In the Russian DNA
A Russian friend of mine managed to escape from Moscow and relocate abroad with her family. A close call, she writes — one family member was in danger of a stiff prison sentence. He had been arrested for blogging against Putin and the invasion of Ukraine and then been interrogated at the Lubyanka, headquarters of the FSB, today's successor to the Cheka, GPU, NKVD, and KGB. The young man was seized on the streets, held in confinement long enough to rattle his nerves, and subjected to threats alternating with offers to turn informant.
I just wrote a book about an American agent in Moscow a hundred years ago. This was the same treatment practiced on her in the early 1920s. The only difference between the Lubyanka then and now is that the food is better today.
Nothing substantially changes in Russia. Identical secret police techniques were utilized by the tsars. In 1911, Joseph Conrad published a novel about Russian autocracy (Under Western Eyes). In an introduction to the 1920 edition, following the Bolshevik revolution, he wrote that the "world is brought once more face to face with the truth of the saying that the tiger cannot change his stripes nor the leopard his spots."
This is equally true of the egregious violence of Russian politicos. Lenin and Trotsky institutionalized their revolution through sheer terror and intimidation. Their opponents in the Civil War (1918–1920) were no less bloody. The Civil War lingered in the Russian Far East long after it was won in the European "center" of the country. Russia spans eleven time zones. The Russian Far East is ten times the size of Texas, and its principal cities are as distant from Moscow as Honolulu is from Washington, D.C.
Something like a quarter of a million Russians of all socio-economic backgrounds fled from the center to the Far East to escape the Bolshevik revolution. Given their distaste for totalitarianism and the disinterest of the eastern peasantry in Marxist doctrines, a more or less constitutional order might well have been established in the vastness of Far Eastern Siberia. The reason that didn't happen is essentially because of the atrocities of the White generals.
Historian Jamie Bisher in White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian, the most authoritative account of the Civil War in the east, cites one general who confided that he "was ashamed to eat a meal unless he had killed someone and earned that meal" and "could not sleep unless he had killed someone and earned that sleep." Other generalissimos were described as "thieves, scoundrels and sadists" who "delighted in arbitrary cruelties and brazen criminal behavior." The details are too brutal to enumerate.
Not that the Red partisans of the region were any more civilized. The flourishing northeastern town of Nikolaevsk was sacked in the spring of 1920 by a psychopathic Bolshevik named Triapitsyn who presided over the ghoulish execution of three thousand innocent men, women, children, and infants.
He then reduced the town to cinders.
Public domain image.
Following the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War, Lenin attempted to spread his revolution to western Europe, sending armies streaming across the Polish border. Writer Isaac Babel was embedded as a correspondent with a contingent of 16,000 Cossack horsemen constituting one arm of the invasion. The Red Cavalry made no distinction between fighting and looting. "We are destroyers," Babel lamented in his war diary — "we move like a whirlwind, like a stream of lava, hated by everyone."
In another entry:
The prisoners are rounded up, made to undress[.] ... The military commissar and I ride along the line begging the men not to massacre prisoners ... they bayoneted some, shot others ... they strip one man while they're shooting another[.]
Russia characteristically has also produced a distinguished lineage of titanic writers and composers. Its artistic prominence also remains unchanged. Bass-baritone Leonid Kharitonov's majestic rendition of the traditional Russian folk tune "Baikal" will lift your heart to the stratosphere.
The 1960 cinematic adaptation of Tolstoy's Resurrection by director Mikhail Shveitser is as brilliant and moving a film as any Hollywood classic I've ever seen. A thoroughly enjoyable musical version of The Three Musketeers was deservedly a major hit on Russian television in 1978. More recently, a stunning 2017 mini-series imaginatively retold the tale of Anna Karenina from the point of view of Count Vronsky. Here, Anna's grown son, serving as an army doctor in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War, encounters the wounded, recuperating nobleman who led his mother astray. Vronsky's Story is the count's remembrances of the affair.
Unfortunately, along with the artistic virtuosities, there also remains in the Russian DNA a pathological indifference to human life and well-being.
An interesting perspective on what the world is dealing with in the person of Vladimir Putin...isn't it?
Sheldon Bart is a trustee of the Foundation to Illuminate America's Heroes.