The Tolstoyevsky syndrome

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The problem with the western countries’ approach to Russia is not so much the lack of a will to understand as an excessive desire to know nothing.

—courtesy Bachelot Caron & School Gallery, from the Battle Series

This nation that gave us Pushkin, War and Peace, Nijinsky and Swan Lake, which has one of the richest pictorial traditions in the world, which has scientifically catalogued all the elements of nature, which was the first to send a man in to space (and the most recent in date), which has produced so many geniuses of film, poetry, architecture, theology, science, which defeated Napoleon and Hitler, which publishes the best manuals—by far—in physics, mathematics and chemistry, which has found a peaceful and secular way of life full of respect and mutual understanding, with Tatars and countless Muslims, Khazars, Buddhists, Chukchis, Buryats and Tungus, which built the longest rail route in the world and still uses it (unlike in the USA where legendary tracks lie rusting away), which carefully mapped out and explored its lands, surveyed how they are used, has taken census of the ethnicities and languages in its European regions, which builds formidable fighter planes and giant submarines, which reconstructed a middle class in less than fifteen years after the Gorbachev–Yeltsin third worldization, this vast country, that governs one-sixth of the dry land on earth, is suddenly treated like a bunch of brutes, whose grotesque and bloody dictator needs to be deposed before they can be taught to serve the “real” civilization!


The west resorts to the same hateful charade with every crisis, from Ivan the Terrible to “Putler” (Putin), on to Czar Paul, the Crimean War, the hapless and tragic Nicolas II, and even the Soviet Union where all successes were called “Soviet” and failure disparaged as “Russian”.

Servile nations which are astonishingly tolerant of American treason and robbery “because-they-liberated-us-in-45” never have anything to say, not a word of gratitude to the nation that contributed the most to defeat the Nazi hydra… and which paid the heaviest price. Its politicians are considered bothersome, its president made fun of with an obsessive hatred, freedom of trade and movement for its citizens, scientists, academics and businessmen is suspended on the whims of obscure European commissions whose populations they claim to represent do not know the name of any one of these commission members, or why any of them have been chosen instead of some other multinational stooge.

But all this is nothing, it’s in the order of things. The west and Russia are only playing out the Rome-Byzantium conflict for extra time, to infinity, by extending it to neighboring continents, or even interplanetary space. The true war of civilizations, the only one, is happening here, as barbaric as the sack of Constantinople, apocalyptic as its fall, as old and nasty as theological schisms hiding treacherous takeovers. Lurking in the folds of time, but ready to pounce and bite like a trap set for a wolf. It is the only trap, out of any of them, that the Western Empire did not set itself and thus cannot disarm. (Considering that the Islamic threat is just the product of American and British colonial maneuvers, greedy oil interests and the actions of various state services, busy fabricating scarecrows to frighten their own populations, and killing off those posing this “Islamic threat” to convince their governed people of their power and how necessary they are.)

The Russian threat is quite different, a civilization of two faces, anchored on its land, aware of itself and entirely open to three oceans, the Arctic and the Himalayas, the forests of Finland as well as the Mongolian steppes. These are sovereigns, who since the battle of Kazan won by that same Ivan who serves as our bogeyman, bear the title of Tatar Khans along with Christian emperors ruling in the last decades of the Roman empire, the third Rome being Moscow, which flourished while Byzantium was mercilessly ruled by the Ottomans and the Pope under the rod of his followers. It is a land of infinite horizons, but whose contours are engraved in world history, vague yet inviolable. These are people, who finally and above all, are as diverse as one can imagine, mixed in with blond-haired Vikings and others with slanting eyes and darker complexions in Asia. They didn’t wait for a green light to begin the inevitable interbreeding, Russians have it in their blood, so well assimilated they think of it no longer. Obsessive skinheads shown on English-language television serve the same purpose as Swiss cuckoo clocks: souvenirs for tourists.


Russia looks so much like Europe and yet it’s so far! So far that the tireless cartographers of oceans—from Genoa, the English, Dutch and Spanish—familiar with the scent of tonka beans and various kinds of wood from Sumatra, knew nothing of what borscht is made of. Or even how to pronounce the name of this soup. Not that they couldn’t learn, they didn’t want to. No more than they wanted to know, really, the spirit, customs and mentality of those exotic immigrants now arriving in the country by millions, who they leave piled in ghettos because they don’t know how to talk to them.

Growing up in Serbia, I had to learn two languages and two alphabets to start my life as an immigrant. I learned other languages and alphabets so as to better understand the world I live in. I’m quite surprised that most Swiss don’t for the most part, know, the other two principle languages of their own country. How can one know anyone else if you know nothing of the language they speak? This is a basic courtesy. And this courtesy is more and more often reduced to basic “airport English”.

Russians, whose education includes western European culture in addition to their own, now do the same thing. Where do we see reciprocal habits in education west of the Dnieper? Since the time of Peter the Great, Russians have considered themselves entirely European. A good portion of renaissance artists and philosophers of the Enlightenment were Russian. Do Leontiev, Father Sergius Bulgakov, Repin, Bunin, Prokofiev and Chestov belong to the western intellectual hemisphere? Of course not. For two centuries speaking French was among the rules of proper behavior in well-respected households, and still is often today. They have firmly considered themselves European, but Europe has worked tooth and nail to disabuse them of this illusion. When young Russians sing songs by George Brassens they’ve learned by heart, you can answer by evoking “Tolstoyevsky”. The concept of a Europe that extends from Lisbon to Vladivostok has only existed in the East. In the West it was never anything more than bookish projection of a few visionaries.

At the height of the Gorbymania Alexander Zinoviev uttered his axiom that all Russians should learn from the cradle: “They won’t love the czar as long as he hasn’t destroyed Russia”.

Europe, from Lisbon to Vladivostok! Do people have an idea of the power, the continuity, the spread of the territory, the resources of such a collection of lands? No. Everyone prefers looking off towards the Atlantic far more. An aging world with its own uncouth outlaws desperately hugging each other over an empty sea, refusing to see anything in the outside world aside from loot, or as a mirror. Their last friendly exchanges with Russia date back to Gorbachev. This is normal: that zealous yet cheated man had undertaken to dismantle an empire with no other compensation beyond a pair of cowboy boots from the Reagan ranch. Twenty years later NATO forces are occupying all the lands from Vienna to Lviv which they had promised they would never lay hands on! At the height of the Gorbymania Alexander Zinoviev uttered his axiom that all Russians should learn from the cradle: “They won’t love the czar as long as he hasn’t destroyed Russia”.


“Oh, you Slavs!”—I frequently hear people say—“you’re so good at languages!” For a long time I took the compliment like that, at face value. Then, having traveled, I ended up understanding. It isn’t that “us Slavic people” are so fluent in other languages: it’s more that you “Europeans” lack our ease with languages. Who needs that kind of aptitude, considering that your package of languages (English, French, German, Spanish) has ruled the world for centuries already. Why dick around trying to speaking Bantu? Your language, the standard of your civilization, is widely sufficient for you, because beyond your civilization are the savage barbarian populations (as in Caesar’s time), and your civilization’s cultural frontiers, good God… It is the land Scythians, Sarmatians, whites Walkers, to make a long story short, barbarism. Indeed, quite literally, the edge of the world where ships hurtle off the edge.

That’s why Russian for you is Chinese. And Chinese is Arabic and anyone speaking Arabic is the enemy. You don’t even have, in your blinkered self-introspection, cognitive tools to understand when others—who suddenly begin to count—express their thoughts and say what they truly think of you. Ah! Would it send a shiver down your spine if you were to understand reactionary Islamic preachers in those bad-off neighborhoods outside big cities? Ah! Would it really anger you if you were to understand the jokes Chinese waiters in the 13th arrondissement make at your expense? Ah! Would you laugh if given the task of understanding the subtlety Russians’ black humor, rather than being convinced they’re about to lash out at you each time they raise their eyebrows?

But you don’t laugh. You never laugh anymore. Even your presidential election cycle comedies are now commented on by third-rate talking heads. You are as bad off as cats howling in the tranquility of your curfew, while the others across the way laugh, cry and carry on in their tiny apartments, their luxurious subway system, on their pack-ice, in their huts, even while artillery shells are raining down on them.

All this is nothing, I figured, while going over the historical misunderstandings between us. The worst part is happening now. You wouldn’t even want the three parts of the Ukraine you didn’t even know even existed. You hate them for being what they are, and for having no shame of that! You hate them for their respect of tradition, family, icons and heroism—in short, all the values which your upbringing has trained you to vomit. You hate them for not having organized the love of others with the hatred of self. You envy them for having solved a dilemma that’s gnawing away at you, turning you into congenital hypocrites. To what extent will we defend colors that are not our own?

You hate them for all that you have failed to become!

What’s most impressive is how much ignorance and stupidity you have to use to maintain your puppet show charades of raw brutes necessary to get rid of their grotesque and bloody dictator before teaching them to serve “real” civilization. Because all the evidence proves the contrary, and Russia’s excellent relations with other countries that are worth anything and are respectable (in the Brics Summit: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and the true strength of its citizens, the skill of their planners, and the general cultural education of whatever Russian you run across first, all of this contrasts starkly to the studied lack of culture of the average “researcher” at a Parisian university who claims he can explain away his college’s obscurantism and backwardness. It’s that this bunch of know-nothings still believe in education and knowledge, while European schools produce socialized ignorance; they still believe in their institutions while those of the European Union are laughable; they still believe in their fate while the old nations of Europe entrust their own destiny to the stock markets and Wall Street bankers.

Thus propaganda has invaded everything, even the air we breathe. The Obama administration imposes sanctions against Putin’s regime: everything’s said! On the one hand, we have Guantánamo, assassinations by drones around the world, suspension of basic rights and the license to kill its own citizens without trial—and, above all, twenty-five years of dirty, counterproductive and catastrophic colonial wars that have made the Middle East, from Bosnia to Kandahar, hell on earth. On the other hand, the United States is a world power which tries to keep a clean house step-by-step within its own borders, precisely those which we are never supposed to approach. It’s your government against their regime…

Do you have an idea of what you are depriving yourself of by cutting yourself off from the source of a considerable portion of your science, art, music and the last spacecraft able to leave earth?

Do you have an idea of what you are depriving yourself of by cutting yourself off from Russia, twice every century? From the last refuge of your dissidents, above all the capital witness Snowden? The source of a considerable portion of your science, art, music and even these days, the last spacecraft able to leave earth? But none of all that matters, since you have subjugated your science, art, music and space research to the suicidal rules of profit and speculation. And being hunted down and spied upon at every step, as Snowden has been, doesn’t bother you that much after all. What good does it do to implant a GPS chip in a dog that is already securely leashed? As for dissent… it’s only good for undermining Russia, all means are good for undermining Russia. Including the rabid Nazis in Kiev you support with no compunction or hard feelings, never hesitating to encourage them to harass their fellow citizens. Whatever the outcome, there will be a few thousand less Slavs…

What has that country done to you, that causes you to send off the most bloodthirsty forces ever engendered by human malice, the Nazis or Jihadists? How could you dream of avoiding a country spread across eleven time zones? By killing them off or reducing them to slavery? (It is true that “all options are on the table,” as they say in NATO.) Impeach a head of state more popular than all your puppets combined from outside his country? Are you insane? Or do you figure our planet is too small for the “West” accept and coexist with a Russian state?

Perhaps that’s it, all things considered. Russia is the outpost today of a new world, of the first true decolonization. Russia is the country of ideas, trade, currencies and mentalities. Unless you, Atlanticists and Eurocrats are able to pull every other country down in your fall touching off an atomic war, tomorrow’s banquet will be multipolar. You will only have your rightful place. This will be the first time in the history of your cultural hemisphere: you’re better off getting ready for it.

—by Slobodan Despot

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