There’s nothing wrong with being cautious. Since 1709, when Peter the Great routed the troops of Swedish King Charles XII at Poltava, smack-dab in the middle of modern-day Ukraine, Europeans have understood Russia as a military threat. Never has this required us to close our minds to the glories of Russian culture or to forget that Russia’s strategic posture always has an explanation — and sometimes even a rationale.
But what was intellectually possible for Westerners in the winter of 1943, when Hitler’s troops and Stalin’s were killing each other by the millions on the Eastern front, is apparently beyond our powers today. In the wake of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, many Europeans will not be content with anything less than wiping Russia and its culture off the map. In April, novelist Oksana Zabuzhko, writing in the TLS that it was the morality of Tolstoy and other Russian writers that “wove the camouflage net for Russia’s tanks”, urged us to “take a long, hard look at our bookshelves”. In early August, the Russian-language novelist Wolodymyr Rafejenko declared he now felt a “revulsion” when he conversed in Russian, and vowed never again to write in it.
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These are Ukrainians — one can understand their anguish and rage. But Western Europeans, who are not even at war, have been even more zealous. A Milan university cancelled its Dostoevsky class last spring. The EU and UK have blacked out the Russian internet channel RT. Russians have been declared unwelcome at venues from Wimbledon to Estonia.
Back in the middle of the 20th century, when Russia was capable of far worse, the Russian-born historian Tibor Szamuely wrote an extraordinary book. The Russian Tradition explained how Russian political behaviour (about which Szamuely was wary to the point of hostility) arose from Russian history and culture (about which Szamuely was respectful to the point of reverence). This is the right balance. It has not been struck so well since. Too bad the book is out of print, because it is strangely relevant to a lot of this decade’s preoccupations: slavery, political correctness and Ukraine, for starters.
Like many refugees from Communism, Szamuely was descended from both perpetrators and victims. An uncle of the same name served in the Hungarian Soviet Republic that took power for six months under Béla Kun in 1919, and died violently that year when the revolution failed. He was among that government’s most bloodthirsty ministers, which is really saying something. Szamuely’s family wound up in Moscow, where his father was executed in Stalin’s purges. In 1964, Szamuely, then nearing 40, was teaching in the “ideological institute” of Ghana’s Marxist president Kwame Nkrumah when he defected to England. He taught at Reading and befriended Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and Anthony Powell, among other literary anti-Communists. His book, unfinished when he died of cancer in 1972, was edited into its final form by Conquest and published two years later.
The simple question that animates it is how Russia came to be the centre of Marxist revolution and late 20th-century totalitarianism. Did aggressive Communism subvert blameless Russia? Or was aggressive Russia using blameless Communism as a pretext?
The beginnings of an answer lie in geography. Lacking frontiers, Szamuely writes, Russia has faced “a history of armed struggle against invaders that, for length, intensity and ferocity has no parallel in the annals of any other nation”. That is a large claim. Russia is always vulnerable someplace — at least for as long as it takes to gather and concentrate its killing power. And it is always fighting for its life, which tends — at least in domestic Russian debates — to empty of meaning our concepts of just and unjust war. “Despotic government,” Szamuely writes, “was the instrument she shaped to cope with the everlasting emergency.”
For Szamuely, the central problem in Russian history is slavery. Yes, slavery. Using the word “serf” to describe its put-upon agricultural workers leads us to think of the society as merely backward, quaint, feudal. But this is wrong. Russian slavery was a creation of modernity. Once-free agricultural labourers somehow got buried under debt about 500 years ago, and in the mid-16th century the government bound them to the land, the better to tax them. The owner of the serfs was the state, not the notables on whose land they toiled. There was an equality in this, for the notables were beholden to the state, too. The upper crust owed the tsar military service. Until recent centuries, Russia was one of the rare countries where nobles could be publicly flogged.
But this changed, as Peter the Great tried to modernise the system — Russia got rum, minuets, a navy and of course St. Petersburg. For aristocrats it meant Western connections and new opportunities, for serfs an overload of labour and hard discipline. That was an end to society’s old “mystic unity” and the mumbo-jumbo that had surrounded it. Serfs could now be sold or lost at cards. Russia now had not one people, Szamuely writes, but two: “the Westernised upper classes, and the masses, whose way of life became ever less distinguishable from that of the population of the great Asian empires.” As middle classes in America and France were forging republics, aristocrats were living a Golden Age under Catherine the Great (1762-95). “The most striking feature of 18th-century Russian social history,” Szamuely writes, “was the great expansion and intensification of peasant bondage at the precise moment when, with the emancipation of the nobility, it finally lost any vestige of moral, political or legal justification.”
Szamuely’s preoccupation with slavery anticipates a lot of the “woke” discussion of our own time. If slavery warped the development of the United States (which was one-eighth slave at the start of its civil war in 1861), Szamuely asks, then why has there been so much less soul searching about Russia (which was seven-eighths slave at the time of emancipation that same year)? He may misunderstand the parallel: The difference lies not in the size of the enslavement but in the identity of the rememberer. Progressive white America is wracked by guilt over what it did to “them”. Russia feels no such guilt because the misdeeds were done to “us”. The moral tenor of its soul-searching is more like that of Sicily, or Ireland, or black America.
But it is not as if Russia had no reckoning with serfdom. As access to higher education and newsprint spread, “gradually the idea began to sink in that every Russian of education and leisure was an accomplice in a crime unparalleled in its enormity”. This was the cause around which a revolutionary and often violent intelligentsia arose in the late 19th century, a class unique in Europe until the rise of political correctness. “The Russian intelligentsia was an instrument of destruction,” Szamuely writes. “Unlike the European bourgeoisie it had no constructive purposes, neither was it equipped to fulfil any such tasks.”
There was something Messianic in the intelligentsia’s role. Szamuely recognises that it used others’ suffering as a rationale for autocracy. But he never entertains the idea that the intelligentsia was an outright racket. He even praises the “intellectual honesty” of the critic Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who saw that equality would be won only at a very steep price in liberty: “What a contrast he provides to certain Western ‘progressive’ intellectuals, who worship at the altar of egalitarianism yet refuse to recognise that their dream… can only be realised by an arbitrary dictatorial government. Chernyshevsky and his followers, down to the present day, have never harboured any illusions about this.”
He is nonetheless struck that the great 19th-century Russian novelists (“men of sensibility, compassion and humanity”) were almost unanimously contemptuous of the intelligentsia (“with their joyless utilitarianism, their dogmatic intolerance, their fanatical devotion to a messianic vision”).
The modern enslavement of Russia’s peasantry was not, strictly speaking, a capitalist project. But it felt like one. More than the exploitation undergone in advanced industrial countries, it resonated with the exploitation Marx described. In the end, the Russian revolution was a matter of adjusting Marx’s teaching to powerful Russian folk-institutions, above all the autonomous peasant cooperative known as the obshchina. Marx himself wound up backing peasant “populists” against his own more orthodox followers. It actually turned out to be a piece of good fortune for the revolutionaries that the Marxist spark caught in what Szamuely considers the most conservative country on earth.
That is where Szamuely’s book ends. It is a shame he was never able to write at book-length about the 20th century, of which he was a passionate chronicler. He considered Lenin “the supreme political genius of the century”, and was impressed with the way he and his followers allied Russia’s interests abroad to Asian and African nationalism, not Communism. It was, in a way, the same judgment Marx had made in backing the populists.
Szamuely was fascinated with Ukraine. “Perhaps no other historical experience,” he writes in The Russian Tradition, “has left as lasting an impression on the folk-memory of the Russian people as the horrors of [the] interminable struggle against the slavers and killers of the south. For centuries the steppe remained a source of constant menace, a land of terror, death, destruction and degradation. It was called the Wild Plain, or, as we would say today, the Frontier; the greater part of this region is now called the Ukraine…”
He was highly sympathetic to Ukraine’s modern struggles. In 1968 he wrote a fascinating and well-informed account of the nationalist protests and ensuing prosecutions that had then been going on in Ukraine for much of the decade. While granting that the Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis as liberators in June 1941, he wasn’t surprised by this nationalist sentiment, given the decade of famine and purges they had endured. He noted, too, the “methodological dilution” of Ukraine’s ethnic composition by Russia, insisting that Russian dominance of the country’s high culture was a recent and unnatural phenomenon. Only 41% of books published in Ukraine were in Ukrainian, it is true, but in 1930, before Russification and famine, that figure had been 84%.
Szamuely never let justified fear of Russia drive out justified fascination. Vastly well read in the country’s history, he still found it ambiguous, describing the policies of Ivan the Terrible at one point as “a strange mixture of farsightedness and paranoia — a combination frequently reproduced by his successors through the centuries”. Few historians have been better equipped than Szamuely to understand the paradoxes of Russia, where the novelists are sublime and the politics are unendurable, and often for the same reasons.