Boris Nemtsov was assassinated next to the splendid Saint Basil Cathedral. He was going to lead on Sunday a march against Putin’s war in Ukraine. Nemtsov, an ex-Vice PM, and ex-Vice Speaker of the Duma, Parliament, was killed below the Kremlin’s windows, a place full of police, and state security. As if to show that the killers had nothing to fear… from the Kremlin.
Four shots in the back, each lethal. Nemtsov’mother had told her son that “if he kept cursing Putin, Putin would kill him.” Putin promised her justice would be served. However an underling on the investigative committee immediately suggested that the assassination may be related to the Charlie Hebdo massacre (!). I have a more prosaic approach.
Russia is a place where opponents and critics keep getting killed, for purely political reasons. The tradition is not new. Ivan the Terrible had some differences with his son. He killed him. Peter the Great had the same problem. He had his son torn with red hot pincers. Son also died.
How are those unable to communicate, led alone love, their children, the great heroes of the eternal Russian soul?
Russian leaders keep on reminding us that they have nuclear weapons. Putin keeps on reminding us he mourns the “Big Country”. Now the ex-head of Mi6 in Britain is admitting that:
“Russia has become a danger to Britain and the country must be prepared to take steps to defend itself and its allies, the former head of MI6 says.
Sir John Sawers, who recently retired after five years as chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that Russia poses a “state to state threat”.
Sir John said such threats would require more defense spending. But called on “increased dialogue”.
Here I am, dialoguing. The Russian intellectual class has failed, all too smothered by its own nationalism to erect robust critique. And this mood of intellectual pusillanimity has been long in power (I am thinking not just of the irritatingly conservative Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or Gorbachev, here). True, as Peter The Great confronted the “Old Believers” with a maximal ferocity I approve of, he was no doubt confronted to the fiercest critique. However, in Russia the dialogue tends to be between ultra-conservatives, and those who are for some progress.
All the fiercest criticism is always coming from the savages (notice that this covers not just the “Old Believers’, but also Lenin, Stalin and their ilk).
Sir John said he was disappointed how, after the end of the Cold War, Russia’s and Europe’s paths had failed to converge. “[Russia] keep on reminding us that they have nuclear weapons,” he said.
How come Russia did not join the West readily?
Look at the immensely wealthy Count Tolstoy and other famous Russian authors. They are all about a subtle propaganda: Russia is a traditional place. Count Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina and other books, is all about the Russian soul being conservative. And the triumph of conservatism.
The truth is different. Russia was successfully led, for centuries, by a cruel, determined and highly imperially efficient plutocracy. It’s too effective to be all that conservative. Or then one should call the Dark Side “conservative”. This is (partly) why Russia ended as the largest empire on Earth. Europe was unable to reconquer North Africa, but Russia was able to set up forts all the way down to the California coast. (And conquer half of Eurasia.)
That different truth is what constructed the empire, and thus what has to be hidden. At this point, Russia is proceeding on mental inertia, doing what it knows best: do whatever it takes to cruelly grab more territory. Even if it means killing dozens of critiques inside, and risk total war.
But why no books on historical Russian figures? Where are the Alexandre Dumas of Russia?
Dumas did not hesitate in depicting some of France’s figures in pretty drastic situations. Think about what he wrote (all true) about Marguerite de Navarre.
De Sade directed his worst critiques to the Great Leaders. He presented the great leaders anointed by the Lord, as monsters who needed to kill… sadistically all and any, especially the innocent, just to relax during their vacations (incensed, the Ancient Regime and Napoleon put De Sade in prison. Still, in between De Sade launched the Revolution of 1789… from the Bastille! Don’t expect conventional history books to relate this).
The tradition of fierce critique among literary figures is obvious in France by the time of Rabelais. Rabelais made an entire parody of the Bible, complete with grotesque names and the most disgusting habits. Thanks to the disgusting Francois I, three philosophers were burned alive. Rabelais, the son of a lawyer, who endowed himself with an overall education second to none, not just as a philosopher, philologist, translator, lawyer, but also as a Medical Doctor.
Very similarly to Abelard, Rabelais fought the church tooth and nail, in a constant, unending war. His collaborator Étienne Dolet was burned alive, for atheism (and being relapse, the technical charge against Johanne of Arc). Obviously the sort of mentality obvious in Abelard, and the early Franks, travelled across the ages.
In the Thirteenth Century Dante had put a contemporaneous Pope in hell. No less. (No wonder, shortly thereafter Buridan publicized his heliocentric theory, which he deduced from new mathematics and new physics. The Church had Buridan work destroyed 130 years later: another proof that the intellectuals were at war, in Western Europe, with the powers that be.)
Even earlier, Abelard wrote the book “Sic and Non” (“Yes And No” ) about the main theses of the Church. That was in the early Twelfth Century, and the war between the philosopher and the fanatical Saint Bernard became absolute.
It is not a question of winning. It is a question of having a tradition of daring to engage into war against religious and political authority.
Where are the terrible, pitiless Russian literary descriptions of Russian autocrats?
Russia, since Ivan the Terrible, has had the bloodiest, most cruel leaders ever known. They killed, their children, spouses, and other close relatives. They should have allowed to write juicy books, the sort Roman authors have accustomed us to.
And what do Russian writers write about?
So now enjoy Putin.
A nation with a non-examined soul is not worth admiring. To say the least.
Note: Meanwhile the Western powers ought to give the Ukrainians counter-strike radar (the Ukrainians were only given radar warning of incoming shells, but not the software to direct counter-strikes; in the 1990s the French broke the siege of Sarajevo, by striking rogue “Serbian” artillery with radar directed counter-strikes)