Thursday, January 12, 2012

The two great Russian questions

They are: Who is at fault and What is to be done.

 Кто виноват? is a novel by Alexander Herzen. Based on various personal experiences, it is his only foray into the writing of fiction (one has to assume that his various autobiographical volumes are more or less accurate) and not his best work. However, it is considerably better than Что делать? by Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a most appallingly boring novel with no fewer than four dreams by the heroine Vera Pavlovna and one that Dostyevsky mocked and attacked mercilessly. Astonishingly enough, given that it was written and read at a period when Russian literature produced one genius after another, this long and hectoring work was taken up and eagerly adopted as a secular bible by the Russian radical intelligentsia, particularly its younger members. This perverseness may well account for why things went so badly wrong in Russia. 

The title was subsequently adopted by V. I. Lenin (the anniversary of whose death is coming soon) and the best one can say for his tract of the need for a revolutionary party to lead the populace to where they do not want to go is that it is shorter than Chernyshevsky's novel.

Both these questions were asked yesterday after a talk given by Luke Harding, the Guardian journalist who has  had the distinction of being the first hack to be expelled from post-Soviet Russia for writing things that the authorities were not happy about, in London's Pushkin House. As it happens, he had no answer. Why Russia has gone the way it has in the last twenty years is a question that needs many hours of cogitation and discussion. Many people are at fault and by now it has become quite difficult to work out what can be done to start remedying the situation. 

Mr Harding's talk was interesting and centred on his personal experience from which he drew a number of obvious conclusions about Russia and its governing elite. He also mentioned his predecessors as Guardian correspondents in the Soviet Union, Arthur Ransome and Malcolm Muggeridge. He did not go into details but, had he done so, he might have noted that while the first one of those swallowed the Bolshevik line completely, to the point of becoming an agent of the Cheka while the second one (and he did refer to this) famously went as a convinced supporter, became disillusioned and was one of the first writers to tell the truth about Stalin's monstrous regime. 

Mr Harding, however, did not mention any journalists who had, like him, been expelled from Russia or the Soviet Union. It is, therefore, worth pointing out that the first of those was D. D. Braham of the Times, who was expelled in 1903 for writing unfavourably about the pogroms and the subversion of the Finnish constitution. 

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