Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘My Russia. War or Peace?’ by Mikhail Shishkin

3 November 2023

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews My Russia. War or Peace?  by Mikhail Shishkin [hardcover, £18.99, 256pp, ISBN-13: 9781529427783, riverrun, Quercus, London, March 2023]

In the dying days of Yeltsin’s presidency, a Russian friend and I were working together on a documentary about Russia’s first president. Her close friend (and now mine) had, conveniently for us, recently been appointed Yeltsin’s press spokesman. We made a date to see him in his office in the Kremlin, hoping to get his help in setting up interviews with the Yeltsin clan. Dima was urbane and good-looking, well-dressed and charming, and he spoke fluent English and French. He’d travelled widely and knew the ways of the West. When we entered his huge office, he was at his huge desk. He gestured at some seats across the width of the table, and stayed put behind his desk. It felt like we were a pair of supplicants; there was none of the informality and warmth I had come to expect from him. When my Russian friend and I left the Kremlin, I asked her why he had been so formal, so imperious. She replied laconically: “When I’m the boss, you’re the idiot. When you’re the boss, I’m the idiot.” It took a quarter of century and Mikhail Shishkin to help me unpack this arcane Russian saying.

Mikhail Shishkin, is known for his novels. He is the winner of several prestigious international awards. Since 2011, he has made his home in Switzerland. My Russia is not a novel, but a cry from the heart. First published in German in 2019, Shishkin writes in the foreword to the English edition of 2023: “It hurts to be Russian.” This book is intended for Western readers, to explain Russia, its past, present and future. But it is also a love letter, to his motherland and to his native language. As a writer, he feels the pain of the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy, Tsvetaeva and Brodsky becoming the language of war criminals and murderers. His book is a painful but exhilarating read.  

Shishkin’s deep dive into Russian history charts the pivotal moments in Russia’s development, as a way of understanding why and in what ways it has been so different from the West’s. Without this understanding, the West, Shishkin fears, will continue in its delusions about Russia and its reactions to Russian power will fall short. In his words, Russians are still manipulated by the hand that history dealt them: “We, the living generation, are a glove, and our history is the hand.” 

Shishkin begins with the Vikings’ conquest of Slavic tribal territories, the brutal crushing of any rebellions by the Rus’ tribes, and the later adoption of Christianity via Constantinople. There are a number of myths about why Vladimir of Kiev (or Volodymyr of Kyiv) chose Christian Orthodoxy, but that it had disastrous consequences for Russia’s subsequent development and its relations with Europe is clear. It was primarily a linguistic lacuna that left Russia out of step with its European contemporaries. The conversion to Orthodoxy gave the Russians a specially invented language – Old Church Slavonic – that not only prevented them from tapping into the culture of antiquity, but excluded them from developments taking place in Europe, all of which required a knowledge of Latin.  Shishkin writes: 

While a supposedly dead language proved a vitalising force for Western Europe, the Russians had a dead and fictitious Church language that remained mummified for centuries and contributed nothing to knowledge or social progress. It is not least for linguistic reasons that the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment passed them by.

He then moves on to the 13th-century Mongol invasion of Rus’ and sets about demonstrating how it, and the subsequent incorporation of the Rus’ into the Golden Horde, only deepened the chasm between Rus’ rulers and the people that had begun with the Viking invasion of their lands. 

Shishkin introduces two words that, in his telling, are key to understanding Russia, right up to the present day: Ulus and yarlyk. Their origins date back to 1242, when the Khanate of the Golden Horde established itself in Sarai, a settlement on the lower reaches of the Volga river. The Rus’ was now an ‘ulus’ – a province – of the Mongolian empire, and the khan granted Russian princes control over their estates by means of a yarlyk, a gracious decree. It was the task of the Russian princes, as representatives of the khan, to exact tribute from the people: 

They were the tax collectors, defending the interests of the Golden Horde, and since their own lives depended on tributes, they behaved like occupiers in their own country. Mercilessly robbing the citizens of their own towns and villages was their survival strategy: as long as they did the khan’s bidding, they’d get to live another day.  

The princes represented the Golden Horde, and while they shared their people’s language and religion, they still acted like enemy forces, leading Shishkin to conclude: “The Tatar yoke was actually a Russian yoke.” The Mongols didn’t need to get involved at all: 

… the entire top-down power structure functioned according to the principle that you bowed upwards, and kicked downwards. (…)  The one key difference in the relationship between the people and those in power before and after the Mongol conquest was that, now, the princes were slaves too. To ensure its survival, the Russian political elite had acquired a slave mentality.

Shishkin uses the metaphor of a prison to describe the workings of the tripartite hierarchy of interaction between those in power and their subjects: “on the first step stands the prison governor (the Mongol Khan), who rules over life and death. Inside the ‘zone’ are two further steps, the first of which is occupied by privileged inmates (the princes who received the yarlyk from the khan) who act as guards, and right at the bottom are the common convicts (the rank and file).” In a later chapter, he describes what he calls the ‘prizonizatsiya’ of Russian society today, with more than 400,000 Russians making a living in the penal system: “In this kind of society, there are no laws or contracts, no rights or regulations, only favour and disfavour, privileges and oppression.” 

Shishkin’s view of Russian history may not be original – he cites Pyotr Chaadayev’s Philosophical Letters of 1828-1830 for making the point about Russian Orthodoxy cutting Russia off from European developments and he quotes Alexander Herzen, writing six centuries after the Mongol invasion, when he describes contemporary Russia as ruled by a “state that has installed itself in Russia like an occupying army” –  but, as he makes plain, Russians are not his target audience. 

It’s not difficult to see where Shishkin is going with this. He is striking out to put paid to Western romantic notions of the ‘Russian soul’, of riddles wrapped in enigmas inside mysteries. Russia is at a critical moment in its history and Shishkin wants the West to be clear about that country and its responses to it:

I sometimes think it’s the words that are the problem. (…) As they cross the Russian border, some words turn out to be mislabelled crates, their contents either quietly, eerily exchanged or simply stolen. (…) Private ownership, an essential concept in European societies, doesn’t apply here: a Russian subject’s life and property are but part of the country’s strategic military reserves, and may at any moment be sacrificed to a higher cause. Loyalty to your superior is both source and guarantor of all property.  The strongest own everything. (…) What the envoys who travelled to Moscow from the banks of the Rhine saw as despotism and slavery was regarded on the banks of the Moskva as selfless participation in a collective struggle.

The social system created by the Moscow ulus proved so stable and calm because it solved life’s biggest question: centuries spent serving the tsar robbed generations of their spirit, their body and their willpower; in exchange, they received spiritual fulfilment and a reason to live. 

This social contract defined by the rules of the ‘ulus,’ was compounded in the 15th century by the addition of an ideological militarism arising out of Moscow’s positioning itself as the Third Rome, after the fall of Byzantium. Since that time, Shishkin writes, “autocracy and accord have provided the coordinates for Russian life, and victory over its enemies has been the country’s sole aim.” It was then that the idea of there being only two kinds of people for Russians – nashi (ours) and foreigners – took root.

Under Putin and in this time of war, transformed by Russian propaganda into an existential war of survival, the Russian people still honour that exchange.

Shishkin traces the origins of the West’s misunderstanding of Russia and Russian motives to Peter the Great, who had no interest in adapting his empire to Western culture or values. He merely wanted to modernise his army: “He sent for guest workers but what came were people. And they brought words with them, words that disseminated hitherto unknown concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘republic’, ‘parliament’, ‘human rights’ and ‘personal dignity’ throughout Russia.”  

Shishkin likens the opening of the ‘window to Europe’ to a leak below the waterline. This was the beginning of the 18th century, when liberal European values bubbled up in Russia and in Dostoevsky’s description, the ‘Russian European’ was forged. 

For Shishkin, Russia has suffered ‘dissociative identity disorder’ ever since: 

The primacy of private life was a time bomb, ticking away under the bulky edifice that was Russia’s totalitarian consciousness. (…) Russian didn’t have the verbal toolkit for the expression of individual consciousness. Missing terms such as the public sphere, being in love, humanity, literature, were introduced. (…) Over just a few generations, terms such as these created far-reaching socio-political change in Russia. 

Russian ‘dissociative identity disorder’ meant that: “Russia has been in the unique situation of having its territory shared by two spiritually and culturally disparate nations.” Russia was like “conjoined twins who share a body but whose heads are incapable of understanding one another.”

The tussles of the conjoined twins is traced through the 19th century, through autocracy and arguably the most far-reaching reforms Russia has ever known, when Alexander II liberated the serfs and introduced a set of legal reforms that underpinned this seismic shift in social relations. But as we know, Alexander II was assassinated: even Russian Europeans are primarily Russians. Bringing the history into the 20th century, Shishkin makes this clear:

Lenin, Trotsky and the other communist leaders were the fanatical followers of a false Western doctrine, and history wasted no time in using them to resurrect the Moscow ulus. (…) The methods by which they seized power and their concept of dictatorship coincided neatly with the ideas and methods of the Great Khans. The secret police, the party became a proxy church and the messianic mission was now socialist rather than religious. The Third International rhymed perfectly with the Third Rome.

Born in 1960, Shishkin draws on his own and his family’s experiences of the Soviet Union to make painful but acute points about how Soviet power continued to relate to its subjects. The uncle he never knew, taken prisoner by the Germans in the early days of the Second World War, but his mother was only ever told that her son ‘was missing.’

The people sacrificed everything for victory, but the fruits of that victory were poverty and even greater oppression. Victory gave the slaves nothing but a sense of the greatness of their master’s empire. The great victims of 1945 only cemented their profound enslavement.

A later chapter, describes how his older brother introduced him to the books circulating in samizdat in his teenage years and how he read one banned book in a shoebox that “made just as shocking an impression as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag or Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales.”  The book was called The Destruction of Nature in the USSR. I recall a Russian friend I’d known since I was a student telling me after the collapse of the USSR that she could have forgiven the regime and the system much, that she had always found reasons and justifications for its policies, but that when she found out about the way in which nature had been destroyed, rivers poisoned, species’ habitats threatened, there was no more understanding. 

Shishkin writes about his exhilaration at the freedoms of glasnost’ and perestroika, but that came to an end on the last day of 1999.  He describes the retractions and repackaging of the old Russian tropes so well rendered in previous chapters: “When a provincial ulus overlord obtained a better position in Sarai, his vassals would follow him with all their goods and chattels. Thus, Putin, too, moved to Moscow with his Leningrad entourage in tow.” And he evokes another Russian saying, as if to emphasise his point: “the law is like a cart – wherever you point the shafts, there it goes.” And then, there on page 105, Shishkin quotes the very same Russian saying as my Russian friend used all those years ago: “When I’m the boss, you’re the idiot. When you’re the boss, I’m the idiot.”

As if to drive this home, Shishkin concludes: 

The political system’s democratic packaging meets the highest standards, but the contents smack of the ulus. (…) The twentieth century has trapped Russian history in a Möbius strip: each time the country tries to establish a democratic republic, to introduce elections and a parliament, it finds itself back in a totalitarian empire.

And the glue that holds it all together is fear. The conjoined twins’ heads are growing back together in Russia, especially since the exodus of untold thousands of Russian Europeans after the invasion of Ukraine.

So many pieces of the jigsaw scattered in my brain after decades of studying and experiencing Russia were finally falling into place. The seductive Russian soul is indeed nothing but smoke and mirrors. Shishkin quotes Vasily Grossman; it feels almost personal: “It is time for the students and diviners of Russia to understand that the mystique of the Russian soul is simply the result of a thousand years of slavery.”

He then offers a way in to understanding Putin’s relationship with history, his banning of organisations that aim to atone for it, such as Memorial, his elevation of the heroic victory in the Great Patriotic War, and his particular interpretation of Russia’s history to justify his claim on Ukraine. He also finds the Russian opposition deeply lacking:

The opposition wants a change of regime and a new man in the Kremlin, but all the while ignores the key issue: regardless who ascends to the Moscow throne, their cap will be the real ruler. The ulus is ruled by power as such. In this historical drama, the Great Khan is but a character, albeit the principal part – and although every actor who filled it contributes something personal, a quirk, to the spectacle, and interprets the role of the ruler in a new way, they can change neither the words nor the action of the play. Russia does not need a new actor in the leading role, Russia needs a new play.

He cites Nuremburg and the experience of Nazi Germany as key to the healing process, without which Russia will be stuck in the 13th century. If Russia can escape its history, Shishkin forecasts that this will presage the final stage of imperial breakdown: 

In the face of this historical legacy a democratic future seems impossible, unless you deal with the past once and for all. In Russia, though, history is instrumentalised by the regime…

Russian minds have to learn to accept that there can be more than one state where Russian is the official language. The empire has to be removed from minds and souls like a malignant tumour. Only once the operation has been successfully performed will the states that emerge in the former territory of the Moscow ulus be able to push through democratic reforms.

It’s a depressing read, with no obvious happy ending.  But perhaps as a nod to his Western readers, he leaves us with the thought that miracles can and do happen:

A democratic Russia on the territory of the fifteenth-century Moscow ulus? It would be a miracle. But who, before the break-up of the Soviet Union, believed that it would dissolve so quickly? Yet the miracle happened. Why shouldn’t other miracles be possible? Russia is an odd country, where the most unlikely dreams and predictions come true.

Perhaps Mikhail Shishkin, a Russian European, also needs a happy ending? After reading My Russia: War or Peace? it should come as no surprise that there is no Russian for ‘happy ending’ – other than khepi end.  

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