Russia’s Beauty and Brutality Remain an Enigma to the West
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The most famous words ever written about the nation of President Vladimir Putin were those of Winston Churchill in October 1939: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
The world shares an awe for the grandeur of that vast country, its mountains, great rivers and cities, remote villages and frozen wastelands. Its culture, the music of Tchaikovsky and Prokoviev, the poetry of Pushkin and prose of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, have inspired generations of literate people of many nations.
Yet through the centuries Russia has also displayed a power to inspire fear — a savagery that now, in the 21st century, once more casts a dark shadow over humanity. I wrote an account of the 1944-45 battle for Germany in which I described Stalin’s conquering horde that advanced upon Berlin: “This was a barbarian army, which had achieved things such as only a barbarian army could.”
A German army doctor, Hans von Lehndorff, studied those Russians as one of their prisoners. He observed with clinical fascination:
They are utterly insensitive to noise — the radio blares all day and night. Lighting circuits are installed at top speed, and where there is glass left in the windows, holes are shot in the panes so that the wires can be led through. One is repeatedly astonished at the rapidity with which they hit upon the simplest way of attaining their purpose. The immediate moment is all that exists for them; everything must serve it, no matter whether what they destroy in the process may be something of which they are in dire need the next. One ends by giving up thinking of them as creatures of one’s own kind, and gradually assumes the attitude of a lion-tamer. To show fear is to fare worst of all — it provokes them to attack. The most hopeless policy of all is to try to make them like you.
Today, many of us look with a shocked bewilderment at how such a remarkable nation should also be capable of inflicting mass suffering and death on the people of Ukraine to satisfy the mere whim of its leader. Yet this same mystification has for hundreds of years afflicted foreigners visiting Russia.
A French aristocrat, the Marquis de Custine, wrote a famous travel book entitled “La Russie En 1839.” As an arch-conservative himself, he had arrived in the country expecting to admire its autocracy. Instead, he found himself disgusted by its people’s indifference to truth and slavish obeisance to power: “Only good news can be told to a master — everything unpleasant must be hidden.” The Russians, he said, were “trained bears who made you long for the wild ones.”
“Russia’s government is characterized by meddling, negligence and corruption,” he continued. “An honest man is regarded as a fool. A wealth of superfluous and petty regulations breeds an army of bureaucrats, each of whom performs his duties with an exactitude and gravity designed to imbue with importance a mountain of trivial.”
The Marquis wrote this only three years after Nikolai Gogol, himself a Ukrainian, penned “The Government Inspector,” his classic satire on officialdom.
Custine denounced Tsar Nicholas I for his relentless secret surveillance of his own subjects, and for the brutal treatment of Poland. After meeting the ruler, he wrote that Nicolas seemed to feel a compulsion to govern cruelly: “If the Tsar has no more mercy in his heart than he reveals in his policies, I pity Russia; if, on the other hand, he is at heart a better man than his conduct suggests, then I pity the Tsar.”
In the 19th century, the Russian aristocracy became so captured by French culture that in noble houses French was the first language. Or sometimes English. A vogue developed for great families, including that of the tsar, to employ English governesses to teach their children.
In 1866, the Irish writer Mrs. Gaskell wrote in one of her novels, somewhat extravagantly: “To be a governess in Russia was the equivalent of taking the veil or a lady-like form of suicide.” Her heroine in that book, Cynthia Fitzpatrick, confides to a friend in despair: “I shall try my luck in Russia. I’ve heard of a situation as English governess at Moscow, in a family owning whole provinces, and serfs by the hundred.”
Some of the most vivid foreign accounts of Russia in that era were compiled by young women who took such work. Marie Russell Brown wrote of her fascination with how in St. Petersburg extreme wealth and poverty jostled each other, “where one section had the finest shops in the world with English- and French-speaking salesmen, and only a short distance away dark little shops selling bread, sausage or meat showed their awareness of the illiteracy of their customers by the gaily colored representations of their wares above the lintels. Hardly more surprising was finding that Prince so-and-so’s palace was entered through a door beside a chemist’s shop.”
Hannah Tracey, daughter of a gardener at Windsor Castle, became governess to Count Leo Tolstoy’s children, and introduced her own ideas on health and hygiene. To the horror of the Tolstoys’ old Russian nurse, she washed the children every day in cold water in the household’s sole bathtub, and took them for energetic walks in all weathers. The children adored Hannah, and when she felt homesick and sang “Home, Sweet Home” in English, little Tanya Tolstoy joined in. Hannah eventually stayed permanently, after marrying a Georgian prince.
Many of the greatest works of Russian literature, of course, portray epic sorrows, often without the consolation of happy endings. Anton Chekhov wrote: “Russian life bashes the Russian till you have to scrape him off the floor, like a 20-ton rock.” He described one of his own literary creations, the landowner Ivanov, in the context of the national character: “The present is always worse than the past.”
Russians take a perverse pride in their own emotional incontinence. In 1790, poet and artist Nikolai Lvov applauded his people’s spontaneity, contrasted with the obsessive orderliness that characterized dreary Western societies: “In foreign lands all goes to a plan/ Words are weighed, steps measured./ But among us Russians there is fiery life,/ Our speech is thunder and sparks fly.”
The principal standard-bearer of Russian conservatism in the late 19th century was Count Pobedonostsev, who repeatedly asserted that everything would go absolutely fine for his great country, if only people would “stop inventing things.”
A famous Scottish travel writer, Donald Mackenzie Wallace, wrote in 1877, “of course travelling in Russia is no longer what it was.” He meant that the creation of a vast and rapidly expanding rail network had destroyed the romance that accompanied horse-drawn troikas and sledges, padded coachmen with jingling bells. The Trans-Siberian Railway became a miracle of the age.
Yet just a year earlier, foreign minister Prince Gorchakov fumed to a colleague: “We are a great, powerless country.”
A Russian general, A.A. Kireyev, lamented in his diary early in the 20th Century: “We have become a second-rate power.” When Russia acquiesced in Austria’s 1908 annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which Russians considered part of their own Slavonic sphere of influence, Kireyev exclaimed bitterly “Shame! Shame! It would be better to die.”
Yet despite such morbid gloom about their national condition, common to successive generations in the final decades before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Russia advanced by giant strides economically and industrially. The socialist paradise of Lenin and Stalin struggled for decades thereafter to match the earlier achievements of Russian capitalism.
The last tsar, Nicholas II, is sometimes represented as a decent, well-meaning ruler and exemplary family man. Yet his government responded brutally to every kind of protest. On Bloody Sunday in January 1905, Cossacks slaughtered at least a thousand unarmed demonstrators on the streets of St. Petersburg, precipitating Russia’s first, unsuccessful revolution. Nicholas’s reign was characterized by a disastrous alternation of repression and craven political retreats.
World War I, which precipitated the fall of the Romanov dynasty, inflicted a ghastly blood toll. Nobody knows exact numbers, but at least 2 million Russians died. Within months of the Bolsheviks withdrawing from the conflict in March 1918, the country was plunged into a civil war which caused millions more deaths.
In 1919, a geologist travelled in eastern regions of the empire, where a Muslim revolt had been suppressed with terrible force. “I kept passing through large Russian settlements [in which] half the population was drunk,” he wrote. “Then Kirghiz villages completely ruined and razed literally to the ground. [Russian troops] made no distinction between the rebels and the peaceful Kirghiz who had remained true to the Russian allegiance. All were indiscriminately plundered and killed.”
By the time of World War II, most of the “haves” of Western societies hated and feared Russia’s communists as much as they disliked the Nazis. General Sir Henry Pownall, vice-chief of the British general staff, wrote in his diary soon after Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his invasion of Russia in June 1941: “Would that the two loathsome monsters, Germany and Russia, drown together in a death grip in the winter mud.”
His colleague General John Kennedy remarked likewise, “Although we want the Germans to be knocked out above all, most of us feel that it would not be a bad thing if the Russians were to be finished as a military power too … The Russians doubtless feel the same about us.”
A middle-aged London woman diarist named Vere Hodgson wrote on June 22, 1941: “The Russians have not been very nice to us in the past, but now we have got to be friends and help one another.” She added: “Somehow I think Stalin is more a match for Hitler than any of us … He looks such an unpleasant kind of individual.”
In this, she was entirely right. It was never plausible that, in order to defeat Hitler, British — or American — people would have been willing to eat each other. But the Russians did so during the 1941-43 siege of Leningrad — cannibalism became widespread. Hitler marveled at the fortitude of “those pigs of Russians,” exemplified by their defense of the city. Hermann Goering displayed matching admiration, in the same conversation: “They let a million die of starvation.”
In the last months of the war, the Germans fought with the courage of despair on the Eastern Front, amid the avenging Red Army’s mass rape of their women and ruthlessness toward Hitler’s vanquished soldiers. This caused the Soviet high command to issue a belated and futile order on April 20, 1945, calling for more humane treatment of prisoners and civilians: “Bad treatment of Germans makes them fight more stubbornly and refuse to surrender. This is an unfavorable situation for us.”
A Russian tank officer named Gennady Ivanov later told me: “We tried to persuade men not to kill prisoners, but it was very hard. We were living an existence in which people’s lives had absolutely no value. All that seemed important was to stay alive oneself.”
When Vasily Kudrashov’s unit entered eastern Poland, they were at first greeted as liberators. A fellow soldier, however, on hearing that a woman had slept with Germans, promptly shot her dead. Asked to explain himself, the man, whose family lived in territory occupied by the Nazis, shrugged: “I suddenly thought: Maybe my wife also has been sleeping with Germans.” Their commander refused to punish the killer, saying that his conduct was entirely understandable.
After Yugoslav communist leader Marshal Tito protested to the local Soviet commander about unspeakable acts perpetrated by Russian soldiers in Yugoslavia, alongside the correct behavior of British troops in the country, the general exploded — not about the crimes of the Red Army, but instead about Tito’s complaint: “I protest most emphatically against the insults being levelled at the Red Army by comparing it with the armies of the capitalist countries!”
British infantry officer David Fraser wrote long after participating in the North-West Europe campaign: “The British were shocked to discover that many European peoples regarded the Soviet regime and the Red Army with a horror greater than that previously aroused by Nazi Germany.”
Having read the above, consider what a chaos of experiences, emotions and characteristics it reflects. All societies have their share of contradictions, but those surrounding Russians seem greater than most.
On the whole, they are today highly educated, albeit frighteningly ill-informed — by their own government’s will — and still capable of terrible cruelties, manifested in Syria, Chechnya, Africa and the borderlands of their own country. They boast feats of scientific and technological brilliance, yet cannot manufacture consumer goods that anyone wishes to buy.
Their heritage includes triumphs over Napoleon and Hitler. Yet they remain prey to a morbid, almost obsessive conviction that they do not receive the respect from the world which they consider their due. A British delegate to a 1961 disarmament conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recorded hearing a Russian say with a sigh to an American during a bus tour of New England: “You do not know how extraordinarily fortunate you are, to live in a country that has never been invaded!”
Russians have been ruled by some of the worst and most brutal leaders in human history, to whom Putin shows himself an appropriate successor. And yet, in my own experience, they are also capable of wonderful warmth and kindness, not to mention towering cultural achievements. Many times in many places when visiting their country, I have found reasons to love as well as to admire them.
I never forget the sad words of a young woman tourist guide in St. Petersburg, a decade ago: “We have a saying, that one must be terribly unlucky to be born Russian.” We should wish her people a deliverance from evil, of which they have both suffered and inflicted more than their rightful share in the course of an extraordinarily turbulent history.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy" and "Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943."
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