What is the soul of Russia?
The war in Ukraine is the tragedy of Russia unfolding, bringing to the fore episodes of history that extend all the way back to Peter the Great. As much as I root for Ukraine, celebrating their victories over Russia, I also weep for Russian soldiers and their families as they are slaughtered in the field of battle. I grieve over the people who attempt to stand against a tyrant, subjected to imprisonment and abuse. I see the youth of Russia being sacrificed, an entire generation lost.
My fondness of Russia began by accident as I stumbled into a history program at Hope College that was dominated by two professors in Russian history, complemented by two professors in international affairs who were experienced in Soviet affairs and ideology. These were not courses filled with endless books and boring lectures. These were captivating experiences, intensely engaging. Their teaching techniques were the classic lectures on the one hand, followed by the Socratic method in the final half of the class. You had to appear to each class prepared. You could never be asleep at the wheel.
Unfortunately, not everyone can make a living knowing about Russians. I segued into international economics for graduate studies, but Russia continued to capture my attention. I was in the hallway when Alexander Solzhenitsyn walked by, surrounded by Senators and the press. I would read several of his books over the years. I followed the persecution of Christians under the Soviet Union. I would witness Gorbachev speaking in Fulton, Missouri. I would join several volunteers in Columbia, Missouri providing support for the new-formed Republic of Georgia, and later regularly ride the city bus alongside Eduard Shevardnadze’s former secretary. When I moved to Alaska I would encounter several Russians as students. They were, without exception, bright, engaging and determined. I would teach alongside an immigrant from the Soviet empire, befriend her husband (a veteran of the Soviet army). Alas, my daughter would marry a Ukrainian.
My interest in Russia seemed almost organic. I never woke up and said to myself, “I will focus all my energy on studying Russia, on liking everything Russian.” No, it simply happened. And a lot of that had to do with the people I met along the way. And not all of them were living. I would in the coming decades read Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. While not necessarily an enthusiastic listener of classical music, I somehow would experience Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.
So understand when I say I grieve for them, it is due to a long-term relationship.
A Sad Lesson
Our young people today are hopefully learning a thing or two about history. Russia is the embodiment of the primitive, the aspects of our history that we, of the West, have endeavored to bury. Yet here we are, witnessing on a daily basis tyranny, brutal destruction of cities, the slaughter of innocent civilians, the ruthless sacrifice of soldiers, echoes of Hitler threatening and bullying the nations. Before February 2022, we had hoped that all of this would be behind us, “us” being Europe and its wandering descendants in the United States and Canada. But you can see this all in black and white, the grainy documentaries of World War II, being repeated in the steppes of Ukraine, the surreal imagery of young families pulling suitcases, children carrying backpacks with dolls tied onto them, dressed like my kids – and suddenly lying dead in the streets.
Yet what is also happening is history repeating itself in Russia. Beginning with Peter the Great, the Russians have been torn between the West and the East. It is a great nation and a great people who have a serious identity complex. Peter the Great brought Russia kicking and screaming into the Age of Enlightenment. This empire would in the coming century absorb artisans and scientists, building universities, and rush to catch up with the West in technology. Yet to remain, however, would be the absolutism of the tsar. At a time when Europe was leaving behind feudalism and castes, Russia would operate on the foundation of serfdom. When Europe was beginning to experiment with representational government, Russia would have none of it. The Russia of Peter the Great, of Stalin and of Putin, is in many respects unchanged. Putin’s army is no different than that of Tsar Nicholas II, equipped with the trappings of a modern army, but lacking the nervous system that makes it work. Everything about Russia is that they have the intellectual ability to match anyone, if not excel. But they lack the soul of the free individual that makes for a far greater strength. Space X would never happen in Russia.
The sad lesson of Russia is that it wants so much to be modern, but it is ruled by leaders who resemble Ivan the Terrible. What we see unfolding on the news is a block of the Russian people who are willing to risk life and limb to protest against a ruler who is propelling them and future generations into the dark ages. Putin, and his minions, are delusional to think that life will go on after Ukraine, as if their demonstration of brutality would be easily forgotten. And it is the younger generation that is endeavoring to bring to the attention of their elders that they are risking total isolation from the West. No credit cards, no McDonald’s, no Starbucks, no visas to the West, no trade of any kind. And the West will no longer be deceiving themselves, pretending that Putin and his oligarchs are in any sense trustworthy. They are nothing more than thugs, organized criminals.
The West is also struggling on what to do with the thousands of people attempting to flee the country. The West is asking the question, “When are the Russian people going to have the courage to destroy despotism?” Russia will need to descend further into the abyss of a dysfunctional society weighed down by the cancer of apathy and subliminal sabotage. It will regress into the end of the Soviet era, where nothing works. But, alas, that is what people do who have no hope, no way to fight back. For what we see are the thousands that protest one evening. What they experience is when they are asleep at night and they hear a knock at the door. The State isolates them one at a time. They disappear when no one is watching. As to those who somehow escape the gulag, they make their statements by failing to tighten the bolts adequately, slightly miscalculating the stress load in a bridge, knowing the answer to a technical problem but keeping it to themselves. The people of Ukraine knew of this in a big way, for decades under-producing crops within the farce of collective farming. Putin knows about this delusion. He knows that to disrupt the flow of grain to Africa and the Middle East is an effective tool because Ukraine, being free, is now the breadbasket of the world, in much the same way as Kansas and Iowa. They have done this because the very same generation that lived under a lie have transformed their nation into an agriculture powerhouse for one simple reason – freedom.
Ukraine is the living embodiment of a Russian nightmare, a part of themselves that has turned westward, abandoning the ugly, medieval past. Putin knows this. He knows that many in his country can see this. If Ukraine can succeed in turning West, why not Belarus, why not St. Petersburg, why not Novgorod. Why not the Volga valley? Sadly, he has had to fall back to something out of Tolkien novels, what the Ukrainians refer to as Orcs. These are the Chechens, a crowd of thugs who are just one shade off from Al Qaeda. Their world view is one where oppressors are a given, where the aim of power is to use it and to use it with brutality. Rape and thievery are part of what it is to be a soldier.
I close with some thoughts about two young people I have been following on social media. What is interesting about those two young people is that I began watching their postings long before the invasion of Ukraine. I was fascinated by the lives they were living, their observations of life in Russia and the hopes they expressed. Before February 2022, these two young people represented in many respects the average Russian. They presented an optimism and hope common in youth. Even with Putin on the throne, life in Russia was not all darkness. Importantly, they were not isolated. They were well-read, and appeared to understand western society and the events that were shaping the world. And what is really exciting is that these two young people found each other despite living on opposites ends of Russia!
But then came February 2022. In the time I began to write this essay, both have fled Russia. First, the young woman left, no longer feeling safe. The other remained for a time. Rather than vocalizing his opinion, he discretely resorted to simply recording what he observed, leaving it up to us to decide. Yet it was clear that the veil of oppression was weighing on him. He recently fled. In his soul, he is the complete anti-thesis to the cold heart of Vladimir Putin and the men who surround him. The question that remains is what is the soul of Russia? Is it that of these young people, or that of Putin?
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner.