Wednesday 7 July 2010

The Third Rome

In her Molotov’s Magic Lantern – A Journey in Russian History Rachael Polonsky describes coming across what she describes as a ‘creepy’ book in the Lenin Library in Moscow. It’s called The Formation of the Russian Character on the Example of the Historical Fate of the Staraya Russa Region, published in 2003.

In this she discovered that Staraya Russa, the setting, fictionally disguised, for Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and the place were he completed Demons, is being used to cultivate a mystique, to serve what she describes as “Russia’s new era of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality.” This quiet backwater, the very heart of the old Orthodox Rus, has become the heartland of a kind Slav version of a blut und boden mythology.

The book was published under the auspices of the FSB, the successor to the old KGB, the security apparatus from which Vladimir Putin emerged. It comes with the approval of all sorts of people, soldiers and security specialists, detailing, as it does, the primal superiority of Russia, her God-bearing mission, all proved by the presence of salt in the soil of Staraya Russa, the ancient homeland of the Rus, who are the "salt of the earth."

The book, according to Polonsky, is full of all sorts of bogus claims backed up by ‘scholarship’ of the most tendentious kind. Putin is mentioned every few pages, his name invoked in ever more reverential tones. The hagiography also draws on a spurious etymology, even associating the root of the name Putin with Christ himself!

There is something odd happening in Russia, a kind of regression, if I can put it like that, though into what I have no clear idea. All I can see is the outline of some peculiar hybrid, uniting elements that are uniquely Russian, even if they are as contradictory as Stalin and Dostoevsky, paganism and orthodoxy.

Russia is clearly attempting to ‘rediscover’ itself, a rediscovery that appears to be based on some highly dubious ideological foundations. It’s perhaps not too outrageous to suggest that there may even be a place for the Black Hundreds, the notorious anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist movement of Tsarist days, in this witches' cauldron.

I admire Russia; I admire its history and its culture. It’s also true that every country relies on myth to some degree or other in upholding the idea of nation. But the country seems to be heading in a somewhat perverse direction, evidenced by the current prosecution for blasphemy of the organisers of an exhibition of modern art, headed by Yuri Samodurov, accused by a group of militant religious radicals who claim to be backed by the Orthodox Church. What they most certainly have is the support of the state prosecution service, which has agreed that the Sakharov Museum, where the exhibition was held, is guilty of “anti-state” and “anti-Orthodox” activity, an unusual return to a distant past.


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  2. Thanks, Adam. I certainly hope things settle down though I do see kind of adolescent uncertainty just at the moment, a political and ideological clumsiness, evidenced by the laughable Anna Chapman spy ring.

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  5. The paranoia here, if it is paranoia, has to be on both sides, but the whole thing is an embarrassment. I dare say it will be settled quickly.

  6. I'm not sure how this is different to Stalins Rule, Lenins rule, or Tsar rule.

    It looks like "the obvious superiority of the German race" because it is like that.

    It seems the Russian leadership, born and forged when Russia bowed to no one, has woken up and realised that its poor, feeble and doesnt like it.

    Expect a "stab in the back" story to emerge next, (what war did the soviets lose?), the 90's and its politicians to be painted black and the Communsit era to be revered, but not emulated.

  7. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

  8. Dominic, history does have a pattern if one knows where to look. Russia has been here before - Boris Godonov and the Time of Troubles followed by the new Romanov dynasty; then Boris Yeltsin and the New Time of Troubles followed by Tsar Vladimir!