STAIRCASE, ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
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.”
EVERYONE PLAYS GAMES WITH NAROD (THE COMMON MAN); MEANWHILE, THE COMMON MAN PLAYS MAKE BELIEVE
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
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.” 
Nothing ever seems to change in the grand round and round of Russian history,
and that is Russia’s
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
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
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
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.”
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,
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
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.
HUMILITATION AND PLAY ACTING AS VENGEANCE:
“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).
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?’
‘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.” 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, “
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
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. . .” 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. . .”
 L.N. Tolstoj, Sobranie sochinenij [Collected Works in Twenty Volumes] (
Moscow: “Khudozhestvennaja literatura,” Vol.
14, 1964, p. 57-62.
 Charles H. Halperin,
and the Golden Horde: the Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 17. Russia
 “Zhizneopisanie Pavlichenki, Matveja Rodionycha,” in the collection, Isaac Babel’, Konarmija. Odesskie rasskazy. P’ecy (I.
Selected Stories and Plays). : 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 Chicago,
Illinois 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.
 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.
 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 http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/index.html
Scroll down to “On-Going Series” and, under this, “Kremlin Rules.”
 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.