The Russians Part I: “Native land of enduring patience, The land of the Russian people!”

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April 16th, 2015 

By: Gaither Stewart, Senior Editor of the Greanville Post

( Originally published at The Greanville Post , August 28th, 2014 )


Part II
Part III
Part IV
*


“Native land of enduring patience, The land of the Russian people!” – Fyodor Tiutchev, 1803-1873




Russia has been forced to fight off invaders and plunderers for millennia. The West has attacked her directly (Napoleon, the Nazis), or by proxy (The Turks in the 1850s Crimean War, egged on by the French and British) almost every 50 years. Russia has always prevailed—or survived—but at huge cost in lives and suffering. Image: Relief of the (British) Light Brigade, National Army Museum.

All things Russian have always seemed exotic, strange and incomprehensible to Westerners. Russians themselves have long debated the question as to who they are: Westerners or Asians? Or are they something else? In any case, as reflected in current Russian foreign policy, the history of Russia is also inextricably bound up with Eurasia, the territory between Europe and Asia.

Though of primary importance to Russia, the borders with Europe have always been far more rigid that those open borders with Asia itself. Asia for Russia remains an open space. That historical reality is of fundamental significance today in the dispute over Ukraine (which ignorant policy makers in the USA aim at sucking into Europe) as well as in Russia’s recent about-face and its search for primary relations with Asia and the creation of an exchange currency that is no longer Western.

In the same light, again today, Western peoples in general are perplexed by the Russia-Ukraine question. What does it mean? Just who are these “ethnic Russians” living in Ukraine anyway? If they don’t like it there, shouldn’t they move to Russia?

On this site, Mike Whitney produced an excellent interview with Russian President Putin’s advisor and friend, Sergei Glaziev, under the title of “Understanding Ukraine in 15 minutes”. Well, that title appears to me a bit of a journalistic exaggeration for the answers to these questions are complex and reach far back into the history of the Slavic peoples.

Here I have sketched out some of the related problematics, offered a scant historical background to the Slavic question, and taken a closer look at just who these Russians and Ukrainians really are.

The short answer is that they do not know themselves who they are. Russians wonder if Russia is an European country or whether she is not an extra-European country, westernized artificially and hastily by an elite of Peter the Great and to the detriment of her true values. Russians intellectuals too have long been puzzled by the problem. “Westernizers” in Russia saw the salvation of their country in a rapid assimilation of western culture; the so-called “Slavophiles” believed Russia could only be true to herself by maintaining and strengthening all that separated her from the West, by remaining loyal to her past values, and the development of a culture in opposition to the culture of the West. The struggle has gone on for eons, marked and distinguished by the Great Russian Revolution.

Today’s disputed country of Ukraine lies between Russia to its East and Poland to its West. One should keep in mind that Russians and Ukrainians, together with the Byelorussians of Byelorus just north of Ukraine, are historically one people, each however with its linguistic and cultural differences. For over three millennia these peoples, the Slavs, have inhabited parts of the enormous territory now known as Russia extending from the Black Sea eastwards across two continents nearly to Alaska, and from the North Pole to Persia in the South, an area bigger than the entire North American continent and one-sixth of the world’s land surface. Those peoples are known by the linguistic name of East Slavs. (The West Slavs are chiefly Poles and Czechs, the South Slavs Serbs, Croatians and Bulgarians).

However, as has been said, “geography may set the stage for history; men make history.” (Nicholas Riasanovsky, A History of Russia.) And what men made Russia’s history! Giants of men. Throughout the ages and across these great lands, hundreds of non-Slavic nationalities and cultures, European and Asian, Mongol and Persian, ancient Summerians and the Iranian-speaking Asiatic Scythians from Central Asia have intermingled. Two of the most international rail stations in the world are Moscow’s Yaroslavsky and Kazansky stations serving hundreds of such peoples from Europe to Asia.

Who are the Russians? you still ask. Telling, the answer of the great Russian poet, Alexander Blok, who wrote: “Yes, we are Scythians. Yes, we are Asiatics. With slanting and greedy eyes.”

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Russian tanker crews parade in victory celebration over fascism (2013). Note that while technically living under capitalism, they still honor Communist emblems.

My close friend, a Russian painter and originally an ethnic Russian from Kkarkov in today’s Ukraine, ( I find it difficult to write the Ukrainian Kharkiv) now for forty years in New York, has those slanting eyes, as do his two children, and to a minor degree, his grandchildren. Scythians, Russians, Ukrainians, Europeans, Americans? As much as my Russian-speaking friend tries to speak Ukrainian just to show off, I who do not know Ukrainian as such understand him perfectly. It’s like hearing English with a thick French accent.

Yet Russia shows that continuity is the real stuff of history. Events like the arrival of Christianity in Russia in the 9th century, the Mongol domination over Russian lands from the early 13th century to the late 15th, the Napoleonic invasion in 1812 and the burning of Moscow, World War I and II, and the Russian Revolution each brought about great change at enormous loss in Russian lives.

In the light of these confusing and historically tremendous occurrences the thinking person is made aware that it is the relationship of the present with the past that makes a given present meaningful. Without continuity in the histories of Europe, in Russia, China, and also in America, each new generation would have to start over again and again, as, say, in a typical story invented by Jorge Borges. Myths, anecdotes and stories about the Mongol (Tatar) domination abound in Russian literature. The period extending from the Tatar invasion to the unification of Russia by the Moscow ruler Ivan III appears like a black hole in Russian history that historian D.S. Mirsky labels Russia’s “Dark Ages”. The saying ‘Scratch a Russian and find Tatar’ is valid, if only in those slanting eyes of my dear friend.

Here we are most interested in the so-called East Slavs, that is, those peoples who remained in their original territories north of the Black Sea after the Slavs split into three groups in the mid First millennium A.D., some moving south, others more westwards. The East Slavs speak the Eastern variety of the common Slavic. Russian speakers, the Great Russians, have always dominated the East Slavs. Their descendants remain today among those “ethnic Russians” in southeast Ukraine, in Crimea, the country of Moldova and the Transdnestr Republic, whom their brothers in Kiev, seduced by promises of gold from the West, want to expel or exterminate. And their language and culture are Russian.

(to be continued, next: The Russians Part II: Ukraine: An Irony of History )

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The Greanville Post Senior Editor Gaither Stewart’s latest book is RECOLLECTION OF THINGS LEARNED: Remembering Socialism (Punto Press). His trilogy of novels a la Carré about Cold War-style espionage [The Trojan Spy, Lily Pad Roll, Time of Exile (forthcoming)] incorporate a lucid panorama of what Western intel services do, and the criminal wrong-headedness of US Foreign Policy. Stewart is an expert in Eastern European culture.

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