The Roots of the Russian Soul Seem Firmly Imbedded in the Russian Soil
RussiaProfile.Org, an online publication providing in-depth analysis of business, politics, current affairs and culture in Russia, has published an unusual Special Report on the mysterious "Russian soul". Fifteen articles by both Russian and foreign contributors examine this concept, which has been used by Russia watchers for some 150 years, from a contemporary perspective. The following article is part of this collection.
Russia. There’s a lot of it—17,075,200 square kilometers, to be precise. Eleven and half percent of the world’s land mass. Even shaving off the vast waters of Baikal and the Volga and the Lena and the Ob, that leaves 120,000 square meters per person. With a population of 142 million, there are just eight people per square kilometer.
Territorial vastness has long been a part of Russianness. The expansiveness that is supposed to be a key feature of the Russian soul is in the minds of romantics linked to the terrifying scale of the steppe and the taiga. “Broad as the Russian land,” as Nikolai Berdayev, a Russian religious philosopher of the 20th century, put it. “Bordered only by God,” said Rainer Maria Rilke, a Bohemian-Austrian poet who was not Russian but like several foreign thinkers was peculiarly seduced by the idea.
This gets the idea of the scale of Russia across pretty well. The arrival of the railway reduced its scale a good deal, but there are vast tracts of Siberia that neither the railway nor roads have ever penetrated. The only way to Norilsk, the city built where no human was ever meant to live, is by air or—in summer—by boat up the Yenisei River.
Geoffrey Hosking began his excellent book “Russia and the Russians” with the telling line “The North Eurasian plain is not only Russia’s geographical setting, but also its fate.” Russia is the principle civilization of a vast territory more suited to nomadic life. To avoid the depredations of the horsemen of the plains, the settlers of Ancient Rus built their houses in the forests of the north, where continental winters, unmediated by an ocean, make the land unworkable for six months of the year. Poor soil and short summers made the harvest vulnerable to the smallest misfortune in the weather.
It’s difficult to escape the idea that this leaves an indelible mark on the Russian character. There’s an utterly improvable but very compelling idea that long periods of idleness between the autumn harvest and the spring sowing may have formed in the Russians a versatility and paradoxical capacity for colossal feats of labor in emergency and utter unreliability as workers in the regular sense—making them such good soldiers, Hoskins notes. And those winter months spent sheltering from the cold with little to do may have done the same for alcoholism.
The long winter and the relative poorness of the land certainly informed the diet, especially its high proportion of pickles and buckwheat, which is hardier than wheat and can be grown in more northerly climes. And while the role of the national cuisine in forming the national character is a vast topic, it is worth noting just one example of how the terrain formed it. The land’s vast rivers and lakes (with 4,375 cubic kilometers a year, Russia holds some 10 percent of all the fresh water in the world; only Brazil has more) are manifested in the distinctly fishy side to the national cuisine, involving caviar of different hues, soups, and the salted, smoked and dried “zakuski,” the ubiquitous accompaniment to the “muzhik” drinking binges. Though that was probably helped along by the Orthodox fasting, which forbids the eating of meat for about half of the year.
But while there is no doubt that the land had a vast impact both on the actual Russian national character and on the myth of the Russian soul dreamt up by 19th century writer-philosophers in their doomed quest to define it, it’s not necessarily because the vast emptiness of Siberia went to the Russians’ heads. Rather it is because for most of history, some 80 percent of them were quite literally tied to it.
Matryoshki and pirozhki
One cannot write about the Russian soul without writing about the peasants—to give them their proper name, the “krestyane.” When people talk or write about the Russians they all too often start talking about the tsars and counts and the writers and artists through which most foreigners—and especially those who pedaled the Russian soul hardest—know the country. But at heart the Russians are really peasants, and the superstitions, mannerisms, language and gestures that make up their national character come from the villages. The “culture” of high literature and the Bolshoi ballet, impressive though it is, is very marginal to the real culture made up of myths and folk tales and—most importantly—inherited knowledge of agriculture and handicraft—that made up Russian life. The things that get packaged up and sold as Russian kitsch: matryoshka dolls, black and gold lacquered “Khokhloma” table wear, and felt boots (valenki), are all from the village—or are at least meant to be. Even Sergei Diaghilev, the patron of Russian ballet, said that the intellectual roots of Les Ballets Russes lie in the villages.
So that’s the Russians. Effectively agricultural slaves, bound by law and custom to a particular village, until 1861 owned by another person. The sculptors of the Russian soul knew this—they were, for the most part, singularly intelligent men—and a great deal of the effort they put into uncovering Russia was quite properly devoted to the question of the peasants.
No one took this more seriously than Leo Tolstoy, who put himself through years of frustration trying to live alongside and like the peasants at his country estate at Yasnaya Polyana. In Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin distracted himself from the heartbreak of unrequited love by setting out to write a book “which, according to his dreams, would not only revolutionize the political economy but completely abolish that science and lay the foundation of a new science—that of the relation of the people to the land.” One sometimes gets the feeling that Tolstoy was attempting the same project in his novels, but knew when to cut his losses.
In a memorable passage in Anna Karenina, when Levin’s descent into the dark place of rejection reached its nadir, he sits all night on a hay rick contemplating becoming a peasant. But though “he was distinctly conscious of the simplicity, purity and rightness of that life, and was convinced in it he would find satisfaction, peace and dignity, the absence of which was so painful to him,” he could not for the life of him work out how to make the transition.
Tolstoy, like Levin, was up against a glass wall, an indefinable but very tangible barrier that separated nobles and landlords from the peasants—and thus most of Russia. He could not cross into the peasant’s world, couldn’t get them to trust him, and he certainly couldn’t trust them—either to do the work he asked of them or to deal fairly in transactions—he came to be sitting on a hay rick in the first place because he’d caught them trying to cheat him out of his share of the harvest. Levin and the venerable count could do nothing but lie and listen and look with envy as the peasants enjoyed their “healthy gaiety.”
The gulf between the writers of the Russian soul and the subjects who were meant to personify it has a lot to answer for. But here Tolstoy was at least on the right track. The peasants—and most especially the land they work—are Russia. And the count from Yasnaya Polyana was not the only one to realize it.
It’s probably no coincidence that the cult of the Russian soul coincided with the decoupling of the Russians’ chains from the land. Tolstoy was writing barely a decade after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, at a time when the search for the national destiny had constructed a whole cult of the ennoblement of the peasants and their way of life. Adherents to this movement called themselves the “Populists,” and they peaked in 1874—the year after Tolstoy began “Anna Karenina” and three before he finished it—when thousands of students left the cities to immerse themselves in peasant life. They were motivated by a recognition of the profound dislocation between the tiny ruling or “educated” classes from which they came and the vast peasant population, and there was certainly an element of class atonement involved.
But in keeping with that atonement was a radical political agenda to overcome Russia’s inequalities once and for all. The Populists reckoned they could find in the peasant villages the basis of an especially Russian brand of socialism. The most romantic amongst them—Fyodor Dostoevsky comes to mind—imagined that socialism would not only save Russia, but might serve as the model for the peaceful brotherhood of men in the whole world.
The peasant commune that so inspired the populists was not a myth. The notion of joint responsibility really was ingrained in Russian peasant life, and it was a direct result of the land and climate and the marginality of the world in which the peasants lived. With frugal harvests always little more than a bad frost or heavy rain away from ruin, a kind of communitarianism was essential to survival. From helping a neighbor’s weather disasters like fire or flood to finding and maintaining agreement over routine matters like the allocation of land, access to water, grazing rights and a dozen other matters, the community relied on peace. Over time, “peace” became the name of the peasant community—the “mir.”
The efforts of the populists were probably doomed to fail from the start. Like Tolstoy and Levin, there was too much of a gap between their privileged city lifestyle and the realities of village life. There was also a contradiction between their missionary zeal and the essential conservatism of the peasants themselves.
But the problem Levin and the populist youth were so occupied with was on its way out with the revolution of 1917. Over the course of the next 70 years, the peasant commune was effectively eliminated, and the peasants—that is, the Russians—became so thoroughly urbanized that by 2010 the demographic picture has been almost completely reversed from what it was in Tolstoy’s time: 76 percent of the population are now city dwellers. Even Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s father moved to the capital from a village in the Tver Region in the 1930s. He takes his surname from the word for meadow.
Drawn to the countryside
But while the link with the land has never quite been broken, it’s not actually that easy to get hold of this land. Most of Russia’s population is in the western part of the country. Not exactly crammed, because even that area is the size of Western Europe.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Nikita Krushchev, facing a food shortage, began to package out the land to the loyal and the hard working. If you were deemed deserving enough, you got your “six sotki”–600 square meters—to call your own. Which is a pleasing fraction of the patch of land you would be entitled to if the tsar had sliced up the country into equal plots. Because you weren’t allowed to build anything more than a shed on it, and you were expected to work the allotment or have it confiscated, the dacha quickly entered the common imagination as a place of work. Those lucky enough would toil from dawn to dusk to raise vegetables and knock up a lean-to out of planks.
This is the dacha. And the dacha is a mighty and wonderful thing through which the Russian relationship with the land continues. As one elderly female doctor in Moscow put it, “Russians love their dachas because they are peasants in their soul.”
Professional farmers struggling to modernize a creaking Soviet-era agricultural infrastructure do not necessarily think much of the “dachniki.” Today fewer are treating their “six sotki” as an allotment, and more see it as a recreational summer house (almost every urban Russian under the age of 30 is able to shake their head in mock exasperation at their parents’ or grandparents’ refusal to sit down to dinner at the dacha when they could be tending the tomatoes) and are liable to complain about the noise of harvesting or the smell of manure being spread on fields. But the severance of the old connection with the land is something today’s professionals lament more than anyone else.
“We’ve lost our krestyanin,” said John Kopisky, a naturalized British immigrant who has built up one of the largest dairy farms in the Vladimir Region. The lack of indigenous knowledge about agriculture and animal husbandry meant he had to seek farm managers abroad. The men—both Americans—whom he hired are trained in modern agriculture, but more importantly, they were born and raised on farms that their families had run for generations. There’s something unutterably tragic in that. But then again, isn’t the Russian soul all about tragedy?
By Roland Oliphant