by Ralph Berry

Nobody knows anything about Russia.  This truism has the additional virtue of being true.  Churchill said it best: ‘Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery lnside an enigma.’  But even Churchill suggested that the key to the mystery was Russia’s national interest.  That cannot be wholly right, since all nations make a similar claim which is as liable to be disproven by events.  One has to search deeper for the key to Russian policy, and I prefer to take my bearings from Sergei Eisenstein. His films dramatize most memorably certain events in Russsian history, but also point to motifs and themes that are easily recognizable today.  We cannot expect exact analogues, but when Ivan theTerrible has trouble with the Boyars’ Plot it is not difficult to see them as wealthy Russians today that have to be kept in some kind of order by the Tsar.  This must take forms that are punitive.

Ivan deals with the problem by burning the houses of his enemies, the boyars, with Prokoviev’s repeated ‘burn’ IF! IF! IFI  Putin must make do with strangling the income of those dwelling abroad, especially in the fleshpots of London, where they are fixed by the need to give their children an education that guarantees them a high-level future.

It is now I am reliably informed, exceptionally difficult for well-placed Russians to get into Harrow, and all but impossible to Eton. The money is no object.  The competition is.

Ivan strikes a great chord with Russia’s eternal drive for territorial expansion. The Kazan ambassador is insulting to Russia, and the Tsar’s response is ‘Na Kazan!’  There follows a sequence of toilsome advances by the Russian guns, with the music underscoring how grindingly difficult it is, until they reach the walls of Kazan.  They shatter the walls and under Prince Kubsky the Russians charge the city and subjugate it.  Kazan is today the capital of Tatarstan and part of the Russian union: The Tsar got there.

The larger political scene is filled in with Poland.  Prince Kubsky is defeated by the Poles, and has to make humiliating oblations to their king.  The Tsar has had to leave Moscow, and the Polish king sees a great opportunity.

‘We will drive Russia out of Europe and into Asia.’

That is not a bad statement of Western policy today.  The Poland-Ukraine axis is striving to make a difference.  However, it turns out that Russia is far from unhappy with Asia and Africa.  New friends, new economic opportunities, new political relationships–and yet the conventional wisdom still makes Europe the hinge of politics, with the EU an object of yearning adoration.  The vanished world of 1947 holds its place in the minds of Europeans.

I turn to security.  Ivan the Great discovered that he needed a force that would do his bidding against the boyars, an insurgent group led by the Metropolitan.  They are the oprichnina, a bodyguard devoted to the protection of the Tsar.  In the film they show their worth by hustling away a small group threatening the Tsar.  The oprichnina then put on a brilliant dance, in colour, before foiling a foolishly misjudged attempt at assassinating Ivan.

The enmity between Tsar and Metropolitan makes easy sense.  It is Church versus State, the same conflict that cost Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, his life.  That took just four knights, the same number that made it clear to the Metropolitan that his life would be over if he persisted in his defiance.  ‘Abolish the oprichniya!’ he cries in vain. Tsar Ivan has the last word.  Whatever his age, he is the paramount ruler who must never be checked or thwarted.  He is Russia.  And this is the situation today.  Those who call for Vladimir Putin to be removed are dreaming.  I have never seen the words ‘oprichniya’ in today’s media, but a bodyguard devoted to Putin must exist and carries out the same tasks, with great competence.  For understanding of Russia today, I would rather turn to a great cineaste than to correspondents filing reports from Moscow.


2 Responses

  1. Russia continues to suffer its plenitude of unsane, sociopathic, organized, and activist leadership.
    Driven by leadership’s megalomanic improper ganders of reality, the otherwise peace-desiring citizenry are enthusiastically coerced to their cannon-fodder doom to death in the millions.
    Hitler’s Germany, Tojo’s Japan, Mussolini’s Italy, Robespierre’s France, and South American
    dictatorships followed similar power paths.
    Nothing new in the last 100+ years in application of psychotic despotic
    And the beatdown goes on in Ukraine, as profiteers revel and academicians double up and down in repetitious drivel.
    To summarize,
    Greed x Power = Cruelty

    Greed corrupts and Power permits.
    The proof is in the graveyards.

  2. Churchill said it best: ‘Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery lnside an enigma.’ But even Churchill suggested that the key to the mystery was Russia’s national interest.

    I have assumed that this was Churchill’s attempt to dispel the fog generated by anyone believing the universalist claims of communism. Otherwise I don’t see the point of the observation or what he was getting at. Russia behaves according to its interests. Well, duh.

    If anything, the only enigma had been that for a generation or so Russia had been behaving as more a centre for world revolution and Stalin, the Georgian, had seemingly gone full Russian and pushed the reset button, re-engaging the national interest operating system. If Churchill was merely making that observation, fine, but I am alarmed that he felt his audience was so stupid they couldn’t suss that out, or, worse, that they were indeed so stupid.

    Now, at higher levels, we are indeed well advised to note that no state is a black box, national interest is subject to argument and definition, and variation. But the basic observation is still obvious.

    Now, Canada, there’s a country whose foreign policy makes no sense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New English Review Press is a priceless cultural institution.
                              — Bruce Bawer

The perfect Christmas gift for the history lover in your life. Order on Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Pre-order on Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Order on Amazon or Amazon UK or wherever books are sold

Order at Amazon, Amazon UK, or wherever books are sold. 

Order at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Available at Amazon US, Amazon UK or wherever books are sold.

Send this to a friend