Saturday, December 17, 2016


NOTE: This article originally published in Johnson's Russia List, July 19, 2008

Face-Saving Fakery, Play Acting and Make
Believe in Russian History and Culture

(1) The Tatar Yoke and the Chechen Wars

"We play, we die: ig-rhyme, umi-rhyme."
[Vladimir Nabokov in his short story, "'That in
Aleppo Once.'"--punning on the Russian verbs,
igraem ("we play") and umiraem ("we die")]

(1) Fakery in Terms of Conquering and Being
Conquered: (a) Russia and the Tatar Yoke (b)
Tolstoy Looks at War against the Chechens in the 1850s


In Homo Ludens (Man the Player), his remarkable
book about how nearly all human institutions may
be linked to the concept of play, the great Dutch
historian Huizinga writes: "More and more doubts
arise as to whether our occupations are pursued
in play or in earnest, and with the doubts comes
the uneasy feeling of hypocrisy, as though the
only thing we can be certain of is make-believe."
In another passage he mentions how the sophists
"hint at the perpetual ambiguity of every
judgement made by the human mind," and he
reluctantly tiptoes up to the "deep question of
how far the process of reasoning is itself marked by play-rules. . ."[1]

Read in the context of Russian history and
culture, both ancient and contemporary,
Huizinga's book has a particular resonance.


The great émigré scholar George Fedotov has
stated that "The Mongol conquest is the most
fateful catastrophe suffered by Russia during her
entire history." He adds that "The blow to
national pride was deep and ineradicable." [2]
The Golden Horde (commonly known as the Mongols
or Tatars) descendents of the great warlord
Chingis Khan (who died in 1227), fell upon the
Russian lands in force, devastating Kievan Rus in
the campaigns of 1237-1240 A.D. Very soon the
Mongols had gained control over almost all of
what was then Russia, plus much more (China and
Persia, for example). When Tatar raiding parties
first appeared in 1223, the Russians had no idea
who they were, and they "identified them with the
peoples of Gog and Magog, whose escape from
behind the mountains where Alexander the Great
had locked them up signaled the apocalypse."[3]

The Tatars forced Russia to pay tribute (in
money, slaves, military recruits) for about two
and one half centuries (the usually accepted time
frame of the "Tatar Yoke" is 1240-1480 AD). This
is roughly the same number of years that comprise
the entire history of the United States of
America. Following the cue of early Russian
scribes (writers of the ancient chronicles),
Russian historians have most frequently
emphasized the brutality of the invaders and
glorified the Russians who resisted them. Little
or nothing is said, however, about specific
incidents of humiliation. Where do we read about
Russians being forced to get down on their knees
when a Tatar war party rode into town? Where do
we hear tales of rape and rapine? Where do we
find detailed descriptions of Russian princes
kowtowing to the Tatars? Practically nowhere,
since the Tatars did not write these things down
and the Russians made monumental efforts to
pretend they had not happened. When instances of
Russian collaboration with the Tatar conquerors
are too blatant to miss, the historians (again
following the example of the scribes), say
nothing about them. Halperin calls this "the ideology of silence."

"Among historians of Russia, neglect of the
period of Mongol domination has been the rule
rather than the exception. As Michael Cherniavsky
aptly observed, 'There seems to have prevailed a
vague desire to get rid of, to bypass, the whole
question as quickly as possible'" (Halperin
preface, p. vii). True, the Russian émigré
Eurasianist movement of the 1920s and 1930s
attempted a new approach. The Eurasianists took a
novel look at the years of the Mongol Yoke and
decided that Tatar culture, as well as Turkic and
Muslim culture, had had a tremendous impact on
Russia. The neo-Eurasianists of recent years
propagate the belief that the future of Russia
lies in the East, in economic and political
alliances with China, India, Iran, and the
countries of Central Asia, but Eurasianist views,
largely, have not abrogated the traditional
denigration of the Mongols or the widely-accepted
denial of their importance in Russian history.[4]

The major leitmotif of Charles Halperin's whole
book is the "ideology of silence" (see also p. 5,
8, 19-20, 61-62, 127, 129). The history of the
medieval Russian chroniclers is a history of
prevarication. Rather than acknowledge certain
truths that are sometimes obvious, at other times
not totally verifiable, but at least probable,
the scribes fabricated a number of myths about
Russia and the Golden Horde. These myths were
then perpetuated by Russian historians and
cultural figures, who often continue perpetuating
them right up to the present day, while adding new myths of their own:

(1) Russian resistance saved Europe from the
Tatars. If Russia had given in to Tartar
occupation, it would have been only one more step
for the Tartars to advance into Western Europe.

Rebuttal: The Mongol Horde never occupied Russia
because it had no good reason to do so. "The
institutions which permitted prolonged occupation
of China, Persia, and Central Asia would hardly
have been inadequate to govern Russia. The fact
is that Russia remained unoccupied because it had
little to offer the Mongols. It was neither part
of the steppe nor located on profitable trade
routes. Commerce in and through Russia may have
been important for the Russians but was minor
compared to the trade along the caravan routes
east and south of Sarai."[5] The advance of Khan
Batu, grandson of Chingis Khan, through Eastern
Europe may have been halted by an "accident of
history," the death of Great Khan Ugedei. The
Mongol leaders suspended their military campaign,
so this story goes, in order to attend a council
that would elect his successor (Halperin, p. 47).

(2) Prince Dmitry Donskoi's[6] great victory
over the Tatars at Kulikovo in 1380 led to a
recrudescence of Russian power and precipitated
the dissipation of the Golden Horde.

Rebuttal: Prince Dmitry's victory is highly
significant, since it marked the first time in
140 years that Russians had defeated a Tatar army
and it "shattered the legend of the military
invincibility of the Mongols."[7] But the
importance of the victory has been exaggerated,
and the average Russian is unaware of the
complexities surrounding this event. On the
famous Monument to a Thousand Years of Russian
History in Great Novgorod, for example, Donskoi
is depicted trampling on a vanquished Tatar, who
is lying on the ground, looking up beseechingly
at the Russian prince.[8] This visual image
amounts to a vast oversimplification of the
Kulikovo event and its importance in history; its
American equivalent would be something like the
tale of how young George Washington cut down a
cherry tree and then said, "I cannot lie; I did
it." It is an image of legend, rather than of historical fact.

In reality, the Russian princes were making
repeated alliances with the Tatars against their
fellow Russian princes throughout the whole
period of the Tatar Yoke. For a number of years
Moscow engaged in squabbles with Tver', which had
allied itself with Tatar Khan Mamai. Under
pressure from Moscow, Tver' was forced to submit
to a humiliating treaty in 1375, and when Prince
Dmitry advanced against the Tatars in 1380,
Tverian troops were to join his army (under the
terms of the treaty), but they failed to show up.
Dmitry's victory turned out, furthermore, to be
pyrrhic, since the Russians suffered great losses
at Kulikovo and could not mobilize another army
to continue fighting Mamai, who prepared for
another campaign against Russia. Meanwhile, in
1382, "with the connivance, in part coerced, of
the princes of Tver', Riazan, and Nizhnij
Novgorod," a different Tatar khan, Tokhtamysh
attacked Moscow, razed the city and re-instituted
the forced payment of tribute to the Tatars.

The man who really may have put the final quietus
on Mongol domination of the Russian lands was,
oddly enough, the great Central Asian warlord
Tamerlane (a.k.a. Temir Aksak or Timur the Lame).
In order to secure his rear from the threat of
Tamerlane, Tokhtamysh made concessions to the
Russians. Then, in 1395, Tamerlane himself
advanced into Russia with a huge contingent of
troops. More myths were concocted later to
explain why he did not sack Moscow (and, again,
how Russian resistance saved Western Europe). So
the new legend goes, Moscow paraded around the
sacred image of the Vladimir Mother of God in an
attempt to stop Tamerlane, whose troops had taken
the southern city of Yelets. The warlord was
encamped outside town, sleeping, when "The Queen
of Heaven appeared unto him, surrounded by a host
of warriors, and ordered him to abandon forthwith
the realm of Rus. Immediately, he retreated,
leaving Russia and Europe in peace. On the spot
of his dream the Russians built a church named
after the icon of the Blessed Yelets Mother of
God. Copies of this icon, painted as the image of
the Vladimir God Mother, hands raised in
supplication, abound in Yelets to this day."[9]

(3) Led by the heroic Russian princes, the
Russian people resisted the Tatar Yoke and
eventually drove the Mongols out of Russia. Great
Novgorod, never sacked by the Mongols, was a kind
of hero city, and Prince Aleksandr Nevsky
(1220-1263), like Donskoi, is one of the greatest heroes of Russian history.

Rebuttal: As mentioned above, the aristocracy in
charge of Russian principalities often made
alliances with the Tatars against other
principalities. As is so often the case in
Russian history, Russians had trouble uniting in
a common cause. This, of course, is not so
surprising, in that, during the many centuries
preceding the consolidation of Moscow's power,
there was no centralized "Russia" in the sense
that there was later. But Russia under the Tatar
Yoke, nonetheless, sometimes has an eerie
congruency with the Russia of today. Those in
power (the leaders of the principalities and the
church back then; today the "new oligarchs,"
power brokers from the old KGB, and others in
high bureaucratic positions) fight each other for
influence, making and breaking alliances if need be.

As for Novgorod, often declared to be the most
significant free city remaining in Russian during
the years of the Tatar Yoke, it kept its
independence by dealing diplomatically with the
Tatars. Like the rest of Russia "Great Lord
Novgorod" (Gospodin Velikij Novograd) paid
tribute to the Mongol Horde, and the city
flourished because the Mongols allowed it special
trading privileges (Halperin, p. 35, 80).
Aleksandr Nevsky, who is prominently depicted on
the Thousand Year Monument, and whose statue
stands proudly in Novgorod today, on the other
side of the Volkhov River, is not entirely the
hero he is made out to be. Nevsky certainly
deserves hero status for his victories over the
Swedes in 1240 and the Livonian Knights two years
later. But in dealing with the Tatars, Nevsky was
a pragmatist. "His collaboration with the Tatars
has been an embarrassment to patriotic
historiographers ever since" (Halperin, p. 49-50,
67; see also Rossija v bronze, p. 148-49). In The
Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471, the first
mention of the Tatars (A.D. 1257) depicts them
allied with Aleksandr, who punished rebellious
Novgorodians (among them was his son Vasily): "He
cut off the noses of some, and took out the eyes
of others, of those who had led Vasily to
evil."[10] Modern-day patriots, however, need not
be so assiduous in concealing Nevsky's
conciliatory moves. After all, he was forced to
deal with enemies on both the western and eastern
borders of the Russian lands, and he deserves the
glory that he achieved under almost impossible
circumstances. The discomfort at acknowledging
Nevsky's dealings with the Tatars is just one
more affirmation of the stain on the Russian
psyche that still remains, more than five hundred
years after the end of the Mongol Yoke.

(4) Russia "learned wickedness" from the
Tatars, or, as Harrison Salisbury once put it,
modern-day Russia "still struggles against the
legacy of backwardness, ignorance, servility,
submissiveness, deceit, cruelty, oppression and
lies imposed by the terrible Mongols" (Salisbury cited in Halperin, p. 96-97).

Rebuttal: This argument is so specious that it
hardly deserves a rebuttal. Certainly there is
enough wickedness, cruelty, backwardness, etc. in
the human soul (see the history of the human race
from time out of mind) that we can't blame the
Tatars for imposing such traits on Russians.

(5) The Tatars are at fault for Russia's having "missed the Renaissance."

Rebuttal: "Russia had never been part of the
Roman Empire and was neither Catholic nor within
the sphere of medieval Latinity. . . Russian
intellectuals could hardly have participated in
the revival of a classical Latin heritage that
was not their own. The Renaissance was
intrinsically a phenomenon of the Latin West"
(Halperin, p. 122). Furthermore, Russia had its
own Renaissance of sorts, and not one easily
dismissed as creatively inferior. Its sources
were the culture of Byzantium, plus that of the
Orthodox Slavs of the South and Kievan Rus. The
period inclusive of this efflorescence of Russian
spirituality and creativity is, roughly, the
thirteenth through the fifteen centuries (much of
this time periodic coincided with the years of
Mongol domination). Fedotov (II, 344) has called
the fifteenth century the "golden age of Russian
sanctity or spiritual life" and also "the golden
age of Russian art," but he also is careful to
distinguish the Russian spirit of innovation from
that of the West, whose culture the Russians
refused to appropriate. There was no doctrinal
reason for not translating into Slavonic certain
books of secular content. Constantinople, capital
of the Byzantine Empire until 1453, had libraries
rich with secular literature, but these were not
translated. Therefore, there was "a tragic lack
in ancient Russian culture, a complete absence of
rational scientific thought, even in the
theological field. . . full-fledged scientific
investigation in Russia started only in the
nineteenth century" (Fedotov, II, 380).


As Lev Tolstoy is so fond of emphasizing in his
literary works describing politics and warfare,
the people involved often act for reasons not
entirely clear to them, and the consequences of
their actions are unpredictable. In his last
great work of fiction, "Hadji Murad" (published
posthumously, in 1912), Tolstoy presents the
subjugation of the Chechens in the Caucasus
(1850s) as a brutal game of let's pretend. The
renowned Chechen warlord and title character is
pretending to join the Russians, to fight against
his enemy Shamil, who holds his family hostage.
Meanwhile, the Russians are pretending to believe
that Hadji Murad really intends to help them,
while not for a moment really believing.

In Chapter Seventeen, the handsome officer Butler
is shown enjoying the exhilaration of warfare,
poeticizing it, playing this game to the hilt,
while averting his eyes from the Russian dead and
wounded. In the next chapter the Chechen village
just ravaged by Butler's men is depicted, and the
sheer horror of war is presented in contrast to
Butler's romantic fantasies. Meanwhile, the
Chechen warriors, who know no other rules by
which to live except the rules of the blood feud,
are often depicted exulting in the sheer joy of
battle, while praising Allah. The game, and the
rules by which it is played, are more important than the consequences.[11]

As he so often does in War and Peace, Tolstoy in
"Hadji Murad" debunks the way myths about the
battlefield quickly replace somber realities. In
Chapter Five the Russian officers engage in an
animated conversation about the recent death of
General Slepstov. In speaking of the general, no
one considers the grim fact of his demise and his
"return to the great source of life from which he
came." Rather they all imagine his gallantry in
death, the actions of a "dashing officer, falling
upon the mountaineers saber in hand and desperately hacking away at them.

"This, despite a reality that everyone. . . knew
and could not help knowing: that throughout the
war in the Caucasus, and never, nowhere in any
other war did there occur that hacking with the
swords of hand-to-hand combat, the scene that
people always conjure up and describe (and that
if such hand-to-hand combat with swords and
bayonets ever actually takes place, then the only
soldiers being hacked and stabbed are the ones running away). . ."[12]

The Russian officers, as Tolstoy makes clear,
hide behind such mythmaking in order to avoid
facing the possibility of their own death. The
Chechens, on the other hand, seem not to fear
death at all, taking refuge (exactly in the same
spirit of modern jihadists) in the grandiose
legends of the Islamic religion and their firm
belief that for them there is no other way to
live except through perpetual strife and acting
out scenarios of vengeance. As for the Russian
foot soldiers, they relate to war and death with
a stoicism typical of the Russian narod.

In light of all this mythmaking, one cannot help
thinking of the U.S. troops in Iraq and
Afghanistan today, forcing themselves to believe
that they are engaged in a noble cause. After
all, how could they go about their daily lives,
watching comrades wounded and killed, if they had
no make believe to believe in?


I'm not sure if he ever wrote about the "battle"
that marked the end of Mongol domination of the
Russian lands, but Tolstoy certainly would have
been delighted at the circumstances of this
pivotal event in Russian history. The story is
complicated, but to put it briefly, by 1480, a
hundred years after Dmitry's pyrrhic victory at
Kulikovo, Ivan III, "the Great" (1462-1505),
became increasing emboldened in his behavior
toward the fragmented Tatar Horde. He had
recently (1478) forced Great Novgorod to submit
to the power of Moscow, and cooperation between
the Horde and the King of Poland had not yet been
solidified. In the autumn of 1480 Khan Akhmad led
his troops north against Moscow, then turned
west, hoping to join forces with the Poles, who
never materialized. Waiting for their Polish
allies, the Tatars set up camp on the banks of
the Ugra River, which was the border between
Lithuanian and Muscovite territories. The Russian
forces led by Ivan camped on the opposite side of
the river. The adversaries sat there for several
days, shooting arrows across the river and
occasionally shouting out insults to one another.
Then the ice froze over. Fearing a cavalry
attack, Ivan decided to break camp and retreat.
Noticing the bustle on the other side of the
Ugra, the Tatars also anticipated an attack and
fled to the south. The Tatar Yoke, consequently,
was lifted finally, definitively, with the
Russian "victory" in a non-existent battle.[13]

In the world of Homo sapiens, as well as in the
world of various other creatures, such playing at
war is widespread, and the consequences of
non-warfare may be just as great, or greater,
than the consequences of warfare. The
anthropologist Marvin Harris has described how
the Maring, a tribe living in the remote Bismarck
Mountains of New Guinea, wages war. They begin by
holding vast pig-eating festivals, hoping that
the opulence of their feasting will demoralize
the enemy. In preparing to fight, they arrange,
through intermediaries, an appropriate site and
clear it of underbrush. Fighting begins on a day
that both sides have agreed upon. After elaborate
ritual preparations, including communing with
their ancestors, the warriors, prancing, howling
and singing, make their way to the battleground.
They plant huge shields in the ground, take cover
behind them, and began hurling insults at the
enemy. "Occasionally a warrior pops out from
behind his shield to taunt his adversaries,
darting back as a shower of arrows is launched in
his direction. . . As soon as someone gets killed, there is a truce."[14]

In a demonstration of how frequently human and
animal play-acting behavior converge, Hölldobler
and Wilson describe the ritual combat of honeypot
ants. Arranging a kind of tournament, the workers
of two different honeypot colonies behave "in the
manner of medieval knights, one on one. They walk
about with legs stretched out in a stiltlike
posture while lifting their heads and abdomens
and occasionally inflating their abdomens to a
slight degree. The total effect is to make each
ant appear larger than it really is. . . When two
antagonists first meet, they perform a formicid
pas de deux: they turn their bodies about to face
one another head-on, then stand side by side
while straining to raise their bodies ever
higher, and then often circle each other slowly
while drumming their antennae on the opponent's
body and kicking out at her with their legs. . .
All this effort is ritualized and gentle, far
short of the ants' fighting potential. Either ant
could easily seize and slash the opponent with
her sharp mandibles, or spray her with formic
acid, both actions having a fatal result. But
during the tournaments such violence rarely
occurs. After several seconds one of the
displayers yields, and the encounter ends. The
two ants then strut off on stilt legs in search
of other rivals." As with the Marings, "the
desired result is the communication of fighting
ability. All-out war is rare."[15]

Certainly there are beneficial things that humans
could learn from the ants. Unfortunately,
however, the ritualized behavior of the honeypots
described here does not mean that they, or other
ants, are capable of resolving their problems
without bloodshed. Elsewhere in their fascinating
book the authors note that if ants possessed
nuclear weapons, the world would already have
ceased to exist. On the other hand, unlike the
Maring, the Chechens, and practically all other
human social and national groups, ants never
launch raids on other ants to get back at them
for injuries to their person or pride. Ants do
not know the concept of humiliation, and,
consequently, of vengeance (Journey to the Ants, p. 63).

Taking history and turning it into legend seems
to perpetuate itself endlessly. New legends are
concocted, through ramifications of previous
legends. July 6 (New Style) is the day
commemorating the miracle-working icon of the
Vladimir Mother of God, who, as noted above, is
given credit for stopping Tamerlane as he
advanced upon Moscow in 1395. But the story told
on the tear-off desk calendar of the Russian
Orthodox Church for this date relates the
celebration of the icon to the "victory" on the Ugra:

"In 1480 Khan Akhmat brought a huge army to the
banks of the Ugra River in order to wage war with
Rus. Moscow was on the verge of being besieged.
Then the Grand Duke Ioann Vasielevich [Ivan the
Great], arming himself with the prayers and
blessing of Herontius, metropolitan of all of
Russia, and of Vassian, the archbishop of Rostov,
set out to battle the Tatars on the Ugra. For
some time the adversaries faced off against each
other, hesitating to make a decisive move.
Finally, through the intercession of the Mother
of God, a splendrous miracle occurred. The Tatars
were imbued with fear; they became frightened of
one another and fled, pursued by no one. Thus it
was that the Lord, through the prayers of the
Most Holy Mother of God, granted unto the
Christians a unique and most joyous, bloodless
victory over their enemies, thereby sparing His
demesne­the city of Moscow and all of Russia.
When the Grand Duke with his armies returned to
the capital, all of its people voiced their most
exultant joy, praising the Lord and the God
Mother for their glorious deliverance."[16]

What does a nation (Russia, or any other country)
get out of mythologizing history and play acting
games of warfare? Ultimately, one big thing,
respect: both self-respect and (they hope) the
respect of other nation states. In Russia
respect, both self-respect and the respect
Russians think that they deserve from abroad, is
still in short supply today. So the game of make
believe goes on. But not only in Russia. We in
the U.S. today are also heavily invested in
making believe. Just read some of the most recent
statements by the Presidential candidates.

[1] J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the
Play-Element in Culture (Boston: The Beacon
Press, paperback, 1955), p. 191, 152.
[2] G. P. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind.
Vol. II: The Middle Ages. The 13th to the 15th
Centuries (Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 1.
[3] Charles J. Halperin, Russia and the Golden
Horde: the Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian
History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 64.
[4] The most prominent émigré Eurasianists were
N.S. Trubetskoj, P.N. Savitskij, and George
Vernadsky. For information on the
neo-Eurasianists, see James H. Billington, Russia
in Search of Herself (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow
Wilson Center Press, 2004), p. 67-94.
[5] Halperin, p. 30. Sarai was the capital city
of the Golden Horde, established by Khan Batu
near the mouth of the Volga River. See also
Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A
History (Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 54:
"the Mongols did not occupy and settle Rus as
they did some other parts of their empire. It had
too little to offer them in terms of either
commerce or grazing lands." In Part Six of his
book Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of
Russia (NY: Henry Holt and Co., 2002,) titled
"Descendants of Genghiz Khan," another British
historian, Orlando Figes, makes much of Tatar and
Asian influence on Russian culture and history.
He also stresses "the sense of national shame"
that memories of the Tatar Yoke still evoke in
Russians and mentions the tendency of Russian
historians to assert that Mongol domination left
no trace on Russia's cultural or political institutions (p. 366-67).
[6] In the recent "Name of Russia" contest,
which aims at determining the most influential
and illustrious personages in the history of the
country, Grand Duke of Moscow and Vladimir,
Dmitry Donskoi (1350-1389), made the semi-final
cut and was named among the top fifty. So did
Aleksandr Nevsky (1220-1263), whose life is discussed below.
[7] Entry written by Muriel Heppell in The
Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Soviet
Union, edited by Archie Brown, John Fennell,
Michael Kaser, and H.T. Willetts (Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 87.
[8] See Viktor Smirnov, Rossija v bronze:
pamjatnik tysjacheletiju Rossii i ego geroi
[Russia in Bronze: the Monument to a Thousand
Years of Russian History and its Heroes]
(Novgorod: Russkaja provintsija, 1993), p.
150-52. This source provides more significant
details about Dmitry and the Kulikovo battle; it
also notes that he was canonized by the Russian
Orthodox Church, but only in 1988. The book has a
photo of Dmitry on the monument, with his right
leg propped on the leg of the vanquished Tatar.
[9] Notes to the story "Temir-Aksak-Khan," in the
book, Ivan Bunin, Night of Denial: Stories and
Novellas, translated with notes and an afterword
by Robert Bowie (Northwestern University Press,
2006), p. 622-23. The information on Tokhtamysh
and the alliances between the Tverians and the
Mongols comes from Halperin, p. 56-57. The tale
of how Tamerlane panicked and retreated from
Yelets is told on the back of a post-card sized
depiction of the Yelets Mother of God (sold in
Yelets). In this account nothing is said about
the sad fact that Yelets fell to the conquerors and was sacked.
[10] Cited from the English translation of the
chronicle in Basil Dmytryshyn, editor, Medieval
Russia: a Source Book, 900-1700 (Hinsdale,
Illinois: The Dryden Press, second edition, 1973), p. 145.
[11] In Homo Ludens Huizinga devotes a whole
chapter (Ch. V, p. 89-104) to "Play and War." He
points out, however, that the concept of "total
war" and the invention of nuclear weapons have
done much to extinguish the play element in
modern warfare. Notwithstanding his reservations,
it seems clear that, even in the face of total
annihilation of the human race, men go on playing
at diplomacy and warfare today.
[12] My translations of passages from L.N.
Tolstoj, Sobranie sochinenij [Collected Works in
20 Volumes] (Moscow: "Khudozhestvennaja
literatura," Vol. 14, 1964, p. 102-07, 46.
[13] Melvin C. Wren, The Course of Russian
History (NY: The Macmillan Company, 1958), p.
173-74. Other historians provide slightly
different accounts of this "non event." See,
e.g., Hosking, Russia and the Russians, p. 85-88,
and Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde, p. 70-73.
[14] Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and
Witches: the Riddles of Culture (NY: Random
House, Vintage Books Edition, 1989), p. 63-64.
[15] Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson,
Journey to the Ants: a Story of Scientific
Exploration (Harvard University, 1994), p. 69-70.
[16] My translation from the entry of July 6,
2008, on the desk calendar Pravoslavnyj
tserkovnyj kalendar', 2008. Doroga k khramu
[Orthodox Church Calendar, 2008. The Pathway to the Temple] (Kostroma, 2007).


Sunday, October 23, 2016


Over the past two years year I’ve published six works of creative literary fiction
За два годa я напечатал 6 произведений худ. прозы:

Nov., 2014: Anyway, Anyways, a collection of short stories (А все-таки, собрание коротких рассказов).

Mar., 2015: Disambiguations: Three Novellas on Russian Themes (Дисамбигуации: три повести на русские темы).

May, 2015: Own: the Sad and Like-Wike Weepy Tale of Wittle Elkie Selph (Оун: грустнейший и блин-да печальненький сказ молодого Элькина Сельфа.

Nov., 2015: The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew (a novel) (Повествование сафлора красильного (роман).

July, 2016: Googlegogol: Stories from the Data Base of Russian Literature, Inc. (Гугольгоголь: рассказы на тему о русской литературе)

October, 2016: Hard Mother: A Novel in Lectures and Dreams (Тяжелая мамаша: роман в лекциях и во снах)

On the Russian "Narod" (Common Man) and On Playing Games of Make Believe


This article first appeared in Johnson's Russia List, July 30, 2008


                 Face-Saving Fakery, Play Acting and Make Believe in Russian History and Culture

                                                            (3) Narod (The Common Man)

                        “No, no,” said the Queen. “Sentence first--verdict afterwards.”

                                                                                  Alice in Wonderland


            I have a friend (lets call him ‘Slavik’) who lives in the South of Russia. He is pure narod (common man), making a living by farming. He once farmed on a Soviet State Farm (Sovkhoz), which, after the fall of the USSR, was privatized. In typical Russian entrepreneurial style the new owner made the farmers under his control into something like serfs. He milked them like cows, for all he could get out of them. Furthermore, the villagers soon could no longer afford to keep their own cows. They were not allowed to graze livestock on the grassland verges along the side of the road, and the price of hay was exorbitant. The villagers nicknamed their new master “Beria,” after Stalin’s notorious secret police head. In what has become typical in Russian agricultural areas, “Beria,” having screwed the maximum amount of capital out of his purchase, sold everything a couple of years ago and moved to Germany, where he is now living comfortably on his profits.

Slavik lives on, farms on in the village, planting sunflowers, borrowing money for seeds and equipment, trying to eke out an existence. He never complains.

            Does Slavik have anything to complain about? Lots. When he was eighteen he was drafted into the Soviet Army. With very little training he was parachuted into Afghanistan with a group of other recruits, to fight against the mujahideen. Most of the newly arrived recruits were killed almost immediately. Slavik survived for a few months before he was seriously (almost fatally) wounded. He ended up in a military hospital in Ashkhabad, where he spent six months. In typical Soviet fashion his family was not even notified that he had been wounded until three or four months after the incident. Nobody complained. One recalls how the soldier Petrukha Avdeev was killed (fighting against the Chechens in 1851) in Tolstoy’s long story “Hadji Murad,” how he died stoically, uncomplaining. He requested that his parents and family back in the village be sent a letter. Tell them, he said, “Syn, mol, vash Petrukha dolgo zhit’ prikazal”(“Your son Petrukha wishes you a long life” [another way of saying “died”]). When the family back in the village got the news, it was received stoically. The letter they had sent Petrukha was returned, accompanied by the standard message: Your son was killed in the war, “defending the Tsar, the fatherland, and the Orthodox faith.” [1] Nothing ever seems to change in the grand round and round of Russian history, and that is Russia’s biggest problem.

            Slavik has built himself a house and owns it outright. His only other possession of any worth is a KAMaz truck. Back when he and his wife Sveta still owned a cow (before “Beria” came along and made it practically impossible for anyone in the village to feed a cow), they made extra money by selling their cheese and milk at a market in a nearby city. One day in the late nineties, on their way back from the market, they were stopped by four young men who had been following behind them in an old BMW. Swaggering up to Slavik in their leather jackets, the young men asked him, “Where’s your gas cap?”

            The gas cap, it turned out, was missing.

            “See that crack in our windshield?” said one of the sneerers. “Your gas cap flew off a few minutes back and cracked our windshield. Now you’re going to pay for that windshield.” He named an extremely high sum.

            What had happened? The scam was obvious. While Slavik was parked back at the market, they had removed his gas cap, followed him after he drove away from the market, then pretended that the cap had cracked the windshield (which had already been cracked, and which would remain perpetually cracked, as long as these thugs could shake down other innocent people).

            What could Slavik do? Nothing. He was intimidated, humiliated in front of his wife. He had to find a way to come up with the money. The four swaggering young men in leather jackets made that clear. Eventually he did pay them off. He swallowed his pride and paid, although it took him some time to come up with the money. Why didn’t he go to the police? In Russia the narod doesn’t go to the police. If he does, the policemen may spend the first ten minutes punching him around, just on general principles. They certainly won’t do anything for him. Why didn’t he write a letter to Putin? Because letters to Putin from the common man have about as much chance being read as letters to Nicholas I. Did Slavik complain? No, he went on forbearing. That’s what the Russian common man does: he forbears, pushes on with his life, pretending that all is well. He does this indefinitely. But then one day…

            Does the common man drink? And how. Drink is often the only refuge. My friend Slavik, however, is not a drinker, and neither is his father (who lives in the same village). For this they are sometimes derided by the other villagers. Being a non-drinker violates all the traditional Russian principles. Slavik is viewed as something of the village idiot. He has a nervous condition and a stutter (consequences of  his service in the Afghan War). Whenever someone in the village needs a ride somewhere, he knows that Slavik will transport him. For free. On principle Slavik will not charge his fellow villagers. So the villagers take advantage of Slavik (while ridiculing him for his naïve generosity). Slavik never complains.

            Slavik is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the Russian narod. He is, furthermore, one of the most decent examples. Plenty of common people are decent, but plenty more live far from decent lives, and the old Russian habit of finding some special, coruscating, almost religious virtue in the narod (see Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) is pure hogwash.

            All of this is a prelude to a central fact: the Russian authorities, the people in charge have been playing games with narod for about as long as Russia has existed, and those same games go on today. Given the multitude of problems facing the country, one would think that fear of its own people would be secondary. But when people are treated the way Slavik has been treated, are they going to go on persevering, uncomplaining indefinitely? Of course not, and Russian history has ample examples that they won’t. So what are the people making the big money in Russia today doing? The same thing they were doing in the much-lamented nineties—finding ways to get their money out of the country, buying property and luxurious mansions all over the world. The flight mentality (or rather, getting ready for the flight just in case) affects not only those at the highest income levels. A recent survey reveals that large numbers of the “upper middle class” would like to leave the country and are preparing for emigration. It seems that anyone who has made much money in Russia has a “just in case” scenario. Why? Because everybody knows that the common man is still being trampled upon, and, while the patience of the Russian common man is legendary, everybody knows that it has its ultimate limits.  

Now, just as always throughout Russian history, there is a large underclass that is shamed, humiliated, oppressed--a group of people who have experienced little or no improvement in their living standards and shared none of the enormous oil wealth that has accrued to the privileged classes. These also, as always, are the people who provide most of the cannon fodder for Russia’s military operations. Parents who can come up with the money pay the necessary bribes to keep their sons out of military service. The common people don’t have the money to pay the bribes. The people who fit into the category of those who are “just barely getting by” economically is roughly fifty to seventy percent of the total population today. There is really no middle class yet in the Western sense. It’s just the top and the bottom. This unbalanced class situation makes President Medvedev’s dreams for the future glories of Russia (a worldwide role in finance, oil sales denominated in rubles, Russia as a true global partner of the Western democracies, etc.) look bleak, if not preposterous.

The Russian people (narod) bore/bear  the brunt of suffering. That has been axiomatic in Russian, from time out of mind:

“The peasants were most likely to be killed or enslaved during Polovtsian raids [12th Century] into the Russian forests, while the aristocracy, merchants, and some artisans continued to trade profitably with the nomads.”[2]

Throughout the period of Mongol domination (1240-1480), the princes acted as intermediaries between the Tatar overlords and the people (see Halperin, p. 78), enforcing conscription, deciding which persons would be sent into slavery, collecting tribute (and siphoning off some of it for themselves before paying the Tatars). Doesn’t that sound familiar? The top dogs reap the profits, while the people forbear. In the five hundred years since the times of the Mongols little has changed. Today in Russia the new millionaires and billionaires, plus the entrenched bureaucrats, go their merry way, using and abusing the common man. The attitudes of the younger generation do not hold much promise for making things better. Do young people say, “We need to change this whole system, which is rotten from top to bottom”? No. Many of them say, “We need to get a job with the bureaucracy, say, with Gazprom, where we can prove ourselves the best crooks and make the most money. The system can’t be beat, so we’ll just join it.” The decent young people who don’t want to play crooked games remain “down on the farm” like Slavik. They try to keep their decency, work hard; or they drink and succumb to cynicism.

I once had the misfortune to deal (in St. Petersburg, 1996) with Zhenya, a sleazy operative (part KGB, part ex-military commissar, part mafia, part “New Russian”). In reference to the vouchers distributed in the Yeltsin years, he told me, matter of factly, sneering, that the voucher system amounted to one more way for schemers to steal from the people. “Narod vsegda budet obmanut” (“The people will always be deceived”) was his mantra. “We’ll beat their bare ass, and they’ll say thanks.” People such as Zhenya are certainly still around. The common people shudder when they look back at the excesses of the nineties, but they understand, of course, that despite Putin’s retaking control of the situation, the same types of leering swindlers still control most of the country’s wealth. To oversimplify somewhat, Putin got that wealth back from the biggest swindlers of the nineties (Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky, Berezovsky), then passed it out again to his own cronies--plus to the “new oligarchs” (Deripaska, Abramovich, etc.), whom he knew he had in his own back pocket. Meanwhile, the narod, the common man suffers on, as always. He may even take heart in believing that things under Putin have improved somewhat. After all, certain of his neighbors can take vacations in Turkey. Then again, Putin has made the country an economic power and renewed its prestige worldwide. The common man is a Russian nationalist, so he surely takes pride in this. Yet, deep down, the narod plays the same self-defeating games it has always played. These are games of cynicism, lack of self respect, and, ultimately, the destruction of self--through drinking and smoking, indulging in excesses, flaunting “pofigism” (the doctrine that it’s all the same to me whatever happens to me).

            None of the above implies that Russia is ripe, at present, for a revolution from below. There is no immediate evidence of that, but such a possibility is always on the minds of Russian leaders. That is why they are quick to provide low prices on vodka and bread in difficult times. It also explains why even the most innocuous of demonstrations in Russian cities is greeted by riot police (OMON) in huge numbers, often outnumbering the demonstrators. No one can explain the propensity of the Russian people to maintain indefinitely a stance of cowed resignation, but, of course, Russian history also has periods when the patience of the common man runs out. One major task for Russian leaders of the twenty-first century is to level, finally, the playing field, to relieve their people of the burden of humiliation and convince them that they will receive material benefits long due to them. As far as I can tell, the Putin-Medvedev tandem has not even begun addressing this task.

While continuing to do what the common man (narod) does best in Russian history, to work on patiently, holding its tongue, attempting to survive, the underclass of today feels enormous resentment, of course, toward the new monied elite. There have been times in Russian history, of course, when the resentment boils over and the pugachevshchina begins. That word, describing the mindless, stikhijnyj (elemental, primordial—a scary word for Russians) peasant rebellion of Pugachev under the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796), is synonymous with a bloodbath. The twentieth century had plenty of pugachevshchina, and unless something is changed radically, there is reason to believe that the twenty-first century will have its fair share of the same.

Probably the best descriptions in twentieth century literature of the spirit of pugachevshchina come from Isaac Babel (1894-1940). During the Civil War years following the Socialist Revolution of 1917, Babel, a Jewish intellectual, rode with Marshal Budyonnyj’s Red Cavalry forces, who were engaged in driving a Polish invading force out of Russia. Using his diary of those years (full of descriptions of grotesque cruelty) as a source, Babel first published the book of fiction Konarmija (Red Cavalry) in 1926. As an example of what Russians most fear from the long-suffering common man, let us take a detailed look at one of Babel’s stories from that cycle.  

                        “THE LIFE STORY OF MATT PAVLICHENKO”

This short story describes a kind of ritual performance played out by “Red General” Matvei (Mathew) Pavlichenko. Inspired by the glorious revolutionary year of 1918, in the midst of a twentieth century pugachevshchina (the bloody civil war), Matt Pavlichenko acts out the old game of humiliation/vengeance. On the final page of the story Matt is shown staging a performance for himself, as well as for his victim and that victim’s crazed wife. In narrating the story of his revenge he is putting on a different performance, which consists of the lively and original way that he tells this oral narrative (in a spirit of grisly play) to its audience (and to us, its readers).[3]

Matt has been shamed, not by his lowly status as herdsman on the estate of the landowner Nikitinsky, but by the master’s treatment of his wife. Early in the story (this is before the Russian Revolution) he describes how a man from the village has come to him telling tales:

“’Matt,’ he [the old villager] says, ‘the master’s been feeling up your wife in all the best spots. The master, he’s about to have his way with her. . .”

After this Pavlichenko goes to see Nikitinsky, in an attempt to “settle up” with him. Here the meaning involves settling accounts and quitting his job; the idea of “settling accounts” is to take on a different meaning at the end of the story.

“That evening I made it to the Lidino manor house on foot. There he was, my master Nikitinsky, setting all pleased with hisself upstairs, a-fiddling around, that old man was, with three different saddles. . .

“So I plants myself besides his door, hung out there for a whole hour, like a burdock plant just growing and growing, but all to no good end. Then he looked over my way.

‘What do you want?’

‘Settle up.’

‘You got designs on me?’

‘Ain’t got no designs; just want to settle up.’

“He looks off to one side for a spell, he quits looking up at the road and looks off at some sideways alleyway, and then he spreads crimson red saddlecloths out on the floor. They was brighter than the banners of the Tsar, was them cloths, and he stands up on top of them and commences to strut and crow like a rooster.

‘Freedom to them that’s free to be free,’ the old man says to me, and he goes on cock-strutting around. ‘I’ve wham-bammed and thank-you-ma’mmed every last one of your mommas, you Orthodox Christian peasants. You can settle up if you like, only ain’t there one little thing that you owe me, Matty my friend?’

‘He-he,’ I says, ‘You are one comic fellow, I mean to tell you as God is my witness. Seem like it’s you who owes me my earnings.’

‘Earnings!’ the master crows out and he knocks me smack on my knees and kind of scrunches all over the floor with his feet, while he’s boxing on my ears like Father, Son and Holy Bejesus.

‘Your earnings, you say, but how come you forget that yoke of mine you ruint last year? Where is it at, my broken ox-yoke?”

‘I’ll get you back your yoke,’ I answers my master, lifting my sorry little simpleton eyes up to look at him, while I’m there on my knees before him, lower I am than any low spot there is on this God’s green earth. . .”

Time passes, and Matt can’t earn enough money to pay back his master Nikitinsky for the broken yoke.

“And so what do you think, you boys out of Stavropl’, my fellow countrymen, my comrades and dearest brothers of mine? Five blessed years the master waited on me for that debt I owed, and for five lost years there I set, lost, until such time as me, down and out and lost, me I had a visit from Year Eighteen. She come to see me riding happy-go-lucky stallions, the best sort of Kabardinian horses, that Year Eighteen, dragging behind her a humongous convoy and all sorts of songs. And O-ho-ho, you’re my sweetheart, you are, Eighteen! And sure as I stand here, must be some way we can go out with you one more time raising Hell, sweet Eighteen, dear little darling of mine. . .”

The revolutionary year 1918 for Mathew Pavlichenko, as for so many of the long-oppressed lower classes of Russia meant freedom, the kind of Russian freedom best defined by George Fedotov: “wide open spaces, vagabondage, the gypsy ethos, hard liquor, orgies of debauchery, blind sensualism, highway robbery, rioting, despotism.”[4] Of course, this is not freedom, but license, and one of the self-defeating games that Russians (Russians of the narod included) best play with themselves is the make believe that there’s no point in putting out the effort to bring democracy to the man-on-the-street Russian; he won’t know what to do with it. Even worse, he’ll immediately transmogrify democracy into the chaos that ends with despotism. No, freedom in the Western sense (so the tale goes) is not for Russians; they need somebody to control them. The usual phrase is, “Russia needs a strong hand” (repeated ad nauseam by Russians living within the country and those living abroad). It’s a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” or, to put it in the most overused cliché of modern-day punditry, it’s a “zero-sum game.” The ultimate in cynicism is expressed by the following: “As an old friend (who spoke virtually native Russian) once said, ‘The best government they ever had was the Mongol Yoke.’”

“For Russia’s entire history, the country’s blossoming, its progression, its global hegemony. . . was attained and held only in the presence of a strict, singular authority—an authority that controlled all spheres of human activity. . . Such was the case under every dictatorship, strong monarch, czar of all Rus or prince in his principality. A strong, strict, but dependable ‘hand.’ There has never been a democracy in Russia because the Russian person is not capable of it. . .”[5] Of course, if the majority of the Russian population continues to believe that Russians are “genetically” incapable of developing true democracy, then it will never be developed. But what’s even worse, if democracy is not developed, the same old dog eat dog will continue, as it always has, and the round and round of Russian history will circle back to an old familiar place: violence, gross cruelty, anarchy, blood running in rivers.

Matt becomes a “Red General.” Riding the steed of his “sweetheart,” Year Eighteen, he wreaks havoc on the Russian land. Then one day, while “laying on blood outside Prikumsk,” Matt realizes that he is only a few miles away from his old estate of Lidino. Leaving his detachment, he rides all alone over to the estate, walks in the manor house, and finds his former master Nikitinsky, serving tea to some local officials.

“Greetings,” I says to them people. “Hello, please, to you all. You going to welcome me in, master, or how is it going to be with us?”

“It’s going to be quiet, real genteel between us,” says one of them fellows, and I can tell by the way he’s talking that he’s a surveyor. “It’s going to be quiet and aristocratical-like, but now you, Comrade Pavlichenko, seem like you been a-galloping from way far off from here, being as the looks of your face is spattered with muck. Now we, the local land authorities, we believe that’s a terrible way for the looks of your face to look; so, now, how come that is?”

“On account of because,” I says, “you land folks and you cold-blooded sorts running things around here, on account of that on my looks I got one cheek that’s been all hot and burning for five blessed years. It’s burning in the trenches, burning when I’m with some split-tail; at the Last Judgment it’ll still be a-burning. At the Last Judgment,” I says, and I look over at Nikitinsky, I’m acting like real merry-making, but he ain’t got no eyes in his head no more, just ball bearings in the middle of his face, like as if them bearings rolled into place underneath his forehead, and he’s glancing me over with them crystal ball bearings, making like he’s a-winking and grinning, but looking just very out and out miserable.”

“Matty,” he says to me. “We once knowed one another, and see here now, my wife, Nadezhda, owing according to what’s been going on these times, she’s lost her reason, and she always was good to you, Matty, you had so much respect for her, now wouldn’t you like to see her, being as the light of reason has left her now?”

“Could do,” I says, and me and him go into the next room, and then he commences to touching me, first my right hand, then my left.

“Matty,” he says. “You going to be my destiny, or not?”

“No, I ain’t,” I tell him, “and forget all them fancy words. We’re all not nothing but stooges now, and God’s done run off on us. Our destiny’s a turkey, life’s not worth a crap, so drop all them fancy words and listen here, if you so desire, to a letter for you, from Lenin.”

“A letter to me, Nikitinsky?”

“That’s right; it’s to you.” Then I pulls out my notebook for the orders of the day, opened it up on a blank page, and read, though, truth be told, I couldn’t read if my life depended on it. “In the name of the people,” I read, “and for the establishmentarianism of the great glorious light of the future, I hereby order Pavlichenko, Mathew Rodionych, to deprive of their lives various folks, according unto his discretions.

“There you have it,” I said to him. “That’s the way it goes, Lenin’s letter to you.”

And he says to me, “No!

“No,” he says. “Matty, our life’s plain shriveled up and gone to the devil, and blood’s cheap these days in the Russian Empire of the Holy Apostles, but you, now, whatever blood you got coming to you, you’ll get it by and by all the same, and you’ll forget my eyes glazed over with death, so now, wouldn’t it be better if I was to show you a little stash?”

“Show me,” I says. “Might could it’ll make things better.”

So we went with him through the room again and then down into where there was this wine cellar, and he pulls back a certain brick down there and finds a little box behind the brick. Inside it there was rings in that box, there was necklaces, medals and a holy image with pearls. He tosses it over to me and then he goes all slumped down out of being so scared.

“It’s yours,” he says. “Now take that Nikitinsky sacred heirloom and make yourself scarce, Mathew; head on back to your rat hole in Prikumsk.”

That’s when I grabbed ahold of his body, took him by the gullet and the hair.

“And what do I do with this burning cheek?” I says. “How do I make things right with my cheek, people and brothers of mine?”

And then he laughed out way too loud and he’s not even squirming to get out of my grip.

“You got the soul of a jackal,” he says, and he’s give up trying to get free. “I treat you like I was talking to a officer of the Russian Empire,” he says, “and you smuthound guttersnipes, you all sucked the teats of a she-wolf. Shoot me, then, you son of a bitch.”

            But I wasn’t about to shoot him, wasn’t no way I owed him a shooting. I just dragged him back upstairs to the parlor. Up there was his wife, lady Nadezhda, setting there plain out of her gourd, and she’s got the bare-blade of a saber in her hand, sashaying around the room and watching herself in the mirror. And when I dragged Nikitinsky in there, she run off to have a seat in a armchair, she’s got a velvet crown with feathers sprucing up her head, and she sets there in that chair all pert, and presents arms to me with her saber. Then I commenced to tromping on my master. I tromped him for a hour, maybe even more, and during that time I come to know what life was all about. Shooting, now—I’ll be honest with you—shooting’s just a way to get shed of a fellow. It’s like granting him a pardon, and for yourself it’s just a lousy too easy thing to do. With shooting you don’t get down to the soul, to where it’s at inside a fellow and how it makes itself shown. But me now, there’s times when I don’t take no pity on myself, I been known to tromp on the enemy for a hour, even more, cause I have this desire to learn about life, what our life on earth amounts to. . .”[6]

[1] L.N. Tolstoj,  Sobranie sochinenij [Collected Works in Twenty Volumes] (Moscow: “Khudozhestvennaja literatura,” Vol. 14, 1964, p. 57-62.
[2] Charles H. Halperin, Russia and the Golden Horde: the Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 17.
[3] “Zhizneopisanie Pavlichenki, Matveja Rodionycha,” in the collection, Isaac Babel’,  Konarmija. Odesskie rasskazy. P’ecy (I. Babel, Selected Stories and Plays). Chicago, Illinois: Russian Language Specialties, 1965, p. 72-76. Titled literally “A Life’s Account of Pavlichenko, Mathew Rodionich,” the story, which I (attempt to) translate here in part, is, basically untranslatable, in that it is told by Pavlichenko himself, an illiterate peasant who can’t possibly have written down the oral tale, since he can’t write. In the title he uses a wrong grammatical ending in his own name, and he narrates in a mixture of substandard literary phrases, Revolutionary rhetoric, peasant speech, and weird neologisms. All of this is blended occasionally with the neo-Romantic imagery peculiar to Babel. At least two (attempts at) translations of the story have appeared in print: (1) “The Life and Adventures of Matthew Pavlichenko,” translated by Walter Morison, in The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (NY: Criterion Books, 1955), p. 100-06. (2) “The Life Story of Pavlichenko, Matvey Rodionych,” translated by David McDuff, in Isaac Babel, The Collected Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 144-49.
[4] Fedotov cited in Ronald Hingley, The Russian Mind (London: The Bodley Head, 1977), p. 161. The original is G.P. Fedotov, Novyj grad: sbornik statej [New City: A Collection of Articles] (NY, 1952), p. 152.
[5] This commentary (by a Russian, “Arnven”) was posted in response to Clifford Levy’s article in the New York Times (June 3, 2008) about censorship on Russian TV. The remark about the best government being that of the Mongol Yoke is on that same NY Times blog. In opening up the series of articles by Levy to comments from the general Russian public on the Internet, the Times has done a great service to its readership. Especially interesting (should be read by any American doing business in Russia or thinking of developing a business there) is Levy’s article about William F. Browder (“An Investment Gets Trapped in Kremlin’s Vise,” July 24, 2008). What makes the article so worth reading is the plethora of insightful comments about it, from Russians as well as from other readers all over the world. Available at Scroll down to “On-Going Series” and, under this, “Kremlin Rules.”
[6] In a weird twist of fate the author himself, Isaac Babel, charged with a bizarre crime typical of the nightmare years of the Stalinist terror (spying for foreign powers and acting as an agent for Trotsky), was arrested in 1939. True to the philosophy of Matt Pavlichenko, his jailers and torturers granted him the mercy of a “pardon” (a bullet to the back of the head in January, 1940) only after tormenting him and trampling upon his dignity, not for “a hour or more,” but for months, maybe even years—the official Soviet version of his death declares that he died in Mar., 1941, and it lists his place of death as a Siberian labor camp, so we still cannot be absolutely sure that he died in Moscow in 1940.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


U.R. Bowie

(A Novel in Lectures and Dreams)
Condensed Synopsis

The year is 2021. The world is slowly recovering from the Great Catastrophe of 1996. You say there was no worldwide catastrophe in 1996. This is a work of fiction, and in this work there was. A middle-aged woman, Rebecca A. Breeze, professor of Russian literature at Oogleyville State College (Mass.), in the midst of a breakdown, has been forced by her superiors to consult a therapist. She refuses treatment by modern methods of drug and machine therapy, but agrees to describe her violent dreams. “The dreams…Russian literature sends them to me. Jesus Christ has a lot to do with it as well, but mainly it’s Russian literature.”

The dreams of Prof. Breeze constitute an extensive manuscript, the tale of the crazed Ultimian writer Eugene Ispovednikov (“The Shriver”) and his return to his native Ultimia—an imaginary country resembling Russia—where he foments a revolution and is crowned king in 1992. Disillusioned by the Catastrophe—a pandemic of bubonic plague that has left the whole world in chaos—he sets out on a pilgrimage eastward in 1999, seeking what he terms “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being.” The Shriver is accompanied by Maggie the Queen, Ivanushka the Dolt and his American compatriot Dezra MacKenzie, the Swedish mercenary Boe and his troops, the vile Bomelius (apothecary and physician to the king) and a convert from the Urinator faith, Foka Yankov.

A year later, at the turn of the Millennium, after numerous tribulations—encounters with violent sectarians of every stripe: including the Anti-Prepucors, who abhor foreskins, and the dread Castrates, who introduce our heroes to the “baptism in fire”—what remains of the Shriver’s party reaches the summit of the Magic Mountain of Dura, where the Whiteness is.

Rebecca Breeze narrates her part of the story from the year 2021, but none of the action takes place in that future time. The chapters set in Ultimia (1992-2000) alternate with chapters describing the adventures of an American professor in the Soviet Union of 1983. John J. Botkins, Jr., the prototype of Ivanushka the court fool in the Ultimia chapters and the central protagonist of the book, runs amuck in Communist Russia. He violates Soviet laws with impunity, steals Lev Tolstoy’s bicycle from the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow, sneaks into the Spartakiada rowing competitions disguised as an Estonian athlete, urinates against the Kremlin Wall—all the while propagating the joys of homosexuality, the efficacy of laughter,  and the glory of possessing a foreskin.

The Botkins chapters complement the picaresque in the chapters set in Ultimia. Pale refractions of the modern-day characters show up in future time, and the same themes are recurrent: the myth of eternal return, the meaning of laughter, the human obsession with violence, sex and scatology, the Russian soul, fathers and sons and daughters and mothers (including the Earth Mother), the yearning to perpetuate the species—while yearning simultaneously to smash all of life to smithereens—the significance of Jesus Christ in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

As the novel progresses, the role of Rebecca Breeze becomes more and more central. She is the medium through which both the Botkins story and the Ultimian picaresque—the tale of the Shriver—pass. Towards the end of the book she abandons her therapy and makes plans to go out into the very world of violence that dominates her dreams. Like Botkins, MacKenzie and the Shriver, she is seeking her own “Unbearable Whiteness of Being,” and at the book’s conclusion she is on the verge of finding it.

Hard Mother is a highly ambitious comic novel. Like any comedy in the genre of literary fiction it is undergirded with high seriousness. A book with lots of action and even more food for thought, Hard Mother is influenced, most prominently, by the works of Gogol, Bulgakov, Marquez, Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor and Philip Roth. The reader should not approach this novel with an apple in one hand and a scotch in the other. The reader should be prepared to have his/her settled notions shaken up in interaction with this book, to fight and scratch and be offended. Any literary art is, of necessity, offensive, but is also, one hopes, efficacious and good for the soul.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Onomastics of the Russian Leaders (The History of Surnames)

[Note: this article originally published in Johnson's Russia List, May 5, 2008

                                    The Onomastics of the Russian Leaders
                                    (In Honor of the New “Bear President”)

            We can learn a lot about Russian realities by taking a look at Russian last names. My information for this article comes, largely, from the wonderful book by Boris Unbegaun, Russian Surnames (Oxford University Press, 1972). All page citations below are from the Russian translation, Russkie familii, edited by B.A. Uspenskij and translated by L.V. Kurkina, V.P. Neroznak, and E. R. Skvajrs [Squires?] (Moscow: Progress Publications, 1989).

            Surnames came late in human history to the world at large. They did not exist before the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Russia is no exception. In fact the very word for “surname” in Russian, familija, was borrowed from the West only in the seventeenth century, and a lot of Russian peasants did not have surnames right up to the day of the emancipation of serfs in 1861.[i] As you would expect, the upper aristocracy was the first social class to adopt surnames. They were based, for the most part on toponyms (place names). In other words, a prince whose domain encompassed the Vjaz’ma area became Prince Vjazemskij (most of these earliest surnames have adjectival type endings in -skij or –skoj). Among other names in this category are Obolenskij, Volkonskij, Trubetskoj, Meshcherskij, Kurbskij (Unbegaun intro, p. 20). To this very day Russians recognize these names as indicative of the origins of a person at the highest levels of the aristocracy in pre-Soviet Russia. It is noteworthy that two members of the Decembrists, who, in 1825, mounted an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government and introduce liberal reforms inspired by the West, were Prince Evgenij Obolenskij and Prince S.P. Trubetskoj.

            As is common throughout much of the world, Russian surnames were derived, in large part, from (1) patronymics (father names, as Johnson or Jackson in English, formed by adding an ending to a given [baptismal] name) (2) names of professions or trades ( Smith, Cooper or Baker in English) (3) toponyms (see above) or (4) nicknames. Although this does not always work, there is a kind of rough class gradation involved. At the highest level (a very small category) are the aristocrats with the princely –skij/skoj names just mentioned (there is another large category of –skij/skoj names that are not of princely derivation—they are primarily of non-Russian origin: Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Jewish). Next come those whose names are derived by using the patronymic suffixes (-ov, -ev, or the slightly less common –in). These names make up the most widespread category to the present day. After that come the less prestigious, lower-class names that originate in trades or nicknames. Over the course of centuries, however, these two latter categories also have frequently adopted the standard patronymic endings. For example, Tkach (‘weaver’) or Rybak (‘fisherman’) became Tkachev and Rybakov, and Medved’ (‘bear,’ nickname for a clumsy, burly type) became Medvedev (the name that Hillary Clinton recently had trouble pronouncing).

            Now we can take a look at the surnames of some of the most important Russian political leaders of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, establish their derivation, and see if any conclusions are apparent.

(1)   Lenin. According to Unbegaun (p. 83-4), this name falls into the category of “surnames formed from given (baptismal) names.” The relevant name here is Aleksandr, from which come, among others, the surnames Aleksandrov, Alenin, and Lenin. But in the case of the man once known as “The Great Ilich,” none of this information is relevant, since for him Lenin is a nom de guerre; Lenin’s real name was Ul’janov (‘Julianson’), which fits into the common category of patronymic names (“surnames derived from baptismal names”—p. 45). As for Lenin, apparently inspired by classical writers who named their characters after rivers (Pushkin’s Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin), he named himself after the Lena River in Siberia.[ii] The name Ilich, is not a surname, so we will not get into that here.
(2)    Stalin. Here we have another nom de guerre, meaning “Man of Steel.” His real surname, Dzhugashvili, was a Georgian name of Ossetian provenance. It came from the word dzhukha, meaning ‘garbage,’ ‘offal,’ or ‘dregs’ (p. 186): ‘Man of Offal’ or ‘Offalman.’
(3)    Khrushchev (‘Maybeetleman’) is derived from the name of an insect, the May beetle, or khrushch (p. 24). It fits into the category “surnames derived from nicknames,” in a subcategory including animal names and still another subcategory, “surnames derived from names of insects.” Two very common surnames from this subcategory (p. 151) are Zhukov (‘Beetleman’) and Komarov (‘Mosquitoman’). We may pause here to wonder what one of Premier Khrushchev’s ancestors did to deserve being nicknamed after the May beetle. Or a better question: what did the May beetle do that would suggest a resemblance to human behavior? While pollinating flowers, did he, e.g., take off his shoe and pound it on the petals?
(4)   Brezhnev (p. 224). This is a name of Ukrainian origin and, apparently, it is also in the nickname category—from berezhnyj (‘cautious,’ ‘solicitous’).
(5)   Gorbachev (p. 129, 224). Another nickname name, from gorbach (‘hunchback’).
(6)   El’tsin. This name is not listed in Unbegaun’s book, but a similar name, El’tsov (p. 151) comes from ‘a fish of the carp family’ (another nickname surname).
(7)   Putin. Also not listed. It would seem, logically, to come from put’ (‘path,’ ‘way,’ ‘road’), and it may have been, originally, a nickname: ‘Wanderer,’ or ‘Wayfarer’ (see end of this article for a different take on Putin’s name).
(8)   Medvedev (‘Bearman’—p. 146, 150). Obviously another surname derived from a nickname. There must have been a lot of clumsy, shaggy peasants nicknamed ‘bear’ all over Russia in the past, since Medvedev is a common name in present-day Russia. Unbegaun mentions two other Russian ‘bear names,’ Medvednikov or Medvezhnikov (p. 93), which may be traced back to ‘a bear hunter’ or ‘a trader in bear hides.’

The original word, medved’, with no patronymic ending added, is still used as a surname in Russia (p. 19, 29, 30, 161). These bare (no pun intended) nicknames as surnames (unlike in English and in other Slavic languages), just as trade names with no endings (Tkach, ‘Weaver’), are relatively rare today. See also Zhuk (‘Beetle’) and Sokol (‘Falcon’).

            Russians are somehow uncomfortable with un-suffixed straight nicknames as surnames; one thing that makes for confusion is the problem of differentiating such surnames in conversation from the actual name of the animal or trade. You can’t say, e.g., “We were there with the Medveds,” if you are referring to a family named Medved’, because this sounds exactly like “We were there with the bears” (p. 29-30). For Russians the un-suffixed nickname as last name often sounds somewhat “low class” as well, probably because peasants were the last social class to acquire surnames, and, possibly, those peasants who were left with just the nickname (for their surname) were the poorest and least prestigious persons in the whole society.
            Unbegaun cites an example (p. 346) indicating that the name Medvedev was more prestigious than Medved’. In 1689 the well-known Orthodox church figure, scholar and literary man, Sylvester Medvedev (1641-1691), who had become involved in a political plot, was defrocked and renamed Senka Medved’. Part of his punishment and disgrace, therefore, involved converting his surname into a nickname, which was in tune with his lowered social status. Ultimately, he was executed.[iii]

            The most remarkable thing about the above information is that most recent Russian leaders have names that derive originally from nicknames. This proves that their ancestors were common folk, not members of the gentry (dvorjanstvo) or aristocracy. One might (dangerously) speculate that the country may well have been directed onto a Western, democratic path, had there been rulers with higher-class names in power. After all, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the two/three percent of Russians who belonged to the gentry were among the most progressive and liberal. Russians with folk backgrounds haul with them through life a huge load of psychic baggage that is, basically, undemocratic and non-progressive--reeking in fatalism, superstition and irrationality. Anti-democratic tendencies are not “in the blood” or “in the genotype,” as Russians are so fond of repeating, but they are present in the hardened stereotypes of cultural mores.

Folk mores die out very slowly; they are passed on from generation to generation. If your name is Medvedev (or even Medved’), that does not stop you from getting a good education. You may listen to Western rock music and be fascinated by the Internet, but you still have (at least subconsciously) all the detritus of your ancestors, the Medvedevs, piled up in your psyche. Can you overcome this? Maybe. Would the Meshcherskijs and the Obolenskijs (and various other people with “princely” names—the Golytsins, Sheremetevs, Vorontsovs or Yelagins) have had a better chance at throwing off the yoke of the “peasant/Asian” Russian mindset and setting off on more progressive paths? Maybe. But then again, that mindset is such a mighty source for Russian obscuritanism that even the most educated people and those with the most “high class” names often get themselves immersed in it. I have known a lot of Russians with candidate degrees (rough equivalent of the PhD), and most of these persons believe in the “Evil Eye.”

Another sad truth: Catherine the Great (whose background was far from peasant Russia) hobnobbed with the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment, but she did not direct Russia onto the path taken by Western democracies. One final example: I have never met a Golytsin or an Obolenskij with a candidate degree, but I have met (in U.S. emigration) a family of Trubetskoys whose way of thinking and behaving could serve as an exemplar for restructuring the reactionary Russian mentality and overcoming the thousand-year-old burden of stereotypical thinking. If only we could convince these Trubetskoys to return to Russia and set about propagating their mindset to the Russian masses and the new oligarchs and the ruling elite! When I suggested this to the patriarch of the family and asked him why he did not wish to repatriate himself, he answered in one word: mental’nost’ (‘the mentality’). “What, exactly, do you mean by that?” I asked, and he answered with that one word again, pounding lightly with his fist on the table: mental’nost’.

In closing we might mention one other (rare) type of Russian surname (see p. 182). In the eighteenth century certain Russian aristocrats began naming their illegitimate children by dropping the beginning syllables of their names and creating new, truncated names. Among the most famous of these are (1) Pnin-- surname of the writer I.P. Pnin (1775-1805), illegitimate son of Prince Repnin (later Vladimir Nabokov used the name for the bungling old émigré professor in his eponymous novel) (2) Betskoj--surname of the famous political figure and educator under Catherine the Great, I.I. Betskoj (1704-1795), illegitimate son of Prince Trubetskoj.

This practice has recently inspired a creative (and irreverent) Russian blogger to come up with ideas about the derivation of other surnames. According to this blogger (we will not disclose his moniker here—he probably has troubles enough already), Lenin was the illegitimate son of a certain Alenin, a swineherd who lived in a village near Simbirsk. This Alenin himself, by some skewed logic, was, ostensibly, the illegitimate son of Pushkin’s fictional character, Graf Nulin (Count Zilch). As for Stalin (Dzhugashvili), he descended (illegitimately, of course) from a certain Graf Dermóstalin, whom Peter the Great had brought to Russia from Georgia. After beginning his career as a collector of offal, this Dzhugashvili performed in the dwarf retinue of the tsar, and was, subsequently, rewarded with a new name, an estate, and a title in the nobility (“Count Krápstalin”).

Finally, Vladimir Putin, according to this anonymous Internet wag (and this is why the Russian Internet will soon be censored or closed down), is the illegitimate son of Gregory Rasputin, who did not die after all in 1916, but crawled out from beneath the ice of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, brushed himself off, and made his way, on foot, back to his native village in Siberia, where he lived on into his nineties, siring sixteen children--the thirteenth of which was Vovochka Putin.

More Russians with a sense of humor, by the way, have already assigned the new “bear president” a different nickname. He is ironically and affectionately called medvezhonok: ‘Baby Bear.’

[i] See Uspenskij’s afterword (which, in typical Russian fashion, he calls “In Lieu of an Afterword”), p. 359, and Unbegaun’s introduction, p. 16.
[ii] For more detail and further speculation on this, see p. 186 and 334. One theory about why Lenin took this name is that he was inspired by G.V. Plekhanov, the “father of Russian social democracy” and a hard-line orthodox Marxist (whose surname comes from a nickname, ‘pleshivyj’=’baldy’—p. 127). Plekhanov had named himself after the Volga River (‘Volgin’).
[iii] None of this is to suggest that someone with a plebeian nickname surname has no chance to achieve success in modern-day Russia. For example, Aleksandr Vasilievich Medved’ (born 1937) is a famous Russian athlete, who won medals at the Olympic Games three times (1964, 1968, 1972).