The Russian Sphinx

Martin Malia
Martin Malia; drawing by David Levine

“We are neither of the West nor of the East,” the Russian philosopher Piotr Chaadaev wrote of his country in the early nineteenth century. “We belong to that number of nations which does not seem to make up an integral part of the human race, but which exists only to teach the world some great lesson.”

The theme of Russia’s enigmatic separateness would soon become a leitmotif of Western writing on Russian history and culture. “The strength to will, and to will one thing for a long time, [is] strongest of all and most astonishing in that huge empire-in-between, where Europe as it were flows back into Asia, in Russia…. There the will is waiting menacingly—uncertain whether it is a will to deny or a will to affirm—in readiness to discharge itself.” Thus Nietzsche prophesied in Beyond Good and Evil. Russia’s capacity to astonish the West has since been deployed to the full—both in the great utopian experiment that has dominated our century, and in the manner of its ending.

Western visions of Russia as an alien civilization, by turns threatening and alluring, are rooted in its anomalous history. The schism of 1054 between the Byzantine and Roman Churches detached it from the culture of Western Christendom, and the Mongol invasion two centuries later completed its isolation. It knew nothing of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the first flowering of secular thought in the West; the Muscovite state that emerged in the fifteenth century under the despot Ivan IV resembled the civilization of medieval Europe rather than the contemporary West. In the early eighteenth century Peter the Great’s reforms brought into the community of European nations a vast and backward country (even as late as 1917, 80 percent of the Russian Empire’s population were classified as peasants). Yet this lumbering land established itself as a great power when, in 1814, the Russian Tsar rode into Paris at the head of his army after the victorious campaign against Napoleon.

Over the next century European attitudes toward Russia were deeply ambivalent: along with fear of its imperial ambitions and revulsion at the brutality of autocratic rule, there was a growing admiration for Russian literature, music, and art; the start, it seemed, of a creative rapprochement with Europe. But this prospect was halted by the advent of the Soviet regime, whose unparalleled, terror-driven feats made it appear to the West (in Winston Churchill’s celebrated phrase) as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The dichotomy of West and East, civilization and barbarism, was revived by some liberal historians who sought to solve the Soviet riddle by tracing the origins of Stalin’s despotism back to the heritage of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great or (as Richard Pipes has done) to “patrimonial” institutions dating from the origins of the Russian state.

Faced with the new enigma of post-Communist Russia, Western commentators are…

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