by Gaither Stewart
Writer, Dandelion Salad
June 17, 2020
“A civilization reveals itself as fruitful by its ability to incite others to imitate it: when it no longer dazzles them it is reduced to a mere collection of odds and ends and vestiges of former worldly greatness. The successive attempts of Napoleon and Hitler to create a world empire failed, as the United States of North America has failed in our time because any initial attraction they might have exerted on the conquered transformed into resistance and hate as a result of their genocidal policies or military occupation and/or exploitation of the resources of the conquered lands instead of gradual absorption and acceptance of different peoples and the furthering of local cultures.” (Paraphrased from Cioran’s Histoire et Utopie)
We strolled down the gorge-like Via del Corso extending straight as an arrow for 1.6 kilometers from the city center at Piazza Venezia—from where all distances from Rome are measured—toward Piazza del Popolo. I was trying to get the art historian from Paris to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in time to visit Caravaggio. Still, from time to time, Professor Weidle stopped, holding me by an arm, pointing out and expounding on another historic palazzo along the main drag, its fading lines rendered almost invisible by the chaos of traffic and shoppers, buses, taxis, police cars and dark blue limousines carrying state ministers to crucial conferences in the government buildings back behind us. The chance of lifetime for me. For the renowned art historian knew everything about the world of art, Italian architecture, and his native Russia, too. But it seemed he wanted to impart to me as much of his knowledge of Italian art history as I could absorb before we settled on the subject of Russia: he would speak briefly in his quiet way about the importance of the Russian icon and Andrey Rublev before interrupting himself to identify another palazzo along our way.
Until finally, once inside the tenebrous basilica, Vladimir Weidle used Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul to exemplify his theses concerning the “horizontal” nature of Russian culture in the vastness of a landscape where everything—nature, people, language—remains the same, unending and unchanging, with only rare cases of “vertical” cultural impulses like the genius of Rublev. (Now, that was more like it. A real interview.) He said there was never in Russia a fully formed classical style as in Italy or the Gothic in France; there was no creation by the combined resources of the nation of a common artistic language capable of enduring….
Weidle’s words confirmed that Russians identify instinctively with dichotomy and dialectical thinking. Maybe it is their East-West character. Yes, most certainly. I recall the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev who holds that Russian Communism is difficult to understand precisely because of its twofold nature: “On the one hand,” he wrote, “it is international and a world phenomenon; on the other it is national and Russian.” In fact, Russians’ historical national roots determined the character of Russian Communism. And those roots—roots and influences, not explosions of Weidle’s “vertical culture”—are extremely complex and disconcertingly discontinuous: Russians are an Eastern people but who were subject to powerful but alternating influences from both East and West. Thus because of the vastness of its lands, Berdyaev writes, its endless plains extending to the East, it is hopeless to search for an organic unity in Russia’s long history. Over the centuries its peoples faced successively the Tartar invasions from the East and the influence of non-Russian ideas from the West.
The Mongol (Tartar) domination of Russia (1240-1480) is considered even more ruinous than Western imperialism of our times. The Mongols brought the physical destruction, occupation and colonization of much of the known world of then. Militarily, the Mongol-Tartar invasion was devastating, its historical effect ambivalent and long-range significance immeasurable. Berdyaev (born Kiev, Russia, 1874, died, Clamart, France, 1948) did not witness the extent of superpower U.S. imperialism but he knew the Mongols. After widespread destruction and massacres of populations from China to Germany, the Mongol occupiers reigned over most of Russia from their capital near the Caspian Sea; mingling little in everyday Russian life, and demanding chiefly financial tributes and recognition of their domination—during which they themselves were gradually assimilated by the conquered … while Russians did not allow themselves to be tartarized by the conquerors. Hence, Russian historians have been divided between those who pay little attention to the Mongol domination and those who stress its destructive influence on Russia.
Perhaps the most enduring effect of the Mongol yoke was to cut off the dominated Russian lands from the West causing Russia to look eastwards, so powerful an influence that Russian civilization did not even experience the Renaissance of the West. Only later, Tsar Peter the Great traveled in the West and built St. Petersburg in order to turn Russian eyes westwards by force. Yet the divisions between Russia’s Westernizers who still today look westwards and Slavophiles who cling to pure Russian traditions and its Eastern soul have persisted. So that today the Russianness of the Slavophile outlook is much in vogue, that shadow influence buttressing Russia’s cold shoulder toward U.S. imposed economic sanctions.
On the other hand, as Berdyaev writes in The Origin of Russian Communism: “the immensity of those territories to the East and the absence of boundaries came to be expressed in the breadth of the Russian spirit. In contrast, the West (Europe, he meant) values conciseness and categories and form, everything that Russia is not. Form is not something that falls easily to Russians.”
The categorization of ‘this is mine’ and ‘that is yours’ is not a traditional Russian quality. On the other hand, sharing, solidarity and the collective were inherent in the chiefly peasant people of both pre-revolutionary and Soviet Russia and the question of social justice has always been dominant. So it is an historical irony that the quality of social justice has become a far-reaching issue facing all of mankind in today’s times of declining capitalism: the issue of social justice touches on the lives of contemporary Russians, West Europeans, Asians, Africans and Americans of North and South. Moreover, the emergence of the question of social justice everywhere has made the word Socialism (rather than simply spurious Social Democracy) again a popular consideration in the capitalist USA.
Novelist Joseph Roth, one of those extinct Hapsburgian East Europeans (his origins lay in Galicia, now Ukraine, on the Eastern borders of the Old Empire) agreed with Slavophiles. In his novel The Silent Prophet based on his stay in Moscow in 1926 Roth writes that “Russia’s faults are really the consequence of hasty endeavors to copy the West … Russia would be sound and rich without the stupid aspiration held by a certain section of its ruling class to become civilized and be regarded … as proper Europeans.” In the Russia of then, he notes, everything that lies in the middle, between reaction and revolution, was foolish. And such was the cornerstone of the political philosophy of Lenin the great realist for whom the world consisted ultimately of two categories: Communists and Anti-Communists.
Berdyaev makes one of the most astute and surprising analogies between pre-revolutionary Russia and Soviet Russia, an analogy which to a limited extent can also be applied to the capitalist Russian Federation of today: Profession of the true, the Orthodox faith was the test of belonging to the Russian kingdom. (Something like today to be an Italian means to be a Roman Catholic—even if you’re atheist.) In exactly the same way profession of the true communist faith was to be the test of belonging to Soviet Russia.
An understanding of Russian Communism requires some knowledge of the country’s long and tortured history as above. Vladimir Vasilevich Weydle (born 1895 in St. Petersburg, Russia, writer and poet and Professor of art history at the University there until 1924, then in Paris) in his Russia: Absent and Present writes: “Russia’s history is not one of success.” Because, he explains, Russia has lacked continuity. It is always starting over. After the Mongols it had to start over. Again after Ivan the Terrible. And after the Westerner, Peter the Great, a new start was necessary. It therefore seems inconceivable—after the two centuries of the Mongol yoke, after Napoleon’s European armies destroyed Russia’s cities and burned Moscow, and after Nazi armies laid waste to the country up until their defeat by the Red Army costing Russia twenty-seven million lives—inconceivable that such a people is now the world’s third economic power, that this people that has suffered harshly throughout its history, a civilization that has started over time after time, that this people claims not to give a damn about America’s sanctions—sanctions now opposed by a growing number of America’s own European allies such as Germany and Italy.
Not only has Russia survived. Russia has claimed to be the savior of the West. Russian Communism had the same aspirations: to save the world. The claim finds historical justification in Russia’s having absorbed the brunt of the Mongol-Tartar attacks on the West after which Russia paid the additional price of two centuries of servitude and exclusion from the rest of the world. During that period of isolation, Russia retreated on itself and became increasingly conscious of its roots—a past that includes its Eastern occupiers, recalling the old expression: ‘Scratch a Russian and find a Tartar’. Yet, all the while Russia was becoming increasingly powerful, until centuries later ends began coming together: its intelligentsia adopted Marxism on which it gave its Slavic imprint with its vestiges of the East which eventually sparked—and marked—the Russian revolution itself. Modified Marxism, i.e. Russian Marxism in revolutionary Russia became the official philosophy of Marxist Leninism, in which both Materialism and the concept of dialectical materialism remain intact. The result of all this history and theory was ineluctable: Revolution.
Hence the Euroasian-Socialist mark that flourishes today in Russia’s capitalist society which bears definite Marxist collectivist features and overtones. That heritage demonstrates that when a people with the wide breadth of view of Russians—its special and differentiating mirovozreniye or world outlook gained from its land expanses to the East and its complex history—when such a people adopts a foreign ideology as powerful as Marxism, the people assimilates and can change its nature. Lenin was a Marxist and a semi-Westernizer but he was also very Russian; he changed the essence of Marxism to suit Russia’s needs. Lenin never conceived of Russian Socialism/Communism as utopian; he was a realist who grasped Russia’s needs of the moment. However Marxism-Leninism changed Russian society fundamentally. Even though the USSR later dissolved in the flow of history and Russia had to start over again, I believe the Russian form of Marxism remains in the contemporary Russian DNA.
A Western Communism could not claim any of those purely Russian features. Russian Communism—the Comintern, or Communist International, and the Communist hymn, the International notwithstanding—Russian Communism was Russian and non-exportable. I have personally had relations with the Italian Communist Party (PCI), perhaps the foreign Party closest to the spirit of Russian Communism; it was not the same thing. It broke relations with the Soviet Union and its Communist Party after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. The French CP maintained relations after Prague when many Western CPs broke with Moscow; The French CP was closer to the bureaucratic Russian Party of those years, but not to the spirit of Russian Communism. At the last or one of the last FCP congresses in Paris I sat with a Soviet Western expert, who at one point observed: “This ain’t Moskva!”
Similar considerations apply to the East European countries of post-WWII: East German and Czech models of Communism differed from Polish, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Romanian Communism; all of which retained ineradicable national characteristics and differed from Russian Communism as demonstrated by revolts against Moscow in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Clearly, Moscow never controlled its East European satellites as the USA does much of West Europe today.
Many historians and writers point out that Russian people were always socialistic, a trait engrained in its illiterate peoples long before the revolution, manifested in peasant communes. A trait absent in the West in general, which at the most had enduring and widespread social democratic movements. A little socialism and a lot of capitalism.
Revolutionary theorists, armchair Socialists, even small radical groups were once active in Europe and the United States but nothing resembling the movements rooted in the Russian nineteenth century intelligentsia. The Russian intelligentsia was always ideological, anti-bourgeois and revolutionary-minded, it was in their blood. In their spirit. So it is no surprise that Lenin wrote in his What Is To Be Done: “It is either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle road here…. Therefore any belittling of socialist ideology, any alienation from it signifies the strengthening of the bourgeois ideology.” Russians—former peasants and workers and intelligentsia—have always detested the bourgeois; Westerners look up to the bourgeois, imitate them, and strive to become the same. So the Russian people understood Lenin perfectly … even though some Russians enjoy denigrating him today. But not at the time. And it is not surprising that in 2015 the Communist Party of the Russian Federation with a program of Socialism for Russia had 570,000 members, the second Party in Russia, while recent polls show that more than 50% of Russians favor a return to the USSR.
For Russian Communists like Lenin or Stalin there was no middle road, no other paths to Socialism. Milovan Djilas—formerly second or third to Tito in Communist Yugoslavia who left the Party and became a dissident—confirmed to me in an interview and wrote in his book Conversations With Stalin—that at an intimate dinner in Moscow, Stalin, contrary to official Soviet policy, agreed with Tito on the existence of diverse paths to Socialism. According to Djilas, Stalin said—seriously, Djilas believed: “Today Socialism is even possible under the English monarchy; the revolution is not necessary everywhere. Recently a delegation of the English Labour Party was here and we discussed this subject. Yes, Socialism is possible even under English kings.” Stalin never expressed such opinions publically. And when shortly afterwards Labour won the elections and nationalized over twenty per cent of industrial production, Stalin never recognized Labour as a Socialist party.
Soviet-Russian Communism was something very different. And most certainly Stalin was joking about the English monarchy and Socialism.
Similarly, when at the same dinner Djilas observed that Yugoslavia’s government was essentially of the Soviet type—the Communist Party occupied all the key positions and there was no serious opposition party—Stalin disagreed: “No, your government is not Soviet—Yugoslavia is a cross between the France of De Gaulle and the Soviet Union.”
These two examples show that also Soviet supreme leadership considered Communism elsewhere as something very different from Russian Communism. Analogous to Islam in which countries outside Arabia such as Iran and Malaysia and Indonesia which converted later to Islam were considered different from the genuine faith, something impure, foreign to Islam itself. Pure Islam is Arabia and the Arabic language. Russia Communism was the great Russian expanses, Russia’s history and culture, and perhaps also the wide-ranging, flexible, beautiful Russian language.
In American propaganda all forms of Russian expansion is labeled imperialist aggression, citing the “annexation” of (Russian) Crimea, the invention of Russian intervention in Ukraine, and the unfounded claims of Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential elections. On the other hand, there is a basic difference between Russia’s historical expansion to the East from European Russia to the Pacific and American imperialism and aggression—which began with the Mexican War in 1846 and which has since expanded on a worldwide scale that the Mongols would admire. Russia’s incorporation of Siberia and the lands reaching to the Pacific Ocean was that of an empire which in the sixteenth century stood with its back to the West while eastwards it faced a huge and sparsely occupied territory containing enormous wealth. That is what the West in general and the USA in particular envies Russia for today: its natural wealth still buried under the soil beyond the Ural Mountains. Why should Russia have all that wealth? is the U.S. attitude, one reason for its century-old plot to subjugate Russia.
When the Russians turned westwards, Russia began a new start. Russian society changed dramatically. The Russian Empire defeated Napoleon and a century or so later the great Communist “beast” won World War II—again for the West as it had done against the Mongols. Communist Russia’s victory proved to be unforgivable in the West as if Moscow aggressors wanted to continue its march from Berlin to Paris and Rome. Cossacks in the fountains of the Eternal City and again marching up and down the Champs d’Elysées. Had Russian Slavophiles not always maintained that Russia was ‘destined to save the world’?
However, as Cioran wrote that claim was euphemistic. The bare expression “save the world” (i.e. save the West) did not mean to dominate it. “In reality, spiritual Russia has always felt both love and hate, attraction and repulsion, jealousy and aversion inspired by a rottenness (of the West), both enviable and dangerous, with which contact is sought as well as evaded.”
To keep in mind: The soul of the Russian people was first molded by the Orthodox Church taken from Byzantium. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, called the Second Rome, the Russian Orthodox Church remained as the home of Orthodoxy. Thus emerged the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome. “Two Romes had fallen, but the third stands … and there will be no fourth.” The doctrine of Moscow the Third Rome became the basic idea of the state and messianic symbol of the Sixteenth Century Moscow State of Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny-Ivan the Fearsome) and Tsar of All the Russias, ruled over a totalitarian state into which he merged Russian Orthodoxy to the degree that among the people emerged the conviction of a plot of the Church hierarchy and State to betray the true faith: the people broke with Church and State and went underground from which arose the Russian legend of the pure, utopian City of Kitezh hidden beneath a lake, a city that guaranteed social justice.
If ethics plays a major role in Russian social life, the aesthetical has formed to a great extent the Russian nature. George P. Fedotov notes in his book The Russian Religious Mind (Harvard University Press, 1946) the special significance to Russia of the quality of beauty which is linked also to goodness as in the Old Slavic word dobrota. A kind of beauty that is goodness, a goodness that is beautiful. A major aspect of nature—of which the Russian feels a part—is beauty. And that sense of beauty enters into Russian art. “There is no doubt that the Russians are and always were gifted for the arts,” writes Fedotov. “The pictorial art, however, was not only protected, but created by the Church…. ” That predisposition to pictorial art continued in the Soviet era of Socialist Realism. Nor was there ever a time throughout the Stalinist era and even World War II when the icon traffic from Russia to the West ceased. Nor, I would add, were ALL churches closed. I checked some of them out in the 1970s and 80s. Dark and mysterious, but open.
Intellectual asceticism, nihilism and materialism were traits of the nineteenth century revolutionary character of the Russian intelligentsia, qualities then superimposed on the inherent sense of social justice among a largely illiterate people by Leninist revolutionaries. A winning formula in Russia. A winning formula in the Russian Revolution. But a combination totally lacking in the West.
Nihilism cannot be overemphasized in an understanding of Lenin’s generation of revolutionaries. Berdyaev defines Russian nihilism as “a revolt against the injustices of history, against false civilization, a demand that history shall come to an end, and a new life, outside or above history, begin…. a demand for nakedness, for the stripping from oneself of all the trappings of culture, for the annihilation of all historical traditions, for the setting free of the natural man, upon whom there will no longer be fetters of any sort.” Again a new start for Russian society.
Such was the maximalist nature of the Russians who became the revolutionaries who in October of 1917 made the greatest revolution of our times. A revolution that still appeals to major parts of mankind and changed the history of the world. And such was the Russian maximalist nature of the leader who “made” the very “Russian” revolution, the professional revolutionary, Vladimir Ilyich (Ulyanov) Lenin, from the start dedicated totally to one idea: Revolution in Russia. According to Lenin, the duty of his group of “professional revolutionists was to dedicate not only their free evenings but their whole life to working for the Revolution.” (David Shub: Lenin) From the year 1900 when Lenin crossed the border into Germany to head the movement that was to overthrow Tsardom and Russian Capitalism, the movement began becoming his. He lived a long period in Munich-Schwabing, in London in the neighborhood of King’s Cross Road, in working class districts of Paris, Brussels, Geneva. He learned Western languages and to some extent the cultures, but he was never a Westernizer; he remained profoundly Russian. He was little concerned with world revolution as was Trotsky.
Lenin worked for the Russian revolution. No other Communism, no Western strain, could possibly be compared to his Russian idea. Lenin once said of his one-tracked idea and his frequent brutal methods: “Revolution is a different matter. It cannot be made with gloves and manicured nails.” (Maybe those words were the (wistful) model for Sartre’s character Hoederer in Dirty Hands.)
Stalin or the Georgian, Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, was born December 21, 1879, in the town of Gori in Russian-dominated Georgia and baptized as Greek Orthodox. His father was a poor, hard-drinking cobbler, his mother a doting washer woman, both of whom were former serfs. They lived in a tiny abode on the town’s outskirts. His childhood was one of such squalor and poverty that later he was the only member of the Soviet leadership who had actually breathed serfdom and working class poverty. Except for smallpox when he was six, which left his face pockmarked, Joseph was strong, curious, and the best student in his five years at the ecclesiastical school of Gori. Soso (Georgian for Joseph) now fifteen obtained a scholarship to the Theological Seminary in Tiflis—the breading ground of the Georgian intelligentsia—which marked him for life. Both schools were taught in Russian and Soso was a prolific reader, e.g. the fiction of Gogol and Chekhov and political writings. But Russia was the major influence on him. Russia meant Europe to Joseph and made of him a semi-Westernizer. Russification of Georgia permitted the spread of revolutionary ideas there as in all of the Caucasus. So that an already rebellious Joseph Djugashvili entered naturally into opposition groups, read Socialist and Marxian writings, joined the Russian Social Democratic movement (Lenin’s party) and ran a few workers’ study circles.
Isaac Deutscher wrote in his Stalin that Djugashvili later revealed the motives of his adherence to socialism: “I became a Marxist because of my social position, but also … because of the harsh intolerance and Jesuitical discipline that crushed me so mercilessly at the Seminary.” The fact that his parents were born serfs and were lowly workers distinguishes Djugashvili-Stalin from almost all the other leading figures in the Russian revolution: Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Radek, Lunacharsky were all distant from Stalin’s background.
I have used here extensively the biography Stalin, by Isaac Deutscher, (1907-1967) born in Cracow, Poland, member of Polish Communist Party until his expulsion in 1932. He emigrated and lived and worked in London as a journalist for the Economist and wrote his books on the Soviet Union including a Trotsky trilogy. In the introduction to the 1968 revised edition of Stalin, he writes that he tried to remain as “uncontroversial as possible” Deutscher relates the anecdote that Tito’s friend Moshe Pijade explained to him why Yugoslavia refused to publish a Yugoslav edition of Stalin: “The trouble with your book is that it is too pro-Soviet whenever we quarrel with the Russians; and it is too anti-Soviet when we try to be friendly with them.” That is the Deutscher who shows Stalin’s triumphs as “inevitable,” and that also Stalinism was inevitable, to which violently anti-Communists like Franz Borkenau in CIA-financed Congress For Cultural Freedom publications pronounced that “Stalinist terror drives Stalin’s Russia, no less than Nazi terror drove Hitler’s Germany.” This black analogy of Communism and Nazism has become a cornerstone in Western hate for Russia today.
Anti-Stalinism was long ago transformed into a major instrument of anti-Communist and anti-Russian propaganda, and academic blathering (led by people like Robert Conquest and his The Great Terror about the so-called Stalinist purges of the 1930s). Anti-Stalinism is opposed by a small group of Stalinist” revisionists”. Professor Grover Furr, labeled a historical revisionist on a quest to exonerate Stalin from his crimes, affirms that in essence Khruschev lied about Stalin and the cult of personality in his secret speech at the 1956 Party Congress of the CPSU. Yet the Russian Orthodox weekly, Russki Vestnik describes Furr’s findings “objective and impressive”, as do I. Furr says that the Katyn massacre was not committed by the NKVD and that the defendants—Zinoviev, Kamenev et al—in the Moscow trials of 1936 were guilty, and that in his many years of research he had yet to find one “crime” that Stalin committed. Consequently Furr is also labeled “one of the most dangerous historians in America”. He is criticized by conservative, viciously anti-Russian, anti-Putin websites like David Horowitz’s FrontPage Magazine and the Glazov Gang led by Jamie Glazov, son of a Soviet dissident who was ironically much more scholar and less anti-Russian than his son.
It should be said that Stalin from his often forgotten lowly Georgian beginnings became both cultured and Russified. As a student and twenty-year old Social Democratic activist in Georgia he wrote articles and some verses in the local press. Later, in Chapter Four of the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union he wrote an exposition of dialectical and historical materialism, which appeared as an untitled book copyrighted in 1940, published in English by International Publishers Co, Inc. and printed in the USA. (I don’t recall when I acquired this rare copy of the thin, black, forty-page, hard-cover book, with my name on the front page in the handwriting of my first wife.)
Finally, a further word from Vladimir Vasilevich Wedle in the ambulatory interview he gave me in the 1970s in Rome. In a far-sighted summing up of the position of the Russia he knew he said: “In the spiritual world, Russia is on the margin of the West; in the material world it is the West that is on the margin of Eurasia …. Today this position on the map takes on a new historical significance…. The cycle that is beginning is raising the question of Europe once again. On what America and Russia can make of Europe’s civilization depends their future …and the future of this civilization.”
Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, published by Punto Press. His latest book is the essay anthology Babylon Falling: Essays About Waning Qualities and Studies of Failing Empires (Punto Press, 2017).
From the archives:
Caleb Maupin: What is the Lumpenproletariat? + Will Griffin: What Are The Principles of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism?
Caleb Maupin: Social Democracy: What It Is and How Communists Relate To It
Caleb Maupin: The Actual Nature of Revolution
Russian Intellectuals and the Intelligentsia by Gaither Stewart
Lenin on Compromises by Gaither Stewart, Part 1
Definitions: The Intelligentsia By Gaither Stewart
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WOW! That was so fascinating! I love all that historical context. I am a huge lover of Russian cinema. Go see Russian films to get more of cultural sensitivity.
So glad you enjoyed it, Amy. It’s an excellent piece, in my opinion.