Poets and Czars From Pushkin to Putin: the sad tale of democracy in Russia

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.

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