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The Russian Tradition, by Tibor Szamuely, reviewed by Deena Stryker

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Deena Stryker       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   11 comments, In Series: Books Old and New

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One might not think that a book published in 1974 would be relevant to today's foremost international crisis. But anyone wanting to understand Vladimir Putin's reaction to the situation in Ukraine would do well to read the work of a Hungarian historian who spent his formative years in Soviet Russia.

Born in 1925 in Moscow of Hungarian Communist parents, Szamuely served in the Soviet Army during the occupation of Hungary after World War II, then studied history at the University of Moscow. In 1950 he was arrested on espionage charges, something that could easily happen in those days to people who had ties to other countries, and spent eighteen months at a labor camp before being released at the request of Hungary's Communist Party chief, Ma'tya's Ra'kosi. In 1957, he became the vice-rector of the University of Budapest, however after failing to participate in an attack on the philosopher Georg Luka'cs in 1963, he was sent to teach in Ghana. From there, he defect-ed with his family to Britain where he taught at the University of Reading and became a close friend of the anti-Soviet historian Robert Conquest and the novelist Kingsley Amis, a former Communist who backed the war in Vietnam. (Robert Conquest's preface suggests that his untimely death at forty-seven may account for the regrettably abrupt ending of his book at the dawn of the 1917 revolution.) Szamuely wrote only one book, but probably no work better elucidates Churchill's oft-cited comment that 'Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma'.

According to Szamuely, authoritarianism was not imposed on a free-wheeling country by Communism. It began in the 13th century, when highly organized Mongol hordes descended upon Asia and Central Europe remaining in Russia for two hundred and fifty years. The system they imported, in which all land belonged to the Khan, was continued by the Tzars, and ultimately led nineteenth century Russian revolutionaries to argue that traditional peasant communes could, under appropriate guidance, lead to socialism.

More specifically relevant to the current crisis in Ukraine are the geographic and historic elements that dictated the gradual formation of a mega-nation stretching from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and Szamuely traces these as well. Once the Mongols retreated, the vast Asian steppe came under repeated attack by Turkic Muslims to the south, while Roman Catholics pressed the Eastern Orthodox polity from the West. Long referred to casually as 'fear of encirclement', the key to understanding twenty-first century Russia is its perennial need to defend against neighbors on every side. As the Ukraine crisis plays out, Szamuely's work should put paid to the idea that Vladimir Putin seeks to 'recreate the Soviet Union' for imperial purposes. Belying the idea that size equals invulnerability, the country was destined from the start to be multi-national, as borderlands were pacified, and ever subject to attack from beyond these areas. Putin's policy toward the Muslim countries to his south stems from this history: while responding to aggressions such as the one against Ossetia by Georgia, the Russian president actively supports moderate Islam, just as he supports Orthodoxy as part of his overall emphasis on tradition.[tag]

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Of vital importance in understanding Ukraine's stark divisions, is the fact that the first Russian 'state', Kievan Rus, was a changing entity that to varying degrees englobed what are now Eastern Russia, Ukraine, Bela Rus and part of the Baltic area). Its independent land-owning princes were defeated by the Mongols, and after 250 years under the Khan's rule, they were so used to state ownership of the land that they failed to oppose its continuation by the Tzars. And because the country had to constantly defend its immense frontier, this formerly independent nobility were turned into uniformed caretakers who, in addition to paying taxes, had inescapable military obligations. In a uniquely Russian quirk, the peasants, though not free, also paid taxes, and were expected to abandon the fields they tilled whenever the frontiers were attacked. All Russians, regardless of rank, existed to serve the State. Szamuely describes the system thus:

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The village community or obschina occupies a very special place in Russian social history, not only for the great part it played in the everyday lives of the people, but because in the world view of the Russian intelligentsia, in the voluminous writings of their social and political thinkers, and in the theoretical projections of the Russian revolutionary movements, it acquired a mystique and significance entirely separate from its actual functioning. The community came to be exalted as the repository of the ancient democratic virtues and of the innate socialistic tendencies of the Russian people, as a unique form of collective that, having miraculously survived through the centuries, set them apart from other less spiritual and more grossly materialistic nations. The reality, as established in the late nineteenth century by a number of brilliant Russian historians.... was somewhat less exciting.

The obschina, it transpired, did not go back to the hoary mists of antiquity, but was a comparatively recent institution, dating approximately from the 16th and 17th centuries. It was a compulsory fiscal group, created, if not on the direct initiative of the State, then at least with its active encouragement, to ensure the orderly payment of tyaglo by its members. It was based on the principle of the joint performance by its members of their tax paying duty, on the collective responsibility, and indeed under the collective guarantee of the community as a whole. To cope with its task, the obschina gradually gained wide-ranging powers: it distributed the tax obligation among its members, enforced payment, prevented members from escaping (which would have meant a corresponding increase in the tax burden of the remaining peasants); later it became responsible for supplying recruits, administering punishments, exiling lazy or criminal members to Siberia, etc.

Its most important function became the manage-ment of the village's economy, the provision of the wherewithall to pay tax by assigning each member a plot of land (itself called a tyaglo), roughly commensurate with the size of his family.

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The Russian village community was a remarkable institution. It gave the wretched serf a certain feeling of security; it enabled him to cast off his individual identity (something he could hardly have had much use for), and blend into a tight circle of his fellows, indistinguishable one from the other, huddled together for warmth and protection, sharing a common fate. He called it the mir, the world, the universe, and that is exactly what it was for him. It was democratic in a primitive way - decisions were taken at general assemblies of all members - and Wittgard has called it a beggars' democracy, for it was the democracy of men who could not even call their bodies their own, and for whom it meant all the difference between brutish and degraded slavery, and a semblance of human dignity.

...

The village community could ...play a part independent of the landowner, even though it was composed entirely of his bond slaves, because its principle function was service to the State, the common master of lord and serf alike."

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