What’s Wrong with the Russians?

Russian film director Andrei “Russophobe” Konchalovsky, writing on Open Democracy:

“Cursed be those who express our thoughts before us!”

— Aelius Donatus, Roman grammarian and teacher of rhetoric

Donatus, living in ancient Rome, was fortunate – he wanted to be the first to express a seditious thought. If I, living in today’s Russia, wish to express an opinion that someone might find offensive, I need to attribute it to some recognised authority, ideally an eminent Russian thinker. Otherwise I will be accused of every sin in general, and of hatred of everything Russian in particular.

So, here are my thoughts.

“I am particularly suspicious, particularly distrustful of a Russian in power – a recent slave himself, he becomes the most unbridled despot as soon as he is given any authority over his neighbour. “  Thus wrote Maxim Gorky in his ‘Untimely Thoughts’ninety years ago, but just as timely today.

We encounter despots on an hourly basis – the doorman demanding to see your pass; the woman in the ID card office asking for extra documents; the customs officer going through your luggage – at such moments you have a clammy sensation of terror and humiliation – another symptom of slavery. In Gorky’s words, we are recent slaves who, having cast off “our outward slavery, continue to feel ourselves slaves within”. This is how we should understand Chekhov’s remark that we must “squeeze the slave out of us drop by drop”. And that is not easy.

“Truth”, to quote Gorky again, “in its ‘honest’ form, untainted by the interests of individuals, groups, classes or nations …. is highly inconvenient to the man in the street and therefore unacceptable to him. This is the damned annoying thing about ‘honest truth’, but it is still the kind of truth we need most”. So, let’s talk honestly about  us – Russians.

When analysing the Russian character, we can undoubtedly count among its positive elements sensitivity, kindness and hospitableness, quick wittedness, sympathy and compassion, as well as a capacity for self-sacrifice and altruism. Its main negative features, on the other hand, are inconsistency and low self-esteem, cruelty, lack of belief in oneself and one’s future, indifference to one’s present, lack of interest in, and respect for, property. The Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev discussed this in his 1915 article ‘The Psychology of the Russian People. The Soul of Russia’, where he wrote, “Russia is a country of unbelievable servility and terrible humility, a country lacking any consciousness of the rights of the individual, and which fails to stand up for the dignity of the individual…” Is it hard to read this? It certainly is. But there it is – the honest truth.

“We encounter despots on an hourly basis – the doorman demanding to see your pass; the woman in the ID card office asking for extra documents; the customs officer going through your luggage – at such moments you have a clammy sensation of terror and humiliation – another symptom of slavery.”

Where did this aspect of the Russian character come from? I think a lot of it can be explained by our history, in which slavery, in the form of serfdom, survived until the middle of the 19th century. Serfdom existed in Russia until later than anywhere else, and was abolished a mere 150 years ago, whereas in most Western countries it ceased to exist several hundred years earlier, in the 12th-14th centuries. In Europe such concepts as civil society and economic relations as the basis of life, with the concomitant organisation of production, are also several centuries old. We need to admit that Russia lags several centuries behind Western Europe.

The abolition of serfdom led to widespread misery and disaster. The peasants may have been granted personal freedom, but they received no land outright, and had to pay the landlord to redeem it or work out an obligation to their landlord to have the use of it. They had expected their liberty and land, but their expectations were cruelly dashed. The government of the day delayed the publication of the Emancipation Manifesto signed by the Tsar until they had redeployed troops around the country. In the Kazan and Penza districts gunfire was used to disperse angry peasant crowds. The clandestine organisation ‘Land and Liberty’ was founded in 1876 to spread discontent with the reforms among the peasants and provoke social unrest, and the government responded with renewed force. It was only five years after the abolition of serfdom that the terrorist Karakozov made an attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II.

Firs, the old servant in Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’, says that all these troubles began with the Emancipation: “The peasants had their masters, the masters their peasants, and now everything’s all over the place, there’s no sense any more.” Emancipation aroused feelings of panic among the peasants, who were left without anywhere to turn for their social needs. Their landlord may have been a despot to them, but he also provided for their basic needs from cradle to grave. Over time this system had inevitably become, if not a tradition, at least a way of life. To quote Gorky again, “The conditions in which they [the Russian people – AK] lived could foster neither respect for the individual, nor any concept of civil rights, nor a feeling for justice – they lived without any rights, under total oppression, shamelessly lied to and subject to bestial cruelty. One can only be amazed that after all that the people retained a degree of human emotion and a certain amount of common sense.”

Chekhov’s phrase about “squeezing the slave out of us drop by drop” says a lot. Not about the author’s own serf background, but about the fact that Russians have an inbuilt tendency to defer to people in power. Consider me, for example – I have written about this before. As you walk through the Kremlin’s corridors of power, the higher the official you meet, the ‘lower’ you become. I get to then Prime Minister Kosygin’s office, and …can’t even touch the door handle.  As French writer Pierre Beauchamp wrote, “Palace doors are not as tall as people think. The only way to get through them is to bow low.”

This is a typical Russian thing – reverence towards the bosses. You need to constantly ‘squeeze’ this inherited Byzantine trait out of yourself – this residual feeling of obsequiousness, cringing, fawning and servility. You smile particularly widely at a VIP – it’s terrible, but there it is. If, on the other hand, someone is not, or not yet, a VIP, you can be as rude to them as you like, and even spit contemptuously in their direction after they pass. As Saltykov-Schedrin remarked, “We have no middle way – we either kiss someone’s hand or slap their face”.

Slavery is a vertical, a continuation of ‘Byzantine excesses’. For us Orthodox, God is above us, and we won’t sit in church – we either stand or kneel. And we see the earthly powers-that-be also as having their place on that vertical, between the individual and God. That is why a Russian idolises power, and a Swede, for example, not. Catholic churches have pews, and it seems to me that if you can sit, and your legs don’t go numb, then you can direct all your thoughts towards prayer, and not just long for the service to end. For Protestants, God is on a horizontal; that is why you can sit with him at a Communion table.

“The lack of a sense of responsibility that is characteristic of Russians is perhaps the most terrible legacy of slavery.”

Nikolai Berdyaev said that “freedom is difficult, slavery easy”. Indeed, being a ‘slave’ is very convenient: the boss takes all the decisions, “and I won’t lift a finger until someone tells me to”. The lack of a sense of responsibility that is characteristic of Russians is perhaps the most terrible legacy of slavery. A lack of responsibility to your country, the society of which you are a member, even your own parents and children!  And without a sense of responsibility there can be no sense of guilt. To quote Berdyaev again, “A feeling of guilt is the feeling of a master”. And this is why it is naive to call for a collective national act of repentance for the evils of Bolshevism.

I believe that the sense of historical guilt for Nazism shown by the German people demonstrates that this is a nation capable of taking responsibility for those tragic years when it took a conscious decision that resulted in monstrous acts of evil against humanity. We, on the other hand, do not suffer from a sense of historical guilt – we are convinced that Bolshevism was imposed on us, hammered into our souls, and that we are not responsible for anything – it is ‘THEY’ who are responsible! And how many more centuries will this continue?


10 responses to “What’s Wrong with the Russians?

  1. reminds me of Andrey Knyshev’s response to Chekhov – stop squeezing the slave out of yourself, we’re already up to the brows in shit as it is.
    But on a more serious note – Konchalovsky is spot on.
    and Gorky’s quote on how Russians ‘ they lived without any rights, under total oppression, shamelessly lied to and subject to bestial cruelty. ‘ is just as relevant today, unfortunately

  2. Russia was always the country of social mobility,so the yeasterday`s slave became the grandee(saying from dirt to prince}.That combined with military imperial character ( military-muzhik empire by A.Tolstoy) make Russian soldier-official. Remind the L.Tolstoy`s soldiers-serf peasants, they are not slaves on their service at all. In a sense all Russians are soldiers-officials of the Russian empire among the minorities.

  3. I’m not sure what you mean by “non-slaves at all”, the peasants were being forcibly conscripted for 25 years if drafted (at first – for life!).

  4. Of all the Russians i have met here in America they were all extremely cheap,very savvy in personal gain and the women lie with no shame.

    • I think u should join some white supremacist groups now, they’ll take you in. Wait, but Russians are whites. Oh. Then join a white Anglo-Saxon supremacy group. Wait, but you are not Anglo-Saxon. Dude, I don’t even know what to advice…

    • Poor poor thing! I pity you. People deserve their acquaintances, but your statement says nothing about Russians, it says a lot about you.

  5. The personal gain lying part is true, unfortunately. If you do busines with russians they always lie and tell you stories and make stuff bigger than the reality just to make themselves look grander (they’ve got this urge to look big and dangerous) and they’re more likely to rip you off if you’re not careful. It’s like doing business with gangsters, you always need to check everything and watch your back cuz there’s no respect towards you. A bit like jews maybe, exept jews tend to keep your bones intact.

    It’s so typical for russian people in discussions like this to start attacking and insulting others telling you to do this/go there instead of proving you’re wrong. It’s basically same as to admit everything that was said. Couldn’t they at least sound a bit less obvious?

    And btw impressment was not generally applied in Europe after Napoleon’s defeat. And in most cases it was a war-time practice intended to quickly rise army’s numbers. The system in Russia was what the ancient Roman empire used.

  6. Здравствуйте,Yes, there are some problems with our people, with our goverment… We want to live bestier, but we can’t. I have many ideas about this. In the goverment sits foolish, powerful and алчные (I donna, how this word translate) people. Russia was always in this situations. People are mass, want to lie, cause they want to believe, that it’s true. I want to say so many, but my english is not gave me this possibiliti. So, if yu want to talk with russian, please, write to me. Ask what you want. I will answered, how I see situation by ayes of casual man. ShapeevAndrey@gmail.com

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