Russophobia

John Klier

Academician I.R. Shafarevich is a world-famous mathematician specialising in algebra and number theory, a member of the Royal Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Andrei Sinyavsky may dismiss his ideas as ‘ridiculous’ and suggest that he has no significance except as a stalking-horse for the ideas of Solzhenitsyn, but the excitement generated by his musings on Russian society, and especially by his essay ‘Russophobia’ which appeared last year in Nash Sovremennik, would seem to indicate that many Russians respect his role as an ideologue of contemporary Russian nationalism.

Shafarevich’s particular concern is with Russia’s historical mission, and it is no accident that he continually invokes the name of Dostoevsky. Any search for Russia’s path to the future, Shafarevich argues, must begin by clearing away the rubble of her immediate socialist past. He describes socialism as a ‘basic and universal force which has been in operation over the entire span of human history’, from the planned economies of the Fertile Crescent to the Stalinist command economy, and sees its goals – the destruction of private property, of religion, of the family and of marriage – as anti-human and destructive.

Russia’s recent past demonstrates that ‘a civilisation founded on the ideology of “progress” gives rise to contradictions that the civilisation cannot resolve.’ On the other hand, her sufferings uniquely equip her not only to find a way out of the blind alley of progress but also to bring the world to faith and redemption. Shafarevich himself is the guardian of that mission and he is understandably intolerant of critics who would deny that Russia has such a mission – let alone suggest that Russian messianism is a dangerous force.

In the introduction to ‘Russophobia’, written in the early Eighties but published now ‘because it has not lost its urgency’, Shafarevich sets himself the goal of defining ‘a widespread and growing literary trend’, exemplified by the works of émigré or foreign historians, such as Alexander Yanov and Richard Pipes. He decries the ‘archetypes’ which these authors find in the Russian psyche: a lack of self-worth, intolerance of the opinions of others, and a mixture of spite, envy and worship of external power. Worst of all is the sadomasochistic Russian admiration of brute force and the desire to be dominated by a strong master. These traits are doubly dangerous when harnessed to the Russian messianic tradition which connects the idea of ‘Moscow, the Third Rome’, the inheritor of Byzantium’s imperial power, to the dream of leading a world socialist revolution. Russophobes discover these archetypes continually reasserting themselves in the Russian national character, producing despotic regimes and bloody cataclysms, and culminating in the Revolution of 1917 and Stalinism. Insofar as Russia has a future – and there is some doubt on this score – it requires the repudiation of both Russian messianism and the search for a unique path for Russia’s development. Russia must humbly accept Western models, exemplified by the system of democratic pluralism.

Shafarevich’s great concern is that these Cold War clichés have penetrated modern Russian culture. Under their influence, he contends, Russia’s contemporary poets and balladeers preach the message that the Russian people are ‘beasts with human faces’ and that ‘it is impossible to live honourably here.’ He explains the internalisation of this message by invoking the work of the 19th-century French historian Augustin Cochin, who identified the makers of the French Revolution as a small band of alienated intellectuals, a ‘little nation’ within the ‘large nation’. This group, typified by the Masonic Lodges, was totally self-contained. Its members created their own anti-national culture, repudiating the very foundations of the French nation, especially the Roman Catholic religion, aristocratic honour, loyalty to the monarch, pride in the history of France and any sense of loyalty to birthplace, class or family. Shafarevich finds analogues to the French ‘little nation’ throughout history: the Puritans in die English revolution, the Left Hegelians of ‘Young Germany’ in post-Napoleonic Germany, and the liberal and nihilist movements in 19th-century Russia. These analogues allow him to characterise this form of alienation as a universal phenomenon.

Not surprisingly, he sees ample evidence of a ‘little nation’ in contemporary Russia. This ‘new élite’, completely divorced from the values and tradition of the ‘large nation’, seeks to place its imprint on the ‘inert mass’ of the population. Calling on the authority of his hero Dostoevsky, Shafarevich denounces these ‘born émigrés’, as he calls them, who seek to sully the collective soul of the Russian masses. What gives the ‘little nation’ its distinctive orientation is its Jewish element – by which Shafarevich means not just Jews themselves, but a Jewish spirit which can infect gentiles. Thus the ideology of the ‘little nation’ identifies the right to emigrate as the most important human right, and relentlessly warns against a resurgence of anti-semitism in the USSR, invariably equating it with Russian nationalism. It is no surprise that both Yanov and Pipes are Jews. The state of Israel itself, which seeks to unite a rootless people, is the classic modern example of a ‘little nation’.

Shafarevich’s essay has been much debated in Moscow and Leningrad. Nash Sovremennik was flooded with letters of support, while the term ‘Russophobia’ immediately took hold in the polemics of the warring literary factions. The popularity of Shafarevich’s essay as a rallying-point for beleaguered Russian nationalists is easy to appreciate. It joined such famous works as Pushkin’s ‘To the Slanderers of Russia’ as a repudiation of libels against the national character. Shafarevich’s rejection of the claim that only Western-style pluralism and democracy will be able to prevent a Russian catastrophe might be regarded as an honest assertion of Russia’s national traditions, similar to Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Letter to the Soviet Leaders’. Even his invocation of the Jewish element in Russophobia, with its undertones of the Stalinist campaign against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, could be dismissed as a mild infection of his main argument by the Soviet tradition of anti-Zionism. Jews, Shafarevich seemed to be saying, were not essential to Russophobia, being only the latest manifestation of a recurrent historical and psychological phenomenon. From this perspective, the ‘little nation’ need not be regarded as specifically Jewish.

Nonetheless, as Sinyavsky warned, anti-semitism is a dangerous card to play in Russia. In the November issue of Nash Sovremennik, the editors carried a conclusion to the original essay which they had originally deleted, allegedly for reasons of space. Here Shafarevich examines the conduct of the Jews at the time of ‘the greatest crisis in Russia’s history’, the Revolution of 1917 and its Stalinist aftermath; and while explicitly rejecting the claim that the Jews were responsible for these events, offers evidence designed to demonstrate the contrary.

He concedes that Jews played no role in Russian public life before the 1880s, isolated as they were in their closed religious communities. At the end of the century this communal structure began to disintegrate and Jews flooded into Russia’s economic, political and cultural life. In numbers quite unrelated to their percentage of the total population, they played a preponderant role in movements hostile to the existing order, as liberal critics of the autocracy, as Marxists, or as active exponents of revolutionary terrorism. This process accelerated after the Revolution, and Jews were closely involved in the destruction of Russia’s traditions: they commanded the firing-squad which executed the last tsar and his family; they dominated the Cheka as well as its successor the OGPU; they played a part in the destruction of the Russian peasantry; and they provided the leaders who established the Gulag system.

While Russian revolutionaries carried a deep love of Russia in their hearts, the attitude of the Jewish revolutionary was best exemplified by the curse, ‘Rot, Damn you!’ This contrast between Russian and Jew was understandable, for it is a painful operation to separate a person from his roots, and few Russian revolutionaries could ever make a clean break. Jews, having no real ties to the Russian people, had no trouble making the break. What did they care if Old Russia was degraded and destroyed? Jews had never lost their feeling of superiority, their sense of being a chosen people, destined to dominate the rest of mankind. The Talmud and the religious traditions of Judaism inculcated in the Jewish mind the belief that gentiles were not even human. The Jews had developed a ‘saving hatred’ toward the outside world which preserved them as a people for two thousand years, and this made them a relentless and implacable enemy. It was precisely this spirit which the Jews brought into Russian life and which they continued to nurture. The Jewish ‘little nation’, Shafarevich demonstrates, is, after all, unique: it has existed for two millennia, surpassing in durability and malevolence all other variants of the ‘little nation’ phenomenon.

Shafarevich’s ideas continue to find a ready audience. The newspaper of the Russian branch of the Writers’ Union recently devoted three pages to an appeal from 75 writers, including Shafarevich, to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The purpose of the appeal was to ask the authorities to take a stand against the racist attacks which all the other Soviet nationalities are now directing against the Russians. This anti-Russian racism, whose only parallel was the anti-Russian racism of the Nazis, was being openly proclaimed in the Soviet mass-media, the writers lamented, without criticism or complaint from the central authorities. For example, while a meeting of conservative Russian writers was attacked by the central press as ‘neo-fascist’, a meeting of Jewish and Zionist leaders, bearing all the hallmarks of Jewish racial exclusivity, was permitted to meet in Moscow itself in December.

As the Soviet Union breaks apart, there is an ever-increasing possibility that a Russian state might emerge, shorn of much of the non-Slavic Soviet Empire. After 70 years of ‘pseudo-internationalism’ – the often-proclaimed ‘Great Friendship’ of Russians and non-Russians – it is understandable that Russians might wish to reassert their national identity. On the other hand, Shafarevich’s exaggerations, his self-pity, his dependence on external scapegoats, are, to say the least, disheartening. Even as he and his followers dismiss the zealots of the radical right-wing movement Pamiat as a few faceless nonentities, they appear willing to accept Pamiat’s paranoid fancies of an anti-Russian, Jewish/Zionist plot. Such fears are part of an old Russian tradition dating back well over a century. In modern times, anti-semitism has been die fatal passion of Russian conservatives. If contemporary nationalists in their fury are unable to resist the lure of anti-semitism, it does not bode well for their movement, or for a reborn Russia.