There is something I dread at dinner parties: being asked about ‘Russia’. I hope and pray, pray and hope, that no-one has heard I was a ‘Russianist’ in another life, lived in Russia under the Communist regime, smuggled for Sakharov etc, played cat and mouse with the KGB, saw and experienced ghastly, even terrible things. Normal English people find this all so exotic and fascinating that they can’t resist asking me about it. Before you know what’s happened the subject is dominating the dinner table and there’s no way back. On the whole, it’s not a good idea to discuss death at a dinner party. It kills conversation.
But 7 November will be the centenary of what many would regard as the biggest disaster to hit Russia since the Mongol Invasion, namely the Bolshevik seizure of power. It would be a misinterpretable act not to say something on this occasion. In any case, George Calderon had at least as deep an experience of Russia as me, he witnessed something more traumatic than me — the immediate aftermath of the trampling to death of 1300 people in Moscow during Nicholas II’s coronation in 1896 — and the development of his attitude to Russia between 1895 and 1914 is instructive.
Let us take the plunge, then, in George’s company.
The kinds of question normal English people can’t wait to ask me are: What do you ‘think’ about Russia? How/why did Russia end up with Putin? Is Russia really a threat to the West? What is going to happen to Russia after Putin? Is authoritarian rule all that Russians ever want? Do any Russians desire democracy, the rule of law, mafia-free markets etc? What do you think Russians should do? Does Russia have a future?
I will touch on these questions, but only very lightly. You see, I haven’t been a ‘Russianist’ for over twenty years and I never wanted to be one in the first place. In the 1970s I was interested in certain Russian writers: in Chekhov, rather than Tolstoi and Dostoevskii, in Pushkin, Tiutchev, Voznesenskii, Brodsky. But in those days you couldn’t just be interested in Russian literature, you had to buy into the whole of Russia’s past and present. You had to ‘catch the Russian virus’, as the saying goes. Russians expected you to become Russian, to live like them, think like them, preferably marry a Russian (I received a few proposals!), and where the regime was concerned you had to take sides (I went with the dissidents). That is a way of getting inside a foreign culture, of course, but personally I had to come out of it again. I could only grow from my very English roots; although the Russian compost was undoubtedly beneficial. Most weeks I still read something by Chekhov, Mandel’shtam, Pasternak or Brodsky, but that’s the extent of my interest in ‘Russia’ (i.e. as some vast Gestalt or ideo-historical system). I engage with Russian writers as writers, but I have absolutely no desire to get involved with ‘Russia’. This means I have no desire to opine about ‘Russia’. It doesn’t interest me.
There is another reason, however. I don’t consider I am qualified by identity to opine about Russia. As an English person, I have an attitude to Russia that derives from my cultural and political values, but it would be absurd for me to criticise Russia or say what I think Russians should think or do about their country. That is the prerogative of Russians, and I am simply not a Russian. As Pushkin wrote to his friend Viazemskii:
Of course, I despise my native country from head to toe — but I’m annoyed if a foreigner shares with me this feeling.