9 December 2011

To Russia, With Love

One of my friends, who happens to be non-Indian and non-American, once said to me, “We are all Americanized. Aren’t we?” It was more of an assertion than question. Once I reflected on this statement of his, I realized how true it is – not just for us (who share the Anglo-Saxon colonial experience with Americans) and rest of the English speaking world but – even for countries like the Netherlands, Japan who have been fiercely independent for much of their histories. From the whole pop culture of music, dance, fashion to sitcoms to Hollywood, the American culture (somehow to me it sounds like a misnomer – there’s nothing like “American culture”) has had a significant influence on the rest of the world. This influence has however been limited mostly to imitation and aping. Yes, we are all Americanized – to a lesser or greater extent. I personally despise America (and all that she stands for) for most of the things the rest of the world despise her for and admire America for most of the things the rest of the world admire her for. But this post is not about America.

This is about that only other nation, culture, political entity & military power who have challenged American hegemony in a meaningful way in its short history of two and a quarter centuries. (I don’t think Germany ever directly challenged The US in WW II. The US was “drawn” into the war because of many reasons but a direct threat from Germany was not one of them). This post is about Russia. The word “Russia” immediately brings in a couple of things to my mind – vastness of landscape, the wilderness of Siberia, the Urals, the endless steppes, the magnificence of Kremlin, the Cyrillic script, Moscow’s freezing winter, the ballet, Vodka, Communism, Imperial power and so on. The cinematography of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago leaves an indelible impression of Russia in minds of its viewers.

Russia as a country has started to fascinate me since last couple of years. I admit that it all began with reading of those CIA-KGB thrillers of Frederick Forsyth. Then, I chanced upon a book simply named “Russia” by Philip Longworth at a book fair. I have read a couple of chapters and am yet to finish it. But it was good enough to develop my curiosity about the subject. I started reading up more on the characters which shaped Russian history in the twentieth century – Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev, and Putin – beyond the one or two lines of high school history books. I understood Pavlov is a male name (as in Ivan Pavlov) and Pavlova is a female name (as in Anna Pavlova). I figured out that Ivan Ivanovich refers to Ivan who is ‘son of Ivan’. I was beguiled by meaning & significance of Rodina (can be loosely translated as Motherland) to the Russian psyche – that mysterious and inexplicable thing to which legions of Russia experts of CIA and other NATO countries devoted their entire lives to. I was humbled by the courage of Anna Politkovaskya. I discovered that there existed works beyond Pasternak & Solzhenitsyn like Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. I read up the synopses of Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina.

One thing which has often made me wonder is how in spite of the marked political tilt of India towards Soviet Union during Nehruvian era, the Russian culture had little influence on contemporary Indian culture. I mean how many ballet performances has the Delhi’s cultural circuit seen till date as compared to say staging of Shakespearean plays. For all the exchange on technological front – from setting up of steel plants to buying of Russian military toys en-masse, there was little meaningful exchange at a people to people level. Probably, the only exception was Raj Kapoor’s movies being wildly popular in Soviet Russia. What can be the reason for this? Language? Russia being a communist power which didn’t allow free flow of ideas – cultural or otherwise? I am yet to figure out.

What fascinates me about Russia the most, are the Russian people – a race which evolved in one of the harshest geographies of the planet. For all my admiration for the British as a race which built and ruled an Empire on which the sun never set, I have an equal degree of admiration for Russians as a race. There is something in it which makes them bear all the privations; tolerate corrupt, inefficient leaders and despots; live through one of the most brutal dictatorial regimes in the history of mankind but still love their motherland – Rodina – with a degree of stoicism, patriotism and pride which is given to very few races and envied by most. Then, there’s of course the legendary Slavic beauty – high cheekbones, eyes so blue which only a Slav can posses. There’s also the famed Russian intelligence that has produced some of the greatest chess players as well as some of the most brilliant hackers of the world. All these things make Russia and Russians something of an enigma to me. I have never met any Russian in my life but a Dutch gentleman once told me, “I don’t like Russians. They are very arrogant.”

Russia was an imperial power right from the time of Ivan the Terrible, which in terms of timeline, almost coincides with embarking of empire building by West European powers. But it never shaped the world history the way other European powers (primarily the British) did. Why something akin to Magna Carta did never get written in Tsarist Russia? Why was there no reform in Russian Orthodox Church the way the hegemony of The Church of England was broken? Why the Russians didn’t inherit the ethos of Classical Greece & Rome to develop their legal systems – from which ideas like liberty, fraternity & equality took roots in seventeenth & eighteenth century Europe & finally, The US? Was it a matter of geography or sheer coincidence? Why Russian Imperialism was not driven by an industrial revolution at home and only by an expansionist tendency just for the heck of it? Why it never entered the popular culture the way America did in twentieth century was obviously because of communism, which in turn resulted in a closed, isolated society and culture. I know I need to read much more to try to arrive at answers to these questions. How different today’s world would have been had Russia gone the way the West went?
One sphere which is an exception is probably literature. It can be said with reasonable certainty that works of Tolstoy, Gorky, Pushkin, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and other Russian masters had a reasonable degree of influence in the West.

For all the losses faced by Germany in WW II, it was Russia which faced the highest number of casualties – a mind-boggling 23.4 million (almost 4 times the number of Jews who perished in Holocaust) – in spite of being on the victorious side. Yet, the post-WWII geopolitics ensured that for all the victimhood of the Jews, suffering endured by the Russians remained on the margins in minds of rest of the world. As they say, history has always been written by victors.

Soviet Russia embodied that abstract concept of a monolithic state in its most raw and crudest form. From collectivization of farms to huge dams and power plants, everything had a massive scale – just like the state and its geographical size itself. Being a communist tyranny, it was fraught with contradictions like ‘greater common good’ which could send its own citizens to Siberian gulags after trials in kangaroo courts for, the sake of preserving the sanctity of state power, which can make people starve but provide funds from a virtually bottomless pit for building the Vostoks and Sputniks, the nuclear warheads and submarines. Just like in context of today’s China, it is difficult for people brought up in democracies (however, unequal they may be) to comprehend what is this beast called “state”, “country”, “nation”, if not the people who make it up.

Post-1991 Russia is of course signified by rampant corruption, crony capitalism and kleptocracy – things which find a resonance in our democracy as well. As this review of the book Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story by Dmitri Trenin says “the Russian empire is over, never to return” and how the current system is also unsustainable and biggest threat to today’s Russia is not to the outside world but to itself. I hope today’s Russia follows a trajectory which her indomitable people truly deserve. Mother Russia owes it to them.

Finally, there’s the fate of erstwhile Soviet republics and their people, which moves me immensely – the Georgians, the Tajiks, the Latvians, the Estonians, the Ukrainians, the Chechens – many of them endowed with natural resources. How it may feel to an entire race of people to have their culture, their arts, their language being obliterated by a superior power. What kind of subjugation it may be when a foreign and alien language is imposed on them. (We must give credit to the British for not trying to do something similar here). People like me who have grown up and lived in a relatively free society will probably never be able to comprehend the true meaning of Svoboda. For us, it will always be just another romantic notion.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

I have been pondering about what to write as a comment on this post since the day you put it up Rajarshi - beyond, of course, to say that it made wonderful reading - and today I decided I must say something at least, lest I should end up writing nothing at all...

I share the opinion that Russia ought to be much better known to us - at least those of us who fancy ourselves to be educated and well informed - given how little we know about her compared to, say, Europe and the US. I am impressed that you have tried to find out so much for yourself. One thing I am not too sure about is whether the Russian empire is really gone for ever: nothing about history can, I think, be asserted so categorically. I also believe that Russia is going to play a much stronger role in world affairs again, soon, and I look forward to the day when a strong India-China-Russia axis might provide a real counterbalance to the centuries old Anglo-Saxon domination. Right now, though, the news from the cultural front, or the little of it that I get from TV, the papers and some friends who live there, is not too good, in the sense that young Russians are trying desperately, much like young Indians, to become clones of upper-middle class Americans in thought, ideals, icons and lifestyles.

Just one more little point for now: arrogance is not a monopoly of the Russians. I have heard it said about the Japanese, and of late about the Chinese too...

Keep writing. Everything you have written so far gives the likes of me food for thought. Take care and best wishes, and have a Happy New Year.

Rajarshi said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks a lot for your comments.
I wish you and your family a very happy and fulfilling 2012.

While I agree that nothing about history can be asserted so categorically, I, myself, am not so sure about a Russia-China-India axis. The reason is twofold. One, Russia and China are not democracies in the sense India is (thankfully!) - howsoever flawed it may be. Two, Russia and China have certain homogenity in their populations while India has none.

So, any cooperation between the 3 of us - and especially between India and Russia, China won't be on the basis of some ideological agreement (which was the case with US & Western Europe - liberal democracies, erstwhile colonial powers, WWII). At best, it will be a pragmatic partnership for mutual gain.

Moreover, today's Russia again has many faultlines e.g. the current resentment against Putin for making a mockery of democratic processes.

With Best Wishes,