All Points

In the Land of the Tsars

Russia’s self-inflicted history

By William Deresiewicz | June 30, 2013


Is there a sadder spectacle, in world affairs, than Russia and its history? Other nations know their periods of darkness; only there does darkness seem a permanent condition. Other nations develop, decline, change their form of government, absorb ideas from abroad, surprise themselves and others. Russia alone is frozen in place. Ages of autocracy give way to revolutions that change nothing. The liberal hopes of the long 19th century—for freedom, enlightenment, decency, modernity—which are everywhere in the literature of the period, and which eventuated in the October Revolution, were snuffed out by Stalin within seven years. Again the climb began: Khrushchev, détente, Gorbachev, glasnost—at last the great collapse, the great liberation. And less than nine years later, Putin, latest incarnation of the tsars, whose grip grows tighter by the month.

But this time there is no excuse: the people voted for him—64 percent, in the last election, compared to 17 percent for the second-place finisher (a Communist, no less). The vote was rigged, but it wasn’t that rigged. Russia is vast, the apologists say; it needs a strong hand to hold it together. Indeed, the first qualities that come to mind, when I think of the country, are immensity and cruelty. The Russian people appear to be conducting a long-term experiment to see whether brute force constitutes a sufficient basis upon which to organize a society. The results are in: stagnation, abjection, alcoholism, despair; kleptocracy, corruption, environmental depredation; anarchy on the roads and in the streets; a mob that makes the Cosa Nostra look like social workers. This is not the whole story, of course. It seems to be, persistently, the center of the story.

Perhaps you can tell that I’ve been reading Dostoevsky—The Brothers Karamazov in particular. A few pages into the book, we read the following in reference to Ivan and Alyosha’s mother, a meek, gentle, innocent girl: “Later this unhappy young woman, who had been terrorized since childhood, came down with something like a kind of feminine nervous disorder, most often found among simple village women, who are known as shriekers because of it. From this disorder, accompanied by terrible hysterical fits, the sick woman would sometimes even lose her reason.” Only Russian barbarism, I believe, was capable of giving rise to a literature of such phenomenal power and depth, one in which the primal emotions are opened like wounds from a knout. The famous Russian soul is human nature in extremis.

It takes no act of imagination to read the novel’s titular family as an allegory of Russia itself. The brothers, Dostoevsky would have us understand, divide the national character: Dmitri, the wild sensualist and sentimentalist; Ivan, the tormented idealist; Alyosha, the patient saint. And looming over all, forming and deforming them, the father, the autocrat, the despot. The novel lets us see what happens—not just among the Karamazovs, but everywhere we look—when people have been granted absolute authority over one another. The judicial process in which the story culminates is a kind of ironic joke. There is no justice here.

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