Musings on Russians

A friend of mine passed a stack of books to me on one of my favorite subjects: Russia. I’ve always been an admirer of that country’s culture and history to the extent of wanting to learn the language at one point. The opportunity never came up however, though I did manage the Cyrillic alphabet.

The writer Nabokov once commented on translating the language into English as tantamount to “dragging a grand piano through a keyhole.” It’s that difficult. So I leave the translations to the translators.

I find it odd that Americans are incurious about Russia and things Russian, given that their government is meddling with our elections, but then, that’s what governments do and we’ve never really set things to right with them when they were the bad, bad Soviet Union. I think it’s partly because (the D-Day Invasion notwithstanding) the Soviets performed the heavy lifting during the war, while provisioned with Spam and wheeling about in Lend-Lease Jeeps and Studebaker trucks. That, in effect, was our contribution. After all, the Soviets would lose more men in a single battle with the Nazis than we lost in the entire war. It begs a distinction with a difference, however; we fought for democracy and they, however battered and bloodied, fought to rid themselves of the German Army.

Despite my admiration for the Russians, I spare little of it for their governments. How they get it so dreadfully wrong is beyond me. Our democracy, our republic has its glaring flaws, but their versions of government are pitiful and pitiless. Trump should be more circumspect with his infatuations.

The writers Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky have had an enormous influence on my way of thinking as have many other Russian writers. Their poets (in translation) exert a similar impact. We do not have a comparable array of authors, though most Americans would probably disagree. I do on occasion when I contemplate and re-read passages from Melville’s Moby Dick.  

Where the Russians clearly have the advantage, if such comparisons can be made, is their history. It roars and thunders through time, replete with sweeping panoramas of movement and import across vast spaces, almost unimaginable tragedies with villains that make ours look like mischievous Cub Scouts. Yes, we have had our great tragedies; I count slavery as one and the Civil War as another. Some things are done for a better purpose and that seems to be an idea, a theme in American history. We’re always a work in progress, and perhaps Russia is as well, but their costs have always been vastly more expensive and extravagantly wasteful.

There is a moment in Russian history that reminds me of Russia’s potential and its failure to realize it.

The Kronstadt Rebellion stands out at a signal moment when the Russian Revolution might have turned out differently. The sailors of the Baltic Fleet were instrumental in the initial successes of the 1917 Revolution. Stationed at Kronstadt on an island off St. Petersburg, they helped the Bolsheviks, the Reds, secure power when the October Revolution commenced. Kronstadt sailors also served as “shock troops” for the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war that followed. They acquired a reputation for being outspoken in the pursuit of the Revolution’s initial main objective; genuine freedom and democracy for the Russian people.

When they expressed their demands and dissatisfaction with the Bolshevik agenda, their “mutiny” was crushed by the Reds, but not without a fight. The Revolution turned inside out.  That would eventually lead to Stalin and his kind and we all know how that went.

If this sounds like an oversimplification of these events, I urge a reading of Russian history to judge matters on your own.

A prediction: Given the Russian egalitarian proclivity, Vladimir Putin won’t last. He’s greedy, arrogant, and thinks he’s clever. It’s a bad combination.

Dave Wylie’s life and work experience runs the gamut from newspaper editor to carpenter to grant writer to boat builder with lots of other work wedged in-between. Wylie currently is president of a management company that oversees an elderly housing complex and president of the local historical society. He resides in Madawaska.

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