Chapter 1: Mother Russia
Perhaps the only thing you can predict with certainty for tomorrow in Russia – is that nothing is predictable.
With these words I concluded my radio series, Russia’s Runaway Revolution, which was broadcast on BBC World Service in March-April 1995. The series looked back at the ten years since Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in the USSR as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In that time Gorbachev had tried but failed to reform the system through openness (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika). In December 1991 Gorbachev had stepped down as President (a post which had been created in February 1990) not because he had been voted out, nor because he resigned. He had been left in the position of being President of a country which no longer existed. The Soviet Union had dissolved into 15 independent republics. And Russia had begun the attempt to build a capitalist system.
This in turn had led to hyper-inflation of a kind not seen in a major European country since Germany in the 1920’s; banditry on an unprecedented scale, whereby from top to bottom mafia-like structures dictated economic life; a stand-off with parliament which was settled by the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, ordering tanks to fire on the Russian parliament building in the middle of Moscow; and the unleashing of a war by Moscow against the Republic of Chechnya for having the temerity to call for independence from the Russian Federation.
Any one of these disasters would have been enough to shake the foundations of an established Western democracy. Coming one on top of another in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia it really was the case that each day as people woke up no-one knew what might happen next: nothing was predictable.
The unpredictability continued in the years which followed. Although many forecast the re-election of Yeltsin as President in June 1996, the battle with the Communists was closer than many expected (and would have been closer still had there not been extreme bias towards Yeltsin in the media coverage of the election campaign). But only the President’s inner circle knew that when the country voted for him in the run-off vote two weeks after the first round, Yeltsin had just suffered a heart attack.
It is now clear that the unpredictability of Yeltsin’s behaviour during his second term, from June 1996 to December 1999, was because he had one aim above all others: to be able to step down and be guaranteed lifelong freedom from prosecution for the various grievances many in the country held against him: the collapse of the USSR (he, not Gorbachev, signed the act creating the Commonwealth of Independent States, which was the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin); the decision to use tanks against a democratically-elected parliament in October 1993; and the collapse of morale and resignation of many outstanding soldiers from the Russian Army – the extent to which the Army had been discredited was illustrated by its leaving Chechnya with its tail between its legs in 1996.
Russia continued to lurch from one crisis to another under a variety of prime ministers. On 9 August 1999, Yeltsin announced that he was appointing Vladimir Putin (“Vladimir who?” was the cry in Russia and around the world) as Prime Minister; and added that Mr Putin would be Russia’s next President. Perhaps one thing which is predictable in Russia is who will win elections.
On 31 December 1999, Yeltsin stepped down as President, handing the reins of power to Putin as acting President. He fulfilled his duty to Yeltsin by signing his very first decree, that same day, granting immunity for life from prosecution for Yeltsin and his wider “family” (not just his relatives, but all those who had worked closely with him). Putin was duly elected when the nation went to the polls the following March. With his KGB background and love of order – and helped massively by a huge rise in the oil price on which Russia depended for much of its income – Putin appeared to bring to the situation the stability which Russians had been craving for the past decade.
At that stage no-one, least of all Boris Berezovsky, the leading oligarch who had Yeltsin in his pocket and was largely responsible for the appointment of Putin, saw what was to come: even for the supremely confident Berezovsky, it turned out that nothing was predictable.
Putin in many ways turned the clock back. In bringing “order” to the country he created a new dictatorship. Chechnya was violently dealt with once and for all. TV stations which criticised the Kremlin were closed down. Once again, people were jailed for their political views. Yet just as many commentators were predicting that Putin would change the Constitution so that he could serve more than two terms in office, he stepped down in 2008…only to ensure that his man, Dmitry Medvedev, kept the seat warm for the next four years until Putin could return – constitutionally. Medvedev’s major “achievement” was to oversee the extension of future presidential terms from four years to six, so that when Putin did return in 2012 – something which was wholly predictable – he could be there until 2024.
Then in 2014 Putin showed that unpredictability was not dead. Taking advantage of political turmoil in Ukraine, he seized Crimea for Russia and started a war in Eastern Ukraine. Denials at the time that he had had anything to do with it looked even more absurd when, a year later, he boasted on Russian TV that he had given the order to take Crimea. In the 1990’s, the increasingly independent Russian media would have leapt on such an open admission of a lie being told at the top. By 2015 the media was once again so much in the Kremlin’s grip that Russian journalists remained silent.
But how predictable is the future? Perhaps the only thing which is certain is that Russians will retain their love for Mother Russia, come what may. Thousands of Russians have emigrated from their country since 1991; but most of them still retain a love for the Motherland which perhaps defies Western logic.
As Ronald Hingley says in his book, The Russian Mind,
The Russian calls his country “Mother” Russia, attaching much significance to the maternal symbol… The poorer the mother and the harsher her conditions of life, the greater the devotion of her sons.
(Hingley, p.132; 1978)
There is great significance and deep symbolism for Russians in the term “Mother Russia”. Russians frequently talk about “the Motherland”, Родина (Rodina), from the verb “to give birth”. Even as Russia became a more industrialised and urbanised society as the twentieth century progressed, this feeling never faded. It is a constant theme for both Russians themselves and foreigners observing the country and its people:
The expanse is Russia, his incomparable mother; famed far and wide, martyred, stubborn, extravagant, crazy, irresponsible, adored, Russia with her eternally splendid, disastrous and unpredictable gestures.
(Pasternak, pp. 351-352; 1956)
“It is impossible to love your own mother,” a Russian actor once said with a flat assurance, as though this impossibility were beyond dispute, “unless you love your Motherland.”
(Kaiser, p.41; 1976)
Ethnic Russians, passionate patriots by nature and tradition, readily warm to nationalistic appeals. In almost any situation, they can take their patriotism straight and thrive on it. Where else would long-distance trains depart with loudspeakers playing anthems? Where else would an audience sit through a full evening of hymns and paeans to the homeland without feeling it maudlin? ...
Russians of all ages are as sentimental about Mother Russia as about their own families. My middle-aged language teacher broke into tears one morning as she recalled how she had crossed the border into Russia on a train a few years ago after living abroad on a diplomatic assignment. “Just hearing the word rodina makes me tremble,” confessed a young woman biologist who had known a grim childhood in a rough industrial town … The emotional force of that word rodina for her and other Russians is untranslatable. By the dictionary, it means native land, mother country, homeland, land of one’s birth. Yet all of these fall short of the evocative power of the word in Russian. Rodina to Russians has the ring of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” – that singing devotion to country, unreasoning, unquestioning, unstinting, the way a mother loves her smallest child and the child blindly returns that love…
(Smith, The Russians, pp.372-373; 1977)
…Russian patriotism [is] as strong an emotion as any known to man. I am an American, I have lived in Britain and Asia and travelled throughout the world, but I have never seen anything to compare with Russian patriotism. Russians weep with happiness when they cross the Polish border on the train returning home.
(Kaiser, p.188; 1976)
This feeling for Mother Russia is combined with a much stronger attraction to the earth than is the case for many Western urban-dwellers. Millions of Russians clog the roads out of the big cities on Friday evenings in the summer months as they head to their dachas for the weekend, where much of the time is spent cultivating vegetables, fruit and flowers.
They display a genuine love for the actual soil of Mother Russia. One of the most common items for émigrés to take with them when leaving the country in the 1960’s and 1970’s was a pot of earth; real Russian earth. Realising the significance of this soil for those leaving the country – when emigrating was considered a crime by many Russians – the KGB’s Border Guards would take it from them if they found it during a search of their luggage.
Another symbol of Mother Russia is the bells which ring out from Russian Orthodox churches:
Bells have great symbolic importance in Russian history. … Historically, bells have been used to summon Russians – to worship in their churches, to gather in town meetings, or to defend their cities against fire, or invaders. The famous Russian émigré writer Aleksandr Herzen named his nineteenth-century democratic newspaper The Bell. In the 1930’s, Stalin ordered that thousands of churches all over the Soviet Union be closed, and their bells destroyed or their clangers removed …
In silencing those bells, Stalin was metaphorically silencing the people of Russia.
(Smith, The New Russians, p.109; 1990)
Vladimir Soloukhin writes about the Soviet authorities knocking down the bell towers of churches throughout Russia and smashing the bells:
|Frontispiece to Soloukhin's|
Laughter over the Left Shoulder
(Soloukhin, pp.142-143; 1989)
“What has become of the wonderful bells?” I asked, and was told that they had been taken down and melted. Having once heard those bells no one could ever forget them, for they’d fill the air with such a volume of beautiful sound, such a powerful vibration, that every nerve in one’s body would involuntarily respond and vibrate in unison. Easter night at exactly twelve o’clock one could hear them all over the city, dominating the sound of all other bells; while on the four corners of the roof, at the base of the dome, four immense torches blazed in the darkness… On our way back from the Winter Palace, where we always attended the midnight Easter services, we would invariably stop for a few minutes and listen to the bells of St Isaac’s and watch the glowing torches.
Russian bells are unlike any bells you will hear in Western churches. So distinctive are they that in 1991 I chose as the signature music to my earlier BBC radio series, The Re-Making of Russia, Russian bells which I had recorded being played on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre in September of that year at a concert for the families of the victims of the August coup against Gorbachev. The sound was so Russian. It could not have come from anywhere else.
Sacred Motherland; precious soil; enchanting bells: these are all ingredients which contribute to the idea of “Russia”. But what, or where, is Russia? Some would seem to deny that it can be defined by geography:
“No such thing as Russia exists,” said Sergei Witte, the tsarist finance minister whose 1890’s state-driven reforms laid the basis for the pre-revolutionary economic growth. “There is only the Russian empire.”
(Lloyd, p.352; 1998)
…the phrase of Nicholas I on the monument to Admiral Nievelski in Vladivostok: “Where once the Russian flag is raised, it must never be lowered.”
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, pp.386-387; 1913)
[Many Russians] saw the collapse of the Union, the scramble for independence of the fourteen non-Russian states and the shrivelling of Russia to borders more constrained than at any time since Peter the Great as a tremendous loss, a source of humiliation, and identified, as the wreakers of that humiliation, the West, and above all the United States.
(Lloyd, p.25; 1998)
“Russia”, wrote [Yevgeny] Ambartsumov [first chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee] in May of 1992, “is indisputably something greater than the Russian Federation within its present borders. Therefore its geopolitical interests must be seen much more broadly than they have been delineated on today’s maps.”
(Lloyd, p.338; 1998)
So is Russia as much something within Russians as the country itself? Many people believe in the mystical “Russian soul”, even those who do not believe in a life after death (see Section 2). Certainly Russians often see themselves, as Hingley suggests, as “a Chosen People”. There is, he writes,
the assumption, commonly made over the centuries by Russians in all walks of life, that they constitute a Chosen People, the elect of destiny, who have performed a special role in the past and are fated to perform a still more special role in the future.
(Hingley, p.134; 1978)
As Robert Kaiser points out, Russians are frequently incapable of comprehending that there can be a view of the world other than their own:
Russian ethnocentrism is particularly ferocious. Living apart in their own vast land, formed by their own history and only peripherally influenced by outsiders for many centuries, Russians tend to believe that they live in the centre of the world, and that their lives and customs are the only normal ones. Nothing hurts a Soviet patriot more than the discovery that Lenin is not idolised or even highly respected in the West, that most Soviet writers are unknown abroad, that Russia is not universally admired.
(Kaiser, p.198; 1976)
Although Kaiser’s line about Lenin is no longer the case, Russians can still be genuinely shocked to learn that their country “is not universally admired”, even after Russia’s actions in Ukraine since 2014 and in the war in Syria. In the spring of 2016, a Russian who had been living in France for 18 months complained to me how unfair it was that people didn’t like Russia: “We’ve done nothing to deserve that,” she moaned. She refused to accept that Russia had done anything wrong in Ukraine, let alone saw that as a reason for the West’s hostility.
Russians can be quick to blame anyone else for Russia’s ills, be it non-Russians living in the Russian Empire or Soviet Union, or the rest of the world.
A frown suddenly appeared on his face. “Quite frankly,” he went on angrily, “all this makes me want to vomit. In the name of the friendship of nations we keep sacrificing the Russians. A member of a national minority barely needs to know the alphabet to be appointed a people’s commissar, while our Ivan, no matter if he’s a genius, has to ‘yield place to the minorities’. The great Russian people’s becoming a national minority itself. I’m all for the friendship of nations, but not on these terms. I’m sick of it!”
(Grossman, Life and Fate, p.205; 1960)
This feeling that it was the Russian nation which had suffered at the expense of the other peoples of the USSR and then in their relations with the rest of the world, helped create the atmosphere of national paranoia which Putin has utilised to his advantage to consolidate his power, as Peter Pomerantsev neatly sums up.
This has always been the paradox of the new Russian nationalism: on the one hand wanting to conquer all regions around, on the other wanting an ethnically pure great power.
(Pomerantsev, p.230; 2015)
In 1993, the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, objected to the idea of dual nationality for the citizens of his country because
it would create an enormous fifth column within his borders. In November 1993, he went further, choosing a deliberately insulting image: “Any talk of protecting Russians in Kazakhstan is reminiscent of Hitler’s times, who also began with his offer to protect the Germans of Sudetenland.”
(Lloyd, p.347; 1998)
This is highly significant because it has undertones of prophecy. Trouble in Eastern Ukraine exploded into war in 2014 partly because of Ukrainian fifth columnists (encouraged and supported by Russia); and followed the seizure of Crimea by Russian troops – arguably the most blatant land-grab in mainland Europe since the Germans took the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938. What’s more, each action, Hitler taking the Sudetenland and Putin capturing Crimea, was supported by a hastily-arranged pseudo-referendum.
John Lloyd pointed out in his book, Rebirth of a Nation, published in 1998, that five years previously Russia had already shown that it was prepared to carry out a military operation in the former Soviet Union while all the time denying it; and not caring what the rest of the world said about it.
[Russia] brought the Georgian government, by then under Eduard Shevardnadze, to its knees through its support for, first, the secessionist region of South Ossetia in the north of Georgia and, second, the equally secessionist region of Abkhazia, to its west. Russian commanders backed the secessionists with weapons, tanks and fighters while denying they were doing it…
Georgia, above all, made the matter very clear – clearer than Chechnya, since the latter was, after all, within Russia. When Russian power – or at least a part of it – was determined to achieve a specified goal, it would do so with little regard to world opinion.
(Lloyd, pp.350-351; 1998)
Elsewhere, Lloyd pointed out that the kind of operation which Putin launched in Ukraine in 2014 had been on the cards even 20 years earlier:
[Yeltsin] increased the volume of his concern for the Russians living in the former Soviet states outside of Russia, absurdly vowing to punish breaches of their civil rights, or discrimination against them ( which was widespread and continuous) with “deeds not words”.
(Lloyd, p.52; 1998)
History has shown that the only word in this quotation which has proven superfluous is “absurdly”. In fact, in 1994 the situation with Ukraine was far more tense than generally acknowledged. I and other journalists had a glimpse of this in September of that year. Yeltsin made a two-day stopover in the UK on his way to the USA, and before he flew out of RAF Brize Norton he gave a press conference with the British Prime Minister, John Major. In the preceding months, Yeltsin had continually put off a visit to Ukraine. A colleague from the BBC’s Ukrainian Section asked Yeltsin what was preventing him from going to Kiev. It was clear to those of us following this issue closely that his carefully-chosen answer – “the diary of the President of the Russian Federation” – was simply an excuse, covering up deep and serious differences between Russia and Ukraine. Around this time there was talk of possible armed conflict between the two countries. Some found this fanciful. Twenty years later it most certainly was not.
Writing in 1998, Lloyd recognised that Russia’s relations with Ukraine were the key indication as to how Russia regarded the post-Soviet space of the former USSR.
Ukraine was and is central. No other state matters so much, and no other state has such hard and delicate choices to make about its geopolitical orientation… [Successive Ukrainian presidents] had to follow a crabwise course, which Russians saw as two-faced. Wedged between East and West, a buffer for both, any leader had to juggle and balance with an internal mixture of nationalists in the west, most powerful in the cities of Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk, and a Russian or part-Russian population in the east, which wanted to maintain close ties with Russia …
It [Ukraine] was able to finesse, but not solve, its outstanding issues with Russia. The largest – that which saw civil war storm warnings issued – was the peninsula of Crimea, where an administration under Yuri Menshkov, elected in 1993, pushed for at least closer links to, and implicitly full union with, Russia …
But the [Black Sea] Fleet itself, round which much of the acrimony between Ukraine and Russia was expressed, and its port of Sevastopol, continued to act as a proxy for the quarrel between the two states – a quarrel whose cause was ultimately the Russian dislike of Ukraine’s independence …
At the end of the first five years, Ukraine and Russia had neither formed the strategic closeness which Leonid Kuchma talked of when he took office [as Ukrainian President, in 1994], nor had it formed more than the possible basis for a stable and cooperative relationship. Russians still saw no sense in its independence. Even those who granted it was a nation, like the Russian scholar Sergei Averintsev, objected: “It has never been clear where Russia ends and Ukraine begins, and so any line of demarcation will cut through living tissue.”
(Lloyd, pp.341-344; 1998)
The point which Lloyd makes here about Russia not liking Ukraine’s independence is critical for the whole question of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. It has little to do with Crimea being an integral part of Russia (or even less of Crimea being “a holy place” for Russia, as President Putin tried to suggest in his state of the nation speech in late 2014). The nub of the matter is that, like a jealous ex-spouse, Russia cannot bear the thought of Ukraine being independent from it and even less so, being too friendly with the West. Events since the attack on Ukraine in 2014 show that the warning Lloyd sounded in 1998 in the introduction to his book should have been heeded:
…the dangers within Russia, and the dangers Russia poses to the world, have not been cancelled. It continues to be a turbulent area of great uncertainty, where decisions are often made arbitrarily and mysteriously or not made at all; where corruption explains as much as the workings of democratic rule; where the decay of the Soviet-era institutions still pollutes the atmosphere, hanging like a sickly vapour over the task of construction.
(Lloyd, p.xiv; 1998)
What is especially worrying about Russia under Putin is the rise of nationalism which has accompanied it. “Nationalism” in any situation and in any country is a word with dark connotations. As Hingley explains,
Russian nationalism was more prominent than political fervour in bringing victory over Germany in the Second World War, after which it was artificially nurtured by the nationalist campaign sponsored by Zhdanov. It was the period during which all major inventions of the past, including radio and the steam engine, were, correctly or incorrectly, attributed to Russians. This later-modified propaganda campaign has never been entirely relaxed, and users of recent Russian encyclopaedias will still find much evidence of it. In particular, wherever foreigners have played a significant role in Russian history, as did the Vikings and Greeks in the Kiev period, their importance tends to be played down, while more emphasis is given to native Russian initiatives than un-Kremlinised scholars will allow.
(Hingley, p.133; 1978)
And Feifer underlines the importance of “Russianness” and what is “ours” (see also Section 2, Chapter 9: Language).
The appeal to the clique [of Russian students from the countryside studying in Moscow] of their own social system lies not so much in its being Soviet or socialist…as in its being Russian. And what is Russian is ours. The Red Army is ours, Lenin is ours, sputniks and dialectical materialism, agitprop and even meat shortages are ours. Maybe Russia isn’t really best; perhaps, for the real truth, it’s crude and backward. But not weak! The armed forces, biggest and best, are growing more so; let the West laugh at that! Besides, backwardness is all the more reason to defend the homeland against the richer, denigrating West. All the more reason to work for our people’s triumph.
(Feifer, p.14; 1976)
Yet at the same time, Russians frequently have an inferiority complex. As is clear from the chapter on The Outside World, many of them despise the West, yet strive to wear Western clothes or adopt Western mannerisms.
It is not just the Russians who would do well to heed the definition by Academician Dmitry Likhachev as to what is nationalism and what is patriotism.
“For me, patriotism is the love of one’s country, while nationalism is the hatred of other peoples.” (Dmitry Likhachev, in conversation with Hedrick Smith)
(Smith, The New Russians, p.393; 1990)
In London in 1989 I had a similar conversation with Academician Likhachev to that recounted here by Hedrick Smith. When I had the honour of meeting Likhachev (it is not an exaggeration to call it an honour) he was launching the journal, Our Heritage (Наше наследие). He was the epitome of the Russian intelligentsia: charming, cultured and highly intelligent. It is a great pity that “patriotism” has now been hijacked and confused with nationalism by people who do not understand the difference. When David Shipler used it in 1983, it was in the sense that Likhachev intended it:
Of all the ideas and beliefs and forces of allegiance that crisscross through Soviet society, patriotism is the most pervasive and the most powerful. More thoroughly than communism or Christianity, the passion for the homeland binds the diverse citizenry, commanding devotion across the contrasts of more than 100 ethnic cultures and languages in the vast Soviet empire. It serves as the common denominator, capable of blending into both the communism and the Christianity of the Russians.
(Shipler, p.278; 1983)
On a different note, is this brief but touching lament for Russia from Vasily Grossman’s marvellous novel, Life and Fate:
Although he appeared to feel indifferent about everything, one night he’d just lain there and cried. Yershov had asked what was the matter. After a long time he had replied very quietly: “I’m sad about Russia.”
(Grossman, Life and Fate, p.302; 1960);
and this more homely view of Mother Russia by Carl Joubert in his book, Russia As It Really Is, published in 1904:
There is something companionable and friendly about a Russian samovar. He sits on the table in front of you buzzing and fuming good-naturedly; and as you watch the steam pouring from the air holes and vanishing into space, and listen to the varied assortment of noises with which he enlivens the tedium of his work, you gain confidence in his abilities and look to him for counsel; and he will help you to think.
(Joubert, p.150; 1904)
Finally in this section I had to include this wonderful exchange from the film I’m All Right Jack, when communist shop steward, Fred Kite, is extolling the merits of the Soviet Union to the upper-class and very naïve Stanley Windrush.
Windrush: Have you ever been to Russia, Mr Kite?
Kite: No, not yet. It’s the one place I’d like to go to, though. All them cornfields and bally [ballet] in the evenings.
(I’m All Right Jack, Charter Film Productions, 1959)
Peter Sellers’ masterful portrayal of Fred Kite won him the BAFTA Best Actor Award in 1960. His delivery of the sentence, “All them cornfields and bally in the evenings” is one of the most succinct descriptions ever of Russia. And one of the funniest.