Friday, September 25, 2015

Aleksandr Blok and the Sythians

This article originally posted on Johnson's Russia List, 2008

                                                The Coming of the Sythians

This is a response to the article by Mark Medish, "Russia's Road Rage," reprinted in JRL-2008, Special Issue, 2008, Item No. 21

When I saw the title of Mr. Medish's article, I immediately assumed that the subject would be Russia's hideous drivers: the way they won't wear seat belts as a matter of puerile pride, the way they operate automobiles in ways that are destructive to themselves or others, the way they'll speed up if they see a pedestrian crossing the road up ahead, the way they'll moderate their driving habits not one iota when roads are icy. As a result of these driving habits, Russia has horrendous road fatality rates, both for drivers and pedestrians.

Of course, the driving (and the drinking) habits say important things about how Russians view the world, both at home and abroad. The basic message is the POFIGISM ("Mne po figu"=I just don't give a damn), which is the most widespread and most deleterious cultural attitude in all of Russia. This attitude has resonance with the major theme of Mr. Medish's article, his contention that Russians will assert their national pride, even in ways that may be self-destructive, or destructive to the world as a whole.

John McCain, who solemnly declared, tears in his eyes, that "we are all Georgians," Bill Clinton, who began the process of pushing NATO up to the very borders of Russia (a process that has continued over the years of the Bush Administration}--these are politicians who know nothing about Russian cultural mores and Russian history. They rely on Russian "experts," such as Condoleeza Rice, who, despite her background in Soviet studies, does not seem to have learned very much either--she may know something about the Soviet political scene, but her spoken Russian is rudimentary, and if she has much insight into Russian literature, history, culture and folklore, she certainly has shown no evidence of this.

 Certainly the new President Obama needs to be informed that, in dealing with Russia, we are facing a country with its back to the wall, a country that may talk big, talk aggressively (this is Putin’s style, and Medvedev sometimes apes it), but that has poor military resources, an economy in trouble, huge demographic problems, a crumbling infrastructure, an apolitical population that can get volatile when the economy tanks. What does Russian possess, ultimately--what weapons to use in its defense against the outside world? It possesses, ultimately, nuclear weapons, and anyone who knows the essence of the Russian temperament (see the drivers above, see the maximalist views of Russian philosophers and writers discussed below) realizes that if pushed far enough, Russia will use these weapons.

As the Medish article demonstrates, it is dangerous to remain ignorant of traditional maximalist Russian stances. The poet cited, Alexander Blok (1880-1921) lived a life that constantly walked a thin line between the sane and the insane. Inspired by Vladimir Solov’yov (see below), he had visions of a new world, in which the human communes with the divine. As Russian intellectuals go, he was not that unusual in his time, and his poetry still has a lot of influence on the thinking of Russians. In reference to the revolutionary events taking place all around him, Blok once wrote that “cosmos is born out of chaos.” Well, as it turned out in the years of the Russian Civil War, chaos was what was born out of chaos.

In citing Blok's poem “The Sythians” in support of his point about the Russian propensity to assert itself, Mr. Medish misses the more salient theme of the Blok poem, a theme that demonstrates how prescient Blok's poetry was at the time he wrote it, and how prescient it remains today. "The Sythians"[i] begins with an epigraph from Vladimir Solov’yov (1853-1900), a Russian philosopher who was extremely popular in the years preceding the Russian Revolution. Somehow typically Russian in their grandiosity, Solov’yov’s ideas look to the Western rationalist like something off the wall. The philosopher had had visions of the “Divine Sophia,” a feminine entity associated with Hagia Sophia, embodying, ostensibly, God’s idea of the divine essence of the world.

Just because Solov’yov’s notions may seem eccentric and outré, this does not, however, diminish their influence on Russians or their importance.[ii] In fact, the only time that the two greatest Russian novelists who ever lived, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, were together in the same place was at a lecture by Solov’yov in 1878.[iii]

The Solov’yov epigraph to Blok’s “Sythians” is: "Panmongolism! Although the word sounds wild,// It somehow caresses my ears."

Here the philosopher expresses a notion that Blok, as well as intellectuals all over Russia, were obsessed with for years--the idea that the East was coming, with its Mongol cruelty, its joy in shedding blood. The first stanza, truncated by Medish in his article, reads like this:

There are millions of you. Of us there are untold numbers of dark hordes ("Nas--t'my, i t'my, i t'my.").
Give it a try; try fighting with us!
Yes, we are Sythians! Yes, we are Asiatic,
With our slanted, greedy eyes!

Ever since Russia had been defeated in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05),[iv] Blok's poems were replete with allusions to the might of the Eastern powers, the threat to the West that would come from the East. Deep in their cultural bones, Russians have never forgotten the Mongol Yoke. In "The Sythians" the poet repeats the (unfounded) assertion that Russia had served as a shield, to protect Western Europe from the Tartar invaders in the 13th-14th centuries; then he goes on to say, "from here on, we won't be your shield any more."

Blok, who was neurotic to extremes and who welcomed the destructive force of the Russian Revolution (even though he knew that it meant an end to his noble class of the intelligentsia and an end to his personal existence), stresses in "The Sythians" his notion that the new Bolshevik Russia would somehow join the elemental forces of the Orient to crush the bourgeois West.

Like so many Russian intellectuals, Blok hated, above all, middle-class philistinism, and he welcomed the crudeness (and cruelty) of the Russian workers and peasants. He apparently embraced, as well, the thugs of Bolshevism, who, while merciless, would sweep the world clean of the bourgeois class. In exalting criminals and bandits (Stalin is a typical example of such a revolutionary)[v] Blok deluded himself and paid dearly for the delusion. But in reading this poem today, his prescience, a different prescience, is obvious.

For the foreseeable future the greatest threat to Russia will come from the East. Central Asia, poor in spirit and economic means, has, nonetheless, a higher birth rate than Russia. What's even more relevant, "untold numbers of dark hordes" are lurking right across the border of the Russian Far East--in China. The meager Russian population of this area has been decreasing in recent years, but even if all 142 million Russians were sent out to the borders of China, they would be small in numbers, in comparison to the population of Western China.

Russian leaders have often pointed out their affinities with the East; they have even expressed a desire to create a new world order based on Eastern alliances. But, simultaneously, they realize their precarious geopolitical situation with regard to China. No fools themselves, the Chinese leaders are willing to negotiate with Russia, e.g., on the issue of building new pipelines Eastward. Recent negotiations, however, collapsed when the Russians realized how much the Chinese, operating from what they see as a position of power, were demanding.

Most encouraging of all, while the Russian people have this strain of maximalism, this love of mysticism and the outré, the present Russian leadership seems to operate on totally pragmatic principles, which comes closer to American ways of doing things.

These are the kind of facts that President Obama's Russian advisors should be presenting to him. Let them set aside their books on politics and economics temporarily. Let them read, say, the superb biography of Blok and his times by Avril Pyman (2 vol., in English), or the telling remarks about Russia's attitudes toward Asia in Orlando Figes' book on Russian culture: Natasha's Dance.

Such books might provide the insights required to convince Obama that American policies should change, that there is much that Russia needs from the West, that Russia would certainly be amenable to initiatives from the U.S. IF those initiatives make clear that the plan for missile systems in Poland will be postponed or abrogated, that the push to get Georgia and Ukraine into NATO will be put way back on a back burner—which back burner, at some time in the future, will be quietly switched off.

[i]The Sythians were a nomadic warlike tribe that settled in the steppes around the Black Sea in the seventh-eighth centuries AD. Their remarkable artifacts may still be viewed today at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Blok uses this bellicose people as his metaphorical representation of all the elemental power of the Orient, which, as Blok sees it, is set to advance upon the West and destroy Western civilization.
[ii] Many of the great thinkers of the world (Freud, e.g., Nietzsche) often present ideas that, on their surface, seem preposterous, far-fetched. When viewed in all their profundity, however, these ideas offer at least the seeds of elementary truths.
[iii] The lecture that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy attended was part of a series called Lectures on Godmanhood, which Solov’yov presented in St. Petersburg, in the winter and early spring of 1878. Although seated that day in the same lecture hall, the great novelists did not meet (nor did they ever meet each other in their lifetimes). See Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky, the Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 386-87.
[iv] Even an apparently apolitical poem, the famous “A Girl Was Singing in the Church Choir” Aug., 1905), is replete with allusions to the Russian ships that were lost in the Battle of Tsushima (May, 1905). The Russian Baltic Fleet had circumnavigated the world to reach the Pacific battle site, where it was decimated by the Japanese.
[v] The best example of how Blok glorified the ignorance, cruelty and brutality of the working-class soldiers of the Red Army is his famous poem The Twelve (Jan., 1918), which, notoriously, concludes with an image of Jesus Christ, marching ahead of the pack of marauders.

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