Musings of a Russophile: A Land of Walls and Windows

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One thing that impresses a foreigner in Russia is its walls. The historic walls are thick, high and the windows, if any, very small. In James Billington’s indispensable book on Russian culture, The Icon and the Axe, he writes that he considered an alternative symbol for a title, the “Cannon and the Bell.” I offer my own symbol for Russia: “The Wall and the Window.”

One thing that impresses a foreigner in Russia is its walls. The historic walls are thick, high and the windows, if any, very small. In James Billington’s indispensable book on Russian culture, The Icon and the Axe, he writes that he considered an alternative symbol for a title, the “Cannon and the Bell.” I offer my own symbol for Russia: “The Wall and the Window.”

Russia is indeed a land of massive walls, and small windows. The actual reason is, of course, the climate – and so the need to keep the heat - and the price of window glass, which until about a hundred years ago was very expensive. But the walls and windows do offer a rich metaphor. In spite of Western depictions of Russia as an invader, the country has throughout history been the victim of foreign invasions. Massive walls have slowed the intrusions from abroad, but have not insolated Russia from the intrusive world. The Tatars occupied that vast land for two hundred years and forever left their Asian mark on the faces of Russia.

The frigid climate and the arrows and cannon balls aimed at the Slavs too easily explain the small windows. But, there is a deeper meaning. It is not just a defensive necessity - else we would not have had the Iron Curtain of the 20th century. It is a congenital reaction to the outside. It reflects the confining insecurity of orthodoxy and contentment with insularity. Walls symbolize a defense against foreign ideas as well as foreign cannon balls. The small windows ration the light, admitting only what can be controlled, measuring what can be seen of the outside. In addition, walls keep people and their ideas in as well as out.

In the early 1700s, Peter I, with St. Petersburg his “Window on the West,” created a moment of openness, but it forced, as usual, an equal and opposite reaction. It strengthened the controlling spirit of Muscovy, which began at once pulling thought back into the dark forests of Rus, culminating eventually in the 1917 revolution and subsequent slide into the insularity and defensiveness of the Soviet Union.

It is a repeated phenomenon in Russian history to enjoy the new, destroy the new. Ivan the Terrible destroyed Novgorod, the 13th century “Window on the West.” The Decembrists, the officer elites returning from having defeated Napoleon, tainted with the pleasures of Paris (bistro is a Russian word) and the enlightenment of democracy, were sent to Siberia or executed to keep their smiles and hopes from infecting the masses. Before the Second World War, Stalin murdered his entire General Staff, lest their earlier contact with the West threaten his control. Even knowing too much of a foreign language could then put a person under suspicion.

Those Russians of today who long for Russian “purity” stand like dinosaurs with their feet in the mud of conservatism and orthodoxy, waving their flags of imagined past glory. “For us, the best time is always yesterday,” said the writer Tatyana Tolstaya. The most present champion of this historic mindset is expressed by my favorite film director Nikita Mikhalkov when he presented his manifesto on “enlightened con¬servatism” to the Russian government, entitled “Justice and Truth.” Mikhalkov states that only a strong national leader can achieve an agenda that stresses the core values of political stability and economic growth. “Law and order must be not only a possibility, but a reality in Russia. The people must be strengthened by the political determination of the country’s leader.” (Maybe he wants to be that leader?) Mikhalkov demands that the citizens of Russia should demonstrate “loyalty to power” and “the ability to subordinate themselves with dignity to author¬ity,” since “personified rule” and “personal responsibil¬ity” are preferable to “collective irresponsibility.” There¬fore, he asserts, “maintaining honor, acknowledging duty and venerating rank” are typical Russian virtues. I love his films. I saw “Burnt by the Sun” three times. But I hope he confines his walls and windows to his great films.

Modern technology, especially telecommunications and the Internet, is the window to the world today and it can’t be closed. To continue the metaphor, as soon as the modern technology allowed, Russians started to build massive double-glazed windows, often floor to ceiling, to defy the cold and let in more sunlight, which is terribly lacking in many parts of the country. Across the 11 time zones, the voices and pictures and opinions of the world are reaching out to the ordinary Russian. As understandably skeptical as the Russians are, if information reaches them, they can act if they are so moved. The question is whether or not they will act or react. But, the mental walls are coming down brick by brick, idea by idea, and the previously tiny windows are opening wider, bringing shafts of light that illuminate the other side of the wall and the great land that is Russia.

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The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.

Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.

 

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