In the past, Russia did not seem interesting, preferring China with its ancient history and imperial dynasties, especially the communist revolution and remarkable transition to a modern semi-capitalist state. I enjoyed Harrison Salisbury’s book ‘The New Emperors’, where he noted Mao Tse Tung as never a real communist who strictly followed Marxist Leninist doctrine, but instead studied the Chinese emperors, following their style when managing China into the modern age. Mao was always accused, particularly by Stalin, of having a limited understanding of communist thought, which proved that the Chinese are practical, not ideological, confirmed later by Deng Xiao Ping, with his opening of the economy and integration into world trade. He famously said, ‘does it matter if the cat is white or black as long as it catches the mouse.’ In the end, the Russian revolution collapsed in its own weight, while the Chinese revolution prospered and evolved into a hybrid free market but totalitarian state, soon to emerge as the biggest economy in the world. Strange that I appreciated the Chinese story by reading Harrison Salisbury’s book (among many others), as he was a Russian expert, enjoying his tales of the Chinese communists, bathing in ancient pools of the emperors, idly smoking cigarettes as they pondered politics, an elegant picture of guerilla leaders compared to the primitiveness of other revolutionaries.
In Russia, the Romanov family was brutally executed, unlike the last Chinese Dynasty allowed to disappear into history, the imperial Manchus descending quietly into the proletarian masses. But despite the brutality of the regime, a sophisticated elegance exists, reminiscent of the literati and imperial mandarins, but ruthless and calculating as any despot or bureaucrat. For instance, see the guerilla poetry of Mao or the cultured diplomacy of Chao en Lai. But I discovered Russia in depth recently, intrigued by the tumult in Ukraine, the seizing of Crimea and the Black Sea ports. But I also discovered Russia through the story of the English spy Sidney Reilly (actually a Jew born in Ukraine), enjoying the BBC program of Far East intrigues, the rise of the Bolsheviks, of Lenin and Stalin, and of his tragic execution. During the weekend, I watched ‘Nicholas and Alexandria’, the epic story of the Romanovs and modern Russian film by Alexei Popogrebski: ‘How I ended this summer’ and ‘The Road to Koktebel’. Previously I enjoyed Andrei Tarkovsky’s works: ‘Stalker’, ‘Solaris’ and ‘Voyage in Time’, thinking his films followed the stylistic oeuvre of Michelangelo Antonioni. But I realized Russian cinema reflect a strain of culture I missed: mysticism and spirituality. I discovered this aspect in the Romanov film, in the depiction of Rasputin and Sidney Reilly with visions of his death in the Moscow snow.
Hence, Russia is better understood, as the largest country in the world, with its heritage of the Russian Orthodox Church, the merging of western and eastern culture that one begins to understand its motivation. In a way, it is the spiritual descendant of the Byzantine culture, of the ancient Christian faith and the orthodoxy, the claimant to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor, in the ambitions of Peter and Catherine the Great; the inevitable tragedy of the Romanovs, the dynasty ending as the German monarchy did in the turmoil of the first world war. This is an ancient land, perhaps as old as Chinese civilization, the nomadic warriors of the Moghuls in the high steppes, the Golden Horde of the Khans, the mysticism of ancient Asia mingling with Christian Byzantium. One understands the intricate plots of spies, double agents and Moscow rules; the sophisticated tactics of its chess Grand Masters, the absurd bureaucracy of the Communist hierarchy (following Kafka and George Orwell) are the tradition of Byzantine intrigue and the turbulent politics of Central Asia and the border countries of Georgia, Ukraine and Poland. Vladimir Putin and previously, Medvedev and Boris Yeltsin are the new emperors, benefitting from the radical miscalculation of the last communist leader Mikhail Gorbachev, pursuing ambitions of the Tsars in a seemingly democratic nation, though the mysticism of the Asian steppes and Byzantine intrigue lie underneath. Russia is a complex conservative country following the labyrinth culture of ancient societies like India and China, not the modern transparent culture of Western Europe and the United States.