Russia's Internal Foe

By Nathan Shaviro

[The Nation; January 4, 1917]

The course of internal development in Russia after the war has occasioned more speculation and straining of logic than that of any other belligerent country. Germany's peace proposals have followed on the heels of her failure to obtain a separate peace with Russia. In Russia this failure meant the downfall of the reactionary Cabinet and a victory for the progressive Duma. The triumph was immediately followed by the announcement of the new Russian Premier Trepoff that the Allies had promised Constantinople and the Dardanelles to the Russians in the event of a victory—the agreement having been concluded by Russia and her allies in 1915. To-day Russia is more determined than any of her allies to continue the war and is ready to make any sacrifice until Germany is completely defeated.

It is, of course, useless to attempt to prophesy the possible outcomes of this perplexing situation. But it may be highly enlightening to inquire what this Russia is, with her uncompromising opposition to Germany, and with the promise of Constantinople before her. The situation suggests specific and pertinent questions. Does it mean that reactionary Russia has had its death blow, and that liberal Russia is free to march to a constitutional form of government? Does it mean that a progressive Duma has conquered the only internal foe, and is now endeavoring to conquer the outside enemy—Germany, surrounded and aided by friends?

On the surface the prospects for a freer Russia are promising. The victory of the progressive Duma over the reactionary Cabinet supplies us with a basis for hope. With this achievement the slow and tortuous process of liberalization, of the orientation of the Russian people from East to West, may seem to have gained fresh vigor. We hear all voices in Russia clamoring together for apparently one ideal—democracy—the idol of the present age. But what is not now observed in the din of battle is that democracy means more than one thing. A good example of it is the present case. We find in Russian history, ever since the process of modernization began under Peter the Great, two currents which run in opposite directions, one east, the other west. In the nineteenth century they came to be known respectively as Slavophilism and Liberalism. The latter looked to Western Europe for the model on which Russia's national life must develop. To the Slavophile the foundation for Russia's future consisted precisely in qualities of the national spirit and those national institutions in which Russia differed from the nations of Western Europe. Liberalism insisted that Russia could grow great by learning from the West. Slavophilism declared that Russia had something to teach the West, and that her national destiny would be realized in the same measure as the soul of Russia imposed itself on the outside world.

Slavophilism and Liberalism are far from being reconciled now. In fact, the issue has never been more far-reaching than it is at present. Liberalism, that is to say Western evolution, in Russia has always been and is now an aspiration, a hope. Though suppressed by the home Government, it had, before the war broke out, full sympathy and encouragement from abroad. To-day the case is just the reverse. Liberal Russia, which looks for the realization of its ideals to the West, is ignored. Her hope that a victory for the Entente Allies would mean a closer contact between them and her own people and thereby, inaugurate a new era of popular freedom appears to many outside friends of Russia to be lacking in originality. They feel that Russia's strength in the present crisis consists in being true to herself; and that points to the Russia of the Slavophils. The latter do not embarrass the Allies by looking to them for salvation. They propose to make a positive contribution. It is a new type of civilization, which is not only a justification of the war against "militarism," but which actually gives to the Allies, as one English apologist expresses it, "spiritual grace."

Such proposals are particularly welcome, now. Emerging, as it does, against the background of a terribly disillusioned Western Kultur, this message of the Slavophils is the more acceptable. On the one hand, we have in the West, as Bergson puts it, a rigid, clockwork civilization—the incorporation of a mechanism which is doomed to destruction. On the other hand, we have Life itself, which is bound to win. When the conflict is so dramatized, Russia assumes the role of Life, and the world of Dostoevsky is hurled against that of Kant. In this manner we find even Romain Rolland fighting. In his defence of Russia, Rolland exclaims: "Who but the Russians have been our guides? What German writers can you set up against Tolstoy and Dostoevsky?" This Russia, evidently, does not come to the West as a pupil but as a teacher. The message it brings is no other than democracy—not the formal democracy of the West, but Russia's specific heritage: an expression of the peculiar genius of the Russian people. It has all the virtues of a democracy for which Western Europe has vainly struggled and hoped. It is the soul of Russia which has lived in a suppressed state since Peter the Great under a cruel and foreign bureaucracy.

It is this Russia which is the subject of the ever-swelling flood of books and articles. It is the holy Russia, for instance, of Mr. Stephen Graham's worship. The subject is treated with such warmth and exultance of tone that it betrays not only a lack of knowledge but a bad conscience. A vast amount of the mystical and the occult is expended to make out a case for Russia. Politics and mysticism, economic conquest, an open passage to the sea, Constantinople, and the Dardanelles are indissolubly bound up with spiritual longings and religious piety. The case for Russia has been padded with so much soul and mystic stuff that one suspects that some contraband must have been hidden unconsciously, perhaps, in its pious folds.

That the suspicion is well grounded and that just here is to be found the most formidable foe of a really free Russia, as well as of a free world, as we of the West understand freedom, will be readily seen after we try to understand the message she pretends to bring.

The message is incorporated in the famous mediaeval Russian village commune, the "mir." This enslaving institution which has thwarted the development of the Russian people, and which has been partially dissolved by appalling periodic famines, is revived as the only basis for a true democracy. Just how it serves as such a basis is very well illustrated by Olga Novikoff, in a recent article: "In the foundation of parishes lies the seed of future economic victory; for, without a parish, there can be neither solidarity, nor union of interests, nor any means of utilizing to the utmost all the resources of the nation for benefit of our church and state." The same author assures, us that the parish authorities consider it "their duty to look after the moral (as well as the) material welfare of their flock." The "union of interests" in the "flock" can hardly be over-estimated as the only ground of a true democracy—as the Slavophil sees it. The secret of the failure democracy in Western Europe is found in its endless conflicts of interests, whereas perfect harmony, the absence strife, envy, and pride, are the key to Russian spirituality. That is why we find the Russian lacking in angularity and stiffness, and find him "all-human" in sympathy, pliant spirit, meek in heart—a true Christian who gains spiritual mastery through submission. Russia is free from that original sin—rationalism—which has misled the Western Church and has driven men into revolt and unbelief.

Actually such a heavenly condition of perfect harmony has not been realized yet—the Slavophil apologist admits. There is strife in this world, and therefore external order, governmental intervention, is necessary to make this unity complete: external order with its state direction, its prisons, and soldiers. The Russian people are concerned only with moral unity and are indifferent to legal procedure. Everything that has to do with law, coercion, external power, has been handed over to the state. This voluntary subjection to the state is a distinct feature of Russian which does not begin with conquest, but with calling of the Norman chiefs by the Russian tribes rule over them. There is this dualism, then, in social in Russia: Power, law, coercion belong wholly to the realm of the state; submission, spiritual concern, and the practice of Christian virtues belong to the community. But these two spheres are not opposed to each other. They complementary. There is an explicit confidence of people in their ruler. As G. de Wessilitsky assures "There have never been conflicts between Monarchy Democracy in Russia." They are "indissolubly cemented and consecrated by the wise leadership of the Great White Czar." One might, of course, think of the revolutionary movement as a case to the contrary. But this, he says, together with the system of bureaucracy, is a foreign product, made in Germany.

Hence, to the Slavophil, the purpose and aim in this war is clear. It is a war of liberation from the German yoke, a liberation of all those foreign elements which are so to the original unity of Russian life. It now strives to come to its own again. This is an old and deep-rooted ambition. It is the old policy of that arch-reactionary, Pobyedonostsev, who strove to "freeze out" every new force, every new element which might be prejudicial to life and unity of the church and state. The results of such a policy are well known. But what is not generally observed is that this policy is in perfect accord with the spiritual "democracy" described above. In the intimate friendship between Pobyedonostsev and Dostoevsky is symbolized, as it were, the indissoluble bond between Russian autocracy and "democracy."

This is the Russia of the Slavophil apologists, which hurled against German militarism and which gives "spiritual grace" to the Allies.

But what is of greater consequence is that this "democratic" Russia is encouraged not only through literary media, but by the actual promise of Constantinople to the Russians. Constantinople is, as Trepoff is reported to have said, an "age-long dream, cherished in the heart of the Russian people." But as the unprejudiced eye sees it, the state of mind which this "dream" reveals is that of a "democratic" Russia which will raise insurmountable barriers in the way of an enduring peace. The danger of the "dream" is painfully realized by Germany, who may be willing to make any concessions except allow Constantinople to be in the grip of Russia. Germany, like England and France in 1853-56 and in 1878, will, no doubt, struggle to the last to frustrate this "age-long dream" and never to allow its attainment.

Because in the West we assume Liberalism and democracy as synonymous, this word of caution is necessary as to the distinction between Liberalism in Russia and the democracy of the Slavophils. The Liberal elements in Russia stand for what to us are obvious desiderata—a modernized social life and modern state institutions. The Slavophil democracy is pledged to the enslaving institutions of the "mir" in its economic life and the autocracy in its political life. Liberalism is not land-hungry. It does not strive for expansion. The Russian Empire is big enough for its people and its great need is internal reconstruction. But the Slavophil, with his "message" to the world, with his pious longings for the holy city of Byzantium, lends himself to policies of conquest and aggression.

The Russia of the Slavophil is not only menacing the peace of the world, but is threatening the very life of the Russian people. The hope of a Liberal Russia, as of future peace, is greatly endangered by the encouragement and cherishing of the "democratic" Russia which has no difficulty in reconciling democracy with Czarism and Constantinople.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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