Yuri Kolker



After the collapse of Bolshevism in 1991, Russia happily came back to Europe. Its idiotic isolationism was over. Emigration was no longer treason. The Gulag Archipelago, with its millions of victims and dozen million slaves, disappeared. Russia once again became a normal European nation: still an empire, of course, but in essence the same as France or Britain.

Or is it? The nouveaux riches of oil and gas (known there clumsily as oligarchs) with their out-of-the-blue billions; routine assassinations of journalists and political opponents; an authoritarian regime (their notorious ‘controlled democracy’) may make you revise your ideas. To elucidate the peculiarities of this nation, covering one eighth of the earth’s surface, we must dig deeper. First, we have to realise that culturally Russia is the youngest nation in Europe. It’s 310 years old in 2007. That’s all. Oh, you have heard about its more ancient origin? True, it descends from Kievan Rus of the 9th-12th centuries. Just as England descends from bretwalda Aethelberht’s Kent of 6th century.

Three hundred and ten years ago, in 1697, the Tsar Peter not-yet-the-Great, undertook something unheard-of in Moscow: a royal educational grand tour to Western Europe. No Grand Princes or Tsars had ever travelled abroad before. And, imagine, this 25 year old monarch travelled incognito, under the name of Sgt. Pyotr Mikhaylov, pretending to be a junior member of the Embassy.

In March 1697, some 1000 drays and about the same number of men left Moscow towards what is today the Baltic state of Latvia but, at that time, towards the Swedish border, since the Baltic was virtually an internal Swedish sea. They took with them 10-25% of the budget of a country with an as yet unclear name. North-East Tartarya? Muscovy? Nobody knew for sure. No Russia existed in Western European consciousness yet. As a name it was new for Muscovites, too. In Cyrillic, the word Russia was not written until 1517.

Officially it was just an ordinary embassy intended to strengthen the Holy League, an existing entente cordiale of Christian nations (Austria, Poland, Venice and Muscovy) against “the enemies of Christ’s Cross”, the Turks. Of course, the mission was called a ‘grand embassy’, but at that time all diplomatic missions at this level were called grand embassies in Muscovy. Historically, however, this one proved worthy of the name, and it is now known as the Grand Embassy (1697-1698). In fact, this expedition marked a turning point in European history comparable to the French Revolution and second in significance only to the collapse of the Roman Empire. The Embassy resulted in the transformation of the large but incoherent, weak and militarily impotent principality of Muscovy into the Russian Empire. Indeed, looked at in another way, Bolshevism itself may be considered a remote consequence of that regal expedition.

What did the young monarch have in mind as he set out? Initially, just a grand tour for himself. He was thirsty for knowledge and experience of all kinds, from the Navy (his life-long passion) and guns to Western prostitutes. In his childhood and youth, while in disgrace with the ruling Boyar junta, he had acquired an education quite unusual for a Muscovite prince. He had made friends in Kukui, the colony of foreign traders in Moscow. As a result, Peter even spoke some basic German (Low Saxon) and Dutch, thanks to an affair with a Kukui girl. Few of his predecessors on the throne spoke any language except Russian. Compare this to his contemporary William III of Britain who knew nine languages.

But Peter was to become Peter the Great. He had already stopped playing and begun ruling (almost absolutely). He launched his pilgrimage to Europe as the conqueror of the city of Azov, the port on the Azov Sea at the mouth of the river Don, which had previously belonged to the Crimean Tatars, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. It was under the walls of Azov in 1696 that Peter realised there would be no future for Muscovy without an implant of European knowledge. The siege that had lasted a year and a half came to a triumphant end in a week – after experts invited from Vienna arrived to help and undermine the city’s ramparts.

Forget the official diplomatic mission of the Grand Embassy. It was only a mask. Besides, this stalking-horse mission ended as a complete fiasco. Peter got neither a loan from the Netherlands for his burgeoning navy nor support from Vienna (where the embassy was deliberately humiliated). The Turks were no longer the paramount preoccupation of the European powers of the day. Europe was already looking ahead to the War of the Spanish Succession. After Prince Eugene of Savoy crushed Mustafa II’s army at Zenta in October 1697, the Holy Roman Empire (Austria) wanted peace with the Turks as soon as possible. And Kaiser Leopold got it at the Carlowitz Congress in 1698-99, a year after the Grand Embassy returned to Moscow. The Netherlands, Poland and Venice were also harmoniously reconciled with the enemies of Christ’s Cross (who were true allies of France). Muscovy had to accept Carlowitz. Peter’s dream of breaking through to the Southern European seas faded.

But in other ways the Embassy was an enormous success. During this mission, which lasted over a year, Peter decided to redirect his maritime ambitions from the South to the North; the idea of the Great Northern War (1700-1721) was conceived. As a first step towards this war, he came to an unwritten agreement with August II the Strong of Poland and Saxony. Soon Muscovy joined Denmark-Norway and Saxony-Poland to defy the supremacy of Sweden in the Baltic area in a war that ended the short superpower era of Swedish history. Instead, a new superpower started to loom in the North-East of Europe. No more Muscovy, but Russia. In 1703, St-Petersburg was founded.

From some ambiguous hints we may even conclude that William III indirectly inspired Peter to war with Sweden; or at least supported the idea. Peter met the British monarch in Holland, where the Russian worked as carpenter at a wharf of the East India Company whilst studying shipbuilding. They got together again in London in 1698.

In England, the Grand Embassy resided in Deptford, in John Evelyn’s Sayes Court adjacent to the Royal Navy's dockyard. Peter made three feet models of navy ships with his own hands, visited the Royal Mint in the Tower (supervised by Sir Isaac Newton at that time), also factories, arsenals, schools and museums and even attended a session of Parliament. But in Sayes Court, the Russian guests behaved as savages. A servant of Evelyn’s informed his master that the Tsar slept in his library and dined in his parlour, and the house was full of awfully dirty people. After its departure, the embassy was long remembered for the mess they made of their lodgings, leaving valuable paintings riddled with bullet holes.

On Great Tower Street was an inn where Peter used to relax after his working day. His portrait was surreptitiously painted and later served as sign for the inn, renamed the Tsar of Moscow’s Tavern.

Thousands of foreign experts were enrolled into Muscovite service during the embassy’s journey. As a result, Russia began its existence. Thanks to Peter’s personal exertions (often enormously cruel and barbaric: the monarch was certainly deranged in some way), a country less known and understood in Europe than the Ottoman Empire was soon completely transformed. In a sense, it was brought from Asia into Europe, became religiously tolerant (at least at its upper levels) and, for the first time in its history, open to the West. In some European books of Peter’s era, it was still called North-Eastern Tatarstan; in others, Muscovy; in a few, already Russia. Later, Russians were still portrayed as Tatars metaphorically. In Canto VIII of Byron’s Don Juan, for example, depicting Suvorov’s siege of the Turkish town of Ismail on the Danube (1790), the poet still refers to the Russians as Tatars. Amongst the many foreigners fighting in the Russian army, says the poet, there were many English and Scottish officers:

Three of the Smiths were Peters; but the best
Amongst them all, hard blows to inflict or ward,
Was he, since so renowned "in country quarters
At Halifax;" but now he served the Tartars.

Even later in the 19th century nothing had changed. Canto VIII of Don Juan was written in 1822. A proverb quoted by Dostoyevsky as French (some writers ascribed it to Napoleon) reads: scrape a Russian and find a Tatar. And in a way, it is still the case today.

The St.Peterburg period of Russian history may be seen as an attempt to overcome the nation’s half-digested Asian heritage. Open to the East from its first toddling steps as a province of the Golden Horde, Muscovy failed to become an organic part of Asia, but at the same time it openly hated the West because of the religious schism (one could add, because it also found the West too rational and pragmatic). Disgust of all Western European things was so strong in Moscow that at the beginning of the 17th century Patriarch Philaret (1555-1633), the father of the first Romanov on the throne, re-baptised Orthodox Westerners coming to Moscow from Orthodoxy to Orthodoxy. Not only Roman Catholics and Protestants but all Westerners in Moscow were considered heretics. This is why the Western-inclined Russian theologian Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900) said that Russians had for centuries been trying to become Jews, by making their “Russian god” universal, or by substituting him for God. Of course they failed. The Bible was already written (although it was translated in full into Russian only at the end of the 19th century). The first secular school in Moscow was opened only in Philaret’s time. In neighbouring Poland, by comparison, the Jagiellonian University in Krakow was founded in 1364. Even by the end of the 17th Century no public nor private library was known in Moscow. Only a legend circulated about a library of Ivan IV the Terrible, which had been brought to Moscow by a last Byzantium Princess. This library, if it ever existed, was never in use. To this very day some people in Moscow still hope to rediscover it in the Kremlin basement.

Now imagine European and world culture without Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, without Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Surely, the Grand Embassy made a grand impact. Among the first who recognised it was Scottish poet James Thomson (1700-1748), the author of Rule Britannia, who wrote:

Immortal Peter! first of monarchs! He
His stubborn country tam'd, her rocks, her fens,
Her floods, her seas, her ill-submitting sons;
And while the fierce Barbarian he subdu'd,
To more exalted soul he rais'd the Man
Then cities rise amid th'illumin'd waste;
O'er joyless deserts smiles the rural ring;
Far-distant flood to flood is social join'd…
Sloth  flies the land, and Ignorance, and Vice,
Of old dishonour proud: it glows around,
Taught by the Royal Hand that rous'd the whole,
One scene of arts, of arms, of rising trade…

And if you have tasted the slightest flavour of Russian culture you know that there would be no Tolstoy or Shostakovich without Alexander Pushkin, who was rightly called the most European poet of all times. What an enormous leap for such a short period of history of only 310 years, for such a young county.

But now, imagine world history without Bolshevism, too. Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), almost the first secular Russian philosopher and nationalist political thinker, who spent the most prolific part of his life as a refugee in London, once said metaphorically that Russia answered Peter the Great’s challenge with Pushkin. In other words, the reforms started after the Grand Embassy transformed half-Asian Muscovy into European Russia.

We can now suggest something less optimistic: to Peter’s challenge, Russia reacted with Bolshevism, an essentially Asian form of Communism.

True, the Revolution of 1917 had a Marxist façade, or at least was made with Marx and Socialism/Communism in mind. Its loudest and most sexily rallying cry was internationalism; its proclaimed so attractive a goal to overthrow exploitation. True, the first Bolsheviks believed they were sincere internationalists. But, in fact, this was a fool’s paradise of self-delusion. A fig leaf, in a sense. By the middle of the 1930s, it became clear that Russian internationalism meant compulsory and coercive Russification for every ethnic group and tribe under Soviet rule. From the very beginning of WWII, the Soviets were immediately infected by Nazi anti-Semitism. Just the slightest hint from the Kremlin was needed, and the virus spread throughout the nation like a nation-wide plague. Nobody questioned the change of policy; everybody felt it was right. Then the Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Ingushes and others were deported wholesale from their ancestral lands to Siberia and Kazakhstan by paratroopers who even refused them time to collect their essential belongings. No one in Russia protested. And what are we witnessing now? If the Soviet people had been truly internationalist for decades, how could today’s Russians have been transformed into the world’s most notorious racists in just a few years? In present day Moscow, the assassination of black or Muslim people is an everyday routine. Russia for Russians is the motto.

For two centuries, Russia was an absorbing and growing part of Western culture. That’s why it was culturally so successful. That’s why Pushkin became the most European poet of Europe; and the European novel reached its apogee in Russia; and Russian music achieved world recognition in the early 20th century. The Bolsheviks, step by step, crushed all this, with Marx and internationalism in their mouth, with Muscovite isolationism and class/ethnic cleansing in their unconscious. The entire upper layer of society, the aristocracy and professionals who created European Russia, were killed or thrown out of the country. The primeval masses emerged to replace them. As a result, 20th century Russian culture was a pale shadow of that of the 19th. Their very natures were different. Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, the upper Russia of 19th century, the only one known to Europe, was a Christian nation, with misericordia on its banner. Today’s Russia makes a fetish of the bayonet. There has been a cultural and ethnic discontinuity of such magnitude that it is as if we have two genetically dissimilar peoples in contemplation.

What can one expect from Russia now? Nothing good. Their transition period, or the time of troubles, lingers. Their façade now Western, but their unconscious is Muscovite and mediaeval. A recent survey of young people produced a 57% positive answer to the question whether Stalin (who killed between 15 and 100 million Soviet people) was more good than bad for Russia. Another one gave 71% answering ‘We are not Europe’. Their patriotism is a Chestertonian one: “I have seen a great deal of patriotism; and I have generally found it the last refuge of the scoundrel…” (The Judgement of Dr. Johnson ). It reads in Russia: “My ego may be measurable but we together are the best in the world”. Leo Tolstoy loved to quote this Chesterton saying when contrasting Christianity to nationalism.

Imperialism is dissolved in today’s Russians’ blood. For them, Russia must be a superpower and terrify the world by any means, while human rights and the quality of life of ordinary Russian people are unimportant. Russland, Russland über alles . Russia’s image is paramount. Anyone who challenges this holy image is an enemy. Who has done so? Journalists: hundreds  of them have been assassinated during the last decade, Anna Politkovskaya the most famous amongst them. Who else? Refugees. Alexander Litvinenko was killed ten days after he had publicly blamed Mr Putin for assassinating Politkovskaya. He wasn’t quite right, though. The killers of Politkovskaya (and Litvinenko) were the Russian people en masse. You can blame their national myth betraying the true Russia of the 19th century.

In a sense, another Grand Embassy is now needed to make Russia a country among countries, and Russians a people among people. But we see something very different: after a law of 1649 declaring any émigré  a traitor was abandoned in 1996, millions of Russians have left forever with no dream of coming back to improve their ever-unhappy homeland. Even Ecuador has a flourishing Russian community. A durable legend insisting that Russians can’t survive abroad proves to be a nationalist fisherman’s tale. On the contrary. A Russian émigré 's typical nightmare is that he/she comes back to visit Russia and at that moment a new Iron Curtain falls. That’s why the current Kremlin policy of attracting successful émigrés  back seems doomed.

Another recipe was pronounced, too: an absurdist but very emphatic one. All Russians must emigrate for a while, to come back with robust and not bloodshot love of their county.

December 2006,
Borehamwood, Hertfordshire
webbed 30 January, 2008

Yuri Kolker