It is late at night and I am full of dreams. I travel the vast labyrinth of the mind, these days inevitably to Russia. I live in a world which has no history, and so is ruled by a secret that it does not itself acknowledge: that very history. Nothing that happens in the present does not come from the past.
So now the Russians are once again cast as the evil aggressors, and indeed, their leader has no more grasp of history than do the equally historyless leaders of the west. But without an understanding of where the politics of the moment come from, you can make nothing in them but chaos.
A poem comes to mind, the prophetic vision of the twentieth century called Dover Beach, written by Matthew Arnold during the fading days of the agrarian world, just when steam was replacing the horse. It ends with the lines, “…we are here as on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night.”
This is our world, and has been since the blight of mechanical warfare fell upon us in 1914. In that year, ignorant old men began feeding young boys into killing machines. Nobody understood, not the old men and not the boys being ripped to pieces in the fields of France and across the bloodlands of the east.
As the Russian forces collapsed, the czar rushed in his special train, a rolling palace, to the western reaches of his dying empire, the land of the blood eagle, ruled by men in starched white uniforms who understood the secrets of the whip. That flag, with its screaming eagle, symbolizes the splitting of the chest of an overpowered victim. The rib cage, cut in two and raised like wings, is the blood eagle. Its beak spread wide, the tongue protruding, is the screaming victim. The flag of the Romanovs, in other words, is a warning of the terror they will inflict on their enemies.
This sense of being threatened lives in the deepest house of the Russian soul. And right now in the west we think, oh, my, why are they so crazy? NATO was no threat to Russia, but now, because of what they have done, it is.
In the thirteenth century, just three years after the Mongols invaded Russia, the Teutonic Order came in from the west, as always seeking from the people called Rus what they had in such abundance, which was and is their land. They were turned back in a famous battle on the River Neva, memorialized in Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky.
In the nineteenth century, Napoleon came with half a million westerners, mostly Frenchmen, sweeping deep into Russia almost unopposed until they came to a little town outside of Moscow called Borodino, and met there a general who knew the secret of inspiring Russians to stand for their motherland. Napoleon came with half a million. In the dead of winter he retreated across the frozen steppe disguised as “Prince Nijinsky,” heading back to the warm palaces of the west. The French speaking Russian aristocracy, who had themselves turned west in a quest for inclusion, never fully recovered the respect they had previously enjoyed among the common people.
Next came the Germans, first in World War I, when they decimated the badly armed, half starved and ineptly led czarist forces at Tannenberg. But then they spread poison in Russia, sending a biological weapon to the Finland Station in a railway car with blacked out windows. This poison had a name: Vladimir Lenin. Clandestinely aided by German secret agents and supported by German money, Lenin and his thugs pushed aside the nascent democracy that followed the abdication of the czar, ushering in the dark soviet times, and with them a bizarre and brutal genius called Joseph Stalin.
Soon the west came again, in the form of the most gigantic mugging ever attempted: Adolf Hitler sent his Nazi army off to steal Russia from itself. They were so confident of victory that they failed to supply themselves with anti-freeze, and found their vehicles frozen solid in the Russian winter, the dreaming spires of the Kremlin in view from their lookout points.
A fantastically brutal war followed as the Germans beat a slow, years-long retreat. In besieged Leningrad, people ate rats, and when the rats were gone they ate bodies, and when the bodies were gone they gagged down grass, exactly as the Ukranians had done under Stalin when, because he decided that, because they were too rebellious and too unproductive, they should not be allowed to eat.
One of the great secrets of that war was a decision that a few historians believe was made at the Casablanca Conference of 1943, to bleed both dictators slowly to death by mounting an invasion of Hitler’s conquests through North Africa and up the boot of Italy instead of crossing the English Channel in the summer of 1943. As a result, millions more Russians died than otherwise would have.
Then came the victory. Stalin, having seen that the west’s ages-long lust for the lands of the Rus had bled his people yet again, created an empire of buffer states even more extensive than the one that had been held by the Romanovs.
This held for seventy years of intricate and lethal policing, an empire of terror and lies.
Long after Stalin was dead and for reasons that remain obscure, the Soviets decided to conquer Afghanistan. Why they would commit the same error that had befallen the Greeks and later the British was anybody’s guess. In any case, this stupidity bled the Soviet Union to the point that it could no longer support itself and it collapsed of its own weight, sinking like a ship that has lost its rudder in a storm. The Americans defeated the Soviet forces by arming local villagers with simple but powerful shoulder-mounted missile systems. Later, of course, the Americans made the same mistake. After spending untold wealth, the false government they had created disappeared like a puff of magician’s smoke, and Afghanistan returned to the dolorous reality of its tribes and its ancient, terrible ways.
Soon after the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe discovered that concerted effort could rid them of their chains, and one after another, those nations became free. Now, many of them are in NATO and the Vladimir Putin, unable to see that democracies aren’t aggressive, dreams of restoring the buffer zone that has so often saved the Russians in the past.
As I write, I listen to a Russian child called Elisey Mysin play Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers side by side with another prodigy, Agafya Korzun. Their little baby hands fly across the keys. His YouTube channel reveals him to be an astonishingly capable concert pianist at the age of six.
But why not? That suffering, strange place called the Russian soul is full of magic. It rides the dreaming summer fields and the mad genius of their chess masters, of their authors and poets and the flying dancers of the Bolshoi.
I well remember how deeply Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment affected me when, as a young college student, I read it for my world literature class. I fell ill. In fact, I got so sick that I had to go to the student health center. But nothing was found to be wrong. The doctor was not deceived, though. He told my parents that I was suffering from “Roskolnikov Syndrome,” having taken too much to heart the descriptions of the disease that afflicts the novel’s main character.
My mind drifts across the dark steppe, lusted after so long by the constricted little countries of the west, to the vast dacha of Vladimir Putin where he sits in state at incredibly long tables that look as if they have been designed by a comedian. Unlike the Romanovs, he has not dignified his kleptocracy as an oppression ordained by God. Nor has he cloaked it in fake Marxism as the Soviets did theirs. No, he’s a straightforward thug: his only pretension to legitimacy is his ostentation. He came to power thanks to his predecessor, Boris Yeltsen, who knew that, as a criminal himself, he would protect Boris’s criminal relatives.
Since the day he gained power, he has been working toward the restoration of the ancient buffer zone. In the end he will fail, but this is not the end, not yet. The question will soon become a stark one: will the West be able to bear the economic disruptions that our isolation of Russia causes us longer than the Russians will be able to bear the disruptions it causes them?
He has sent his ramshackle army into the Ukraine in order to start the process of rebuilding the buffer zone. Just as Hitler was deceived by advisors who feared to tell him the truth that he could never defeat Russia, Putin believed that the Ukranians would be easy to beat. His soldiers went in carrying long-expired rations, but also parade uniforms for the victory marches he was told to expect in a matter of days.
It was a delusion, of course. People, once free, will defend that freedom with every drop of blood. They will never accept Russian domination. Moreover, Russians are not by nature aggressors. Not only that, Putin’s army is riddled with corruption. Its equipment is old. Its soldiers are afraid and too uninformed to feel anything but doubt, far away and surrounded by hostile forces they were led to believe would welcome them.
Nevertheless, it is possible that persistence and numbers will eventually overwhelm Ukranian resistance. Right now, the outcome remains in doubt.
As softly as a moth fluttering in the moonlight, I cross the steppe. I arrive at the dacha of the leader. His fear hangs like smoke in the air. There are hypervigilant guards everywhere, just as there were in Stalin’s time. They cannot see me, of course, because I am as a shadow in my own imagination.
I know this land, though, and the stars that at once curse it and draw from its soul the poetry that is Russia, the enduring presence of a great people who in all their time have never known freedom, but who endure and make beauty in the world anyway, bearing within themselves and into the future, their mysterious genius.
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