Medved: A history of misery shapes Russian suffering today

Jul 18, 2023, 12:30 PM | Updated: 12:44 pm

Russian history...

SEVASTOPOL, CRIMEA - MARCH 18: A Navy sailor holds a Russian flag as people celebrate the first anniversary of the signing of the decree on the annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation, on March 18, 2015 in Sevastopol, Crimea. Crimea, an internationally recognised Ukrainian territory with special status, was annexed by the Russian Federation on March 18, 2014. The annexation, which has been widely condemned, took place in the aftermath of the Ukranian revolution. (Photo by Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images)

The recent chaos in Russia concerning the aborted “Wagner Group Mutiny” brought back memories of my first bittersweet months of college and my ill-conceived determination to pursue a Russian history major.

In my adolescence (I started studying at Yale at age 16), I nourished a youthful obsession with Slavic culture, identifying with the 19th-century Slavophiles who preached the inherent superiority, and incomparable depth and richness, of Russian character and civilization.

I particularly savored the music that heritage produced, listening incessantly to the nationalistic grandeur of “The Mighty Handful” composers (Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and colleagues) as well as their brilliant 20th century successors (Serge Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff). The novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and the lyrical plays of Chekhov, seemed to me the peak of literary expression; appropriately, I happened to be reading Crime and Punishment during the occasion of my only teenaged arrest (for camping without a permit).

Slavic appeal comes from family background

Part of the special appeal of all these flavorful Slavic offerings stemmed, unconsciously, from my family’s Ukrainian-Jewish background. My paternal grandparents hailed from a village too small to appear on standard maps, then immigrated to Philadelphia where my father was born in 1926. “Medved” means “bear” in Russian, and remains a common moniker today (especially with the common variant “Medvedev,” which is the designation of an especially sinister member of Putin’s inner circle).

Of course, growing up at the height of The Cold War, our family never made too much of these suspiciously Soviet connections, especially after Sputnik in 1957 gave the USSR a short-lived lead in the space race; that development seemed to present a direct challenge to my father’s work as a physicist, whose career required high-level security clearances. But the hint of exoticism in my background allowed a subtle twinge of recognition, or even kinship when cultural exchanges came to town — including the Red Army Chorus, Bolshoi Ballet, and touring pianists and chess masters.

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Certainly, Russia’s rich, atmospheric culture might exert a deep, almost hypnotic fascination over vulnerable young romantics, but confronting the truth about Russia’s cruel and pervasively brutal past produces a very different reaction. At Yale, my total of four semesters exploring Russian history covered more than a thousand years of misery from ancient Novgorod and Kiev to the more recent horrors of the Soviet era, offering subject matter so relentlessly, exhaustively depressing that I eventually changed my academic focus to concentrate on the more hopeful trajectory of the United States.

Of course, American history features harsh realities, including our treatment of indigenous peoples and the monstrous crime of slavery. But the overall direction of the society in our relatively brief national existence has been unmistakably positive, if still imperfect. As Dr. Martin Luther King many times observed: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In the case of Russia, the arc has bent hardly at all, producing more than a millennium of mostly unalloyed misery. Anyone who’s studied Ivan the Terrible, or his latter-day admirer Josef Stalin, will recognize the resemblance between the two autocrats, beyond the improved technology that allowed the more recent megalomaniac to slaughter even more of his long-suffering subjects.

Before my coursework in college, like most Americans, I knew nothing of “The Time of Troubles” — a 15-year period (1598-1613) of chaos, civil war, starvation, mass murder, demented pretenders to the throne, famine, and destruction. The relevant encyclopedia entries estimate that between one-third and two-thirds of the Russian population perished through a lethal combination of internal strife, famine, disease, and the general breakdown of all elements of civilized life. The records show that the crown changed hands six times in 15 years, with at least 10 “False Dmitrys” — imposters who claimed to be one of Czar Ivan’s dead sons who had perished as very young men, through unlikely accidents, or the court machinations of their deranged father.

Russian culture involves ‘indescribable pain’

It’s bad enough to focus your time on reading about such indescribable pain, but it’s even worse to imagine living through it — as the Russian people have, from generation to generation. The great national gift (if you can call it that) is the readiness to endure suffering. Americans who ponder the epic corruption and cruelty of the Putin regime wonder how the Russian population can stand for it; the direct answer is that neither the current crop nor their distant ancestors have ever experienced anything that’s notably better.

In the U.S., it’s become trendy to find fault with our previously revered leaders, but even if you emphasize the shortcomings of, say, the four Rushmore presidents, it’s impossible to classify them as bloodthirsty monsters. Russian history, on the other hand, is full of such figures, both before and after the Revolution and Civil War.

In fact, the five years of post-revolutionary conflict (1917-22) between the Reds and the Whites claimed between 7,000,000 and 12,000,000 lives, the great majority of them innocent civilians —including my father’s five older sisters. They each perished before reaching the age of 14 and before my grandmother could escape with them to America, reunite with my grandfather, and give birth to my dad, welcomed, with astonishment, as our family’s very own American Miracle.

If they had remained trapped in the Russian Empire for another decade, the chances of survival would have been slim, with at least 3.2 million starvation deaths during the Ukrainian “Holodomor” (the enforced, Stalinist famine, 1932-33) followed by the unimaginable casualties of World War II (at least 20,000,000 more, mostly civilians, from 1941-45).

Medved: Faith and doubt can coexist

The horrors that the Russian people have endured during their long history count as so vast and so unparalleled, that the populace has developed a national instinct to blame hostile outsiders for every misery. Never mind that internal struggles for power, peasant rebellions, sadistic autocrats, and bloody civil conflict took at least as many lives as all the invaders who exploited those divisions for their own purposes.

Still, endless and often disastrous warfare with Mongols, Tatars, Teutonic Knights, Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians, Turks, Japanese, Prussians, French, Germans, and many more promoted the idea that foreign villains caused the legacy of Russian suffering more than the long, indelible record of domestic faults and failures.

That powerful pull to wallow in victimhood inevitably encourages absurd ideas, like blaming Western powers for Putin’s unspeakably cruel and utterly irrational invasion of Ukraine, and most recently the claim that “American Interference” caused the Wagner Group mutiny and the recent bid for power by Yevgeny Prigozhin. A decade ago, Putin insisted that “American exceptionalism” amounted to a pernicious myth, but that Russia alone counted as truly exceptional. The only way to advance that argument involved playing the role of the perpetually wounded party on the world stage, constantly abused by jealous and far inferior rivals.

The suffering of the Russians has, in fact, become habitual but it should never be accepted as normal or inevitable — no matter how much one may feel drawn to the study or their mournful and melancholy history.

Listen to Michael Medved weekday afternoons from 12 – 3 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3).

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Medved: A history of misery shapes Russian suffering today