Russia: Collected Wisdom


This project has been many years in the making. “I didn’t choose Russia; Russia chose me” is my own story. I have never understood why Russia meant so much to me from an early age. Why did I have a fascination as an eight-year-old which made me beg my Mother to take me to see the film of Dr Zhivago? (This was simply because I knew it was about Russia; I was still too young to fall in love with Julie Christie – that came later.) Why when I started to learn the language at 13 did I understand very quickly that this was my subject? Why did Russia become the dominant factor to the point of obsession in my professional and adult life?

An early memory...
By the mid-1980’s I was methodically recording on index cards – the age of the personal computer had yet to arrive – what I regarded as significant quotations which revealed some particular nugget of information about this bewitching yet frustrating country.

Life went on and the box with the index cards sat at the back of a shelf. I occasionally made a note of a new quotation, usually by sticking a small piece of paper in the pages of a book. Then, at the start of 2015, I discovered two books which once again galvanised my thoughts. One was over a hundred years old and had long stood on my bookshelves undisturbed. The other was brand new. Each was written by an Englishman who had spent nine years living in Russia, the first in the late nineteenth century, the second in the early twenty-first century. I saw them as the “bookends” for the project.

Russia As It Really Is, by Carl Joubert, was published in 1904. It was in the Preface that the first of many stunning quotations leapt out at me: “A man must live in Russia to be able to speak with authority of her attributes – but there he is not allowed to speak.” This was written about Russia under Nicholas II, but rings true for the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

The second “bookend” holding together this project was written by Peter Pomerantsev, a perceptive commentator on Russia. As his book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia, reveals, Peter lived with eyes wide open through the increasing oppression of the Putin era, recording as much in his mind as he did on his video camera, and expressing it in beautifully crafted prose.

Bookends...published over 100 years apart, but telling
similar stories.

In between these two books there is a whole century; the most turbulent and violent century in Russia’s bloody history. And yet what comes out not only in a comparison of these two books, but in the hundreds of other quotations I have collected is less the changes which the troubled twentieth century brought to Russia, but the amazing amount of detail which has remained consistent.

The quotations which form the skeleton of the project come from literature; travellers’ and journalists’ accounts of their time in Russia; articles; and interviews I recorded when I was the BBC World Service’s Russian Affairs Analyst between 1988 and 2004. They are woven together by my own narrative based on my life-time’s work with Russia.

Russians love to explain their eccentric behaviour by using the words of the poet Fyodor Tyutchev, who in 1866 wrote a four-line poem which begins, “You cannot understand Russia with your mind…” (Умом Россию не понять…), and ends by saying one can only believe in Russia. To my mind, this merely covers up some of Russia’s worst excesses. It is rather like a Russian friend of mine who spent three months in London in 1994 who, whenever anything went wrong or his behaviour was excessive, would simply turn to people and say, “I am sorry – I am Russian”, which he believed gave him carte blanche to do anything he wanted.

Another famous quotation, of course, is Winston Churchill’s phrase, broadcast in 1939, that Russia, “is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma”; very Churchillian, but I hope the quotations in this collection explain Russia in rather more detail!

Is Russia a great country? It is certainly “a great big country” (the largest in the world, geographically). But what makes a country "great"? Not simply its size. It is a country's influence on global development, such as on political and economic systems. How widely its language is spoken. The popularity and influence of its culture. Its scientific achievements. The role it plays in international business.

The Kremlin, Moscow. Heart of a great country? Or just a great big country?

Russia comes out of such an assessment with a mixed record. In its efforts to export socialism it had some success, but most of the countries that chose that path – or had it forced on them – have since turned away from it. Language? Since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 Russian is spoken by fewer and fewer people; even in Kazakhstan by 2013 more school leavers were taking their final school examinations in Kazakh than in Russian. Russia would undoubtedly achieve top marks for its cultural heritage, certainly in literature and music; but is even that stuck in the past? Name a contemporary Russian writer or composer.

Russia has made some truly great contributions to science, from Mendeleev’s Table of the Elements to its remarkable run of “firsts” in space: first object in space, first animal, first man, first woman, first crew, first spacewalk, first space station. Russians have also contributed massively to computer technology – but they are mostly Russians who have broken free of the shackles of post-Soviet conformity and now live abroad. As for Russia’s role in international business, apart from oil and gas (which will become increasingly obsolete as the twenty-first century wears on, and, in any case, will run out), what does Russia contribute? What does Russia manufacture that the rest of the world wants? How many Russian brands can you find in Western shops?

Churchill was right about Russia. But I hope that this project lifts a corner of the mystery.

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