The “other” Russia, the Russia of poets and writers, the Russia of culture, destroyed in the Soviet Union, was preserved underground and in emigration. Will it help to give Russia its third chance at democracy?
It was only a century ago that Russia was the center of world literature. Writers streamed from all over the world to Yasnaya Polyana to bow before Tolstoy, like pilgrims to Jerusalem. And in Russia the authority of this writer was so great that, should he, the great writer, have decided, say, to be elected czar, it is doubtful that Nicholas II could have held on to his throne. The snag is that Tolstoy didn’t consider power to be worth a brass farthing—and that it is impossible to be elected czar: in Russia, legitimate power is derived only from God. It is also impossible, I should add, to be elected a great writer. But where did this power of literature come from in Russia?
At the time that Shakespeare was penning Hamlet’s monologue in the West, in Russia there were no poets or writers to speak of. There were only czars and holy fools. God gave the Russian people the king-emperor and the fool-in-Christ. The former held sway over the lives and deaths of his subjects, the latter was the only one who could speak truth to the tyrant. Recall the famous scene in Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, when the holy fool exclaims: “It is forbidden to pray for Czar Herod, the Holy Mother forbids it!” The counterweight to the sanctity of power was the sanctity of Christian conscience.
Back then, the Russian atlas of the world looked something like this: the holy Fatherland in the center of the world, the only truly Christian country, surrounded on all sides by an ocean of enemies. Centuries-old servitude to the czar meant a confiscation of body and will and mind, but in exchange it elevated the soul and conferred a righteous purpose on existence. What looked to ambassadors from the banks of the Rhine like Russian despotism and slavery seemed on the banks of the Moscow River a committed participation in a common fight, in which the czar was the general and everyone else was his child and soldier. The absence of a private life was compensated for by the sweetness of dying for the homeland. The stretch of the Fatherland across geography and time was the down payment for personal salvation; the unconscious slavery was bitter for the body but life-sustaining for the spirit. Russia, like Noah’s ark in the flood, fulfilled the mission of saving sacred life on Earth.
But everything changed with Peter the Great. He wanted to “cut a window to Europe,” but instead he cut a hole in the Russian ark. Russia’s regular historical paradox is that its rulers want one thing but the result is often something entirely different. Peter the Great wanted to strengthen the empire, but instead he placed a bomb beneath it, which destroyed it. In our time, Gorbachev wanted to save communism and instead he buried it.
The point of Peter’s reforms was to obtain military technology from the West in order to do battle against that very same West. In the eighteenth century, a torrent of Gastarbeiter came to Russia from enlightened Europe. The Russians had invited engineers and specialists, but those who came were people, and they brought with them European ideas of individualism, personal rights, and human dignity. Modern technologies demand education, and education inevitably brings with it the concept of personal freedom. And that is how Russia got its intelligentsia.
Many have tried to define the Russian intelligentsia, and none have been able to convey the full constellation of nuances in this very curious phenomenon. Most likely, the Russian intellectual is he who, having read plenty of books and seen plenty of Russian life, exclaims, as Pushkin did, “Why the devil was I born in Russia, with brains and talent!”
Poets appeared in Russia in the eighteenth century. They wore officers’ uniforms and mostly wrote odes for the accession of German empresses onto the Russian throne. In a country where life was lived according to the wartime principle of unity of command, everyone including poets served the government, which was personified by the autocracy. But everything changed with Pushkin. Born in a country where serfdom was only the formal expression of a deep internal psychological slavery, he achieved the most important Russian coup, the greatest Russian revolution: in opposition to the pyramid of power, at the head of which the Czar administers the fates of individuals and nations, he created an alternative pyramid, at the head of which stood the poet. The juxtaposition of the czar and the holy fool—the old divided paradigm of authority—was exchanged for the juxtaposition of the czar and the poet.
Against the omnipotent traditional Russian system—for which a person was, in the words of Peter I, “a soldier of the Fatherland,” and in the formulation of Stalin’s executioner Beria, “concentration camp dust”—Pushkin posited another, as yet unknown power in Russia: the power of a free, artistic spirit. The hierarchy of the imperial consciousness, where everything depends on rank, now had a rival hierarchy, legalized by no one, but recognized by all, including the czar:
I’ve set up to myself a monument
not wrought by hands. The public path to it
will not grow weedy. Its unyielding head
soars higher than the Alexandrine Column.
Those lines of the poem “Exegi monumentum” became the poet’s declaration of independence, his appointment of himself as head of another Russia. The state in Russia fears the poet because, beginning with Pushkin, he (or she) is a power independent of the state and insubordinate to the state, a power just as sacred—the representative of another country, but one that falls within the borders of the same empire. The resulting duality of power led inevitably to conflict: how can two powers, both appealing to a higher divine authority, coexist in one totalitarian state? This was the ultimate question of Russian literature, to which every generation of Russian writers painfully sought an answer: should the poet be with the czar, or against him?
Pushkin’s muse was a tyrant-fighting muse, or, to use the contemporary terminology, a terrorist muse. The poet was exiled by the czar’s edict to his family’s estate. His poem “The Dagger” was copied and passed around among the Decembrists, officers who had carried out the unsuccessful plot against the new czar, Nicholas I, in December 1825. Among those planning the regicide were some of Pushkin’s friends.
The new czar summoned the exiled poet to the Kremlin on the occasion of his coronation, and asked him: with whom would he have sided that December day? Pushkin answered honestly that he would have been with his friends. It was the moment of truth for Russian literature. The czar could have destroyed the poet with one stroke of the quill. But Nicholas sensed that czarist power in Russia could not exist without the blessing of the other supreme power. The wise Nicholas was forced into a compromise and named himself the First Reader of the First Poet. That discussion in the Kremlin between the poet and the czar was the beginning of the diarchy in Russian culture and consciousness. The young Pushkin, author of “The Dagger,” ceased to exist. He was replaced by a mature Pushkin, Russia’s national poet. The former praised violence as the path to freedom. The latter knew that violence led nowhere.
Pushkin gave an answer to the “cursed” Russian question that occurs to every Russian born in an empire that is constantly waging war against foreigners and against its own people: how should one view this government and these people who are constantly waging these wars? The study of Russia’s history, the history of its czars and its popular uprisings, as well as his own healthy understanding of reality, led the poet to the conclusion that the worst that could happen in Russia is revolution, a “pointless and merciless” uprising, and that the government is “the sole European in our country.” Pushkin saw that in Russia the choice between dictatorship and democracy was beside the point: the only choice was between bloody chaos and ruthless order. He grasped that a weak Russian government would not bring about a grassroots democratic system, but only anarchy, and that its first victim would be culture. He also foresaw that the restoration of order would become the task of an even stronger and more ruthless dictatorship. It’s as if Pushkin had intuited what would happen in Russia in the twentieth century. It was this logic that informed the decision of Russia’s first national poet to choose the side of the czar and his strong hand, which became the guarantor of both private life and culture. Pushkin studied the history of the Pugachev peasant revolt, the brutal popular uprising in the eighteenth century, and he understood that, in a Russian revolution, the first things to burn will be the libraries.
Russia had a strange situation on its hands: one territory now contained two nations, completely different in spirit and culture, though they both were Russian and both spoke the same language. One part of the people, millions and millions strong, lived in the provinces, poor, uneducated, slowly drinking themselves to death, and mentally still residing in the Middle Ages. The other part was concentrated in the two Russian capitals. They were educated, well-off, well-traveled, and with a European understanding of the democratic organization of society. For one set, only the czar-father and his iron fist can bring order to Russia. For the other, the entirety of Russian history is a bloody swamp, from which Russia must be pulled into a liberal European system. What was happening in Pushkin’s Russia, in sum, is extraordinarily reminiscent of what is happening in Putin’s Russia. In my country, we are still playing the same game with the same rules for three players: a people that (in Pushkin’s words) “exude silence,” a nascent society that demands “Swiss” democracy and declares war against the government, and a government that is left with two options: to retreat or to tighten the screws.
Czarist Russia retreated in the face of democratic Russia to the point that the pyramid of government power disintegrated. In February 1917, Russia experienced a bloodless democratic revolution: the “other” Russia had won. But the chances of survival for this newborn civil society were nonexistent—after all, they were in the middle of a world war. So the first Russian democracy existed for only few months, during which the country sank into chaos.
The capricious muse of history used the communist ideology to rebuild the old patriarchal order under its guise. But compared with Stalin’s dictatorship, the old czarist “prison-house of the nations” came to seem like a gingerbread house. The “other” Russia was destroyed in the most literal physical sense: millions of people emigrated, millions more were eliminated in the Gulag. And the national atlas looked once again like it had in the Middle Ages: the sacred Fatherland with the one true communist ideology at the center of the world, surrounded by an ocean of enemies.