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Musings on Russian society

PostPosted: Fri Jan 03, 2014 5:30 pm
by dragon
Russka by Edward Rutherfurd

The following are my musings on the above named novel (i.e. this is not a review of the novel):

This novel tells the history of Russia through the (fictional) lives of two families whose family tree dates from around 150 AD and continues uninterrupted to the end of the novel in 1990. Russka is the name of a fictional town around which the lives of the families revolves.

This is a long novel --- 1000 pages. Despite this, my interest was held throughout. This was in part due to its construction. It is split into sections, each section dealing with a particular period of Russian history e.g. Catherine the Great, through which is woven the story of the main family members alive at that time.

Why was I attracted to the novel? I like historical fiction generally, but more especially because my particular interest currently lies in all aspects of Russian culture. This novel, however, was not written by a Russian. The author is English. (He has a university degree but whether it is in history or some other subject, I do not know.) Therefore this account, spanning nearly 2000 years of Russian history, is told from a western, not a Russian, perspective.

One of the most attractive aspects of the novel is that it deals with early Russian history with which I am less familiar. So, for example, it provided me with a better picture of who and what the boyars were, as well as describing the origins of the Cossacks etc, etc. One was also given a clearer picture of the history of Russian serfs but, as I said, from a western perspective, not a Russian one. In other words, the author held the orthodox views about the conditions and lives of the serfs. What the reality was is another matter.

Speaking of serfs, what I have gleaned elsewhere about the Russians’ general attitude to authority is very interesting. To take what appears to be a typical example: the central authorities issue orders to the administration of a distant province to do such-and-such a job. The administrators of the distant province confirm receipt of the orders and that they will, of course, be carried out immediately……. whereupon absolutely nothing at all is done about the orders…….. until some central authority person chases up said orders only to find that nothing has been done about them. Enquires are made. More promises to implement the orders are forthcoming (enough to keep the bosses off the backs of the administrators of that distant province)……. but once again nothing whatsoever is done about them. More enquiries are made. More unfulfilled promises to implement the orders are made. Years pass. The game continues……until either the will to ensure that the orders are implemented fizzles out or the central authorities take the attitude of “if you want a job doing then you have to damned well do it yourself” --- an attitude which both Potemkin and Peter the Great, it seems, were forced to adopt at various points in their careers. Then there is the playing dumb that serfs adopted with their masters. Try getting anything done in the face of someone playing dumb and it’s well nigh impossible. It’s also very difficult to deal with someone who’s playing dumb. This attitude to authority makes such a refreshing change from the forelock-tugging that I am used to seeing in the UK………

…………..and makes me think that the likes of Shostakovich wasn’t quite such a “victim” of Stalin as is often suggested. When I hear the music of Shostakovich, especially his 5th Symphony, a reply to his denunciation by Stalin, I hear humour, I hear something of that same Russian attitude to authority --- I hear a game being played. Western writers also condemn Maxim Gorky for toadying to Stalin, for failing to recognise the horrors of the gulags during those famous guided tours of Solovetsky. Just as happens when royalty visit a school/factory in the UK, it is said that the gulags were tarted up e.g. given a fresh lick of paint etc, and that only the healthiest, best behaved prisoners were put on show and that Gorky was completely taken in by the masquerade, fell for it hook, line and sinker. Well, maybe he was……but then again, maybe he wasn’t. Western writers are much too prone to judge such situations by appearances or, simply to taking the orthodox western view. This, of course, tells them nothing about the truth behind what was REALLY going on.