Thursday, February 11, 2010

On the matter of Russian guilt

On pages 148-9 of The Art of the Novel, Milan Kundera in an essay (written, I suspect, in 1986) entitled “Sixty-three Words” discusses the word “Soviet.” 
“Soviet.  An adjective I do not use.  Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: ‘four words, four lies’ (Cornelius Castoriadis).  The Soviet people: a verbal screen behind which all the Russified nations of that Empire are meant to be forgotten.  The term ‘Soviet’ suits not only the aggressive nationalism of Communist Greater Russia but also the national nostalgia of the dissidents.  It allows them to believe that through a feat of magic, Russia (the real Russia) has been removed from the so-called Soviet State and somehow survives as an intact, immaculate essence, free of all blame.  The German conscience: traumatized, incriminated by the Nazi era; Thomas Mann: pitiless arraignment of the Germanic spirit.  The ripest moment of Polish culture: Gombrowicz joyously excoriating ‘Polishness.’  Unthinkable for the Russians to excoriate ‘Russianness,’ that immaculate essence.  Not a Mann, not a Gombrowicz among them.”
COMMENT:  Kundera was born in Brno and had no reason to love the Soviet Union, but I wonder if what he says here isn’t still true.  He wrote before the fall of the Soviet Union, but afterwards, has there been any excoriation of ‘Russianness’?   I haven’t run across it if there has been.  Instead I have heard praise of the 100% pure ethnic Russian who is smarter, tougher, more resolute, and more competent than any other ethnicity or nation.  Also, their women are much prettier. 
I’ve seen some criticism of Moscow and its handling of internal affairs, but not so much of its handling of international affairs.  Putin and Medvedev seem to be fulfilling the desire on the part of a majority of Russians to have its leaders stand up to the West and assert their conception of themselves as a superpower. 
I recently pointed out themes in British, American and Canadian TV that question whether the human race deserves to survive.  Perhaps those writers have been influenced by the self-criticism that is so pervasive in the West, especially in the English speaking nations.  We have had our Mann’s and Gombrowicz’s in abundance, and perhaps they have been so influential that the rest of us look about us and ask, ‘if we are this bad, surely the planet would be better off if we turned it over to some more useful and benign species.’  Meanwhile Russians, though they may be struggling economically, and not willing to face the fact that except for their nuclear arsenal they resemble a third-world nation, haven’t lost confidence in Mother Russia and their Russianness. 
Oh there is plenty of criticism in the Russian Federation, but much of it comes from the non-Russian parts of the federation, and does it not seem to the Russian that it is alien and not really Russian?  Surely that sort of criticism provides the 100% ethnically pure Russians with no reason to think less of themselves, and certainly no cause to find anything to feel guilty about.  As to anything that happened during the Cold War, well that was the doing of that Georgian Stalin and his henchmen and does not reflect upon the immaculately pure Russian.

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