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Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Very uncomfortable with this type of stance in the current fraught atmosphere.

Demonising an entire nation and peoples via a bunch of generalisations, either directly, or under the guise of literary construction, or with any number of sophisticated words, is not in itself a problem, especially if done in the name of humour, but in this form, and in the current circumstances, I find it tawdry. This is a form of nonsense, meaningless, myth-making about entire races and nations, that could lead down dark paths. Exactly how is it different from the the ‘Nazis’ stuff that Putin is spewing out about Ukrainians? A final parting shot – just why is that (far) more often than not, it is Humanities people rather than STEM people, who come out with this kind of stuff?

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

If a country has had autocratic/tyranical/dictatorship rule for over 100 years and killed over 10 million of its own citizens in famines, purges and gulags and has never had reliable property rights it is quite legitimate to question whether this goes a little deeper than “just a few bad apples at the top”.
Germany had a notable excursion from sanity from 1933 to 1945, but was a normal, western state before and after this period.
Russia has consistently been a rogue state for over 100 years.
What’s your explanation for that ?

Graham Strugnell
Graham Strugnell
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

20 million died under Stalin alone. At least Germany has faced up to its own barbarism.

Laurian Boer
Laurian Boer
1 year ago

… after losing the war.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

I am not sure Wilhelmine Germany was that great.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

I suspect Russia is the victim of its own history. Every chapter of a Russian history book ends “and then things got worse.”
I suspect that there is is a national sense of insecurity which means the only tolerable system of government is totalitarian and that it leaders dare not refrain from totalitarian methods.
The German exclusion from sanity as you put it lasted a lot longer than 1933 to 45 an possibly has its origins in the 7 year war which apparently so devastated what is now Germany that at the end there was apparently no collective memory of the period prior to the war.

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago

Do you mean the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) ? I thought Prussia did pretty well in the Seven Years War.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

You are quite right I did mean the 30 year war during which Germany lost between a quarter and a third of its population

Last edited 2 years ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

I’ve always thought the thirty years war was so devastating for Central Europe, mainly German states, that it may have resulted in a paranoid culture that concluded with the rise of Hitler. So not all down to the treaty of Versailles.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

That’s what I said

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
2 years ago

Maybe not every book. Daniel Pipes ended his history of Russia mid-19th c.; once the Tsarist bureaucracy was in place, nothing new happened.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

My explanation is trivial. A hundred years is the blink of an eye. Individuals and groups across the globe have behaved identically throughout human existence – e.g. the carnage the Mongols perpetrated was proportionately of the same scale or worse.

What’s different now, is we now have continuous media and social media, so we *all* get a running blur of sounds and sights flashing out in front of us absolutely all the time.

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

You’re quite right – your explanation is trivial. And addresses none of my points.

Art C
Art C
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

A point of order: any of the finest scholars of the Soviet Union (e.g. Conquest, Volkogonov, Yakovlev, Service etc.) would choke on that “10 million of its own citizen”. Try a factor 3 higher at the very least ! Many others put it quite plausibly at 60 or even 90 million.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter B

The rise of Hitler and WW2 was no aberration. Germany, in particular Prussian militarism had been a plague on Europe for well over a century before that.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Yes. After all, if Russia gave us Smerdyakov, Shakespeare gave us Iago – who embodies in Coleridge’s famous phrase, “motiveless malignity”. So the simple itch to do harm is not peculiarly Russian, or English – but a defect of humanity. As for Stalin, he was less inspired by Smerdyakov than by Marx. After all, genocidal levels of murder were perpetrated in China, Cambodia, Vietnam and anywhere subjected to communist rule. Are we to understand that these were all secret disciples of a villain from Russian literature? Yes, Putin is vile; yes, his invasion is a crime and yes, we should be answering back far more fearlessly and vigorously than we are – but let us be careful of slipping into wartime demonisations of whole cultures.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Well, Dostoevsky has quite a few other characters who aren’t Smerdyakov at all.
The problem comes when Smerdyakovs consistently get into power.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

A villain from German philosophical literature, instead?

Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

While I agree with the first part of your comment, I have a bone to pick with the “parting shot”. If STEM trained folk start commenting on issues like this, they’re no longer doing STEM! They’re participating in the humanities, and given the annoying proclivity in the STEM fields to disregard other non-scientific fields, they are quite possibly commenting with a degree of ignorance. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t engage, but we also shouldn’t chalk up what you disagree with, to use your words, “peoples via a bunch of generalizations”. (Note that STEM folk aren’t necessarily ignorant of the humanities, or the only culpable party in bad practice here, they’re just one source.)

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Wilson
David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

The writer has a far better understanding of Russia than you do.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

I don’t profess to understand Putin or “Smerdyakovism”, but if this way of ruling Russia prevailed amongst the tsars, the communists and now Putin might it not be a characteristic determined by Russia, the land and it’s people ? Therefore it’s possible it’s inescapable. If so, then the West’s response of aversion, moral outrage and refusal to compromise is going to mean that Russia remains our enemy, to a greater or lesser extent, forever.
In response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Boris Johnson spoke in parliament of “spreading liberal democracy throughout the world” as an ideal two weeks ago. How many hard lessons, not to say complete failures, does the West require to learn that it cannot be done. Not even with the lure of Western “freedoms” and rampant consumerism we have to offer.
In my view there needs to be more intelligent and pragmatic acknowledgement of the way other countries choose to live.
Having said all that I hope and pray that negotiations progress forthwith and peace of some kind returns very soon.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

So Boris is clearly an evangelist, wanting to spread liberal democracy, with religious and righteous fervor, throughout the world just as Trotsky sought world revolution and Stalin and his successors sought to install communist regimes everywhere they could. The arrogance and ignorance of Boris et al. (and that includes the Washington establishment, democrats and republicans alike, as well as our current, close to brain dead, president) is that they fail to understand that democracy cannot be installed overnight but takes centuries to become fully embedded and ingrained in a country. After all there were ~560 years between King John being forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1216 and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, the writing of the US Constitution and the subsequent later Bill of Rights (the 1st 10 amendments). And recall that prior to the end of WWI, less than half the population was even entitled to vote in both the US and UK.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

It’s not Boris or Biden or NATO or ‘the West’ to blame for Ukrainians choosing self- rule and democracy over tyranny. Having a long and painful history with neighbours, and probably a fair understanding of those on its Eastern border, is it not ‘arrogance and ignorance’ to imply that Ukrainians aren’t ready for democracy?

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

It did not have to be either tyranny or democracy. Ukraine could have recognised it’s own unique position, lying as it does between Europe and Russia. It could have recognised that if it remained diplomatically neutral that might have given it a useful power all of it’s own.
But a young lion came along full of energy and confidence and challenged the old lion – always risky – and war and destruction has been the result.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Insulting to the electorate, who rejected the pro-Russian president for one who reflected their ambitions. I actually think it does have to be tyranny or democracy. What’s the model where you get democracy but someone tells you how to vote?

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

What I meant was the issue is not necessarily “either democracy or tyranny”.
Surely it is possible for there to be democracy in Ukraine and for it to remain diplomatically neutral ? For the sake of a peaceful co-existence with their neighbour (more close family relative) Russia.
Important not to forget there’s been an ongoing civil war in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 with thousands of casualties on both sides.
The ambitions of Zelensky and his people were never going to be easy. It maybe that the only way they can be achieved is with war. It is not for me to say they are right or wrong, I am just trying to examine the situation objectively.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

The civil war in Eastern Ukraine was instigated by Russia.

Andy E
Andy E
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

You watch BBC too much. The whole thing started with the Kyiv coup ’14 and the very first law of the “revolutionary government” — forbidding Russian language (offices, schools, TV/radio, newspapers). The Russian population of Donetsk region was like “f*ck off”. But of course without Russian help they would be crashed by the regular army and n**i batallions.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Russia doesn’t accept neutrality, the Kremlin always wants to dominate. Ask Finland about that.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

What you say makes no sense. Ukraine has been neutral since gaining independence in 1991, that is 30 years ago not yesterday.
It may have been uneasy and full of tensions in the East but neutral it was for three decades.

Andy E
Andy E
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

It was neutral until it wasn’t. I dont recall when it happened but now they have enterting NATO as a goal in thier constitution (!). That’s not exactly neutral to me.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Andy E

Indeed, hence this war.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

Irrelevant points all, I fear.
This isn’t about trying to impose democracy on a place like Afghanistan or Iraq, a la Bush and Blair. Indeed, the proximate cause of both wasn’t “democracy.”
This is about defending a functioning European democracy on our borders.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Johann Strauss

An extremely valid point that is not highlighted enough ever – just look at the former colonies of England vs Spain et al and Russia for absolute clarity !!

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

While Russia remains a rogue state and fails to respect the sovereignty of its neighbours there can be no “compromise”.
I’m quite certain the younger Russians as a whole want to transition to a normal western model. They’ll be voting with their feet and leaving if this doesn’t happen.
Putin’s opinion of Russia’s place in the world as somehow “special” is way out of date – it’s just another ex major power. We should not attempt to satisfy these vain delusions of grandeur.

Christine Thomas
Christine Thomas
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Hard to accept whatever anyone has to say about anything if they employ something Boris said to illustrate their argument

William Braden
William Braden
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Democracy cannot be spread easily. It is only successful on a foundation of principles of fair play and rule of law. Freedom of the press is important too, but that must evolve by degrees.
Otherwise “democracy” is often “one person, one vote, one time” and then the winner stays on forever (Hitler, Maduro, Putin). Or the army decides they don’t like the winner after all and they depose them (Morsi, Suu Kyi).

Kiat Huang
Kiat Huang
2 years ago

That was grim reading. I get the what, the when, the where, the who of Smerdyakovism but not the why. Why in Russia? Is it limited to Russia or are there other nations and peoples where it lives, it thrives?

Nothing, I believe, shapes a people’s intrinsic character more so than the land that feeds and shelters them. Mountain people all over the world share a hardiness and independent streak that isn’t so pronounced in coastal people or those that farm the plains. Russia, as the biggest country in the world, also has the most borders with other countries and it is very sparsely populated: for every 30 people per sq km in the UK there is just 1 in Russia. It does not have the pretty, geographical beauty of the USA, much of the interior of Russia seems bleak and remote. In its hinterland who have you ever known that wants to go live there? Compared to say, the middle of Italy, Canada or Hungary.

Perhaps Smerdyakovism is a product of the land that lives through its people.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago
Reply to  Kiat Huang

Part of it is the Muscovite heritage of absolute rule–very different from the earlier Kyivan Rus model.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago

It’s hard to believe that human beings differ fundamentally depending on where they are born, but individuals adapt to survive in the environment they inhabit. I watched the 2020 Channel 4 3-part documentary ‘Putin: A Russian Spy Story’ yesterday, then a follow up on Navalny. I recommend it.

It’s inescapably true that, if you live under a corrupt and tyrannical regime, your ability to survive its injustices will depend on your ‘not knowing too much’ (a Russian saying) and keeping your head down.

Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and a people living under absolute power and corruption become brutalised in order to survive.

Democratic freedoms and human rights are taken for granted by those of us who enjoy them and viciously resisted by tyrants the world over. Getting from tyranny to democracy has probably always been bloody, and we are naïve to think otherwise.

Putin is a tyrant. I don’t think he’s necessarily a psychopath, but he is certainly not averse to pursuing evil; it’s how he got to where he is in the gangster world he aspired to inhabit.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

Is Putin pursuing evil, or is he pursuing what he perceives as more security, a better equilibrium for Russia’s position in relation to the West, by evil means? That seems closer to the truth for me.
The trouble for us in the West, our leaders have recently been doing the same thing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence the millions of refugees from these countries in Jordan, Europe and the US.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

A lot of politicians are psychopaths….

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

This article has some serious issues.

“The government of Tsarist Russia, relying on an omnipresent, omnipotent secret police, and “arrogating to itself the supreme power to torment and slaughter the bodies of its subjects like a God-sent scourge, has been most cruel to those whom it allowed to live under the shadow of its dispensation”. And that was just the beginning.”

Really? Having read a lot about Stalin and Lenin in recent years, the government of Tsarist Russia was more soft and cuddly and the secret police were more Keystone than omnipresent and omnipotent. Lenin’s brother was given options to escape the death sentence imposed on him for the failed attempt on the Tsar’s life but chose martyrdom. If I had been the Tsar I would have had the entire family executed.

“In Siberia he (Stalin) built a vast network of camps and prisons whereby a significant part of Russia’s population was turned into slave labor. All this for no particular reason — just because.”

Really? Stalin always had his reasons. You may not have liked them, and the value of human life counted for little in the balance, but it was never “just because”

“But maybe we should not be surprised that Stalin killed poets: after all, Smerdyakov never liked poetry. “Verse is nonsense”, “who on earth talks in rhymes?” he complains. “Verse is no good”.”

Again really, Stalin considered himself a literary expert and as forever courting poets, composers and writers and meddling in their works. It was only that their status afforded the no protection if they deemed politically suspect.

“For Putin cares as much about ideas (Slavophile or otherwise) as he does about the tigers he kills.”

Did he tell you that?

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

Although I thought the article interesting, I have to agree to all of your criticisms. For example, sinister as the Okhrana was, the cheka exceeded it by far in ruthlessness, and the vast numbers of which it disposed in various nasty ways.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago

The writer describes the condition quite well. But history, not literature, provides the best explanation.
When Stalin took over in the 30s, he filled the security services–now know as “the siloviki”–with “reliable” people, i.e. from the very poorest parts of Soviet society. They were the very opposite of the Party’s bourgeoise enemies, and thus very like Smerdyakov.
Moreover, the security services were always careful to pick someone who was “svoi”–“one of our own.” It’s impossible to believe that a slum kid from St Petersburg would have been recruited into any western intel agency at the time. But Putin’s father was “svoi,” and thus Vladimir himself had an advantage over any educated Russian.
The result is a cadre of “immortals,” generation after generation of operatives ignorant of the rest of the world, and even of Russia itself. Putin & Co’s ignorance of economics, military affairs–and even their fellow Slavs–is now on full display. He made the invasion of Ukraine into a spy mission, doomed from the outset to failure.
In Putin’s case, his evil is far more banal than anything Smerdyakov could come up with.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

If Putin is mostly an imitator, does it mean he is a psychopath?

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

I like the gangster image for clarity – psychopathic is as psychopathic does. Whether he is certifiable is irrelevant. And also somewhat irrelevant whether environment/history is a determiner of behaviour. The Russian young dont seem so brainwashed so escaping history/geography must be possible – therefore comes down to lack of interest or will in the greater russian population for alternative ways of governance etc.. it feels like the world is having to deal with another medieval culture as with Islamic fundmentalists etc. Very disappointing that Russians have wasted a great opportunity over the past 30 years and have regressed to their default primitive state. Something of a shock for the rest of the world which will be wondering how long it will take them to become civilised – could be long term now I guess.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Jeez, great article, well worth a reprint in these times. I’ve never read the book, and now I’m too scared to read it for its implications about the Russian psyche.
Born in the sixties, thank god it was in the U.K. and not Russia, or China, or…….

N T
N T
2 years ago

You can also be ambivalent about dogs without being sadistic toward them. I don’t know which Putin is.
It will be curious to see how much pain the people of each nation will endure before they effect regime change, or how they achieve it.
We are led to believe that the citizens of Russia are ready and able to overthrow their new tsars, but that never seems to be as easy at it may seem. I wonder if this incident will serve as a wake-up call to the republic that is the colonies, and if they will veer away from Federalism and centralized power in Washington if Putin is stickier than the media leads us to believe.

Mary Thomas
Mary Thomas
2 years ago

I recently read The River Kings by Cat Jarmon, tracing the Viking’s passage into Russia and establishing the Rus. Having read copiously about these people it seems to me that by and large they invaded, enslaved and killed indiscriminately all over Europe.

Does the unadulterated inheritance of these people see it’s fruition in the Russia of today?

Christine Thomas
Christine Thomas
2 years ago
Reply to  Mary Thomas

Just Russia?

leculdesac suburbia
leculdesac suburbia
2 years ago
Reply to  Mary Thomas

Yet somehow the Vikings migrations into what became York an the Danelaw, Dublin, Normandy, and all the way to Sicily, didn’t result in this combination.
Yes, malignant narcissism and sociopathy are present throughout history, but certain conditions make it more or less likely to be controlled.I’ve often wondered about the vast size of “Russia,” after they got out of that golden Yoke, plus the mentality of the Mongal Hordes mixed with the many other cultures there. So much isolation, particularly of serfs; deeply rural and illiterate; devoted to Orthodoxy but seemingly not transformed by the radical individual relationship with God that took on in the west, which was of course concomitant with literacy that didn’t take hold in Russia until much later; inherently patriarchal in every sense of the word. Then, some weird fetishization of madmen like Ivan who slaughter tens of thousands and their own kids; and a deep consciousness of being “other” in a Western European dominated world where they are Caucasian but still “Other.”
They had a friggin chance after 1905, with Stolypin, but more assassins and grandstanding narcissists put an end to that. Nicholas’ brother would have ruled as a constitutional monarch had he not been terrified of the mob and it not been in the context of a dreadful World War.
We also bear responsibility for meddling in Ukraine.
And here we sit. Waiting for an aging narcissist who, by definition. destroys anything that harms his image. to suddenly discover sanity and compassion, while our “leadership” are dumber than most college freshmen. Sociopaths go out with a bang, malignant narcissists even more so–our only hope is that other narcissists are so threatened by losing their access to 14 year old trafficked girls and 50 million dollar yachts that they’ll take care of him for us.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Yes, but dammit the nasties never seem to get assassinated-only the (relatively speaking) good guys !! I guess the bad guys live by the sword so are always extra protected from swords whilst the good guys are more busy with (sometimes) more noble activities.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

What ‘meddling’ we did in Ukraine was the wish of a majority of Ukrainians and doesn’t for a single moment justify the meddling in Ukraine by Putin.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Perhaps Dostoevsky’s Slavophilia was a reaction to the Francophilia of the Russian aristocracy?

Yan Chernyak
Yan Chernyak
2 years ago

Pointed above, but still: stopped reading on

But maybe we should not be surprised that Stalin killed poets: after all, Smerdyakov never liked poetry. “Verse is nonsense”, “who on earth talks in rhymes?” he complains. “Verse is no good”.

What it implies is just factually wrong, lost confidence in the author here.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago

So, the US/EU establishment has transferred the mantle for All Things Bad from Trump to Putin. We get it.
Until Dubya (George W. Bush), Nixon was the worst person to have ever existed–in the minds of the Washington Blob. But, “W” assumed that distinction merely by prevailing over Al Gore in a tight election. The Trump assumed the role of universal Bad Guy.
This stuff is juvenile. Are there no adults anywhere?

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

and what a dodgy calamitous-for-the-world prevailing that was !!! Good to know that you ,as an adult, understand the difference between a trump and a putin – obviously putin aint so bad after all 🙂

Andy E
Andy E
2 years ago

It is very shallow indeed . It falls into that childish category of “because he is mad” or “because he is evil” or “he hates Jews because a Jewish girl said NO back in 1920”. It is much more complicated and what seems evil and grim in most cases can be explained rationally.
Even accepting “they are evil and this is their modus operandi” simple agenda does not give a clue about what’s next. Does the world want the global destruction and nuclear winter over “no appeasement at any cost”? So be it.

2A Solution
2A Solution
2 years ago

I think this is demented.

Paula Williams
Paula Williams
2 years ago

Is there much enthusiasm for the invasion on the part of Russian-speaking Ukrainians ?