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Why is Russia obsessed with slavery? Tibor Szamuely: ‘The Russian Tradition’

Is Tolstoy to blame? (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Is Tolstoy to blame? (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)


August 23, 2022   6 mins

There’s nothing wrong with being cautious. Since 1709, when Peter the Great routed the troops of Swedish King Charles XII at Poltava, smack-dab in the middle of modern-day Ukraine, Europeans have understood Russia as a military threat. Never has this required us to close our minds to the glories of Russian culture or to forget that Russia’s strategic posture always has an explanation — and sometimes even a rationale.

But what was intellectually possible for Westerners in the winter of 1943, when Hitler’s troops and Stalin’s were killing each other by the millions on the Eastern front, is apparently beyond our powers today. In the wake of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, many Europeans will not be content with anything less than wiping Russia and its culture off the map. In April, novelist Oksana Zabuzhko, writing in the TLS that it was the morality of Tolstoy and other Russian writers that “wove the camouflage net for Russia’s tanks”, urged us to “take a long, hard look at our bookshelves”. In early August, the Russian-language novelist Wolodymyr Rafejenko declared he now felt a “revulsion” when he conversed in Russian, and vowed never again to write in it.

These are Ukrainians — one can understand their anguish and rage. But Western Europeans, who are not even at war, have been even more zealous. A Milan university cancelled its Dostoevsky class last spring. The EU and UK have blacked out the Russian internet channel RT. Russians have been declared unwelcome at venues from Wimbledon to Estonia.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, when Russia was capable of far worse, the Russian-born historian Tibor Szamuely wrote an extraordinary book. The Russian Tradition explained how Russian political behaviour (about which Szamuely was wary to the point of hostility) arose from Russian history and culture (about which Szamuely was respectful to the point of reverence). This is the right balance. It has not been struck so well since. Too bad the book is out of print, because it is strangely relevant to a lot of this decade’s preoccupations: slavery, political correctness and Ukraine, for starters.

Like many refugees from Communism, Szamuely was descended from both perpetrators and victims. An uncle of the same name served in the Hungarian Soviet Republic that took power for six months under Béla Kun in 1919, and died violently that year when the revolution failed. He was among that government’s most bloodthirsty ministers, which is really saying something. Szamuely’s family wound up in Moscow, where his father was executed in Stalin’s purges. In 1964, Szamuely, then nearing 40, was teaching in the “ideological institute” of Ghana’s Marxist president Kwame Nkrumah when he defected to England. He taught at Reading and befriended Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and Anthony Powell, among other literary anti-Communists. His book, unfinished when he died of cancer in 1972, was edited into its final form by Conquest and published two years later.

The simple question that animates it is how Russia came to be the centre of Marxist revolution and late 20th-century totalitarianism. Did aggressive Communism subvert blameless Russia? Or was aggressive Russia using blameless Communism as a pretext?

The beginnings of an answer lie in geography. Lacking frontiers, Szamuely writes, Russia has faced “a history of armed struggle against invaders that, for length, intensity and ferocity has no parallel in the annals of any other nation”. That is a large claim. Russia is always vulnerable someplace — at least for as long as it takes to gather and concentrate its killing power. And it is always fighting for its life, which tends — at least in domestic Russian debates — to empty of meaning our concepts of just and unjust war. “Despotic government,” Szamuely writes, “was the instrument she shaped to cope with the everlasting emergency.”

For Szamuely, the central problem in Russian history is slavery. Yes, slavery. Using the word “serf” to describe its put-upon agricultural workers leads us to think of the society as merely backward, quaint, feudal. But this is wrong. Russian slavery was a creation of modernity. Once-free agricultural labourers somehow got buried under debt about 500 years ago, and in the mid-16th century the government bound them to the land, the better to tax them. The owner of the serfs was the state, not the notables on whose land they toiled. There was an equality in this, for the notables were beholden to the state, too. The upper crust owed the tsar military service. Until recent centuries, Russia was one of the rare countries where nobles could be publicly flogged.

But this changed, as Peter the Great tried to modernise the system — Russia got rum, minuets, a navy and of course St. Petersburg. For aristocrats it meant Western connections and new opportunities, for serfs an overload of labour and hard discipline. That was an end to society’s old “mystic unity” and the mumbo-jumbo that had surrounded it. Serfs could now be sold or lost at cards. Russia now had not one people, Szamuely writes, but two: “the Westernised upper classes, and the masses, whose way of life became ever less distinguishable from that of the population of the great Asian empires.” As middle classes in America and France were forging republics, aristocrats were living a Golden Age under Catherine the Great (1762-95). “The most striking feature of 18th-century Russian social history,” Szamuely writes, “was the great expansion and intensification of peasant bondage at the precise moment when, with the emancipation of the nobility, it finally lost any vestige of moral, political or legal justification.”

Szamuely’s preoccupation with slavery anticipates a lot of the “woke” discussion of our own time. If slavery warped the development of the United States (which was one-eighth slave at the start of its civil war in 1861), Szamuely asks, then why has there been so much less soul searching about Russia (which was seven-eighths slave at the time of emancipation that same year)? He may misunderstand the parallel: The difference lies not in the size of the enslavement but in the identity of the rememberer. Progressive white America is wracked by guilt over what it did to “them”. Russia feels no such guilt because the misdeeds were done to “us”. The moral tenor of its soul-searching is more like that of Sicily, or Ireland, or black America.

But it is not as if Russia had no reckoning with serfdom. As access to higher education and newsprint spread, “gradually the idea began to sink in that every Russian of education and leisure was an accomplice in a crime unparalleled in its enormity”. This was the cause around which a revolutionary and often violent intelligentsia arose in the late 19th century, a class unique in Europe until the rise of political correctness. “The Russian intelligentsia was an instrument of destruction,” Szamuely writes. “Unlike the European bourgeoisie it had no constructive purposes, neither was it equipped to fulfil any such tasks.”

There was something Messianic in the intelligentsia’s role. Szamuely recognises that it used others’ suffering as a rationale for autocracy. But he never entertains the idea that the intelligentsia was an outright racket. He even praises the “intellectual honesty” of the critic Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who saw that equality would be won only at a very steep price in liberty: “What a contrast he provides to certain Western ‘progressive’ intellectuals, who worship at the altar of egalitarianism yet refuse to recognise that their dream… can only be realised by an arbitrary dictatorial government. Chernyshevsky and his followers, down to the present day, have never harboured any illusions about this.”

He is nonetheless struck that the great 19th-century Russian novelists (“men of sensibility, compassion and humanity”) were almost unanimously contemptuous of the intelligentsia (“with their joyless utilitarianism, their dogmatic intolerance, their fanatical devotion to a messianic vision”).

The modern enslavement of Russia’s peasantry was not, strictly speaking, a capitalist project. But it felt like one. More than the exploitation undergone in advanced industrial countries, it resonated with the exploitation Marx described. In the end, the Russian revolution was a matter of adjusting Marx’s teaching to powerful Russian folk-institutions, above all the autonomous peasant cooperative known as the obshchina. Marx himself wound up backing peasant “populists” against his own more orthodox followers. It actually turned out to be a piece of good fortune for the revolutionaries that the Marxist spark caught in what Szamuely considers the most conservative country on earth.

That is where Szamuely’s book ends. It is a shame he was never able to write at book-length about the 20th century, of which he was a passionate chronicler. He considered Lenin “the supreme political genius of the century”, and was impressed with the way he and his followers allied Russia’s interests abroad to Asian and African nationalism, not Communism. It was, in a way, the same judgment Marx had made in backing the populists.

Szamuely was fascinated with Ukraine. “Perhaps no other historical experience,” he writes in The Russian Tradition, “has left as lasting an impression on the folk-memory of the Russian people as the horrors of [the] interminable struggle against the slavers and killers of the south. For centuries the steppe remained a source of constant menace, a land of terror, death, destruction and degradation. It was called the Wild Plain, or, as we would say today, the Frontier; the greater part of this region is now called the Ukraine…”

He was highly sympathetic to Ukraine’s modern struggles. In 1968 he wrote a fascinating and well-informed account of the nationalist protests and ensuing prosecutions that had then been going on in Ukraine for much of the decade. While granting that the Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis as liberators in June 1941, he wasn’t surprised by this nationalist sentiment, given the decade of famine and purges they had endured. He noted, too, the “methodological dilution” of Ukraine’s ethnic composition by Russia, insisting that Russian dominance of the country’s high culture was a recent and unnatural phenomenon. Only 41% of books published in Ukraine were in Ukrainian, it is true, but in 1930, before Russification and famine, that figure had been 84%.

Szamuely never let justified fear of Russia drive out justified fascination. Vastly well read in the country’s history, he still found it ambiguous, describing the policies of Ivan the Terrible at one point as “a strange mixture of farsightedness and paranoia — a combination frequently reproduced by his successors through the centuries”. Few historians have been better equipped than Szamuely to understand the paradoxes of Russia, where the novelists are sublime and the politics are unendurable, and often for the same reasons.


Christopher Caldwell is a contributing editor at the Claremont Review of Books and the author, most recently, of The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties.

 


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John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
1 year ago

Very interesting – I must echo the point that it is a pity Szamuely wasn’t around to comment upon how things turned out in the latter half of the 20th century. There is one other point in the article I want to pick up upon:

“For Szamuely, the central problem in Russian history is slavery. Yes, slavery. Using the word “serf” to describe its put-upon agricultural workers leads us to think of the society as merely backward, quaint, feudal. But this is wrong.”

I’m reminded of something Thomas Sowell wrote in one of his books about how the modern understanding of slavery, predictably these days incapable of viewing it through anything except the lens of modern moral assumptions, also fails to understand what freedom really constituted prior to the modern age. In fact, whether a person was officially owned as a slave or not, for most people freedom in the modern sense didn’t exist at all.

Most people existed somewhere upon a sliding scale of dependency upon patronage, with large costs and commitments at every level in exchange for very meagre returns. In a great many cases, serfdom, servitude and indenture were actually the best bet against starvation, and freedom would have represented a dangerous gamble.

This is not to say that anyone alive during such times should have been grateful to have no freedom, just that for most people it would have seemed a pointless and dangerous indulgence to expect or wish for. And much though England possesses a history proud of the fact that slavery was not institutionally apparent during times when it was so most of the rest of the world, that does not mean that most people did not exist in a state here that might as well have been slavery, for all the difference the label would have meant.

The modern concept of slavery is childish, seeming to assume that but a brutal and greedy ruling class, most people would have been doing what modern free people do. The truth, though, is that there was no economy, to speak of, for the vast majority of people, and that meant that there was nothing there for their potential freedom to do anything with anyway.

The point here is that no society before the modern age had either the wealth or the economic institutions to make freedom a viable choice for the vast majority of people. Could more people have been free had the ruling classes been more enlightened? Certainly, just not anywhere close to enough to change the harsh fact that slavery – or slavery in all but name – was unavoidable for the majority.

NB – none of this is intended to imply that the Atlantic slave trade was maybe a little less awful than the modern consensus supposes. It was every bit as awful as this. The simplistic analysis that it stands as an outlier in human atrocity though, well that’s another matter. The scourge of slavery was everywhere in human societies for most of human history, it’s just that we talk about some examples a lot more than the rest.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
Andrew F
AF
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Great post.
That is why all this woke nonsense about BLM and Black slavery is so idiotic and ahistorical.
If i recall peasants were freed in Russia in about 1860s, so much later than slavery was abolished in UK.
Apart from few people like Douglas Murray no public figure is willing to ask obvious questions.
Like who delivered slaves to ships taking them from Africa to Caribbean and USA?
Since European did not colonise Africa interior till well past 1850s, who was it?
Obviously African tribes capturing and selling their neighbours.
None of it is ever discussed in uk media as we genuflect in front of BLM mob and their woke supporters in bbc, Guniard and academia.

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Quite. In fact it was well known that white Europeans who ventured further ashore in tropical Africa than the shoreline were likely to die of malaria quite quickly – unlike native Africans, they had no resistance to the disease at all.

The only ones who tried it were actually Christian missionaries, and they had an average life expectancy under a year once they’d gone there. The sailors on slave ships never took the risk, and the popularised idea that raiding parties of European slavers attacked peaceful African tribes and kidnapped them is actually nonsense.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
Victor Whisky
VW
Victor Whisky
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew F

It is like the US blaming their massive drug and violence problem on the Mexican drug lords. If there was no buyer, the Mexican drug lord would not exist. If the US and England were not so eager to buy humans and enslave them, there would not have been a slave trade. Funny how it is always the other guy’s fault with you people. Please take some responsibility for the crimes against humanity you have committed over the centuries and are still doing so now in the middle east, raining misery and death upon peoples and nation who have done absolutely nothing to the western, supposedly civilized and so called christian, society.

Paul O
PO
Paul O
1 year ago

Excellent article and much needed for most of us in ‘The West’, where so many people seem to have become Russophobes over night, and passionate lovers of all things Ukrainian, whilst knowing next to nothing about the history of the region.

I can understand people supporting the underdog, but don’t recall seeing the same support for Iraqjs, Afghans or Libyans, when they were invaded.

Maybe in those cases the invaders had the moral high ground (some would say not) but was Bush/Blair/Obama’s desire to ‘liberate’ those countries and install ‘democracy’ really that much different to Putin’s desire to liberate the Donbas region, who have been in conflict with the Ukrainian govt installed by ‘the West’ in 2014.

I don’t know the answer, but I can’t help but think our collective ignorance about all of these areas is causing decades of conflicts and solving nothing.

Which is why I am so grateful for this educational and informative article.

Maybe a little more knowledge would make people in the west more ready to want (or even demand) diplomacy rather than be willing to fund constant decades long wars in these far of regions.

And maybe in the future we could try to value Iraqi, Libyan and Afghani lives just as much as we value Ukrainians.

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

You seem to think you’re well informed and then make claims about not recalling protests against previous wars – you really don’t remember the vast marches against the Iraq war?
Here’s a reminder:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/15_February_2003_anti-war_protests

Paul O
PO
Paul O
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Yes I remember the antiwar protest marches against the invasion of Iraq, but if you were around back then I am sure you remember things were very different to how they are today. The zeitgeist and nonstop MSM propaganda is totally different. And alas, I haven’t heard much about antiwar protests in 2022.

Andrew F
AF
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul O

You are nothing more than a Russian stooge.
People who really know history of that part of Europe are aware of Ukraine independence referendum in 1991 when over 80% of people in Donbass voted for independence from Soviet Union.
So your claims of Putin desire to “liberate” Donbass are blatant lies and Russian propaganda.
Your claims about Ukraine government installed the by the West is another lie.
It was Yanukovich refusal to accept decision of Ukrainian parliament to sign agreement with EU which led to Maidan.
Traitor Ukrainian president then fled to Moscow.
Can you tell us why is it in Ukraine interest to be part of Russia?
What is Russia offer to Ukraine apart from poverty and genocide?
Whatever anyone’s views are about EU, you have to be brain dead to choose rubel over EU.

Jeremy Bray
JB
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago

The origin of the word slave comes from the Slavic slaves captured and enslave in Muslim lands. An interesting article highlighting the different social history of Russia to the UK and continental Europe.

Tom Watson
TW
Tom Watson
1 year ago

A very interesting read, plenty to ponder.

Kate Dodson
KD
Kate Dodson
1 year ago

Russia’s probably obsessed with slavery because they’d like to start up the practice again…particularly with Ukrainians who’ve been dispossessed and forcibly relocated to their territories.

0 0
0
0 0
1 year ago

Excellent piece. The banning of Dostoevsky in Milan parallels some of the so-called “woke” behavior here here in the US–and is redolent of the kind of behavior displayed here in WWI towards anything German (killing dachshunds, banning Beethoven etc,). “The more things change” etc. etc.
By the way, “The Russian Tradition” IS available via Amazon in both hardcover and paperback, albeit at steep prices.

Charles Ziegler
CZ
Charles Ziegler
1 year ago
Warren Trees
WT
Warren Trees
1 year ago

Fascinating article. Brings into light the absurdity of boycotting Russian vodka, art and athletes. If we applied the same logic in the U.S. we’d cancel Senator Bernie Sanders, who traveled to Russia and advocated for their way of life:
https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/bernie-sanders-praised-communist-cuba-and-the-soviet-union-in-the-1980s

Andrew F
AF
Andrew F
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

I am not fan of Sanders and he is “useful Western idiot” as defined by Lenin.
However, praising someone and invading sovereign country are different things.

So yes, Russian should be banned from travelling to the West and working and performing there.

Waging War should have consequences for all citizens of Russia.

Unless they condemn the war publicly.
Then they are dissidents and we should welcome them as we did during Soviet Union era.

Claire D
CD
Claire D
1 year ago

Very interesting article, thank you.

andy young
AY
andy young
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

Seconded.

Andrew Stoll
AS
Andrew Stoll
1 year ago

The photo on top speaks a thousand words
Is she ‘Mother Russia’ at home or is she Russia’s (Putin’s) ideal of a subserviant, subordinate neighbour?
I feel so sorry for what she and those beautiful houses represent!

Greta Hirschman
GH
Greta Hirschman
1 year ago

Catherine the Great defeated and took over the Khanate of Crimea, which was a slave trade hub. Once the slave trade ended, did serfdom in Russia became more unbearable?
Voltaire made a mockery of Russian’s domestic violence on his Persian Letters. The master-slave culture is reproduced at home.

Snapper AG
AG
Snapper AG
1 year ago

If you take everything the author said at face value, then Russia is not a modern nation that is capable of normal international relations. It’s like a mad dog that need to be contained by a strong fence of NATO armies.

Peter B
PB
Peter B
1 year ago

Garbage. Got to this statement “many Europeans will not be content with anything less than wiping Russia and its culture off the map.” No point reading further when such nonsense is being pushed.

Dermot O'Sullivan
DO
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

I agree with your take on what you quote but it is worthwhile reading the whole article.
Maybe it’s the people i mix with but i don’t get the impression of a European racist reaction to Russia; however there is definitely a revulsion at the Putin regime’s barbarity.

David Adams
DA
David Adams
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

It is worth reading further. The rest of the article is very interesting, and not the kind of apology for Putin this sentence suggests.

Peter B
PB
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  David Adams

OK, I’ll give it another try later.
But it’s pretty careless – even unprofessional – to put something like that in. I think this author is usually much better than this and was a bit shocked. The use of words like “many” without some quantification is also careless. Does “many” mean 50% ? 20% ? 2% 0.2% ? Those are all “many” in absolute numbers – but tell us nothing about the true proportion of Europeans who want Russia “wiped out”. I suspect that “many” is << 1%.

Peter B
PB
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  David Adams

Thanks. I’ve read it properly and it is indeed interesting. So I recant (and possible need to report in for re-education).
It certainly is interesting that Russian serfdom is largely forgotten these days when it was a reality only 160 years ago. Anyone who’s read Russian novels knows how the wealth of nobles was often measured in the number of “souls” they owned. I haven’t stopped reading Russian books (if only in translation). In fact, I restarted a few years ago and started reading Gogol. In all these novels you see clearly the detachment of the landowners from the peasants/serfs and the lack of innovation that resulted from this system. I think you could argue that serfdom – apart from being awful at a human level – was a woefully inefficient system economically.
But again, I find it offensive that someone is pushing the idea that “we” want to destroy Russia. I don’t believe we do. Provided they are good neighbours and don’t export violence and corruption (which is not currently true), they can run their own show how they like in my book.

Nick Wade
NW
Nick Wade
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

You should always finish an article, otherwise you may never understand the point of it.

Warren Trees
WT
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Nick Wade

Well said. And the point of it to me was that we really don’t know much about the history of the world we live in.

John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

You should read further, it’s a very useful article even allowing for that assertion, which I agree with you is complete rubbish.

jane baker
JB
jane baker
1 year ago

We are being fed a lot of old toffee about this Ukraine war. If you watch the pavlo from Ukraine you tube channel you will see that the conflict is being vastly overhyped by Westem media who now totally work to the government agenda. In this country we are so used to seeing teeny-tiny maps on our tv screen we have no comprehension how huge and vast the Ukraine really is. With all that fertile rich land I can see how the USA corporations want to annex it. I expect that a few sharp corporate lawyers enabled by a corrupt Ukraine government could quickly get land ownership transferred in a trice,all signed and sealed. I agree that Mr Putin is a deeply unpleasant man but he isn’t the real bad guy here.

Jeff Andrews
JA
Jeff Andrews
1 year ago

You could ask ‘why is Britain and America obsessed with Russia?’.
Britain has been exposed, again, as the mist bigoted xenophobic country in existence. So again, why is Britain obsessed with Russia?

Micael Gustavsson
MG
Micael Gustavsson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff Andrews

When, and in what way, were Britain exposed as the most bigoted xenophobic country in existence?

Last edited 1 year ago by Micael Gustavsson
Peter B
PB
Peter B
1 year ago

Only if the entire country was populated by people like Jeff Andrews !