By Obadiah Mailafai
I HAVE always been partial towards Russia. Perhaps it’s on account of its writers who have been the passion of my youth: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Mandelstam. I was once on a flight from Frankfurt to Singapore. It was a long-haul, but the new Airbus A380 was comfortable. We put Poland and the little Baltic states behind us in a jiffy.
As we entered Russian airspace, I made sure to note the online flight trajectory. To my astonishment, travelling from Moscow to Vladivostok, the other end of this vast, sprawling land, took us all of seven hours!
The Russian Federation has a humungous landmass of over 17 million km2. It is a civilisation that sits astride both Europe and Asia; from the clement shores of the Black Sea to the permafrost of Siberia; a land of rich forests and untold natural resources ranging from gas and petroleum to iron ore, coal, diamonds, gold, nickel, aluminium, chromium, tungsten — the lot.
This month of November marks a hundred years since the 1917 Russian Revolution — a seismic upheaval that shook the world to its very foundations.
But why Russia?
When Karl Marx was producing his weighty tomes urging workers of the world to unite and overthrow their capitalist oppressors, he hardly had a backward country like Russia in mind. The most likely candidates, as far as Marx and his English collaborator Engels were concerned, were France, Germany and Britain. But it never happened in those countries.
The communists were successful in Russia because of several factors. For centuries the country had been ruled by a succession of brutal autocrats who governed on the basis of monarchical absolutism. The country did not have the benefit of the kinds of liberal reforms that were implemented in Germany under Bismarck or in Britain under Gladstone. Whilst it is true that rulers like Peter the Great and Empress Catherine tried to reform the country along western lines, these were rather limited.
In the late nineteenth century, the country was in its early stages of industrialisation. Workers who moved into the urban factories were treated little better than chattel slaves. In the vast interior, millions of peasants lived in misery as feudal serfs. Famine and epidemics were frequent. Pogroms were visited upon the hapless Jews who were believed to harbour bad luck.
Oppressive conditions linked to a corrupt feudal aristocracy and an ineffectual state legitimated by the Orthodox state church generated so much disaffection that it was only a matter of time before things unravelled. The defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 was a turning point; the first time ever that a European power would be defeated by an upstart Asian country.
It not only hurt Russian nationalist pride; it showed that the emperor had no clothes. Bloody riots broke out in St. Petersburg. Tsar Nicholas, an indecisive wimp of a monarch, promised political reforms, but he was merely buying time.
World War broke out in July 1914. Tsar Nicholas II moved to the warfront in person, leaving his wife Empress Alexandra Feodorvna in the hands of a demoniac shaman by the name of Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin had wormed his way into the royal family by stabilising the health of the young Crown Prince Alexei. Before long, Rasputin became the power behind the throne. Doom for the Romanovs.
By 1917, as the war progressed and millions of Russian soldiers perished, riots broke out throughout country. The Bolsheviks seized the opportunity. V. I. Lenin, their leader, was smuggled back from Zurich concealed in a goods train.
An intellectual and strategist of genius, without Lenin the revolution would have been aborted. On the night of 16-17 July, Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family were lined up and shot in the provincial town of Yekaterinburg.
It also happens to be the hometown of the first post-communist Russian president Boris Yeltzin. Western powers did not sit back. Britain, France and Germany rose up in arms against the Bolsheviks. Civil war broke out.
It is easy from the vantage point of our twenty-first century to paint the Russian Revolution in the darkest possible colours. It is true that communist rule did untold damage to Russian civilisation and identity.
The Stalinist purges and forced collectivisations led to the death of millions of defenceless Russian peasants. On her famous treatise on totalitarianism, the philosopher Hannah Arendt showed how regimes such as those of the Bolsheviks could not be anything but evil.
A regime where everybody was reduced to talking in whispers was a monstrous enemy of liberty. But it is also true that Stalin’s New Economic Policy forced Russia into the 20th century. The country became a technological-industrial state, with huge achievements in fields as diverse as mathematics, engineering, medicine, nuclear science and astrophysics.
The defunct Soviet Union supported anti-colonial liberation movements throughout the Third World. They also provided aid and technical assistance. I was a young researcher in NIPSS Kuru in the eighties and remember coordinating a conference on our fledgling steel industry. We brought the Russian managers of Ajaokuta Steel and other stakeholders to Kuru. My memory of them was not particularly pleasant.
The Russian Revolution had within it the seeds of its own collapse, if I may echo the philosopher Hegel. I was a teenage undergraduate in the seventies. I read the novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by the Russian émigré Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It changed my life. I had toyed with Marxism as most young people of my time did. Solzhenitsyn cured me of the disease.
I continued my studies in Paris. A group of young intellectuals led by a charismatic and wealthy young philosopher by the name of Bernard Henri-Lévy called themselves “les nouveaux philosophes”. They took a public stand against the prevailing orthodoxy by condemning the evils of the Soviet gulags. I was in good company.
In Oxford, I attended lectures by the Polish émigré philosopher Leszek Kolakowski who wrote a famous treatise exposing the intellectual bankruptcy of Marxism. One of the greatest thinkers of our epoch, Isaiah Berlin, was still alive at All Souls. His wisdom dropped on us like manna from heaven. When the Berlin Wall came down in Christmas 1989 and with it, the Soviet Empire, we all brought out sherry and drank to liberty.
There are some in Europe and the West who want to resurrect the Cold War by poking the Russian Bear. Trying to forcibly integrate Russia’s neighbours Georgia and Ukraine into the EU and NATO is nothing short of provocation.
There is a spiritual rebirth that is ongoing across the villages and towns of Russia. Thousands of churches are being built and/or refurbished. Vladimir Putin has rediscovered the Orthodox spirituality of his forebears. He recently made a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain of Athos in Greece. He wants peace, but not at any price.
Russia’s reawakening derives from the worldview of thinkers such as Vladimir Soloviov, Nikolai Berdyaev and Vladimir Lossky who believe that Holy Russia will redeem Europe and the world. I believe Western leaders need to re-engage more constructively with Moscow instead of orchestrating its collapse so that they can take over its vast natural resources.