A Russian propagandist’s reading list and what it means

If you want to understand why someone does something, it’s helpful to know not what they’re like, but what they think they’re like. That I fell in an eight foot wide pond isn’t explained primarily by how I am (many people are like me, are near ponds, and don’t fall in); it’s explained by the false belief I had about myself that I was that good at jumping that I could clear eight meters.

So, arguably, with nations. People talk of American exceptionalism or British stoicism, and though it’s silly and wrong to say that you can characterize anything so big as a society with a small set of properties, nevertheless you can explain why countries act as they do by appealing to these national myths. Thus at least a small part of the explanation of Brexit is the false belief that the British people, as they did in the Blitz, can and will tolerate hardship if it means they won’t be pushed around by others. Let’s call these sorts of ideas national ideologies, where by ideology I mean roughly a set of beliefs important to a given person or nation’s self-identity.

And so with Russia. There hasn’t been a satisfying rational explanation, arguably, for why Putin invaded Ukraine. And maybe there isn’t one — maybe it was just the most recent in a string of wildly risky unclear actions that up to now have somehow worked out for him. But maybe we can understand the invasion by understanding how Russia thinks of itself, by sketching the Russian national ideology.

Obviously that’s not an original thought, and I’m sure there are tons of thinkpieces and articles out there that do just that. I want to present a novel angle on the question, by going through an interesting recent source of data. Slightly strangely, arguably, Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT, has started a Telegram where she posts, daily, passages from literature. The literature that a country cherishes is of course a good way to understand at least some aspects of that country, and so, out of curiosity I chased up the references. I think it’s illuminating, and the pieces can be seen to revolve around several themes that recur, and can arguably be said to present something akin to a coherent part of a theory of how Russia views itself.

Of course, one person’s literary tastes are a bad basis for generalizations. But given that we’ll see some of the things she excerpts clearly reflect things we antecedently know are important features of Russian ideology, there’s some evidence to think the others track important things too. And regardless, it’s interesting to see how an influential and well-connected political commentator chooses to express themselves.

Simonyan’s only been doing this for about a month, so I’m just going to go through most of the posts, adding context where needed. I think one can see three elements in the passages she quotes: the question of the nature of Russianness, and how it is different from Europeanness; an idea of Russia as a peaceful, war-disliking people; and the distorted analogy between the second world war and the current one (the distortion coming from the outrageous thought that the Ukrainian armed forces to this war as the Nazis were to the second world war).

Theme 1: The Nature Of Russianness

Russia’s position with regards to Europe, especially western Europe, has always, for at least for the last two hundred years, been a topic of interest for Russian thinkers and artists and those who write about them. It is arguably not accidental that Simonyan’s first post on her new channel was a quotation from one of the fundamental works dealing with this question, namely Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Here’s the quotation:

“How can we fight the French, Prince?” said Count Rostopchín.
“Can we arm ourselves against our teachers and divinities? Look at
our youths, look at our ladies! The French are our Gods: Paris is our
Kingdom of Heaven.”

He began speaking louder, evidently to be heard by everyone.

“French dresses, French ideas, French feelings! There now, you turned
Métivier out by the scruff of his neck because he is a Frenchman and
a scoundrel, but our ladies crawl after him on their knees. I went to
a party last night, and there out of five ladies three were Roman
Catholics and had the Pope’s indulgence for doing woolwork on Sundays.
And they themselves sit there nearly naked, like the signboards at our
Public Baths if I may say so. Ah, when one looks at our young people,
Prince, one would like to take Peter the Great’s old cudgel out of the
museum and belabor them in the Russian way till all the nonsense jumps
out of them.”

There’s perhaps two connected themes: fighting and foreignness. War and Peace tells among much else the story of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, but if it’s a society attacked by the French, it’s also one thoroughly moulded by it. From the very first pages characters dip in and out of French; architecture, clothing, food — all, or often, French.

There’s a sense, then, that in the world Tolstoy gives us there’s an outside entity that is both culturally dominant as well as militarily aggressive. And there’s a thought, in the final sentence, that one needs to try and beat the foreignness out of them. (In other places, the Russianness seems to come out spontaneously, giving the title to a famous English-language book.)

It is perhaps not a reach to suggest that Simonyan sees parallels between Napoleon’s Europe and today: a hegemonic West that is both militarily and culturally stepping on Russia’s toes, the former with NATO, the latter with, perhaps most saliently, LGBT rights.

Other passages make a similar point in an arguably more light-hearted way. They present France-infatuated characters who scorn Russia and appear ridiculous because of it, as in this passage from Denis Fonvizin’s comedy ‘The Brigadier-General’ (I couldn’t find a translation — below is google). The details aren’t exactly important (and anyway I don’t really know them; here is a synopsis, albeit in Russian, if you’re interested), the main thing is that both the son and the Advisor are devoted Francophiles, a fact which causes problems in the romantic intrigue that makes up the story:

Son. Madame, you delight me; you, I see, have the same subtle concept of the heart, as I have of the mind. Mon dieu! How merciful fate! She tries to unite people of the same mind, of the same taste, of the same disposition; we are made for each other.

Advisor. No doubt we were born under the same comet.

Son. My only misfortune is that you are Russian.

Advisor. This, my angel, is certainly a terrible death for me.

Son. This is such a défaut that nothing can make up for it.

Counsellor. What should I do?

Son. Give me freedom. I do not intend to die in Russia. I will find an occasion favorable to take you to Paris. There the remnants of our days, les restes de nos jours, we will have the consolation of spending with the French; There you will see that among others there are people with whom I can have société.

Counselor. Yes, my soul! Only, I think your father will not agree to let you go to France another time.

Son. And I think that I will take him there with me. It’s never too late to enlighten; and I guarantee that, having gone to Paris, at least he will at least resemble a person

Here, I take it, is a message: these people, alienated from Russianness, are ridiculous, figures of fun. And maybe — just maybe — the same thing applies to the (mostly exiled) anti-war liberals, the people complaining about lack of access to Instagram, the singers leaving for Israel or Turkey and then coming back, and so on.

A third passage making essentially the same point:

Olga went up to a rounded mirror with a gilded lace frame.

— What do you think, Vladimir…

She looked into the mirror.

— …maybe it won’t be possible to get French lip paint in Moscow?

She took a golden one from the table Guerlain pencil:

— How then to live?

And so this is the first thing I think we can get from Simonyan’s month of literary-posting: a keen sense of us vs them when it comes to Russia and Europe, with the implication that this is longstanding feature of Russian culture of which the war is merely and its hardships are just one further example.

A slightly different, but similar, message comes in two posts about the arrogance of the Russian intelligentsia, which one can maybe interpret as standing in this context for anyone against the war (I admit, that’s a bit of a reach on the face of it), but especially anti-war liberals and artists:

The ideological form of the Russian intelligentsia is its apostasy, its alienation from the state and hostility towards it.

And:

I know that some groups of the intelligentsia also suffer from a painful desire to spoil the beautiful, for example, those emigrants who obviously think that if they are not in Russia, there is nothing good in it anymore

Finally, perhaps this quotation from Lenin is gesturing in the same direction:

People have always been and always will be stupid victims of deception and self-deception in politics until they learn to look for the interests of certain classes behind any moral, religious, political, social phrases, statements, promises.

If the just quoted passages extend the point about Europeanness as a cultural power and the perfidiousness or stupidity of anti-Russia Russians, others present Western Europeans as aggressors, seeking to invade and pillage Russia. From Shokolov’s And Quiet Flows the Don (a confess to not knowing the book or its exact significance so I could be off-base here):

The British and French instructor officers who arrived in the Don and Kuban to train Cossack officers and officers of the Volunteer Army in the art of driving tanks, firing from English guns, were already looking forward to the celebrations of entering Moscow …

Or again from a speech from the same author:

They talked about love for the motherland during the years of the civil war. In particular, Ataman Krasnov and other political rascals like him spoke, and at the same time invited the German invaders and then the so-called “allies” — the British and French — to the Don land. They talked about love for the motherland and at the same time traded in the blood of the Cossacks, exchanging it for weapons to fight the Soviet regime, the Russian people. History tests people in deeds, not in words. History checks to what extent a person has love for his homeland, what is the price of this love

So two features of not-Russia: cultural supremacy, and aggression, the desire to invade Russian land. But what about what Russia itself actually is? If this is not-Russia, what is Russia? The answer may surprise you….

Theme 2: Russia the Peaceful

If the first post is Tolstoy, the second is an anti-war poem by Robert Rozhdestvensky which I can’t find an English translation of. The thing to note is that it’s anti-war, and not the first time Simonyan has brought it out. Indeed, a couple of days before 24 February, when Putin announced the ‘special military operation’, she read it on Solovyov’s show, in the context of discussing the supposed ‘genocide’ eastern Ukraine, where the latter teared up and said “they say that the generals want to fight least of all, because, unlike politicians, they know what it leads to”

We see the same — a sense that Russians don’t want to war — in the most cited author, Ilya Ehrenberg, and here the theme of the second world war, about which Ehrenberg wrote a lot, is introduced. It’s a familiar point others have made at length that WW 2 is a crucial part of the contemporary Russian ideology. Russia as the heroic scourge of Nazism in all its forms (including notably Ukrainian-nationalist-affiliated form), with a whitewashing of the more complicated actual history, is something often discussed.

But the second passage, from the same author, doesn’t get into Nazis, but is instead about the peaceable nature of the Russians:

I think that many Russians during the years of peace did not even know how attached they were to their country. Our people are peaceful. The idea of war and its trappings were of little interest to him. All the more striking is the patriotism that was born in the fire of this summer. He is devoid of external pathos, he avoids big words, theatrical gestures. He has pride in him.

And the third (Russian only) is another anti-war poem, written as a response to Hitler’s invasion of Czechia, as is the fourth (with English translation).

And some prose by Konstantin Simonov:

When we were driving back through Krasnopole, we saw two women holding children in their arms. The kids waved their hands at the cars. I don’t know why, just at that moment a tear broke through me, and I almost cried. Of course, children were taught to wave their hands at the sight of military vehicles riding in cars, but still there was something about it that made you want to cry Константин Симонов, ‘Сто суток войны’

Here’s my interpretation: by bringing out the tradition of Russian anti-war poetry and thought (and indeed presenting it on prime-time TV), we see an aspect of how Russia would like to see itself, as a peaceful entity just trying to live its life, and as compelled against its will to respond to provocation.

Theme 3: The Nature of the Provocation, WW2 Redux

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the implicit presentation of Ukraine. We’ve seen plenty of material from the second world war. Others arguably flesh out the role the war plays in the Russian ideology. Consider Ehrenburg again:

Germans in Kyiv — this thought is unbearable. We will repay them to the end… Like a Phoenix bird, Kyiv will rise from the ashes. Grief feeds hate. Hate breeds hope.

This partly develops the theme earlier of outsiders taking ‘Russian’ land, but suggests the idea that the contemporary thought that is unbearable is that, well, the Ukrainians are in the Ukraine, a thought unbearable because Ukrainians are just Nazis. We see more evidence for this in quotations about the role pro-Nazi Ukrainians in WW2, where the implicit thought is perhaps that the contemporary aid giver is to the current conflict as the Nazis were to the ultra-nationalist factions of world war two:

Although the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) officially declared war on both the Bolsheviks and the Germans, nevertheless, from August 1943 to September 1944, the Germans handed over to the UPA 700 guns and mortars, about 10,000 machine guns, 26,000 machine guns, 72,000 rifles, 22 000 pistols, 100,000 grenades, over 12,000,000 rounds of ammunition and many other property’ (From: Zalessky, ‘Who was who in World War II. Germany’s allies’)

If we’re on board with the idea that these passages are trying to paint Ukrainians as Nazis, others flesh out the picture of the nature of Nazism:

I would write a very short leaflet for the Nazi soldiers, just three words: “There will be no salo.” This is what they are able to understand and this is what they are really interested in’

Immediately preceding this quotation we read:

In the robbery of the Germans, we were struck by efficiency and accuracy. These are not the tricks of individual marauders, not the excesses of unbridled soldiers, this is the principle on which the Nazi army is built. Every German soldier is financially interested in a robbery campaign.

Again, translating from then to now, one would get the view that Ukraine is not itself defending its land but it (or perhaps a small cabal of leaders in Kyiv, far from the real Ukraine in the east) are just out to keep stripping Ukraine of stuff. (And this is a thought one can find explicitly presented.)

This isn’t all of them. There are some poems that as far as I can tell have no significance; an odd quotation from Oliver Stone’s heterodox history of the US about academic freedom, and a quotation from Saint Augustine. In addition, I’ve left out a few quotations I couldn’t make sense of (one can easily download them all on Telegram then run them through google translate). But I think what we’ve seen is an interesting, if no more than suggestive, case study as to how Russia views itself and its current conflict, where its sore points are (the anti-Russian alienated Russians), how it thinks of itself (as anti-war), and how it thinks of Ukraine (as Nazi pillagers). Some of this isn’t new, but some of it is, or at least emphasises aspects I hadn’t previously attended to.

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