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REFLECTIONS ON RUSSIA « return to "Insights on Russia" index

JULY 2002

Russia's Binary Character

In the introduction to his new survey of Russian history, Professor Geoffrey Hosking described the geopolitics and the ecology of the Eurasian landmass and highlighted features of the national character of the Russian people, features that have developed over their one-thousand year history. There was one insight in particular that stood out, an insight I had noticed in my years of study of Russian history.

Professor Hosking noted the "binary nature" of Russian culture, its tendency to seek extreme solutions to problems and to lurch from one set of cultural patterns to their diametrical opposite. He gave three examples from Russia's history to bolster his argument. The first was the abrupt replacement of an eclectic paganism with Orthodox Christianity during the reign of Prince Vladimir toward the end of the tenth century. The second were the radical reforms of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century when the young tsar forced Westernization on his people. The third was the Communist revolution of 1917 when radical Marxists announced the formation of a new socialist state with its "new Soviet man and new Soviet woman."

Hosking also suggested that the post-Soviet transformation in Russia in the 1990s may also come to be judged as yet another one of these radical, binary actions. "In each case the new was presented as the complete supplanting of the old, the dismissal of absolute evil and the introduction of absolute good." As he studied Russian history, Hosking observed the problems this caused over time. "In a society marked by such extreme discontinuities, the elites, animated by one kind of mentality, would try to introduce reforms, conceived as being for the benefit of everyone, but would come up against the mistrust and conservatism of the masses."

For the bulk of the Russian population, struggling for survival in a harsh climatic and geographic milieu, novelty and experimentation could be hazardous, even disastrous. Their resistance caused conflict between the elite ruling classes and the masses, and, as a result, rulers then resorted to force and violence to make the changes they wanted. Such a society tends to generate utopias and anti-utopias.

Hosking noted that the same duality is present in Russian folksongs and folktales. Very often the tragedy or humor evident in folklore was the contrast between a world of order and culture and another world characterized by poverty, hunger, nakedness or disorderly conduct. In Russian popular culture, the world of darkness was often used as a device to shed light on the world of morality and convention.

Russia's Cultural Life

I found it fascinating that Dr. James Billington, in his book The Face of Russia, made a similar observation. Billington noted that the Russians produced "a culture of explosion," of unpredictable outbursts - "flash fires in endless snow, sensational creativity amidst senseless suffering." His book studies five periods of Russian art and each period followed a similar binary pattern.

First, without much warning, Russian artists suddenly take over some new type of creative enterprise from some more advanced foreign civilization that they previously reviled. Second, having taken over someone else's art medium, they suddenly produce a stunningly original and even better version of their own. This often happens, Billington noted, at the same time people elsewhere have given up on the artistic medium suddenly embraced in Russia. Finally, having established a new and higher art form, the Russians then throw it down and break it apart, leaving only fragments behind for later generations.

Billington's book, and its accompanying video, trace this pattern through the lives and work of five innovative Russian artistic pioneers -- the medieval painter Andrei Rublev, the early modern architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the early 19th century writer Nicholas Gogol, the late 19th century composer Modest Musorgsky, and the 20th century filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

Insights Gained

Understanding this characteristic of the Russian people provides helpful insights and may give us some hints concerning how Russians are addressing their current problems. Will the Russians, having taken over the democratic model of their previous enemy, create a new and distinctive Russian variant that will serve their country in the decades ahead? Or will they destroy their own experiment and revert back to the authoritarian tradition of the past?

After reflecting on these insights, I interpret them in a positive light. The Russians are the ones who will shape their own future. While outside forces can have some limited impact on the margins, it will be the Russians themselves who will figure out what path to follow. If the West is waiting to see their institutions copied and transplanted in Russia, there will be much disappointment ahead. The most important change that is needed in Russia, in my judgment, is for the welfare of the people to be determined by the people themselves. Russia's history has been one of "reform from above," reform forced on the masses. When change begins to generate on the grassroots level, and slowly builds support among the people, then perhaps the extreme swings of Russia's binary character can be moderated and a healthy civil society built.

References: Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A History (Harvard University
Press); James H. Billington, The Face of Russia: Anguish, Aspiration and
Achievement in Russian Culture
(TV Books).

Dr. John A. Bernbaum
Russian-American Christian University/US Office, P. O. Box 2007, Wheaton, MD, 20915-2007