This is rather a short essay for speakers, lecturers, orators. Lecturing on the ships for travellers appears to be a very specific format of public speaking, and most enjoyable one.
There is an abundance of manuals on oratorical mastery, from the classical Dail Carnegy to “Speak Like Putin”. Very interesting reading, but I’m not sure that any of such books really influenced me as a lecturer. However, I have formulated some elements of the technology of lecturing that could be of use for others.
1. Deer-herder principle. In actuality a herder doesn’t herd deer. It’s the other way around. He simply follows the animals moving from one locality to another when the food is exhausted. I monitor the interests of my people and am guided by them. Their conversations, questions and comments help me to compose lectures. It appears, there are certain trends of the popular topics depending of current events, documentaries shown in their countries and so on.
2. Scales principle. I always try to put something on another scale to present a balanced view by contrast to currently predominant ideas. For example, if Gorbachev is feted in the West, it is essential to show the other side of his personality and actions and explain what serious reservations people in Russia have about him and the questions that have not yet been answered (like the bloodshed in Vilnus or the mysteriously vanished gold of the Communist Party). If Stalin is viewed as the embodiment of the absolute evil, it would be interesting to present the aspects of his personality that make him an exciting figure to at least half of the Russian population.
3. Charles Dickens principle. It is widely known – “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait”. The enjoyment of humor or announcements of needs no explanation. As for crying, I am proud that sometimes any of my listeners shed a tear over the fate of the last Russian emperor and his family, those who died of starvation in 1949, or over the argument of the song about a soldier coming home after 25 years in the tsarist army and taking his grown-up daughter for his wife. Yes, it happens rarely, but to me this is most precious.
4. Glossy magazine principle. There are always people on the covers of such magazines. The lecture must be populated by interesting personalities with their life stories, strong qualities and weaknesses, glories and tragedies. In each of my lecture at least two characters figure – Ivan the Terrible and Nicholas II, Lenin and Stalin, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev. It can be called the tandem principle.
5. Small company visualization. No matter how professional, experienced, competent you are, it’s normal to be nervous confronting a large audience. Dail Carnegy recommends an orator to imagine that everyone in the audience owes him money to build up his courage. To me it doesn’t help at all. Such an exercise would drive me mad, and the awareness that I was foolish enough to lend money to one hundred people would deprive me of the rest of my confidence.
My first experience of lecturing was often recalled by my late father. When I was eight only, we went by train to see my grandmother living in Chechnya. Father fell asleep on the upper bunk. When he woke up, several men gathered in our compartment, all were listening to me with their mouths open, and I was explaining politics! He was very proud to receive their congratulations. It was one of those rare moments when my perfectionist father took pride in what I did.
I prefer to remember myself at the age of eight talking to the small company of listeners in the train compartment. I try to imagine that there are not one hundred but some ten people in the auditorium. If I manage that the lecture will be successful, the right words come organically to my mind. If not – the nervousness remains. But, of course, any good speech must be performed with excitement.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
T.S. Eliot, 1888-1965,
Four Quartets, 'Burnt Norton'. I
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of post-communist Russia. The communist regime and the new epoch in the life of my country divide my biography into two equal parts. The last twenty years were the time of rethinking and forming a new understanding of Russia's experience in the XX century from the historical and cultural viewpoint.
Since 1990s the “civilization approach” to the analysis of historical process, formulated by N.Y. Danilevsky (great Russian philosopher of history) in XIX century, has been “fashionable”, again, among the Russian scholars. In Soviet times, the canonical Marxist “formation approach” prevailed.
According to the “civilization approach”, history is not seen as the universal succession of economic formations, but as the history of different civilizations, a sum of subhistories. Danilevsky wrote that the source of Russia's frequent military conflicts with Europe was that Russia and Europe belong different “historical and cultural types”, so it is not realistic to expect harmony between them.
Russia is not a young country. As a culture, a state, an identity, we are pretty 'aged', existing since the middle of IX century. The conventional beginning of the first Russian state is 862. So, this year brings us another anniversary – 1150 years of Russia. This is why 2012 is proclaimed “the year of Russian history” by President Medvedev.
In the XX century, Russia saw four revolutions, two world wars and a lot of local wars. Plus terror, collectivization, industrialization, the collapse of the USSR. That century was one of enormous exertion, or real mobilizations, with no rest. The nation was truly exhausted, people had no time to relax and think.
It was the century of utopias. People in power developed a number of big and small utopian projects, from turning around the stream of Siberian rivers to building a new type of society. It's amazing, how the Russian people rejected their traditional forms, sacrificed expediency and even their own lives in favor of something so absolutely mythical.
XX century was also the century of crimes. It was the whole epoch when the Russians committed crimes against each other. We will probably never know the real number of the victims. There are no accurate data. And they were not all being killed by the foreign conquerors. For the most part, the Russians themselves were torturing each other.
It was the century of revolutions. There were four of them, if we count the disintegration of the USSR. As a rule, revolutions occur whenever a society is unable to find any peaceful means to solve its problems.
In the beginning of the XX century, the problems of the past centuries arose to the full.
First of all, the consequences of the split of Russian culture into two subcultures were most evident, with the unbridgeable gap between “the Russian Europeans” and “the Russian indigenes”.
No less serious was the 'land question', or agrarian crisis. In my lectures I explain how the biggest territorial power in the world could suffer the shortage of land.
The issue of nationalities also was destroying the existing social structures.
Rephrasing T.S. Eliot and referring to the existing theories of Russian history, we can well maintain that it is not only our past that affects our future, but the future also modifies the past.
Only normal evolutionary development makes bloom the of the arts and sciences, industrial development and normal life possible.
In the beginning of the XX century Russia was on the massive rise, rapidly developing in all fronts, if we compare statistical data before and after 1913. There was an unprecedented advance in the economy. Not just the upper classes, but the ordinary people grew better off, too. There was a big increase in Sberbank deposits, dwelling space and incomes. The development of Russian culture of that period is referred to as “the Silver age”.
Suddenly, the revolution broke out in 1905, and it resulted in the compromise between the authorities and the society. That was the most successful of all the four Russian revolutions, because it didn't end in victory of any of the sides. The Manifesto of Oct, 17 granted political and civil rights to the citizens, and in 1906 the first Russian constitutional system was formed, including the parliament – the State Duma.
The rapid blooming of the political life was accompanied by reforms carried out by the Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. His most fundamental project was an agricultural reform, giving peasants the right of voluntary separation from the commune.
It is important to note that revolutions do not occur in hard times, but in times when a society develops successfully, when protesters appear, and they are confident in their impunity.
No doubt, WWI interrupted the epoch of stability and triggered another revolution. Nicholas II could not avoid participating in the military operations, since he was bound by the system of international commitments. The role of the tsarina and Rasputin proved to be fatal in the course of events. Was the tzar just a simpleton? Many scholars consider his a mediocre statesman and hold him responsible for the catastrophe. But, on the other hand, there was no other epoch in Russian history, when the reforms were being held so smoothly.
After all, Russia didn't lose the war, but simply disengaged from it. Her principal task was to prevent Germany from occupying France, and then drawing off the troops of Austria-Hungary.
In the times of WWI there was no rationing in Russia, no shortage of food. W. Churchill said that the Russian boat sank while entering a harbour. In that war the question for Russia was not “to be or not to be”.
February 1917 revolution was quite an enigmatic one. Why did it happen? It was evident to everyone that Russia had not lost the war. Suddenly, uprisings started in Petrograd. The main reason for the revolution was that neither the authorities (the bureaucrats) nor the the society (parties, the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, the university communities) realized the necessity of patience and compromise. They did not understand that Russia did not need another revolution. Since the times of the Decembrists, the Russian intelligentsia was conspiring and intriguing against the government, and spreading revolutionary philosophies.
The Provisional government consisted of the most brilliant politicians and public men of that epoch. Nevertheless, everything fell apart. One more revolution unfolded in Russia – the revolution of the Russian peasantry, the revolution of Russian communes. The people in the countryside wanted to live in communes, and they wiped out Stolypin's reforms. In the absence of authority, peasants began to seize the lands. They started unauthorized repartition. The countryside people forgot about the cities and ceased feeding the urban population.
In those days the old split between the nobility (europeanized society) and the peasantry (former serfs) was most evident. The noblemen spoke French and traveled throughout Europe. The peasants hated the masters and everyone wearing a pince-nez and a hat. The collision of the two revolutions – the revolution of the educated against the authority and the revolution of the peasant communes – interflowed in one great revolution. The vast masses felt capable of committing a crime thus forming a nutrient medium for radicalism. The radicals, such as Lenin and Trotsky, saddled up that wave of protest and fury combined with brigandage and crime.
Everything was abolished and called prejudices by the new regime.
Religion was abolished. The Bolsheviks planned that by 1935 the word “God” would cease to exist. It meant that there were no more absolute values.
The same was about the law and legislation.
In the beginning, the institution of family was going through the same process. According to the initial communist project, children were supposed to be separated from their parents and brought up by the state in the common stock. Thank God, the new rulers came to their senses afterward.
All property holdings were nationalized. In Soviet times the propaganda spoke about private, public and cooperative property, while in actuality everything was in the hands of a small group of people who manipulated the assets. That system turned out economically ineffective. It makes no sense to struggle with property, one should work with it. The institution of property also implies social responsibilities of owners.
As for the issues of ethics, Lenin formulated the notorious principle, calling moral everything that serves the purposes of communism.
Thus they destroyed the traditional statehood.
Many of the Bolsheviks were not evil, but courageous people, sincerely committed to their ideas.
That was an absolutely unprecedented regime, an absolutely utopian one. The bolsheviks even had an idea to annex the whole world. Leon Trotsky formulated a theory of “permanent revolution”. He planned adventurous campaigns of the Red Army in various parts of the globe.
In 1924 the first Constitution of the USSR was adopted, containing the idea that any country is welcome to join the Soviet state.
In 1920s and 30s new strange names were being given to newborn children. Marlen (male - Marx, Lenin), Oktyabrina (female - after October – the month of the revolution), Yaslenik (male - Ya s Leninym i Krupskoi – “I am with Lenin and Krupskaya [Lenin's wife]”) Oyushminalda ( female Otto Yulievich Shmidt na ldine – “[Polar explorer] Otto Yulievich Shmidt on the ice-floe”).
That bizarre social project was impossible to put into reality. Features of normality were emerging even in the most terrible years of Stalinism.
1930s were really a tragic time. It was the time of horror and terror – of collectivization and great political terror. On the other hand, there was an incredible enthusiasm. The first five-year plans were truly grandiose in scale and resulted in the rapid industrialization of the country.
No doubt, if the revolution had not happen, Russia would have been a different country. A much better country. We have to learn the lessons of our past since our losses are essential to take into consideration in forming new strategies of development.
The word “Bolshoy” means “Grand”. This grand theatre is considered number one in Russia among all theatres, a symbol of the country’s greatness, her imperial grandeur, her cultural prominence. It is a sacred place for every cultured and intelligent Russian and an absolute must for every visitor coming to the Russian capital. The Bolshoy Theatre is one of the most famous landmarks of Moscow, it is depicted on a 100-ruble bill. Everyone knows the eight-columned portico, the neo-classical pediment crowned with the eye-catching quadriga – a sculpture by Pyotr Klodt, which depicts Apollo driving a chariot.
The first Bolshoy Theatre opened under Catheine the Great in 1780 and presented comic operas, comedies and masquerades. In 1805 the whole building burnt down. In 1825 the new theatre was completed to a design by Osip Bove and Andrey Mikhailov. The essentials of that highly praised delineation were retained in subsequent restorations.
Another fire destroyed the theatre in 1853. The reconstruction by Albert Kavos was completed in 1856. The basic elements of the building were retained, including the sculpture of Apollo. Some new details were added, such as the relief depicting a pair of angels carrying the lyre on the pediment, the new shape of the auditorium (resembling the shape of a violin). As we know today, the reconstruction works were being done in a hurry during 16 months to open the theatre as part of celebrations of the coronation of Alexander II. (See my entry on shturmovshina. It is not a purely Soviet phenomenon. It took place in tsarist times as well.) The building was renovated while the old foundation remained intact. It caused many serious problems and made the latest reconstruction procedure extremely risky.
The building of the Bolshoy Theatre was often used by the Bolsheviks to house their party congresses and other political gatherings, until the Palace of Congresses was constructed on the territory of the Kremlin. The last speech of Lenin was made on the stage of the Bolshoy. In January,1924, his death was first announced there. In December, 1922, Stalin proclaimed the formation of the USSR in the Bolshoy. By the way, Stalin was a passionate music lover and never missed any premiere.
The Soviet authorities also made some renovation works to suit their purposes. The imperial crowns and two-headed eagles were removed from the pediments and replaced by the communist coat-of-arms. The seating capacity was increased to 2,400 (nearly twice), so all the delegates of congresses could have seats. Old arm-chairs were replaced with smaller chairs. Unfortunately, the hollows under the main stage and the orchestral pit were filled and that spoilt the acoustics. In Soviet times, the Bolshoy theatre ranked 55th in the world in the quality of its acoustics.
By 2005 the need for restoration of the theatre was really urgent. The building itself was actually torn apart by seven huge cracks. There was even a joke, that the theatre was held together only by engineering networks and electricity cables. The emergency condition didn’t allow patrons to use the front entrance to go inside. Indeed, the painstaking restoration has saved the Bolshoy for the future generations.
The scale of the renovation works is most impressive. They took six years (twice as long a it was planned) and cost the enormous sum of about 750 million dollars (500 mln were initially allocated). The total floor space has been increased twice; six storeys for the installation of stage machinery have been constructed as well as a number of underground quarters of various purposes – rehearsal rooms, a sound and video recording studio and others.
The most stunning was the story of the reconstruction of the foundation, or the replacement of the foundation, to be precise. After more than two centuries, the old base of the theatre became nothing but a mosaic of small fragments. So, more than two thousand metallic piles were installed to support the whole building while the debris of the old foundation were being removed. There was a time when the theatre was actually born aloft, and the slightest error in the engineering calculations would cause the collapse of the whole structure. I remember the crying headlines in the press. Well, success is never blamed, but the risks were too high.
The new concrete foundation has been pumped. More than two thousand restorers had a lot to fix, to gild, to paint. The orchestral pit has been enlarged to seat 157 musicians – now most complicated scores by Wagner can be performed. The acoustical hollows are back again. It is claimed that the restored Bolshoy will be among the best five opera houses in the world in the acoustics quality. Wait and see. A new curtain has been made for the main stage, one square metre of the cloth with gilded threads weighs one kilogram. 35 historic bells have been installed in the new belfry to be used in some Russian operas.
The auditorium’s seating capacity now is 1700 again, as it was before the Soviet times. Yes, it was not very convenient then, but one can expect that the prices for tickets will be still more exorbitant.
As for the affordability of the Bolshoy for ordinary people, the problem is really acute. When I attended operas there, I saw only foreign spectators in the parterre. All decent seats are bought by travel agencies in advance through their established connections. Back seats on high tiers only are left for us, for Russians. One has to stand to be able to see anything on the stage. It is announced that 396 tickets for each performance, regardless of its cost, will be distributed among the poor at 100 rub apiece. The poor will obviously sell them at a market price. However, I plan to attend the Bolshoy in summer, whatever it costs.
On Saturday, Sept 24, at the Congress of the United Russia party the ruling tandem came up with expected but nevertheless sensational statements about the future configuration of power in the Kremlin. They announced their intention to swap posts after the presidential election campaign in 2012. It was not a big surprise to learn that Putin will be president again, but there's a sense of loss of something. “I feel as though my future has been stolen”, said one man on the air of Ekho Moskvy radio station.
According to the Russian Constitution one person can serve in the office of the President for no longer than two consecutive terms. I think that the word 'consecutive' may had been included into the text of the article by chance while Yeltsin's team were compiling it in a hurry. But it makes Putin eligible to run for the post again and theoretically remain in power for another six of even twelve years. Since 2012 the presidential term will be increased to six years.
Four years ago there were widespread sentiments among the Russians to keep Putin in the office by changing the constitution. According to public opinion poll, in 2008, 35 percent wished him to rule for life. He is widely considered to be the national leader. On September 24, the transition from authoritarian government to autocratic rule of one person was completed. The Russian neo-monarchy has been cemented. In the comments about the plans of the tandem the most often used word seems to be the word 'stagnation'.
In the latest poll by Levada center 40 percent of the Russians want Putin to be president again, and 22 percent support Medvedev. It is evident that Dmitry Medvedev is a weak person who is fully dependent on Putin. He came to power with the slogans of 'modernization' (see, for instance, his program article 'Russia, Forward'). Now, in American parlance, he is seen as a 'lame duck'. He is now being called 'still president', as weak and impotent as probably Nicholas II was.
In 2000 – 2007, on Putin's watch, Russia saw sustained economic growth. So people place their hopes on Putin and this illusion is the source of popular support of the regime. Under Medvedev the country faced economic crisis and diminishing incomes, and those things are associated with him.
We observe the traditional perception of 'a good tzar and bad boyars', that the way to solve all the problems is to get a personal access to the tzar and explain him what is really going on in the country.
Among those who are most active in voting people with less than average education from the provinces prevail. Such people depend on the ruling authorities, they can not get out of poverty. Plus the degradation of the Soviet infrastructure in the depressed regions where we find ignorance,
lack of information and intellectual degradation. In big advanced cities with well off and educated population traditionally there is more criticism of Putin.
In the resourceful groups of population the growth of 'suitcase mood' has been indicated. Those who belong to the emerging Russian middle class fear their future and want to raise their children somewhere outside Russia, far from the hypocritical realities of their homeland.
Putin is a winner by nature, he just can't lose the game. He is psychologically unable to accept coming off second best. And it is quite risky for him to come to rule for the 4th term. First, there is a risk not to be recognized a legitimate ruler on the world arena. Of the G 8 leaders he appears the longest-serving head of state. If he is not accepted in the Western democratic societies, it would be more difficult for the Russian elite to keep their money or teach their children abroad.
Second, anxiety and tension inside Russia are growing. There is much aggression in everyday life, the rise of negative emotions. Third, another economic crisis is looming along with slump in oil prices. Indeed, the future is unpredictable and quite frightening.
The outcome of upcoming elections seems to be determined in advance. What's the point for voting then? 60 percent of Russians think that elections are being falsified by throwing in extra ballot-papers, upward distortions, etc. But there are no public protests, street rallies, riots. So the current state of affairs is unpleasant but still bearable for the people. So far.
On March, 2, Mikhail Gorbachev turned 80. But the jubilee is not the only reason for him hitting the headlines again. He is not the least an idyllic old man. He continues leading an active life as a writer, a lecturer, a globe-trotter, a public figure. He has not forgotten anything and has not become reconciled with anything. From the perspective of modern political reality Gorbachev, again, is a dissident making the lives of the ruling elite in Russia much less comfortable.
His name will always be associated with the third most significant event in the history of the XX century after the Russian revolution and WWII. Voluntarily or not, Gorbachev became the grave-digger of communism.
Where did he come from? What influenced his development as a personality?
Mikail Gorbachev was born in the southern Russian region of Stavropol in 1931. He came from a Russian-Ukrainian peasant family. His grandfather was an old communist as well as his father, a war veteran. Being convinced of the preeminence of the communist system, Gorbajev joined the Party at the age of 19. His rise to the top of power is an example of a high level of vertical mobility in the workforce in the Soviet Union. Most active, devoted and hard-working individuals could successfully climb the social ladder on the basis of their talents and personal qualities. In accordance with the dominant ideology, to reach any top position manual work experience was obligatory. Following the footsteps of his father, Mikhail Gorbachev in his teens worked as a combine harvester operator. Then he was educated at Stavropol Agricultural Institute as an economist. So he was aware of the systemic flaws of Soviet agriculture that had suffered enormous losses since collectivization. (As a popular Russian saying goes, the Russian agriculture has four major problems. They are: winter, spring, summer and autumn.)
Another education was acquired by the future perestroishchik at the law school of the Moscow State University. That, indeed, broadened his horizon, changed his outlook on the world, brought new ideas and new people into his life. Frankly, I am rather skeptic about Gorbachev as a lawyer. While most of his party-mates either had a technical education or studied Marxism-Leninism at the High Party School, young Mikhail, supposedly, was exposed to a different curriculum containing the history of political thought, world jurisprudence, legal systems of other countries. But he was among the activists at the faculty. There was a common practice at Soviet universities that public work for such people often took more time and efforts than actual studying. Later in working life those lacking professionalism often took refuge in Communist Party organizations. To his credit, Gorbachev never tried to project the image of a lawyer, unlike, for instance, Dmitry Medvedev permanently reminding us of his jurisprudent antecedents.
In Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev mingled with the companies of intelligent students and academics with their critical thinking, discussions, reading illegally published (typed or even rewritten by hand) dissident writings. The years of “thaw” under Khrushchev were the time of relative liberalization for the intellectuals, and even the communists like Gorbachev were in its orbit. They were no longer fanatics of Marxist Leninist theories. Sure, the ideologists tried to adapt the theory of communism to the new circumstances (for example they developed a concept of 'developed socialism' as another phase in the progress toward true communism). But any adaptation of any theory inexorably has its limits. They realized that, but didn't know what to say to the population and continued to propagandize the outdated ideas while the popular support of the system was diminishing.
Mikhail made time both for work and amusement. At the university ballroom dancing studio he first saw an elegant, slender, intelligent young lady named Raisa Titarenko, also a provincial, who studied at the faculty of philosophy. Later they met at the students' dormitory in the company of friends.
Their love story was the one of those that really thrilled the world. Neither Mikhail nor Raisa were looking for a good match in Moscow to be allowed to stay in the capital to live and work, like many other did. The ambitious couple got married and upon graduation from the university went to the Stavropol Krai, the homeland of Mikhail. They were not discouraged by the start-up difficulties and were ready to work hard and share all happy and sorrowful moments in life.
Once, interviewed by the NTV's program “Tieless” showing top politicians at home in informal atmosphere, Raisa was asked a question “Can you cook yourself?” And the host of the program, a panther-looking lady, threw a suggestive glance at the cake that apparently has been delivered from a confectionary. Raisa responed with dignity: “Of course, I can. I grew up in a very poor family and learned to do all my housework. But now it is not necessary. I can buy a cake.”
Raisa certainly played a crucial role in the formation of Gorbachev as a leader. He was literally honed by his more refined and intelligent wife who often directed his style and manner of speaking and behavior. But she was not a kind of 'grey cardinal'. In his latest interview to Der Shpiegel Gorbachev said that politics is his second love in life, the first was Raisa. She died in 1999 of leukemia.
Gorbachev was the Second Secretary of the regional communist organization when he met Yuri Andropov, the firm and incorruptible KGB chief who once visited Stavropol. Then the active and young apparatchik was recruited to work in the Politburo, so he had to move to Moscow. For a while he supervised the agricultural policies.
His position in the top ranks of the Party gave him chances to travel abroad and see with his own eyes life in the capitalist world. In 1970s he visited Belgium, France, Great Britain, West Germany. He was impressed by the fruits of a consumer society and, most of all, by the spirit of liberty, freedom to exchange opinions, raise criticism of governments, speak frankly and freely. He also visited the socialist block countries and was fully aware of their resentment over the Soviet domination.
The ruling elite of the country were well informed about the real state of affairs and finally decided to put forward someone young, determined and courageous to confront the crisis.
(To be continued)
- Current Location:Moscow, m.s. River Victoria
Many weeks have passed since I posted the last entry. Many more have been written, and I am currently editing them to publish afterwards. In the beginning of each cruise, before I start lecturing, it's very important for me to figure out what kind of audience I am going to have this time. What topics interest them most, what kind of knowledge of Russia they have, what is their perception of my country, what have they read, and seen, and experienced. The lectures are never exactly the same. The topics are formulated as generalizations, so I can 'model' the course applying the method which I call 'deer herder's method'. What is it like? It's not a deer herder who herds deer, it's the other way around. He only follows them when they exhaust the food in a particular location. This is similar to the way I follow my listeners, given the acute shortage of time.
Your comments are always most precious for me as feed-back. I was informed by Lena (our cruise manager) about the feeling of some of my listeners (I guess a young couple from Jamaica) about my lack of patriotism and sharing things that one probably shouldn't share with aliens. Specifically, she referred to my statement that Russians in general somewhat dislike the Muscovites and consider the Petersburgers to be somewhat arrogant and pretentious. Frankly, I thought those were quite innocent facetious remarks. Sorry, it I have offended someone's sensibilities. On the other hand, the people didn't talk to me, I can only guess how exactly they feel. Reproduced by somebody else, the thoughts are often being somewhat distorted, I know that by my own experience.
However, I'm not going to cede my freedom of opinion easily since I am not a politician, an ideologist, a propagandist but try to be a balanced scholar and a popularizer of history. So do not expect from me a Soviet-style (Sovietesque) propaganda for tourists. I respect my audience and their ability to accept honest analysis.
And it is actually a very thorny ideological problem how to construct a new image of Modern Russia, a positive image to form the amalgam of loyalties cementing the Russian society, to teach the young generation to be proud of the country and their forebears, to show foreign people that Russia is no an evil empire but a reliable partner in international affairs with the best of intentions.
“Patriotism means unqualified and unwavering love for the nation, which implies not uncritical eagerness to serve, not support for unjust claims, but frank assessment of its vices and sins, and penitence for them.” - Solzhenitsyn's definition of patriotism has become a guide-line for many other Russian intellectuals. Their patriotism is moderate and self-critical, not blind. But it's not easy for the majority of my compatriots to understand and accept. In Soviet times Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov were condemned as traitors, or renegades. Now their role as conscience of the nation is unquestionable. I can add a statement of late Dmitry Lichachev, a reknowned academic, an expert in ancient Russian literature and Russian culture, a former gulag prisoner, the one who called Boris Yeltsyn and finally persuaded the president to attend the funeral of Nicholas II while other politicians, and even the patriarch, refrained from coming to Peter and Paul Cathedral for the ceremony. So Lichachev said that 'Russians are really devoid of the imperfection of self-glorification or self-praise. The strength of self-condemnation is above all strength. It shows the the society is still strong enough'. By the way, the most outspoken critic of the foibles of our system and society today is the President.
In the 1830s, the chief of the Secret Police, count A. Benkendorff formulated the guiding principle for historians: 'Russia's past was wonderful, her present magnificent, and as to her future, it is beyond the grasp of the most daring imagination. This is the point of view from which Russian history must be written.' From that perspective, which is quite widespread today, those who criticize anything here simply 'rock the boat', destabilize the situation in the country. Resorting to medical analogies, this is like enduring pain, pretending that all is well, declining treatment. Ultimately it all may end up in a catastrophe.
In the whole tradition of Russian political and historical thought criticism predominates. In one of the previous entries (on Russia as a conundrum) I told about Tyutchev and the story of his quotation on the billboard removed by the order of Moscow municipal authorities. Another renowned thinker of 1830s, A. Chaadayev, in his Philosophical Letters wrote that Russia doesn't belong to the European family of nations. Her mission in the world's history is to reveal the global experience of catastrophes to the rest of the world. The author was sent to a mental asylum after the writings were published.
As for me, if it comes to taking sides, I am, or course, with Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Likhachev, and other passionate Russian patriots who condemned primeval clannish loyalty and wished their fellow countrymen grow more mature, realizing that patriotism does not necessarily imply tribal defensiveness toward outsiders but honest analysis of everything.
I certainly try to analyze various phenomena being balanced. For instance, one cruise ago I was beleaguered with questions about independence of the Russian judiciary, the cases having deep resonance, those of Khodorkovsly and Magnitsky in particular. Yes, there are many shameful things about all that. But there are other things to be put on another scale. For example, that, statistically, over 90 % of the cases of Russian citizens against taxation agencies are won by the citizens. Or in the Constitutional Court 80% of the cases of citizens vs the state are ended with the victory of the citizens. Not 1 or 2 %, but 80 % ! It indicates that legal system nevertheless works despite the shortcomings.
As the old Russian saying goes, the truth has seven sides. And I try to expose as many of them as possible to the best of my resources.
P.S. I would recommend you to remember that criticism of various things about Russia is believed to be a prerogative of the Russians. If a foreigner attempts to speak critically of anything Russian, most Russians, be they dissidents or not, will quickly turn against him, even if they say the same things themselves. Hope you've got the point.
What has been the best period in Russian history?
My great fellow-townsman Anton Chekhov once said that the Russians fear their future, they hate their present and they deify their past. We often dream about good old days of our childhood or the distant past and our celebrated forbears.
At times the official line makes us believe that the best epoch is now. Shortly after the death of Catherine the Great in 1796 a Russian historian wrote to her grandson Alexander I: “Should we compare all the known epochs of Russian history, virtually all would agree that Catherine’s epoch was the happiest for Russian citizens; virtually all would prefer to have lived then than at any other time.”
In the 1830s, the Chief of Secret Police, Count Alexander Benkendorf formulated the directive to historians: “Russia's past was wonderful, her present magnificent, and as to her future, it is beyond the grasp of the most daring imagination. This is the point of view from which Russian history must be written.”
A century later, in the 1930s, the time of famine, bloody purges, overwhelming fear, predominating poverty, Russian people seemed happier and more excited compared to the “corpulent” years under Putin. The Soviet propaganda spread the belief in progress and bright future, cursing the czarist past.
From perestroyka forward, the pre-revolutionary Russia was viewed as the Paradise we lost. A documentary directed by Stanislav Govorukhin, was called The Russia We Lost. From that film we had learned how prosperous the country was before the bolshevik coup, how rapid was her industrial development. To our surprise, dressed up men and women on the reel were not representatives of the wealthy classes of exploiters, but ordinary workers returning home after work. We had been taught at school that they lived in squalor, wore rags and usually had not much to eat. But the documentary material showed that we might, in fact, envy their menu, while under Gorbachev we had rationing and endemic shortages of everything, from food to medical drugs. A hugely popular literary serial by B. Akunin about the adventures of handsome detective Erast Fandorin is set in the times since 1880s, “when the literature was great, the faith in progress was interminable, and even the crimes were committed with elegance and style.” But people are cautious to believe the fairy-tale. One of my students of the faculty of foreign languages said on a seminar: “I know my social origin, and I'm sure I would be nothing more than a laundress had I lived before the Revolution, and now I am a university student thanks only to the Soviets.”
In 2000 and 2005 the VtsIOM (All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center) conducted a poll, asking What have been the best time to live in Russia. Here are the 2005 results:
Russia Today — 52%
Russia under Brezhnev — 26%
Russia under Stalin — 4 %
Russia in the early XX c. - 4%
Russia under Yelstin — 1%
Any other epoch —8 %
Hard to say - 5%
1600 respondents from 46 regions, 153 localities took part in the poll. Statistical error – 3,4%.
The overwhelming majority seems to be content living under Putin. In 2000 39% preferred “Russia Today”. Well, I believe there are a lot of skeptics who do not trust such polls. They would say it was an exaggeration and propaganda of Putinism. I know personally some sociologists working for the VTsIOM, I know how their research work is being conducted, and I am inclined to trust them.
The latter poll was conducted shortly after the death of the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin. No more than 1 per cent find the time of shock therapy appealing.
The thing that amazed most of the observers is that in the XX century people tend to select the epoch of Leonid Brezhnev, which in history books is characterized as 'stagnation'. In 2000 the number of its adherents was even higher – 31%. You may find it interesting that today many draw parallels between the times of Putin and Brezhnev – oil dollars keeping the economy afloat, television constantly showing the head of state in carefully prepared news programs, frustration and apathy of the population, etc.
When it comes to the evaluation of the general direction of Russia's development, the opinions are split practically fifty-fifty about three epochs in the XX century – the times of Lenin, Nicholas II, and Brezhnev. Other periods are seen as predominantly negative (the rule of Stalin, Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin) or largely positive (Putin's time). The closer the epoch to us in time, the more consolidated is Russians' view of it. Thus 72% disapprove Gorbachev's line while 15% support it. 80% are strongly critical of Yeltsin's rule, 9% view it positively. As for the general development of the country under Putin, it is approved by 67% and disapproved by 20%.
I wonder why they don't conduct a new poll. How the crisis and stagnation have corrected people's preferences? Less for Putin, more for Brezhnev again?
- Current Location:Moscow, m.s. River Victoria
The second cruise is nearly over and I am in Moscow again. On the first trip the question was raised about the number of the Gulag prisoners who died in the construction of the Moscow Canal – a grandiose complex of installations and a straight, 128 km long canal connecting Moscow and the Volga, that had solved the problem of water shortages in the Russian capital.
Every time I deliver the first lecture I ask the audience about their associations of Russia. It helps me to single out most popular topics of interest from the very beginning. As a rule, many listeners immediately mention Communism, Russia as a closed society, oppression. On the first cruise one gentleman spoke about Russia's characteristic as “3D country – dull, deterrent and deluding”. On the second tour my lecture on Communism and its legacy attracted many listeners, in spite of being held right after lunch. After the talk some people came to ask more questions, specifically about the functioning of the Gulag and its economic efficiency. “Gulag” is the Russian acronym for “The Chief Administration of Camps.”
One of those interested in the history of the Moscow Canal quoted the CNN (?) documentary saying that twenty to thirty thousand prisoners died on the construction. One of the guides in Moscow said that their number was no less than one million. Why are there such big differences in the data? I would like to share with you some information on the subject.
The construction works lasted from September, 1932 to June, 15, 1937, so they took four years and eight months to be completed. Since Sept, 1933 prisoners began to arrive at the site. They were kept in the town of Dmitrov, Moscow region, in the former Monastery of Boris and Gleb. On Jan, 1, 1936, the capacity of the Dmitrovlag was one hundred ninety two thousand people.
The Russians are known for their typical lackadaisical attitude to work, negligence and poor discipline. But the repressive machinery was the striking contrast to those characteristics. It showed rigorous accuracy, high organization, strict discipline and absolute precision in carrying out the repressions. And the work of the NKVD was therefore well documented.
There was strict calendar registration at Dmitrovlag, and regular returns were compiled. What happened to the archive then? It was evacuated in autumn, 1941, as the Nazi troops were approaching Moscow. A barge and a tow were allocated for that purpose. So the documents were transported down the Volga to the city of Ulyanovsk (Lenin's birthplace). Two canal officers were in charge of the evacuation. But when the barge arrived in Ulyanovsk, something incredible happened. The big heavy boxes containing the documents had been unshipped. Then an NKVD officer had appeared and ordered to burn all the containers down right there, on the wharf. The man in charge of the archive asked: “What does it mean? And what should I report about the delivery?” The NKVD man replied roughly: “That's none of your business!” So all the containers had been burnt down. What was the point in evacuating them? Probably the NKVD authorities in Moscow or Dmitrov did not dare to destroy the archive at the scene, or the NKVD in Ulyanovsk didn't want to organize storage of the documents, or may be they got an order form above.
Local historians of Dmitrov estimate the death toll withing the range from seven hundred thousand to one and a half million. Most likely, that is a big exaggeration. However, what we know from the stories told by the witnesses is that the lists of the people to be shot were very long – whole sheets of paper with the resolutions “to shoot”, and a single illegible signature.
There are some 180 files of Moscow record-keeping on the Moscow Canal in the State Archive of the Russian Federation. But they do not shed any light upon that secret. The NKVD have wiped out the tracks. So we still have no accurate numbers of inmates who died of hunger, diseases or were shot in the Dmitrovlag, as well as in the whole system of Gulag.
* I have found an interesting piece of living history concerning the building of the Moscow Canal – an anecdotal evidence of a witness, P.I. Shcherbakov. On July, 4, 1934, Joseph Stalin himself had visited the construction site. Observing the foundation pit, he noticed that the inmates were working barefoot. Even if it was in summer, the weather was not very warm. Stalin immediately interrogated his retinue – the directors of the project – why the workers have no footwear. They stalled, saying that they had to bring too many workers on the site, and that the footwear was on the way. The Leader ordered abruptly the footwear to be delivered within two hours, and several men in charge for the provision to be shot. They were shot right away near the ditch.
- Current Location:Moscow
Some curious people ask me why do the Russians tend to postpone their work to the very last moment, and then show heroic efforts to fulfil the task. I’d like to use that occasion to reflect on the common Russian practice of shturmovshchina – short bursts of extremely intense work after procrastination.
Avral (emergency rush) is probably predetermined by geography and climate: short growing season (three or four month; on average it takes only twenty-five days to carry out all ploughing-sowing- harvesting, compared to, for instance, forty days in Sweden) for centuries made the Russian peasants concentrate their agricultural labor in summer leaving winters relatively free for idleness , contemplation, or philosophizing. And the modern urbanized Russian society has inherited the archaic habit of rushed work, sporadic effort, rather than systematic, regular and balanced job. As a traditional Russian proverb says, the Russian man harnesses slowly, but drives fast. As modern Russian saying goes, do not put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.
It was no different under the communist rule. In the centralized planned economy all managers and workers struggled to meet the deadlines. Fulfilling the plans was rewarded by bonuses, so the managers often filed phony reports about the projects being completed. Looking through the filing of old Soviet newspapers, we can find numerous stories about the shturmovshchina, abundantly evidencing its ineffectiveness. For instance, Trud (the newspaper of the Soviet trade unions), on June 14, 1973, tells the story of a new power generator in Siberia at the place called Nazarovo. In December, 1968, a solemn opening ceremony marking the start-up of the generator was held. But in five years after the opening, the generator itself was not still supplied by the manufacturer.
Worrying to finish construction of houses and other objects on time, Soviet workers typically put bricks, plaster and painted all at once, while each of these operations requires some time to wait before the next. Bricks must shrink, and plaster must dry before painting. No wonder that very soon paint would peel away, plaster would flake off, and big cracks appear in the brickwork.
In September 2010, a number of schools in Taganrog, where I live, didn’t start the school year on Sept. 1, because repair works had not been completed. It took ten days of shturmovshchina to finish all the works. So the Knowledge day was celebrated, but the knowledge itself was delayed. The kids were happy! But what an example had been set for them?
Will we ever get rid of that harmful shturmovshchina?
Not by the mind can Russia be understood,
Nor measured by the common yardstick.
She has a special character -
In Russia one must simply believe.
A very often quoted stanza by Fyuodor Tyutchev, a 19-century Slavophile poet, diplomat, philosopher. “A poet in Russia is more than a poet”. Poets were prophets, dominant influences. Another hackneyed quotation is that Russia “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” said by W. Churchill. Indeed, this country is considered to be somehow immune to analysis, posing myriads of paradoxes, leaving many questions unanswered. The extreme opposites are so tightly bound in Russian history and culture, in the mentality and behavior of the Russian people, that somehow the country makes an impression of being immune to analysis by rational criteria.
However, the quote by the classic poet is not an excuse, not the sufficient reason to give up figuring out this amazing country. After all, that is a beautiful piece of poetry written in 1860, and the laws of poetry are totally different from the laws of logic. Tyutchev himself never stopped decoding Russia, pondering over her paradoxes and absurdities. Once he concluded that “Russian history before Peter the Great is nothing but a requiem, and after Peter the Great it is nothing but a criminal case.”
That very quotation, along with other pointed remarks by Russian thinkers such as Chaadaev and Saltykov-Shchedrin, recently caused a scandal in Moscow. Two months ago, The Moscow News, a respectable weekly newspaper published in Russian and English, displayed the phrases on the billboards in the center of the capital as part of their advertising campaign. The city authorities got outraged and ordered to remove the quotations of the 19-century writers. It seems like a recurrence of the times of czarist censorship, when the secret police chief count Aleksandr Benkendorff had formulated his direction to the authors of 1830s: “Russia's past was wonderful, her present magnificent, and as to her future, it is beyond the grasp of the most daring imagination. This is the point of view from which Russian history must be written.” As you see, classic quotations are seen as a threat to stability in Moscow.
I have digressed again! What I want to say is that I condemn the sheer idea of Russia as an inconceivable country. We had better enjoy the lyrics, but think rationally (which does not mean schematically). It is long overdue.
Yours, Inna Gritsenko