to Blame for Russia's Decay?
Douglas Smith, the bestselling author of Former People and Rasputin, traces the roots of Russia's malaise.
The runaway success – both commercial and academic – of Douglas Smith’s reanimations of forgotten pages of Russian history became a phenomenon in itself in the 2010s, when the publishing world was stalling just short of tanking.
But the panoramic vividness of Smith's books spoke for itself. The 2012 bestseller Former People not only brought back to life the story of the extermination of the Russian aristocracy following the 1917 revolution, but settled some long-running debates within the Russian intelligentsia. “You always blame ethnic minorities for the misfortunes of the Russian people,” Vladimir Maximov famously wrote to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the early 1970s. “But who were the actual perpetrators? The peasants. The worst kind of peasants, but still the peasants. I love the Russian people. I am Russian. But you have to admit that the Russian people was both the victim and the executioner.”
Smith’s meticulously researched 500-page volume confirmed the veracity of Maximov’s analysis, but also backed the work of those who in the 1990s France gave new impetus to the word “classicide,” reestablishing it within the Western political parlance with the publication of The Black Book of Communism.
But far from focusing on one – no matter how weighty – topic, Smith continued to expand his range and produce equally fascinating books on other Russian subjects. The compellingly written Rasputin (2016) was followed by The Russian Job (2019) which tells the story of the American aid to the starving newly formed Soviet state in the early 1920s.
As well as giving a rich, resonant voice to the forgotten actors and stage directors of Russia’s history, Smith’s books also help make sense of today’s Russia – it’s lawlessness, intolerance, its military exploits, and the dichotomy between the passivity of the people and the recklessness of its rulers. So this is precisely why I had to connect with Smith in person to probe his mind on how Russia’s terrible past informs is equally horrifying present.
AO: Many observers today are commenting on the moral breakdown of the Russian society. Is the current cynicism, nihilism and xenophobia comparable with pre-revolutionary Russia under Nicholas II?
DS: Maybe there is a common atmosphere of cynicism in both societies at the time. A cynicism about what they were being told about things, whether it was coming from the government or news sources or things like that. So I think that on that level maybe there is some similarity.
A historian should never prognosticate or claim they know what's going to happen because we tend to always get it terribly wrong. But it seems to me, looking at 1915, 1916, 1917, that there was just a complete and utter loss of faith in the autocracy in the 300-year Romanov dynasty. And everybody, it seems, assumed that the regime was going to fall and was looking forward to it. The fact that no one really, after the collapse of the Romanovs, came to their defense, shows the depths which the complete lack of faith in the monarchy had reached.
And when I look at what's going on in Russia now under Putin, obviously it's hard to really know what the mood of the country is because we can't get honest answers. But from what I read, I don't see that the average Russians today are as cynical about their government and are as ready for it to go away. So I don't really see a clear similarity between the situation at the end of the Romanovs and what we're dealing with now.
AO: Before the arrival of Bolsheviks Russia still had moral authority within its society: people such as Tolstoy who spoke out against the war, and were being listened to at least by some segments of the society. Nowadays there doesn't seem to be a strong moral voice in Russia. I have had several conversations with people at the Sorbonne, and Françoise Thom, for one, is pointing out that there isn’t one single strong voice in Russia condemning the war in Ukraine, which is a sign of the moral collapse of the Russian society. Would you agree?
DS: The technology is so different between 1917 and 2023. The ability for the authorities to control and monitor behavior is so much greater than it was back then. So I think we have to factor that in. They can literally monitor people's behavior so closely, and people are aware of that, so they're very careful about what they say. There was much greater freedom of expression in the later years of the Nicholas regime than obviously what we're facing now. And that way this regime is so much more oppressive, so much more controlling, so much more threatening and dangerous than the regime of Nicholas.
It seems to me that on that level the Putin regime has been incredibly effective and successful in either driving moral authority abroad or — in instances like Navalny and Kara-Murza and others — locking them up and shutting them up that way, or killing them either at home or abroad, or just terrifying people into silence, pessimism and cynicism and just keeping their heads down.
But in general, I would agree there is no great moral authority in Russia today. But I think that's also long been one of Russia's biggest problems, in my opinion. It is a country that seems to look to single individuals for moral authority as opposed to finding moral authority in larger movements, if you will. I've always been very cynical personally that some one person will come along and save Russia — whether it's Navalny or whoever. I just think that it's overly simplistic to think one person fixes a situation as complex and with problems as deep as Russia has.
AO: What is behind this instinct of Russia’s rulers to start another war every time things start badly domestically? Would you say that there is such a correlation?
DS: I don't think there really is a correlation. Take Peter's wars against Sweden in the early 18th century, it wasn't like he was trying to respond to some sort of domestic crisis really.
AO: Or maybe simply a sense of Russia’s unfulfilled statehood?
DS: Maybe if we're talking about the more modern periods. But again, I don't think Catherine the Great's wars against the Turkish Empire were. It was just sort of power politics of 18th century Europe in that sense. What Austria was doing, what Prussia was doing, what Russia was doing, England, they were all of the same kind of pattern and mentality.
I think you could say that the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 was Nicholas II thinking, “Oh, a quick war to boost morale and renew commitment to the throne,” and that sort of thing. Obviously, it went the opposite direction. And in fact, weakened support for the throne and led to the revolution of 1905, the need for reform, for change. So you can say that wars which are attempting to address domestic problems tend to blow up in the face of the ruler and cause even more problems. After the Crimean War, there was the need for reform and change as well. I do think though that in this instance the causes of the invasion of Ukraine obviously do very much tie into domestic problems as Putin perceived them and as one way to try to address them. Definitely.
AO: The way our website evolved was that we initially were a place where friends of Vladimir Bukovsky published their recollections of him. And because these people were all Cold War warriors, the website began to develop a voice which put the blame for Russia’s ills squarely at the feet of the Bolsheviks. And I always sensed — as a half-Russian with a large network of family relations in Russia — that it isn’t all about Bolshevism. That there is something there that goes deeper. What would you say to this?
DS: Yes, I totally agree. I think this notion that Bolshevism kind of fell out of the sky and corrupted the Russian people — I don’t I don't buy that. I think if you really spend a lot of time studying early Russian history, if you study the imperial period, there are all these deep connections to the 20thc century. The Soviet system as it developed, in my reading, owes a great debt to deep historical traditions from the Russian past. The most obvious is the notion of proizvol, the arbitrary use of power, which definitely existed under the princes of Muscovy and under the czars of imperial Russia, and obviously was very much a hallmark of the Soviet system, and is very much with us today in Putin's Russia.
The lack of a real rule of law, the lack of a strong, independent civil society, things like that which characterized the Soviet Union very much characterized life in Russia in the 19th century. And I know there are certain historians who want to nibble around the edges, and they spend years and years writing books that say, “Oh no, there really was a respect for law in Russia,” and things like that. And I just don't buy it. If you look at the larger trends, the deeper patterns, and you compare it with what was happening in, say, England at the same time or even parts of the Germanic world, the picture in my reading is very, very different. So I would say that Bolshevism as it came to be was very much an expression of a Russian tradition and Russian habits of thought and practice more so than, “This is what Marxism always has to look like.”
AO: Some also say that Lenin was a fluke. That Russia was set on a path toward reform, liberalization, and paying more attention to economy. Was that really the case? Was the revolution the result of an unfortunate chain of events? And did Russia have a chance with the reforms?
DS: You could maybe look at most of Russian history and look at it that way: “If only Ivan the Terrible hadn't come along,” “If only Peter the Great hadn't come along,” or other such figures and events. Some argue that Russia was definitely modernizing in the later decades of the 19th century. And if only the war hadn't happened in 1914, they would have developed into a bit more liberal, democratic, participatory government with respect for the individual, open and free society. It’s possible. Personally, I've never been very interested in history’s “what ifs” and counterfactuals. I feel like just trying to figure out what did happen is hard enough. And why it happened is hard enough that I don't feel the need to try to say, “Oh, if only Lenin hadn't been put on that train and snuck through Germany and brought back to Petrograd, think how differently history might have gone.” Maybe. But you could play that game forever. I don't know. What if Stalin had been killed robbing one of those banks early on to support the Bolsheviks. I sort of feel like maybe it's a fun game, you know, in the evening with a couple of drinks, but I don't find it terribly worthwhile.
AO: Do you have to like Russia in order to be a successful Russa expert and to predict things accurately about Russia? Do you have to like the Russian people, or the Russian language, or the Russian culture? Because what I found is that the people who predicted the war with Ukraine by many, many years and who turned out to be accurate in their assessments of Russia, were the precise people who disliked Russia, who disliked the Russian culture and never tried to conceal that. I am thinking, for example, of people at the Sorbonne who way back in 1992 said, “The Russian Federation this is not a new state – this is the same state with the same people in charge. Do expect terrible wars, do expect violence, do expect these people and this country to be a constant threat to the free world.” It is sometimes said that in order to understanding someone or something, you have to fall I love with it. But is that necessarily true?
DS: Well, I think if you love a place too much, it blinds you. Love is blind. But if you hate a place, you can be blinded as well. I think you have to try to be open. I have such wonderful Russian friends and I would give my life for them and I know they would do that for me. I've been going there and studying the country for over 40 years. I've had so many wonderful experiences with so many people. I have a great respect for so much of Russian culture — painting, music, literature — all sorts of things. I wouldn't devote my life to studying something I hated. I couldn't imagine doing that. That would poison my heart, I think. My favorite book is by a Russian author who I adore, and it's not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but in fact, Konstantin Paustovsky. His memoir for me is for the most beautiful book in the world. And I just love it. And I love the spirit of that man.
AO: And the language is beautiful.
DS: Yes, it's beautiful. So I think that's simplifying it. I think you can love the country and still see its faults. I was born and raised in the United States. It's my home and I do feel a profound connection to this place and a definite kind of love. But at the same time, I am also deeply aware of the violence of this country's history, what it has done to people — from eradicating the native way of life to hundreds of years of slavery, followed by Jim Crow, what we've done abroad to other countries and cultures, horrible in many instances -- but I still love this place and I still have friends and good memories and there's much about this country I love. So for me that's a more mature way of approaching the matter, I would say.
AO: I don't know how much you've studied this or read about this, but apparently there is new wave of occult obsession in Russia: the hotlines you can ring to have your cards read, or your future predicted; entire mainstream channels of state-run TV broadcasting nothing else but so-called “documentaries” on the subject of the occult, interviews with “practitioners,” etc., etc. And it's been going on for quite a while now. Would you say there's a comparison between this and what was happening in the last years of the reign of Nicholas II?
DS: I guess we should be careful as Americans. We are pretty well-known for having our palm readers, and our psychics, and figures like that. You'll probably find them on one of the 8 million cable TV stations or internet sites or whatever. Even in late Imperial Russia, much of this fascination with the occult and mysticism and summoning spirits and all that, these were ideas that didn't even develop in Russia, but were borrowed from outside.
I noticed it when I spent a lot of time in Russia in the 1990s. And even then you saw a real clear fascination with ideas like this. And it's probably gotten stronger. Maybe what connects what's happening now to what has happened in the past in Russia, is this kind of fascination with what they used to call tyomnye sily, dark forces. And it's this belief, obviously, that there are these dark forces at work in the world that are hidden, secretive and typically unknown, but those are the real drivers of history. These are the forces that really are pulling the levers behind the curtain about what happens and why. And I think that was a big part of the mental framework of a lot of Russians on the eve of the revolution. And I think it's still part of the mental framework in Russia today. This is true of other places and other times, but Russians — it seems to me — are particularly prone to believing in conspiracies. And you can even see it in Putin himself.
AO: But he is a man of little education, so that's understandable.
DS: But when he sees people out in the street protesting – be in the Maidan, or…
AO: …he thinks they do it because someone had paid them.
DS: It’s either the CIA, or America secretly paying people to manipulate them. He can't believe that what he is seeing with his own eyes, people out in the street protesting of their own will. There has to be some dark force, some tyomnaya sila at work. So there's that element. And I also think that people who live in societies where they have little control over life and society, where all the decisions are being made by some secretive group in a black box somewhere, where voting doesn't mean anything, where you really can't even organize your local little life without the police coming down on you …
People in those very closed, restrictive, authoritarian societies, in my opinion, are often more prone to conspiratorial thinking, because they see no agency in their own life. They don't see how they can affect matters, small scale or large scale. So there's this tendency to believe in large, darker forces, whether it's conspiracies or the occult or, you know, “the Jews are behind everything,” or “the Freemasons are behind everything,” or “the CIA is behind everything.”
AO: But it's easy to see why Putin – this little man with the heart of a mouse – finds it hard to believe that someone could possess a heart of a lion and go out to protest out of the sense of simple self-respect and personal dignity. But what kind of a man was Nicholas II? Did he share the same traits with Putin? What drove his fascination with the occult and the forces seemingly operating behind the curtain of visible reality?
DS: I think it was less Nicholas and more his wife, Alexandra. I think she was the one that really drove the fascination with the occult, with these peasant holy men like Rasputin, figures like that. And I think Nicholas was such a weak man, ineffectual, who just wanted to go along and get along. His wife was deeply committed to these ideas, and he was like, “I'm not gonna rock the boat,” you know. So I think for him it was less really what he believed and more sort of like, “This is what Alexandra wants.” But it was widespread throughout all of the polite society at the time, this fascination with these occultic figures and things.
AO: As half-Russian, I have a choice of historical figures from the 20th century Russia I love to hate, or to at least blame for the way things have gone for Russia. And the person I would say I despise the most is really Nicholas. Whereas the majority of Russians think of him if not necessarily as a great figure, then certainly a great chap (presumably compared to Stalin and Lenin), and some even think he deserves sainthood. What would you say to these people?
DS: He is not a saint, but he is a martyr.
AO: He's a martyr, exactly. Strastoterpets.
DS: Working all those years on my biography of Rasputin, I had to read much of what Nicholas himself wrote, what he thought, what people wrote about him. He was a terribly unimpressive figure.
AO: Didn’t he have journal entries such as, “Rode out on my bike, shot 12 crows.”
DS: He didn't want to be a czar, that was not his plan. But fate put him on the throne. He wasn't prepared for it, he didn't really want it and he never rose to the occasion. He could never be a leader. He was compared to a pillow, because he sort of bore the impression of the last person who sat on him. So whoever spoke to him last, he would agree with, just to go along with them, and then completely forget that and go along with whatever was said by the next person who had an audience with him. Total lack of intellectual curiosity. He and Alexandra were both horrible anti-Semites. They were just really, really nasty figures.
AO: “It would offend my Christian feeling if I were to emancipate the Jews,” he wrote.
DS: Yes. I mean, the idea that this is what you want in your saints, you know, strange. I'm sure there's plenty of anti-Semitic saints in other churches, but… I will say though, he was never as single-minded, never as ruthless, never as violent, never as brutal as obviously Lenin was. And in that sense, I suppose those are pluses in his column.
AO: Do you think Russians know their history enough? Obviously, under the Soviet Union you simply couldn’t know it. There were simply no materials, everything's been erased from the libraries, you were indoctrinated since childhood. But after the Soviet Union collapsed there was plenty of opportunity to catch up, to read up, a lot of materials were published and translated. However, do you think Russians know their history and deliberately choose to turn blind eye to pages that don't suit them, or they simply don’t know it?
DS: My sense of that is that with the Gorbachev years and then the collapse of the Soviet Union there was this explosion of material that came out about all these taboo subjects of the Soviet past and there was a fascination. I remember being in in Russia much of the 1990s, and there were all these people selling these new books on the streets and people reading them: repressed authors, people could finally read all in the Nabokov they wanted or whatever it might be.
But I get the sense that this didn't penetrate real deeply. Yes, among the intelligentsia, in the big cities, the kind of people who really interested themselves in history and culture and all that, they probably read it all. But I have no real sense that it went terribly deep. And it seems to me there were always people who did not want to buy into this clear-eyed view of the past. And those people didn't go away. They were still there, biding their time, if you will, to undo the opening up of Russia's past.
And it wasn't like Germany after World War II, where the Nazis had been defeated and they were occupied by the victors, and the victors basically said, “We're gonna rub your nose in all this and you will learn this history, you will know this history.” Nothing like that ever happened in Russia. And so many of the perpetrators of the violence were still there. They weren't punished. There was no truth and reconciliation commission. And so that's why you can still have today: Stalin viewed as one of the greatest speakers in Russian history when they do polls of “Who are the great Russians?” They've never really, as a society, been forced to look honestly at this past and to try to draw lessons from it.
AO: Your books Former People and Rasputin are a great place to start for anyone who wants to understand contemporary Russia, even though they describe events of over 100 years ago. But what other books would you recommend to a young person who is fascinated by the news and wants to know not only what is happening in Russia, but why?
DS: That's a good question. Two books of recent years come to mind for me as really helpful in thinking about Russia now. One of them is by the FT correspondent, Catherine Belton, who wrote a book called Putin's People, which is a deep dive based on years and years of reporting and journalism in Russia about what happened to the KGB with the collapse of the Soviet Union where she shoes what happened to all these people.
And she shows so fascinatingly how they never went away, and the structures that they had never disappeared. And how they got involved in organized crime and bided their time until they tried to take power back, which obviously they did and did very effectively. Her book is fascinating. It's hundreds of pages. It's big, it's deep, it's incredibly detailed. And again, it leaves you with that sense of utter cynicism and sort of despair on reading. So I think that would be one book.
And then the other book, which is a relatively short book, written not by a Western outsider, but a Russian insider, for lack of a better word, about the nature of Putin's regime, and what it says about the people, and what it says about lack of moral authority in Russia. And that's Sergei Medvedev's book, The Return of the Russian Leviathan. Each chapter is a stand-alone essay and it's fascinating as a window into the very heart and soul of the Putin regime. And it's a very dark place, I would say. Those two books are in a way very different, but they're very complementary in terms of the insight they give us into what Russia has become in the last 20 plus years.
AO: Do you think there's a lesson for the Western world and the Western societies in Russia's history? Is there a warning there for the West?
DS: Well, I think if we look at what's been going on in this country in recent years and trends in other Western democracies, I think Russia is a great example of what happens to a society without a free and independent press, without free and fair elections, without an independent judiciary, without true political pluralism. This is a country of, you know, what they call what managed democracy. And I think it was called “sovereign democracy.” I don't know what they call it now. But we are sort of flirting with very negative authoritarian tendencies in this country. And it's easy to see the weaknesses in our system.
But God forbid, we look to somewhere like Russia as an example of an alternative model. At the same time, I've had people say, “Oh, you know, if only the West had done things differently in the 1990s, Russia would be free and democratic.” And I personally do not support that view. I think this idea that somehow the West can make Russia into its own model, or the West has the authority, the power, and the right to try to guide Russia's development and bring it into the larger Western community of nations is deeply flawed. I think when the United States has really tried to help Russia, Russia very quickly grows to resent that help.
AO: Your new book is about that. And my Russian grandmother used to say, “If not for the Americans we would all have gone to hell and died there of hunger.”
DS: She was right. The American Relief Administration went over in the early 1920s — 1921 to 1923 — led by Herbert Hoover, who was then Secretary of Commerce. And yes, they were feeding up to — at one point — 10 million Russian people a day. In addition to giving out all sorts of free medical aid, free clothing. They literally saved Russia from utter catastrophe.
AO: There are historical images of entire Russian villages on their knees, thanking Americans for delivering humanitarian relief: photographs of traditionally dressed Russian peasant women on their knees, thanking whoever brought the stuff to them.
DS: But before the Americans had even left, the Cheka was arresting Russians who had helped the Americans. They were doing whatever they could to wipe out any memory of this operation. And then in the history books they wrote that this was never a humanitarian operation but a counter-revolution, dressed up as international aid, but only thanks to the Cheka, they were stopped in their evil designs. You can think of that, you can think of Lend-Lease during World War II.
AO: Or the 1990s when Bush was sending over what became known in Russia as Okorochka Busha, "Bush’s Chicken Thighs."
DS: I'm a firm believer in it: it's up to Russia to go its path and figure itself out, preferably without invading neighbors. And if they do invade neighbors then I personally think it's our obligation — and definitely in the case of Ukraine — to support and help.
AO: But here is the question: Would the Russian army dare to commit the war crimes it is committing now in Ukraine if the war crimes committed in Chechnya were reported more fully and condemned by the entire world?
DS: That's a tough question. I'm not an expert in this, so this is just stuff off the top of my head. Chechnya was part of the Russian Federation.
AO: But they declared independence, didn't they?
DS: Yes, whereas Ukraine declared independence in 1991. The famous Budapest Memorandum is where Ukraine agreed to give up all of its nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange that its sovereignty and international borders be recognized by Russia, the United States, and Great Britain. All the parties to that agreement said yes. So basically the West made Ukraine vulnerable to Russia. And in my reading, we thus do have this obligation, because if we had not forced Ukraine to give up those nuclear weapons, in my opinion, Russia would not have invaded another nuclear power. There's that issue.
But I think another factor is when you're talking about the atrocities that are being committed in Ukraine by Russian troops, it's hard to exaggerate the twisted psychological morass that characterizes Russian thinking about Ukrainians. That on one hand they're the same as us, our brothers, and on the other hand, if they think differently than us, if they want to do something different than us, they need to be destroyed. It's a very weird thing, and I think it's important, again, to show that this is not just Putin who thinks like this. I was asked to give a talk about these things a while ago and I started by reading sections of Joseph Brodsky's poem On the Independence of Ukraine.
AO: Oh, Brodsky was a fool. A Soviet muzhik. A profoundly Soviet man, a sovok. I grew up among people with this sort of mentality. It is just so typically Soviet.
DS: But he won the Nobel Prize.
AO: A lot of people did.
DS: So this view of Ukraine and Ukrainians is not something that is unique to Putin alone. The Soviet Union, as you know, was a very intolerant society. And even those who had gone through Soviet prisons or were otkazniks, and who came to the West, very often turned out to be intolerant people. [Otkaznik – an individual, typically, but not exclusively, a Soviet Jew, who was denied permission to emigrate by the authorities of the Soviet Union]. I knew a lot of people who came to the United States in the 1970s.
AO: And now they all vote for Trump, correct?
DS: Yes. So undemocratically-minded.
Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy.
by Douglas Smith.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs.
by Douglas Smith.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
The Story of Life
by Konstantin Paustovsky, translated by Douglas Smith.
NYRB Classics, 2023.
The Russian Job: The Forgotten History of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin by Douglas Smith.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.
The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia by Douglas Smith.
Yale University Press, 2008.
Working the Rough Stone: Freemasonry and Society in Eighteenth-Century Russia by Douglas Smith.
Northern Illinois University Press, 1999.
Love and Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin
by Douglas Smith.
Northern Illinois University Press, 2004.
Konstantin Paustovsky (1892-1968) was a Russian writer, journalist and translator. He was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize. In 1967, he supported Solzhenitsyn, who wrote a letter to the IV Congress of Soviet Writers demanding the abolition of censorship of literary works. In 1966, Paustovsky became one of the signatories a letter to Brezhnev against the rehabilitation of Stalin. During the trial of writers Sinyavsky and Daniel, Paustovsky, together with Chukovsky, openly spoke out in their support, providing the court with positive reviews of their work.
"Bitva ekstrasensov" ("Battle of Psychics") is a Russian scripted reality show airing on TNT, the participants of which allegedly possess "superpowers." TNT is a Russian federal television channel, which, according to data for 2021, ranks eighth in popularity among Russian television channels.
The Diary of Russian Emperor Nicholas II: 1890 - 1906.
Slovo Publishing House, Berlin, 1923.
"Holy man" Grigori Rasputin with Alexandra, wife of the last Russian tsar Nicholas II, and Alexandra's and Nicholas's children.
Putin's People by Catherine Belton.
The Return of the Russian Leviathan by Sergei Medvedev.
American Relief Administration operations in Russia, 1922.
The so-called "Bush's chicken thighs" appeared in Russia's stores in 1990, following an agreement between Mikhail Gorbachev and George Bush Sr. regarding supply of frozen chicken legs from the U.S. to the USSR. Since the Soviet economy was collapsing by 1990, "Bush's chicken thighs" became popular among Russians due to their cheap price and ready availability.
Russian poet Joseph Brodsky reads his anti-Ukrainian poem On the Occasion of the Independence of Ukraine in Palo Alto, October 30, 1992.
AO: People sometimes mistake me for someone who wants popularize the history of the dissident movement in the USSR. But nothing could be further from the truth because I view the Soviet dissident movement with a great deal of skepticism. What I do try to popularize is the history of resistance fighters – of which there was just a handful in post-WWII Russia: Yuri Galanskov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Anatoly Marchenko, Natan Sharansky…
DS: That’s why I like Paustovsky, because there is a spirit of humanity, kindness and liberalism to him. Not political liberalism, but as in “We are all people.” And you don’t find that in a lot of Russian writers, in my opinion. But I guess my point with Brodsky is just that… I think it was Brzezinski who said in the 1990s that Russia can learn to be just a regular country and live without Ukraine. But if it continues to think of itself as an empire – which it does – it will have to take Ukraine.
No matter what happens post-Putin, I just don’t see Russia becoming in the next century or so Denmark or Sweden. I just don’t see how it ever happens.
AO: But Russia is also such a threat to the free world.
DS: Very much so. Totally. One hopes that the war will end and that peace can be restored, but it’s hard to see how that happens or how it all ends.
AO: It’s hard to see how things will end, especially when even the Russian intelligentsia is in the state of denial. Their two reactions are “we have nothing to do with this” and “we are the victims.” Which is quite incredible.
DS: Which is the continuation, I would say, of the past ways of thinking about themselves. Whatever happens in Russia, it’s never their fault.
AO: And they are always the victim.
DS: Self-inflicted victim.
AO: Here is my last question. Almost every Russia expert I have spoken to in the United States would refer to Navalny as a great hope for Russia. Which always sounds very strange to anyone who is an ethnic minority, and to whom Navalny is so obviously a nazi.
DS: We kind of touched upon this earlier. He possesses considerable personal bravery. He was in Berlin, where he could have said, “I am not going to go back there.” And nothing would probably happen to him.
AO: But there have certainly always been a lot of brave nazis.
DS: You could argue that as well. Discussing Russia in terms of one or two individuals – one has a black hat, one has a white hat – is so simplistic and misses all the factors that are more important than who is going to be sitting in the Kremlin. I wouldn’t claim to know if Navalny is this, that or the other. But what I would say is just putting one man in the seat of power doesn’t necessarily mean democracy is going to break out and there's going to be political pluralism. Which isn't to say it's not impossible.
And some people say, “Look at Germany after 1945, look at Japan after 1945, no one would have thought they would become democratic countries.” And I say to that, true, but they were completely and utterly defeated and subjugated by foreign powers. They were literally on their knees and didn't have any wiggle room. Russia's always had plenty of wiggle room. And so I just think reducing it to Navalny walking free, and that somehow a new day would dawn on Russia… I don't see the reason to be that optimistic.
AO: Yes. When people – especially in America – call Navalny the hope of Russia, I find it very naïve.
DS: Individuals are important, at certain moments. Lenin was important You look at this country and think, would we have had the civil rights movement without a figure like Martin Luther King?
AO: Oh, definitely. Absolutely. There were so many talented black Americans. Educated, brilliant, driven.
DS: But there were so many figures. I don't know who combined all of the things he did. I don’t know. I will just end with this. I reviewed a book called To Break Russia's Chains by Vladimir Alexandrov, a professor of literature at Yale University. It's a big, sprawling biography of Boris Savinkov.
[Boris Savinkov was a Russian Empire writer and revolutionary. As one of the leaders of the Fighting Organization, the paramilitary wing of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, Savinkov was involved in the assassinations of several high-ranking imperial officials in 1904 and 1905. - Ed.]
And the author’s argument boils down to this: if Savinkov had won the day, and not Lenin and Stalin, Russia would have developed into a free country, something along the lines of western Europe. I found the argument unconvincing for a number of reason. But the larger point I want to make is that when it comes to Russia, folks are always looking for a shining knight on a white horse, you know, who would have been, or will be, Russia's savior. I think we need to resist such notions.
Photo credit: Robert Wade