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Back in the USSR

2 February 2020

I’ve just finished reading two books on Russia, well, actually the old USSR, set 30 years apart — one in the 1960s, and the other in the 1990s when the USSR was falling apart.

One was Journey into Russia by Laurens van der Post, and the other was The Golden Horde by Sheila Paine.I read them together because I wanted to get a picture of how life in Russia had changed from when it was under Bolshevik rule, and immediately afterwards. I myself visited Russia in the 1990s, roughly at the same time as Sheila Paine, but didn’t travel more than 100 km from Moscow, and wanted to learn what other parts of the country were like, in part as background for a book I am writing, a sequel to my children’s novel Of wheels and witches, and partly because I enjoy reading travel books.

Journey into Russia and The Golden Horde are both travel books written by foreigners, from a British point of view. Laurens van der Post was originally South African, but had become thoroughly Anglicised by the time he wrote this book, though he uses his African background to compare Russian and Western culture as he experienced them.

Laurens van der Post wrote at the height of the Cold War, when media propaganda in the West tended to present the USSR in the worst possible light. “Even more than these cartoon inaccuracies what alarmed me on my travels were the factors of impersonalization and dehumanization in the pictures countries painted for themselves of other nations.”

So one of his purposes was to get behind the dehumanising Cold War rhetoric and to present Russians as human beings rather than as collective abstractions.

I could understand possibly that a nation might be tempted to bomb a country which it regarded as filled with dire monsters. But I firmly believed the temptation could be resisted the moment it saw the potential enemy as people like itself.

How well does van der Post succeed in this aim?

In his travels he tries to find out what what makes Russians tick, and he concludes that Russians have a collective mentality that differs from Western individualism. Bolshevism does not on its own account for this, and it goes back a lot further in Russian history, The institution of the collective farm, so common in Russia in the 1960s, can be traced back to the pre-Marxist tradition of the Mir.

That he approaches Russians from the point of view of Western individualism also shapes his perception of them, and I think this is over-simplified; back in the 1930s Stalin forced collectivisation on peasants who strongly resisted it, and one result was that millions died of starvation.

Van der Post concludes from this that Russians, like the African societies he grew up among in South are primitive, in contrast to the civilised societies of the West. “The Russians are naturally a communal people because they are basically a primitive people; and primitive man is naturally collective.”

But van der Post himself acknowledges that his view is over-simplified, when he says,

As a working oversimplification I would suggest that the primitive is a condition of life wherein the instinctive, subjective and collective values tend to predominate; the civilized condition of life is where the rational, objective and individual take command. Throughout history the two have been at one another’s throats because it appears that the value of one depends on the rejection of the other and this Jacob and Esau theme has been played out between the nations and cultures of the world with the reconciliation of the brothers not yet in sight.

Sixty years ago such terminology was common, but now it has generally changed. What van der Post calls “civilized” we now refer to as modern, and what he called “primitive” we are more likely to refer to as “premodern”. Postmodernity allows us to have a different perspective. But around the time that van der Post was preparing his book for publication I was reading, and strongly influenced by, two books that seemed to be making a similar point, The primal vision and The secular city. There’s more about them at Christianity, paganism and literature (synchroblog) | Notes from underground.

Where I think van der Post’s thesis breaks down is that Bolshevism was essentially a modern project. The Bolsheviks sought to modernise Russia, and complete what Peter the Great had started.

Sheila Paine, in The Golden Horde seems to be looking for the primitive of thousands of years earlier. Her book, however, is far more confusing than van der Post’s. Perhaps that’s because it’s more instinctive and subjective. One gathers that she is travelling the former USSR just after it broke up looking for triangular embroidered amulets with three pendants. She never explains why she is looking for them, perhaps because she wrote an earlier book on the topic and assumes that all her readers have read that one too.

As a travel book I thought it was pretty good, with some lyrical descriptions of places she visited, and giving a good impression of post-Soviet Russia and Central Asia. But while the descriptive bits of scenery are good, the narrative bits are poor and confusing.

One example of the confusing narratives is that in four or five widely separated parts of the book (when she is in different places), she tells of being mugged and beaten. It is not clear where or when this mugging took place, or indeed if it was one incident or several.

She gives a rather confused and garbled picture of Orthodox Christianity, which Sheila Paine seems to have made little effort to understand more than superficially. On two occasions she joins  groups of Orthodox pilgrims on boat trips along rivers, and attends Holy Weeks services on a Greek island, but her accounts of those are very garbled indeed.

Her description of her own search for amulets is the most garbled and confusing of all.She develops theories about  the embroidery and amulets she is looking for, and then abandons them, but doesn’t explain why she abandoned them, perhaps because she had failed to explain why she adopted them in the first place, or even what they were. At one point she compares central Asian embroidery with Bulgarian embroidery, assuming that the reader is familiar with Bulgarian embroidery and therefore will know exactly what she is talking about.

Laurens van der Post also attended Orthodox services, in the far more restrictive period when Krushchev was in power, but even though, like Sheila Paine, he was an outsider at a time when accurate information was much harder to come by, he seems to have had a better understanding of what he was seeing. Sheila Paine went on two boat trips, each lasting several days, in the company of Orthodox pilgrims. Laurens van der Post attended a few services in big cities, in the company of an (atheist) translator employed by Intourist, the official Soviet government tourist agency. Yet he manages to look  beneath the surface of events his guide dismisses as rubbish:

The Russians made their conversion to Christianity a sublimation of their finest primitive qualities. The emphasis was on the collective values of religion, on the unifying aspects, the capacity of “bringing together” of Christianity. The Russian word for church of “Sobor” which in the first place means “gathering”, and “Sobornost” (“togetherness”) is one of the most meaningful of all Russian words and the quintessence of what the church tried to promote. It served a vivid primitive instinctive sense of communion in men not only with one another but also mystical participation with all life.

Laurens van der Post has a point; Russia never went through the three key events of modernity — the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In that sense it was premodern, and van der Post saw Russians through the eyes of Western modernity. But sixty years later we can see things in a different, and perhaps postmodern perspective, seeing both van der Post and the contemporary Russians through postmodern spectacles. Doing that enables us to make a distinction between “communal” on the one hand, and “collective” on the other.  Communalism, “sobornost”, is essentially premodern, a communion of persons. “Collective” on the other hand, is modern, and implies an undifferentiated mass.

Van der Post recognised  this to some extent when he wrote:

It was no good pretending that these people did not feel cheated. The revolution had worked a confidence trick on them all. They had revolted in order to have the land to themselves. But no sooner was the revolution consolidated than a far more inflexible landlord, the State, had taken it away from them again in the name of collectivization. And, judging by the show pieces I saw, there were few farmers in charge of farms. Party secretaries, accountants and factory foremen were the types one usually found in positions of command.

I suspect that in the old premodern communal farms of the Mir the ones in charge were farmers. In the new modern collective farms of the Bolsheviks those in charge were not farmers but bureaucrats. And that is why the peasants resisted Stalin’s forced collectivisation.

And perhaps we can see much the same development in the “State-owned Enterprises” (SOEs) in South Africa. The old Electricity Supply Commission (ESC, Escom) was run by electrical engineers; the new SOEs are run by bureaucrats. The essence of modernity is a world run by and for MBAs.

 

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