone and feeble, like German women, bereft of men who died in prison camps or endless wars, and unable to recall a single set prayer properly, turn to the old Eastern Orthodox God; “Lyudochka,” in Penguin Book of New Russian Writing, op. cit. Erofeyev similarly asks “understanding, affection and God’s kindness” for his aged parents, former diplomats “fighting the enemy West” under Stalin, turned from God by politics; and that God “believe in him too”. Old peasant servility too is still alive: Erofeyev “sees” it rising “on its hind legs” before him, the (errant) privileged son of diplomats; Good Stalin, pp 159, 174, 272. Victor Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, 2016, London, Lisa C. Hayden (trans.) 2019, re-imagines the sensations of man falsely accused by Stalin who is, by way of scientific experiment, frozen and thawed out sixty years later in post-Communist Russia.

12 Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC-AD 1000, New Haven and London, 2008. Honoré de Balzac, La Cousine Bette, Paris, 1846, (Pléiade) Vol VI, p.315. European roots are as old or older than ideas pre-figured by Pacific migrations. Gibbon hinted at this in Decline and Fall when, on the 15th October 1764, he sat musing as “barefooted fryars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter.’ In Mythos und Kult bei Naturvölkern, München, 1991, Ad. E Jensen sets out the basis in ideas; and in Civilisation traditionnelle et genres de vie, Paris, 1948 André Varagnac describes continuities in ancient European folk customs down to his day, continuing now in European folk fests. Among histories in English is Gregory Freeze, Russia: A History, Oxford, 3rd ed., 2009; and among those which pay attention to the “national mind”, is Ronald Hingley, The Russian Mind, New York, 1977, and Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians, Penguin, 2nd ed., 2012, though as good Anglicans, possibly, British historians tend to shy off pagan origins. Alexander Herzen says “Young Russia … is like a girl of twelve – wild and awkward, who has been dressed up in a fashionable Parisian hat. We are living here in the fourteenth or fifteenth century”; op cit, pp.82, 184.

13 Such shifts are continuous, inevitable and still go on today: opening up the Atlantic made the Mediterranean obsolete; the abolition of slavery impoverished the Sahara camel crossings; the Suez Canal made caravan routes in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq redundant; Asia-Pacific routes are currently side-lining Europe; climate change may create new threats and opportunities; Lucian Febvre, La Terre et L’Evolution Humaine, Paris, 1922, pp.390-393, and Frank Sieran, Zukunft? China! Penguin Munich, 2018.

14 Adolf Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests, Princeton, 1977. Augustine’s views satisfied the old two-class society (landed rulers joined by clerics over peasants) but could not satisfy the later medieval town middle classes rising on the back of capitalism, although they were not fully overturned until the eighteenth century with Montesquieu and Adam Smith. Keynes liked capitalism for a quite different reason: he felt people tyrannizing their bank account were nicer than people who tyrannized other people.

15 Further testimony to the persistence of old ideas, under Hitler, German peasants dreamt of again being able to use Russians for “manual labour”; Good Stalin, p.108.

16 “Alenoushka and her Brother,” in Old Peter’s Russian Tales, London, 1935, p.216. Guardian correspondent and MI6 spy in Moscow, Ransome spoke fluent Russian, admired the Bolshevik leaders and his mistress was Trotsky’s secretary; he got the tales from his Moscow landlady and thought Russian peasants had the same common sense as Northern English, among whom his later children’s tales were set. He brought his mistress to England and prevailed in marrying her against the intense objections of MI6 to both steps. Arthur Ransome, Six Weeks in Russia, 1919, and The Crisis in Russia 1920, London, 1921, 1993; Signalling from Mars, The Letters of Arthur Ransome, London, 1997; Hugh Brogan, The Life of Arthur Ransome, London, 1985; Roland Chambers, The Last Englishman, The Double Life of Arthur Ransome, London, 2009. A comparison of old English and Russian tales gives Ransome right about the common sense, less common among spies it seems; see representative country tales in Europäische Volksmärchen, Max Luthi (ed.), Zürich, 1951. “From Life’s School of War: whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger”; Nietzsche, Götzen-Dämmerung, 1888, Berlin-New York, 1999, p.60 (writer’s trans.).

17 The Life of Insects, London, 1996, 1999, Andrew Bromfield, (trans.), p.38. Erofeyev today refers to “mystery” in the “fairy tale of Russian power”.

18 Babylon, op cit, p160.

19 Victor Pelevin, Buddha’s Little Finger, 1996, Andrew Bromfield (trans.), 1999, p.168.

20 Hariri is a wide-ranging Israeli historian, who guru-like, deals with Aristotle’s questions, “who am I … etc”. He seems not well-understood, at least by the New Yorker, which writes admiringly whilst confessing not to understand him; “Everybody, Ever,” Ian Parker, New Yorker, February, 2020. But Hariri’s message – “the universe has no meaning” – is clear and not new, and in his case comes not from science or history but from ancient Eastern attitudes: 21 Lessons of the 21st Century, London, 2018, p.302. Hariri who seems not to know Socrates’ words on his death-bed, Western literature (say, Lear on the heath or Macbeth in Yoknapatawpha county) or Russian philosophers but who might have been expected to know Ecclesiasticus, reached his conclusion by the road most often travelled these days: meditation in India. As an Easterner, Hariri is vulnerable to India already (although in The Jewish Century, Princeton, 2004, Yuri Slezkine shows the immense Jewish contribution to Western Modernism, not just a British and French affair). And Europeans are also vulnerable when they fail to realize playing by Indian rules, as Indian gurus require, will likely get you Indian results; and perhaps have you applying to your local consulate to get home again. T S Eliot who knew about Lear already, tried India without luck, saying in After Strange Gods, you would have to be Indian to understand Indian philosophy. Eliot was wrong about much (one recalls his unphilosophical “objective correlative” and unhistorical “dissociation of sensibility”) but right on this: from Enki to Ecclesiasticus, Socrates, Augustine, Aquinas and Eliot the world has always been a wasteland but the Western achievement was to call that the start, not the end of history, and to ask, when then must one do? After positivists had debunked providential myths and secular Hegelian counterparts, who replaced providence with the guiding spirit of freedom, Alexander Herzen in his Western phase, summed up the Western approach well: the chaos of atoms may have no intrinsic meaning but observably gives rise to human consciousness which in the best observably turns – without guarantee of success, a different question – toward the Good, a Classical idea close to but not the same as the idea of Progress. Nietzsche, who contrary to Nihilist slander and famously copied by Joyce’s Bloom at the end of Ulysses, said “yes” to life including its difficulties. Even a latter-day positivist such as Wittgenstein – misunderstood by the benign atheist Bertrand Russell – said his philosophy was designed much like Kant’s to show what could be known rather than to foreclose questions about what could not be known, and kept a space open for the latter – according to Jonathan Rée, “The Young Man One Hopes For,” London Review of Books, 21 November, 2019, p.7. The Western European world view may never have much understood Kant but it has long gone beyond ancient Hebrew scripture and Hegel (though not without their assistance). Like many, Hariri fails to understand that whether or not meaning and purpose are inherent in things, they can be and ordinarily are ascribed and pursued on the road to achievement in life, “though to itself it only live and die”. Rilke also captured Shakespeare’s sense when he wrote:

“Earth, isn’t this what you want – to rise/In us invisibly? Isn’t it your dream/To be invisible just once? Earth! Invisible!/What, if not transformation, is your insistent command?” “Die neunte Elegie,” Ausgewählte Gedichte, Frankfurt, 1975, p.128 (writer’s trans.)

Perhaps the greatest difference between Hariri and the West is that Hariri follows the classic Indian way of seeking wisdom in status and authority whereas the Western mind has place for the search but none for status or authority. The former is the road most travelled in the West, increasingly in the East too.

21 Marcel Gauchet, Le désenchantement du monde, Paris, 1985. Instrumental reason – pure reason in the service of pre-defined goals as opposed to observation and rational theorizing – is often thought to arise from European scientific enlightenment but this is incorrect. The Latin Church invented it, science applied it and the Enlightenment popularized it. The Greek order of thought ascribed pure reason to the eternal realm (and thus stymied science based on observation for centuries) but the Latin Church inverted this order by setting reason to use in the service of faith on Earth (Aquinas), and observation (Roger of Occam and Duns Scotus). Every subject later treated outside the Church was first treated dialectically inside it. Despite historic conflicts with science, the Latin Church was Mother of instrumental reason, science, and arguably of revolution, not Classical Antiquity nor the Enlightenment.

22 “Poor Liza”, Moscow, 1792, in Moscow Tales, Sasha Dugdale (trans), London, 2013, p.157.

23 New Russian Writing, op. cit., p.22. Astafiev and others in this collection may strike the English-speaking reader like Matthew Arnold on steroids, the latter’s “long-withdrawing roar” of a dying religion replaced by the death of humanity.

23 Curzio Malaparte, The Kremlin Ball, New York, Jenny McPhee (trans,), 2018, p73; “The lives of the 0.0001%”, The Economist, November 9th 2019, p.60. On space, Gregory Feifer, Russians, New York, 2104, p.188.

24 Michail Lermontov, 1814-41, “Der Engel,” in Astrov, op cit, p.201. Liah Greenfield, The Spirit of Capitalism, Nationalism and Economic Growth, Harvard, 2001, pp.255, 475-77. Feifer, op cit , finds the attitude incomprehensible, as do Western factory managers battling Russian worker laziness, erratic hours and drunkenness (foreign investor anecdotes to the writer but vividly laid out in Arthur Isarin’s Blasse Helden, Munich, 2018).

25 Much of this research has come to light only recently in Russia; Mikhail Sokolski, Die tausendjährige Spaltung, Geschichte, Geist, Gefahren, Fünfzehn Essays, Marburg, 1997, especially “Der weise Oleg und die Chasaren,” and “Die große Verschwörung des Mittelalters,” at p.106.

26 Aksakov, Memorandum to Alexander II on the Internal State of Russia, 1855; in A Documentary History of Russian Thought, op cit, p.96, 100; Not Saying Goodbye, 2018, London, Andrew Bromfield (trans.) 2019, p.72.

27 Alexander Gerschenkron, in Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective, Cambridge, 1962, repeats as scholars sometimes do, a very old observation, see for example, Alexander Herzen, op. cit. p.50. 93. Owen Hatherley, The Chaplin Machine, Slapstick, Fordism and the Communist Avant-Garde, London, 2016, p.23.

28 Aksakov, op cit. p102. Darrin McMahon, Enemies of the Enlightenment: the French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity, New York, 2001, p.12.

29 Solovev, cited in Alexander Gershenkron, Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective, Harvard, 1962, p.301; Erofeyev, Good Stalin, op cit, p.274. On Japan, see Peter Pörtner/Jens Heise, Die Philosophie Japans, Von den Anfangen bis zur Gegenwart, Stuttgart, 1995, and Boris Akunin’s novel Black City, where Erast Fandorian, a kind of polymathic Russian Sherlock Holmes, claims the “Japanese regarded philosophy with especial respect”, London, Andrew Bromfield (trans), 2018, p.31. On America, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Shapiro, detail classic works only from England, Italy, France, Germany (nothing from Spain), and above all, Russia, but regarding America, mention only the Jameses in passing and Melville in a footnote; Cents and Sensibility, Princeton, 2017. Nineteenth century Russian philosophy, a large subject in itself, covers a range of nationalistic options: Konstantin Aksakov, 1817-60, based his theories on the virtues of Russian peasants, much like Tolstoy, although the latter’s plays show peasants in fact as prone to vice and crime as any class; for Alexi Chomjakov (1804-1860), as for Dostoyevsky, the norm was Russian Orthodoxy – “purer” than the Latin Church because not grafted onto pagan antecedents, used Russian (not Greek or Latin), and was untainted by rationalism, Greek or Latin, thus making a virtue out of Russian necessity and a vice out of Western virtue; for Ivan Kirejevski, it was all of the above. A Documentary History of Russian Thought, From the Enlightenment to Marxism, W J Leatherbarrow and D C Offord, (ed, and trans.) Ann Arbor, 1967, Part II; On the Third Rome and messianism, George M Young, The Russian Cosmists, Oxford, 2012; Peter J S Duncan, Russian Messianism, Third Rome, Communism and After, London, 2000; Emanuel Sarkisyanz, Russland und der Messianismus des Orients, Tübingen, 1955; Josef Bohatec, Der Imperialismusgedanke und die Lebensphilosophie Dostojewskijs, Graz, 1951. Vladimir Astrov, Seelenwende, Die Geisteskämpfe de Neuzeit im Spiegel der Russischen Literatur, Freiberg, 1931, pp 134-56.

30 The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848 – 1918, Oxford, 1954, respectively pp. 567 and 558. Mark Mazower, Dark Continent, Europe’s Twentieth Century, Penguin, 1999.

31 History and Value, New York, 1988, p.19. George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, London, 1967, evaluates similarities and differences from a literary rather than historical point of view.

32 “Iron hand in glove”, The Economist, November 16th2019, p.36. Marvin Harris, Why Nothing Works, New York, 1981. On trade: “Tearing up the rule book,” The Economist, January 25th 2020; Ali Laidi, Le Droit, Nouvelle Arme de Guerre Economique, Paris, 2019; In The American Trap: My Battle to Expose America’s Secret Economic War against the Rest of the World, London, Deniz Gilan (trans), 2019, Frédéric Pierucci lists the top 30 punitive fines imposed (mostly) on British, French and German firms, two small ones on American firms, and raises awkward questions on links between major American firms and the American system of justice, and how the former managed to work in the same global commercial environment as other foreign firms over the last forty five years.

33 Russian Nights, 1844. Odoevski also thought Europe needed a Peter the Great to sort it out. “Charlemagne” gives Europe at best a 50/50 chance: “Reading the cards,” The Economist, November 16th 2019, p.46.

34 James Meek, “The Dreaming of Dominic Cummings,” London Review of Books, 24 October, 2019, pp.25-28.

35 The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, London, 1920, p.10. Living the Cold War, Memoirs of a British Diplomat, Stroud, 2019. On capitalism with Chinese characteristics; “Chinese entrepreneurs: Flowerbeds of enterprise”, The Economist, May 2nd, 2020, p.49-51,

36 “Tsar of Prince …”, in Moscow Tales, op cit., p331.

37 The question’s origins lie in Heraclitus; it is examined by Alexander Gerschenkron in Continuity in History and Other Essays, Harvard, 1968, pp.11-40. Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, op cit, vol 6, pp.95-96.

38 Crito, Loeb edition, 1914, p.165. Less recognised than it should be, Parmenides was first to write down the chariot metaphor, and Jung’s theory on the light and shadow sides of the human mind copies Plato, though Jung is probably still useful as more peoples seem to read him that Parmenides or Plato these days. More on the dark side, claims of recent Russian cyber warfare are investigated in Etienne Huver and Boris Razon’s Les nouvelles guerres; sur la piste des hackers russes, Arte Editions, 2019; and other reports claim “deep-rooted corruption, and a lack of competition have hobbled prospects for growth [in Russia]. Mr Putin’s political actions – annexing Crimea, invading Eastern Ukraine, meddling in other countries’ elections, and presiding over the murder of opponents on foreign soil – have made his country a pariah, subject to sanctions that show no sign of being relaxed”; “Vlad the indefinite,” The Economist, March 14th, 2020, p.8. Joshus Yaffa’s Between Two Fires, London, 2020, shows the ordinary person’s response to Russian authorities must lie “somewhere on the spectrum between defiance and calculating collusion”, The Economist, February 22nd, 2020, p70.

One thought on “The Idea of Russia

  • jvernau says:

    “Troikas speed too but Plato—a Pythagorean—cautioned chariots are drawn by two horses, the white horse of reason and the black horse of unreason.”
    The troika is perhaps an apt metaphor for Russia. They only really work on the frictionless surface of snow, and the two galloping side-horses are to some extent always working against each other. The centre horse is trotting between shafts and the whole unlikely ensemble proceeds, preposterously but somehow inevitably, into the future.

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