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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42 Comments

    1. And tears to mine also as it’s beautifully written and touched the soul of one who has both Russian and Ukrainian heritage.

  1. Thankyou Whitley.
    I attended a performance of Swan Lake by the Russian State Ballet of Siberia in January ..
    The beauty of that performance lifted my heart and mind , I didn’t want it to end . I,ve always loved Tchaikovsky.
    I also read ” Crime and punishment ” as a young adult . The affect on my pshyche was profound .
    I feel sad that ordinary Russian peoples have endured so much pain and suffering . The actions of those in power are never in the best interest of those who are the backbone of the nation .

  2. Thank you, Whitley for the poetic beauty of your work. I was also moved to tears. I have Russian Jewish heritage on my mother’s side and the stories of my great, great grandmother leaving Russia still linger at my age. I was told she spoke 3 languages or more and was loving and gentle. I live in an area of the city where many Russian people have settled and the ones I know are mortified by what’s happening in Ukraine. I’m not sure why the world didn’t seem to see this coming. Short of the amazing history you wrote about, Putin is getting older and fancies himself a Peter The Great. If he didn’t move soon to create his legacy he might not survive long enough to enjoy the admiration he dellusionally thinks he will enjoy for re-aquiring bits of Russia for his legacy. It was a short matter of time. I’m thinking he now has no way out of this saving face, and God help us all, it’s Ukraine or him.

  3. Beautifully written, Whitley…Russia has had a long, complicated history, beginning with being overrun by Viking conquerors who gave Russia its name.

    When my older son was three years old, he loved Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’. He would request it often, I’d put on the album to play, then he would listen intently with his thumb in his mouth. One day, he gazed at the album cover which depicted the cold, misery, and death that accompanied the battle between Napoleon’s forces and Russia. He popped his thumb out of his mouth, pointed at the album cover and said, “I was there, Momma.”

    I did not make a big deal out of what my son remembered, but I simply replied, “Really? That’s interesting!”. I never mentioned it again, but years later when he was an adult, he told me that he didn’t know details, but he was sure that he had been Russian at one time. I told him about what he had said when he was three, and he had no memory of that…but that tragic memory of what had occurred over 200 years ago was still there.

    1. My son and daughter had a few moments before the age of 5 that seemed to indicate “the veil” had not yet descended on them. Both said they were playing with a friend they named John, who was my fathers name and had passed away before their births. My wife stayed at home those early years and my kids had no real access to other kids at that time. It was thought provoking. Your son’s memories are detailed and hard to explain. Very interesting.

      1. I tried to keep ‘my weird stuff’ away from my kids for years and didn’t talk about it, but I found out that they must have inherited the ‘weird’ factor from me. My younger son is a lot more tight-lipped about his, but then he is military. The same son that loved ‘The 1812 Overture’ was also crazy about my collection of books about Ancient Egypt. He also pointed to a photo in one of those books saying, “That’s you, Momma.” (I won’t say who it was, because I was flabbergasted—since it dovetailed with ‘memories’ I had of that place and period.) As I’ve said before, I’m not sure about ‘past lives’, more like other lives being lived now—and bleeding over into into this ‘life’, or in your case, your dad crossing realms to play with his grandchildren, which is simply wonderful!

    1. Author

      How interesting about Egypt! I wonder how many others share that connection. The two books I bought on ancient Egypt when I was 11 years old are still on my shelf today. It has been a lifelong fascination.

      I’ve never had any idea of a life there. I think you’re lucky for the hint you got from your son.

      1. I actually have awareness of several lives in Egypt, keeping in mind that it was a long-lived ancient civilization. At least one acquaintance told me about one of those lives, which I had shared with no one. (Once again—flabbergasted!). I have an awareness of several others, at least one further back than ancient Egypt, more than one as indigenous Americans, and other locales/times as well. It’s kind of crazy, but I have gotten validations from unexpected people out of nowhere, as well as my son. My lifelong interest in Egypt began when I was ten, but I also never forgot a movie I saw on TV when I was about 7—‘The Egyptian’.

  4. Author

    Good question! I really don’t know where I end and the implant starts. I think that I am part of a marvelous community. It is the most precious thing in my body. I only wish it was something anybody could have.

      1. Author

        That’s what I thought at first. I was terrified. But now that I’ve learned to use it, I am thankful that I have it. I use it. It does not use me.

  5. You’re a staunch supporter of free will (few people aren’t), yet you have no problem with a device that was implanted in your body without your permission.
    Next..how do you know that it doesn’t use you?
    There are things we know we don’t know.
    There are things we don’t know we don’t know.
    There are additional aspects to this, but for now I’m just looking at this from purely logical/philosophical point of view.
    My opinion, I could be wrong.

  6. Author

    All of those thoughts went through my mind in 1989 when the implant was put in. Now, looking back on my life, I cannot identify anything that I have done that is negative or harmful to others. On the contrary, I have ended up on a life path that is defined by an effort to find and enact the good. So if the implant has influenced me, it has certainly not done so to my harm or that of others.

    1. We can be made to turn into Mother Teresa, it matters not.
      As mentioned, the foremost purpose of the alien presence is to remind us who we are, in other words, they are in tune with the Creator’s Will and therefor, unlike human implants, alien ones never: 1. Inserted without consent. 2. Interfere with the life of their subject.

  7. * We can be made to turn into Mother Teresa, it matters not.
    (system didn’t allow editing).

    BTW..
    Few comments on the latest Dreamland:
    1. Machu Picchu is pronounce Ma-chew Pee- chew
    2. The Earth axis will not be affected by the melting of the polar ice caps – just by land based ice (Antarctic ice, Greenland’s..).
    Not my opinion, facts.

  8. The last Soviet Union leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, stated in his memoirs that the ongoing Chernobyl nuclear disaster was the final cause of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The mostly free website WolframAlpha provides accurate and detailed descriptions of all radioactive isotopes, specifically their half-lives, the duration of which explains why Chernobyl’s explosion and collapse is the golem which Russia cannot escape. Radioactive cesium, for example, has a half life of about 32 years; that doesn’t sound too bad, except it’s still measurable in the environment for 10 half lives or 320 years. Nowadays few remember the range covered by the cloud of Chernobyl’s initial fallout — Eastern Europe, parts of the Soviet Union, but also much of Greece, much of central and northern Italy, other large areas of Western Europe, most of Turkey, etc. We are now at 36 years on, so the 1st half-life of radiocesium at Chernobyl is completed, which leaves 9 half-lives to go, 288 years. We also know that radioactive isotopes move around in the environment. These are contaminants that cannot be permanently contained, and there’s nothing affordable about even temporary fixes; the new multi-billion dollar Chernobyl roof is rated for only 100 years.

  9. The Russian people are the musicians, composers, authors, ballerinas and skaters, that the many of the west long to be. It would seem that the long years of oppressed nights has found the peoples’ creative hearts. I immersed myself from the age of 8 in Rachmaninoff, and the Russian Easter Overture, and at 14 in Dosteyevsky and the rest. It might be thought that if not for their politics and consistent oppressive government we might be lacking in a great portion of our literary and musical titles. Thank you for this timely entry that makes me fully aware that Putin does not in any sense stand for who the Russian people are. He is just the present selfish, greedy, beady eyed, violent, murderous excuse for a leader of Russia.

  10. The Russians are a damned and corrupted people. I have neither pity nor love for those creatures. They are human filth and they need to be isolated from our world like a cancerous growth, because that’s what Russia is now, a cancer. The Russians had brutal encounters with and against the VIsitors and the Russians will be just as brutal to us. Anyone who wishes to romanticize Russia is a idealistic fool.

  11. Author

    This is exactly the sort of attitude that has caused us to kill each other through all of our history. When I asked Anne to define compassion for me, she said, simply, “each of us is all we have.” That applies to Russians, too. And what of the Germans? They committed the greatest crimes in history. Shall they also be condemned for the blood that runs in their veins?

    1. The Russians have no compassion for us. I cannot afford to give them any.

    2. Told you so…

      Only Human Filth can engage in widespread sadistic behaviour.

      Ukrainians Reel At The Horror Of Russian War Atrocities: https://youtu.be/skftnaB2UZw

      GRAPHIC CONTENT – Ukraine accuses Russian soldiers of rape, murder: https://youtu.be/I7nAuG4xtl0

      Tortured and murdered civilians: how Russia’s occupiers have taken Kyiv region residents’ lives away: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37v1AZ7uBBg

      ‘They Killed People Systematically’: Bucha Residents Describe War Crimes By Expelled Russian Forces: https://youtu.be/HaCD0XlxYgA

  12. I focus my IRE not on the citizens forced to live in terrible regimes, but upon the psychopathic leaders that hold sway.

  13. This is beautiful and I have no doubt that you were there because I heard your stories. This is a power that Putin does not understand and thus underestimates. The power of the spirit to fly. Poor man. He is locked in a cage of ego that has co-opted his true will. He is probably not long for the world as he is only a machine now, and whatever is left of his soul is being harnessed to power it.

    I, too, was drawn to Russian lit as a child, probably because of the Cold War mirroring my own childhood situation with authoritarianism. Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, survival in the gulag. Then as an undergraduate in the early 90s, I took several Russian history courses with an excellent professor, Dr. Milton Finley, retired now; but oh my god, the man was more entertaining that any form of television at the time. It was a 3 hour night class per week a semester and as a young working single parent, I was exhausted by that time but not in Dr. Finley’s class. He never used a note, just had all the dates, details, and names in his brain and paced and told story after story. Those classes are why I recognized the formula for a Russian coup d’etat during the 2016 election. (It was so blatantly apparent to me because essentially it was one story of a coup after another for a thousand years.) Now today I see Trump’s lawyers are suing Hillary and the DNC for the accusation that they were colluding with Russia. Sigh. I, too, have noticed the rare, lyrical beauty of the Russian soul and I appreciate your reminding us all of that amidst the turmoil and war crimes. I would not want for anyone to associate me with the likes of the previous administration and numerous of the other ones that came before and yet, those people are also Americans and are the product of our system, golems of it even, the collective shadow of it taking form. Thus, we must remember the beauty within us, and within the Russian soul, to combat it and send it back to the shadows or even better, heal it, if it is possible. Let us hope.

  14. Author

    Putin is a real horror show. I think of him as a narcissistic serial killer with an army. Speaking of narcissism, I read where he wore a $14,000 hoodie and a $3,000 sweater to that rally he held in Moscow. And there in the seats were hundreds of thousands of people who were in the process of being deprived of even the most basic essentials, not to mention their precious freedom, which has always been held in contempt by Russian leaders.

  15. The visitors have disabled nuclear weapons before, and I hope they do so now, if it comes to that. Those reactions seem to damage the fabric of space/time perhaps.
    I remember seeing a photo of Putin in the puffy parka with the hood. Maybe it was worth 14,000 rubles ($140 today).
    My grandmother spoke Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and fluent English. I’ll have to reread the little book she wrote about her trip across Russia on the trans-Siberian railroad at the beginning of the 20th century, on her way to freedom in America.
    I loved your blog Whitley. So much history I was unaware of, and beautifully written.

  16. That’s pretty amazing. I wonder what makes it cost that much. The article says it’s cashmere although it looks like a typical polyester parka. It’s 1.5 million rubles. I’m sure the freezing ill-equipped Russian troops would appreciate having something like that.

  17. Author

    It probably cost fifty bucks to make, if that. It’s the designer name. Remember that Putin is a man in a job with a pretty modest salary who owns a seven hundred million dollar yacht. Or used to own it. Meanwhile, his soldiers are out there dying for him and his thieving cronies, which is what happens to people who are controlled by dictators.

    Too many Americans have been spoiled by their freedom. They’d love to have a dictator who enforces their own version of what is right on the whole country. In the end, though, they will curse their own souls if they manage to pull it off.

    1. Putin is almost Bond villain material to me. I’ve read he’s one of the global 1%. He has amassed to much wealth stealing and hoarding but also spending. Has a frigging weirdo “winter palace” type lair on the Black Sea or some other body of water over there with a bunch of weird “game rooms” for doing weird shit in. Totally nut balls. Ironically, according to one article I read in Vanity Fair maybe which also included an interview of sorts, his license place on his souped up Mercedes was “OO7” so he fancies himself the super spy not the villain that he has actually turned into. So Macbeth!

  18. It would be interesting to know what happens to some of those souls. Meanwhile we’d all pay the price. Let’s hope they don’t get their way.
    It’s the talent of the would-be dictator (demagogue) to discern what mean-minded policies a substantial portion of the populace thinks should be enforced on everyone. We’ve seen plenty of that not so long ago and it sure hasn’t disappeared.

  19. I read a biography of Putin that said that during the war his mother fainted from hunger on the street. When she woke up, she was on a pile of dead bodies being cleared off the street. Putin may remember that hunger on some level. For some reason, I sense something redeemable in him and have been praying for his heart for 15+ years.

    1. Oh my goodness, I wish I had seen this before I wrote my last at post a minute ago on the Dreamland podcast from this week. I was inferring that something like this had happened.

  20. I want to thank you, Whitley, for this touching and beautifully written blog. I live in the East River part of South Dakota, do not have any link that I know of to
    Russia, but have always loved the music and arts of Russia. In 1987 I went on a three week tour of Russia, Latvia and Uzbekistan, sponsored by the Nicholas Roerich Museum of New York City. In 1990 I went with a small group on a four week tour of Russia, including a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Irkutsk in Siberia. There were so many contrasts and so much beauty. I have read much about the history of the land, and you captured the essence of this in what you have so beautifully written here. I thank you so much for writing this.

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