By Patricia H Kushlis
New York Times columnist David Brooks must have read James Billington’s Icon and the Ax: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture during summer vacation. The book was a classic in its field and remained so for years after it was first published in 1966.
In his column “The Russia I Miss” on September 11, 2015, Brooks decries the loss of a Russian counterculture based on the vision of the Russian soul with its roots in the visuality of Russian Orthodoxy and the simple, monotonous lifestyle and superstitious mentality of the Russian peasant.
Brooks argues that although Russia has become a more normal country since 1991 it has lost this unique vantage point so integral to the vibrant intellectual and cultural life that began with its largely French speaking aristocracy as depicted by Leon Tolstoy in his mid-19th century novels and ended with Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who fled to a Vermont farm in the late 1970s to escape the final years of the Communist system with his portrayals of the Gulag.
But there are serious fallacies with Brooks’ romanticized dream of a time that never existed.
Much of Russia’s literary and cultural brilliance came in reaction to a lengthy history of authoritarianism and at its peak lasted for a matter of decades not centuries. It originated in response to the Napoleonic invasion of 1812, the subsequent rise of nationalisms throughout Eastern Europe and the spread of Czarist government-financed industrialization which only came to Russia in the late nineteenth century - as the Czar’s response to the rise of the German economic juggernaut. At its height, this Russian counterculture corresponded to a brief period of history that occurred prior to and during the country’s late economic development concentrated around Moscow and St. Petersburg, the political revolts of 1905 and 1917 and tardy exploration and penetration of the empire's vast hinterlands. (Photo left: Marc Chagall's Gates to the Jewish Cemetery, 1917 by PH Kushlis 2003.)
Yes, this cultural renaissance was unique because it blended East and West in ways not seen or experienced before. But it was also the product of the influence of European thought on Russia’s tiny aristocratic class and its small but growing urban population that had unleashed the driving force of nationalism throughout the continent.
The Czar’s belated attempts at reformation in order to rescue a weak, pre-industrial multinational empire from encroachment by an economically strong Germany had produced a radicalized labor force concentrated in Russia’s two major cities, a small westernized bourgeoisie with, ironically, Old Believer roots whose factories and impressive collections of impressionist art had tremendous impact on the Russian cultural scene at the time.
Russian culture then burrowed underground or fled abroad after Stalin’s ascent to the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and his clamp down on dissent and artistic expression thereafter.
The scarcities of the Communist era - foremost imposed by a utopian and unworkable economic system - turned everyone into criminals. Life revolved around transactions of the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” variety. The spirit of the Russian soul which Brooks so longs for had no part of it.
Meanwhile, Russian composers - like their European counterparts - were mining melodies, harmonies, rhythms and story lines - from the folk songs and peasant cultures that stretched across the vast empire which ethnographers and ethno-musicologists uncovered on field trips throughout the countryside. These often formed the bases for Russia’s greatest music just as they did Finland’s, Norway’s, Poland’s, and Hungary’s among others.
As for Russia’s lack today of not having a single university among the world’s top 100 today, when did it ever have a university with such stature? Or did I miss something? Certainly specific departments and individual professors - like Moscow State University’s theoretical mathematics department - did have stellar reputations and world class scholars. But even during Soviet and Czarist times, Russian tertiary education from the arts through the military was conducted in specialized institutes and academies - not universities - that normally led to professions or skilled jobs as apportioned and decided upon by the state.
Or today, as occurred in pre-Revolutionary Russia, some children of the elite went to Europe for advanced education as did the scions of other Europeanized and Asian elites from around the world. They now also study in the US because, well, that's where more than a few of the world's 100 best universities are located. They may or may not return home depending on how they are treated.
So please, Mr. Brooks, let’s not get carried away by what never was. Much less what never will be.