Wisdom from Russia

Reports say we’ve given Russia a lot in last week. Let’s take back something, via the new June/July First Things magazine. This article appears not to be behind a paywall.

1

The relationship between Russia and the West [after the end of the Soviet Union] could be compared to a love story. At the beginning of the post-Soviet period, Russia was like a girl without a dowry who stood ready to marry the rich West on any terms. Though some might say this romantic abandon was little more than a crude desire to sell herself, it was in fact true love. Genuine though it was, her love turned out to be unrequited, and the girl was unceremoniously shown the door. The plot then developed, just as it should in a good story, in the direction of a radical transformation of the protagonists.

In the last quarter century Russia has passed from chaotic permissiveness—“That’s your problem”—to a tightly structured and harshly directed state based on the principle of traditionality, which is to say a self-conscious program of restoring tradition, not the organic perpetuation of an already traditional society. Sometimes this state has been out of kilter, as any growing organism is apt to be. Meanwhile an important part of the West, the European Union, has pushed forward to realize ­ideals of liberal universalism, although it is beginning to feel the ground shifting beneath it. The USA has also experienced great changes, as witnessed by the recent presidential campaign and its result. I will leave it to my friends in the E.U. and America to characterize those changes, but this I can say with confidence: All talk of a possible wedding has permanently ceased. The West in its contemporary form no longer suits Russia. This is that rare instance when the feelings of the West and Russia toward each other are mutual.

(Eugene Vodolazkin, The Age of Concentration)

2

Ivan Krylov’s fable “The Quartet” tells the story of four happy beasts who decide to make music. As sometimes occurs with socially active people, they are not capable of playing their instruments. Several times they try sitting in different configurations, as if that might improve the quality of their music. Needless to say, this game of musical chairs does not work. The fable reminds us that the sum total cannot be changed simply by shifting its constituent parts, and that the work of a collective does not always lead to success. There are things that can only be attained by personal effort—in this case the ability to play a musical instrument. Applying the moral of the fable to the social and political sphere, one could say that without the personal discipline necessary to improve the quality of our “human material,” all social constructions will fail.

Our dispersed and untrained souls need to be shaped and formed, attaining focus or concentration. This will have to be realized first of all on the personal level, requiring the development of the ability of self-direction independent of the condition of society and the propaganda surrounding us. Personal concentration works against the dispersing influences that might otherwise gain control of our souls.

(Eugene Vodolazkin, The Age of Concentration)

3

The Middle Ages did not know the idea of progress, while the modern age regards it as fundamental. That is why the Middle Ages did not give rise to utopias. At the very essence of a utopia is the idea of progressive movement toward a not-yet-achieved perfection.

It is wrong to think of utopias as harmless dreams. Combined with the idea of progress, utopian thought is a dream that motivates action. It establishes a goal so lofty that it cannot be reached. The more ideal it becomes, the greater the stubbornness with which it is pursued. There comes a time when blood is spilled. Oceans of blood.

One of the most terrifying attempts to realize a utopia was the communist experiment in Russia. A slogan inscribed on a sign in the Solovki gulag was a simple but exact expression of the essence of utopia: “With an iron hand we will drive humanity to happiness!” Relentless pursuit of the communist utopia determined life in Russia for a large part of the last century at the cost of millions of lives.

In the second half of the last century (truly a century of utopias) there arose another utopia, that of globalism, which at first seemed merely the ideological accompaniment to the development of transnational corporations. In some of its aspects this was indeed what it was. But as often happens with phenomena that are not sufficiently grounded in reality, the ideas associated with globalism—peace through trade, world citizenship, an “international community”—took on a life of their own. Strictly speaking, utopias, being myths, don’t really need grounds for existence. They are not produced by real circumstances but are born of ideas. At the same time, one cannot say that utopias are completely unrelated to reality. Unfortunately there is a link, but an unusual one: Although a utopia is not a product of reality, it begins to create reality on its own.

Where the Marxist utopia in Russia gave birth to terror, the globalist utopia in the West inspired “democratizing” wars and so-called “color revolutions.” This has been the subject of a great deal of discussion that I will not repeat. Leaving aside the damage inflicted on the countries subjected to “democratization”—a large number of direct and indirect victims, the replacement of traditional social structures by chaos—we can see the problems the globalist utopia creates in the West.

(Eugene Vodolazkin, The Age of Concentration)

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Men are men before they are lawyers or physicians or manufacturers; and if you make them capable and sensible men they will make themselves capable and sensible lawyers and physicians. (John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at St. Andrew’s, 1867)

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.