In my last two blogs, I have told the story of a man whom I find to be both resourceful and idealistic; ambitious yet kind and generous; good-natured yet driven by the dark angels of trauma that apparently only a Russian can really know. I have chosen to devote myself to this complicated account because I believe it contains an essential -- albeit rather depressing -- the truth about the nature of the Russian experience dating back to its earliest days.
One historical fact that Pavel has emphasized is this: Russia has never been an 'outward-pushing' or 'conquering' nation. Think about the Romans: they expanded their empire across the known world. Look at the Europeans: they sought increased wealth and opportunity in a 'New World.'. The Vikings: the same thing, violently spreading their culture across modern day Britain and on into North America. Indeed, it can be said that Russia 'conquered' Siberia, but really, what was there to conquer? 300 loose tribes.
Russia sold Alaska for a song, and aside from creating a 'bloc' of nations during the Soviet period (which it failed abysmally to hang on to), has never been a militaristic juggernaut. The mess in Ukraine has been a tragedy for a great many good people, but I would stop short of calling it an 'invasion' -- as the people on CNN tried to promote. The Russians were padding themselves from the EU (and the aggression of NATO, undeniable since the 1990s) and Ukraine was useful. The Crimea voted itself back into the Russian Federation, and I think it was straight and fair. Moreover, at one point, Ukraine and Russia were virtually joined at the hip. So forget it, we are NOT speaking of any such thing as a 'conquest.' Or invasion.
Yet Russia has been invaded many times. The fact is, Russia's record in wars is horrendous. The Russians have lost almost every war they have ever been in. Sure, it has swallowed up and driven out the great enemies -- Napoleon and Hitler -- but only as a last ditch effort to survive -- and usually at tragic expense to ITSELF due to the seemingly uncorrectable tendency -- which I as a foreigner see with luminous clarity -- NEVER to be prepared for an emergency. In war, in business, in life, Russians rank as the worst of procrastinators, and many times have paid dearly for it. And of course, the country is so big, so unmanageably vast, that corruption, waste, ineptitude, and ultimately inertia are inevitable. In the West, we like, admire, and envy SIZE. Big car, big job, big house, big... whatever. But sometimes 'bigness' simply gets in the way. The Moscow-centered Russian government has neither the know-how nor the will to provide adequate infrastructure across eight time zones.
In addition, and, again, self-defeatingly, Russian history is an almost endless chronicle of slavery and passivity under the iron fist of a despot or tyrant. If the 'boss' is a (basically) great man -- at least a forward-thinking man, like Peter the Great, good things can happen. If the boss is a paranoid psychopath, bad things will come to pass. Foremost, and the telling blow against all possibility for improvement, is the ability of the 'Prince' to break whatever semblance of will the masses cling to -- and to do so with a mixture of...well, the Italian phrase is best: per amore o per forza (by love or by force). In other words, to Crush by giving Crumbs. Amazing what an extra day off work and lots of Victory Gin will do. Again, as the Italians say, "There are more miracles in a barrel of wine than in a church full of saints."
The despot thrives by stomping on people and stamping out their best inclinations while sedating them with old mythologies and pacifying them with diversionary tactics -- all the while filling their glasses on public holidays.
By rewarding mediocrity.
In his signature novel "In the First Circle", Alexandr Solzhenitsyn writes the following about the Leader:
"But he knew his Boss. One must never work full force for Stalin, never go all out. He did not tolerate the flat failure to carry out his orders, but he hated thoroughly successful performance because he saw in it a diminution of his own uniqueness. No one but himself must be able to do anything flawlessly.
So even when he seemed to be straining in harness, Abakumov was pulling at half-strength—and so was everyone else.
Just as King Midas turned everything to gold, Stalin turned everything to mediocrity.”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle
Ok. Now let's think about Pavel's main points. Here is a man whose family tree is as full as a white birch in springtime with people who loved Russia and wanted to contribute to making it better. Starting with the great grandfather who, even in prison, wanted to ferment wine for the people in exchange for an enough crumbs of bread to survive. Continuing with the grandfather, whose talent and patriotism allowed him to rise to the position of General, only to be murdered, along with 80 per cent of Russia's experienced military leaders before the war, which in turn led to the mass murder of millions because the Red Army was left in the hands of incompetent, inexperienced, or stupid people.
And continuing today with Pavel himself, who left a cushy job in America to return to the Motherland because he BELIEVED in Russia, and BELIEVED that, if certainly not a Golden Age, at least a new and open Russia was beckoning precisely for people just like him, only to find himself now -- yes indeed, after many years of success AS LONG AS HE KEPT HIS NOSE CLEAN -- unemployed and possibly facing some trumped up criminal case simply because he chose to express himself in a way that he believed would be his prerogative as a returning native to his beloved homeland.
Again, we consult Solzhenitsyn:
". ..you are strong only as long as you don't deprive people of everything. For a person you've taken everything from us no longer in your power. He's free all over again.”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle
Luckily, the present government has clearly passed its copies of this novel around the room, because it knows, KNOWS, that it cannot take EVERYTHING. And, tragically, the vast majority of Russians, sprawling across this enormous, incredible landscape, are willing to accept pain and deprivation as long as it does not become unbearable. Just enough anesthetic to pull the tooth, doctor. I know it will hurt, but just give me something, doctor, just give me enough so that I don't go crazy.
This is Russian mentality and the government knows it, as it has always known it. Just give me SOMETHING, even if we both know it is not enough.
And such is why a man like Pavel Popov, who reveres his country (if not the practices of its current government), as the patriarchs of his family tree likewise loved the country, has been fired and will be hounded, perhaps prosecuted and imprisoned, driven into exile -- God forbid to the UNITED STATES, source of all Russia's troubles !! -- simply to live and work and pursue happiness.
He wanted to do it here.
But our government does not reward excellence.
I leave you with this:
How great would Russia have been, how great could it be today --- if the rulers whose job was to inspire and protect its citizens, had not instead set out to castrate them politically, deprive them materially, and excommunicate them spiritually?
Ultimately, however, we cannot lay all the blame at the feet of the rulers. The current president rescued this country from wild anarchy. It is to his credit. A great pity it is that old habits cannot be broken so easily, and the old paranoia has crept back in just as the windows appeared to be opening. On Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Pavel Popov is near the top -- the result of education and vision. Unfortunately, his fate is sealed by those near the bottom: those who place mere survival above all other considerations.
===Eric Richard Leroy===
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