Great Peter was the first true Bolshevik;
his project: to project his Russia, against
all her customs, all her inclinations,
hundreds of years into some distant vista.
And like us all, he knew no other way
save execution, torture and diktat
to realize truth and justice upon earth.
If not a butcher, you could call the tsar
a sculptor — his material not marble
but flesh, hacking out a Galatea
and flinging scraps aside. But no man builds
alone. What else was our nobility
but our first Communists? Our nobility
was — all in one — the Party, secret police
and Ivan the Terrible’s Oprichniki,
a hothouse for the breeding of strange cultures.
[. . .] Bakunin reflects the Russian countenance
in every way — what intellectual boldness,
what sweep of thought, what soaring flights and falls!
Our creativity lies in anarchy.
All Europe took the path of fire — but we
bear in our hearts a culture of explosion.
Fire needs machines and cities, factories,
blast furnaces; an explosion, unless it aims
to pulverise itself, needs the containment
of steel rifling, the matrix of a heavy gun.
This is why Soviet hoops all bind so tight,
why the autocracy’s flasks and retorts
were so refractory. Bakunin needed
Nicholas — as Peter’s streltsy needed Peter,
as Avvakum needed Nikon. This is why
Russia is so immeasurable — in anarchy
and in autocracy alike, and why no history
is darker, madder, more terrible than hers.
Maximilian Voloshin was a leading figure among the Russian Symbolist poets of the early 20th century. During the Civil War and early 1920s he made his large house in the Crimea into a refuge for writers and artists of all political persuasions. Among his hundreds of guests were Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam. In 1924 Voloshin agreed to let his house become an official “House of Creativity” for Soviet writers, the first of the many such closed-access hotels that became such an important part of the Soviet cultural landscape.
Voloshin published five collections of poems, but the last of these — Poems on the Terror (1923) — was published only in Berlin. In spite of some facile professions of faith in Russia’s purification through suffering, his poems about the Terror and the Civil War are both incisive and moving. Voloshin was not published in Russia again until 1977.
Russia’s vastness has always made the country seem difficult to govern and resistant to change. Rulers wishing to bring about reform have often seen this as possible only with the help of extreme violence. Voloshin’s poem “Russia” refers to several such crises in Russian history.
The Oprichnina was the period between 1565 and 1572 during which Ivan the Terrible confiscated land from the old nobility and carried out mass repressions and public executions. His secret police, the oprichniki, used to dress in black and ride black horses; their symbols were a broom and a dog’s head — to represent the sweeping away of traitors and themselves snapping at the heels of enemies.
In the mid-17th century, under Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich, Patriarch Nikon, aiming to bring Russian Orthodox practice back into line with that of Byzantium, introduced various changes to church rituals. These changes met with great resistance, led by the Archpriest Avvakum (1620-82), the archetypal Russian dissident. The memoir Avvakum composed ten years before he was burnt at the stake is the first work of modern Russian prose, written with verve and in colloquial language. The importance of the schism brought about by Nikon’s reforms cannot be underestimated. As late as the early 20th century, about a fifth of the Russian population were Old Believers, officially “anathematised” by the Orthodox Church and therefore alienated from the Russian state.
Peter the Great — a man of extraordinary intelligence and energy — is the most extreme example of a Westernising reformer whose violent methods undermined his liberal ends. The best-known of the rebellions against him was that of the Streltsy regiments (1698). More than 1,200 men were tortured and executed. Peter the Great left his country more split than ever — between an educated and largely French-speaking nobility and a peasantry whose lives remained little changed.
Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76) was an important anarchist philosopher, imprisoned under Tsar Nicholas I. Bakunin criticised Karl Marx for the contradiction between his libertarian goal and his authoritarian means, saying that for Marx and his followers, “Freedom is the aim, while the state and dictatorship is the means, and so, for the masses to be freed, they have first to be enslaved.” The similarity between Lenin and Peter the Great has been pointed out many times. Both were remarkable for their ruthlessness. Though not a figure of the same magnitude, Vladimir Putin has in some respects tried to follow their example. He too sees compromise as a sign of weakness. He too has repeatedly undermined his country’s future by choosing to strengthen not the rule of law but what he calls “the vertical of power” — that is, the concentration of power into his own hands.Robert Chandler