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New York Times | 11Sep2015 | Askold Lozynskyj, [2] Brooks

Askold S. Lozynskyj to David Brooks: The Russia I Miss

[W.Z. Does anyone know if the New York Times published Mr. Lozynskyj's rebuttal? If not, it would indicate the NYT continues in its Ukrainophobic policies a la Walter Duranty. Was it published anywhere else?]

Don't fret, the Russia you miss is very much with us today. It continues to stand for something that America has never been known for. But not depth of soul as you suggest, rather its darkness. Its soul is as dark and tortured today as that of Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov albeit even less remorseful.  Vladimir Putin is a fitting successor to Russia's most evil czars -- Ivan, Peter, Catherine or commissars Lenin, Stalin, Khruschev, Brezhnev.

In view of the nostalgia which so moves and influences you, may I suggest that you study Russian history from the XII through the XX centuries, replete with the oppression of its own people and the persecution of those peoples whose lands Russia invaded. This is the basis for that Russian soul.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in Crime and Punishment:
“Yes...I'm covered with blood”, Raskolnokov said with a peculiar air; then he smiled, nodded and went downstairs.
He walked down slowly and deliberately, feverish but not conscious of it, entirely absorbed in a new overwhelming sensation of life and strength that surged up suddenly within him.”

This captures the essence of the Russian soul -- covered with blood, feverish with killing to the point of not being conscious and acquiring a new found strength from that killing.

Russia started as a simple walled city on the Moscow river in the XII century, rose to a duchy and then mushroomed to a vast czarist and then soviet wasteland comprising ten time zones, peppered with several centers like watchtowers in a concentration camp and monuments to its overbearing and suffocating might. Even its cultural capital, St. Petersburg, apparently the center of both your and Putin's longing, itself was built by a tyrant to satisfy and honor himself employing captured slaves for labor many of whom perished in the process. Czar Peter paid no regard to human loss of life. St. Petersburg's centerpieces, the Hermitage over the years became enriched with a collection of stolen booty while Petrodvoretz became an ostentatious faux Versailles.

[W.Z. One should note that Russia and Russians did not exist prior to 1721 when “Tsar Peter the Great” declared Muscovy to be the Russian Empire. The people in the vicinity of Moscow were called Muscovites (Moscali, in Ukrainian) and spoke a Muscovite language. The people in the vicinity of Kyiv were called Rus’ and spoke what is now the Ukrainian language.]

That Russia was characterized by its oppressed captives as a prison of nations and American president Ronald Reagan called it the evil empire.

Mykola Hohol better known to you as Nikolai Gogol, a well known Russian writer who was really Ukrainian, but was compelled to write in Russian for the Czar, exposed this Russian soul in his satirical masterpiece Dead Souls. It was a satire of that Russia you miss where life was tragically absurd and meaningless and the dead counted for as much as the living. Russia did not honor its dead, it merely recounted them as a statistic. Gogol finally went mad perhaps as a result and ended his life.

Your lament is misplaced. It seems contrived and disingenuous as you continue to enjoy the good fortune of living in a country where life is precious and every individual has certain inalienable rights, endowed by his Creator and guaranteed by the rule of law. Yet you belittle America as not having depth of soul. Had you grown up in the Russia of your dreams you would have had precious little of anything. Perhaps your American largesse has contorted your perception.

However, this isn't about you. You perform a disservice to the millions, yes, millions of victims of the Russia you contend missing. No country in history has been responsible for more suffering or more killings, in terms of sheer numbers, more than the Nazis, more than Mao's cultural revolutionaries, more than the regime of Pol Pot, more than the perpetrators of genocides in Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and more than the Islamic radicals today.  To those victims, you owe an apology.

Askold S. Lozynskyj

The writer is a former president of the Ukrainian World Congress.

New York Times | 11Sep2015 | David Brooks

The Russia I Miss

St. Petersburg, Russia -- People who came of age after the end of the Cold War may not realize how powerfully Russia influenced Western culture for 150 years. For more than a century, intellectuals, writers, artists and activists were partly defined by the stances they took toward certain things Russian: Did they see the world like Tolstoy or like Dostoyevsky? Were they inspired by Lenin and/or Trotsky? Were they alarmed by Sputnik, awed by Solzhenitsyn or cheering on Yeltsin or Gorbachev?

That was because Russian culture had an unmatched intensity. It was often said that Russian thinkers addressed universal questions in their most extreme and illuminating forms.

In his classic book, “The Icon and the Axe,” James H. Billington wrote that because of certain conditions of Russian history, “the kind of debate that is usually conducted between individuals in the West often rages even more acutely within individuals in Russia.”

But Russia stood for something that America has never been known for: depth of soul. If America radiated a certain vision of happiness onto the world, Russian heroes radiated a vision of total spiritual commitment.

“The ‘Russian’ attitude,” Isaiah Berlin wrote, “is that man is one and cannot be divided.” You can’t divide your life into compartments, hedge your bets and live with prudent half-measures. If you are a musician, writer, soldier or priest, integrity means throwing your whole personality into your calling in its purest form.

The Russian ethos was not bourgeois, economically minded and pragmatic. There were radicals who believed that everything should be seen in materialistic terms. But this was a reaction to the dominant national tendency, which saw problems as primarily spiritual rather than practical, and put matters of the soul at center stage.

In the Middle Ages, Russian religious icons presented a faith that was more visual than verbal, more mysterious than legalistic. Dostoyevsky put enormous faith in the power of the artist to address social problems. The world’s problems are shaped by pre-political roots: myths, morals and the state of the individual conscience. Beauty could save the world.

Even as late as the 1990s, one could sit with Russian intellectuals, amid all the political upheaval in those days, and they would talk intensely about the nature of the Russian soul. If it was dark in the kitchen at night, they wouldn’t just say, “Let’s replace the light bulb.” They’d talk for hours about how actually the root problem was the Russian soul.

Many of Russia’s most charismatic figures were on a lifelong search for purity. For the elder Tolstoy, you could live with material abundance and rot inside, or you could live the pure, simple rural life of the peasant. Solzhenitsyn wrote, “It makes me happier, more secure, to think … that I am only a sword made sharp to smite the unclean forces, an enchanted sword to cleave and disperse them.”

All of this spiritual ardor, all of this intense extremism, all of this romantic utopianism, all of this tragic sensibility produced some really bad political ideas. But it also produced a lot of cultural vibrancy that had an effect on the world.

While the rest of the world was going through industrialization and commercialism and embracing the whole bourgeois style of life, there was this counterculture of intense Russian writers, musicians, dancers -- romantics who offered a different vocabulary, a different way of thinking and living inside.

And now it’s gone.

Russia is a more normal country than it used to be and a better place to live, at least for the young. But when you think of Russia’s cultural impact on the world today, you think of Putin and the oligarchs. Now the country stands for grasping power and ill-gotten money.

There’s something sad about the souvenir stands in St. Petersburg. They’re selling mementos of things Russians are sort of embarrassed by -- old Soviet Army hats, Stalinist tchotchkes and coffee mugs with Putin bare-chested and looking ridiculous. Of the top 100 universities in the world, not a single one is Russian, which is sort of astonishing for a country so famously intellectual.

This absence leaves a mark. There used to be many countercultures to the dominant culture of achievement and capitalism and prudent bourgeois manners. Some were bohemian, or religious or martial. But one by one those countercultures are withering, and it is harder for people to see their situations from different and grander vantage points. Russia offered one such counterculture, a different scale of values, but now it, too, is mainly in the past.