Hostages of Mythology

Gregory Carleton’s “Russia: The Story of War” masterfully dissects the fiction of Russia as a country under siege — despite perpetuating its myth.

Sitting on the train connecting Moscow to Minsk, roughly halfway through, travellers will notice a stop called Vyazma. It’s a town of roughly 60.000 inhabitants sprinkled with orthodox churches, a branch of the University of Smolensk and a couple of youth associations. It’s also honoured with the title of “City of Military Glory”, a designation reserved for cities that suffered greatly during the Second World War — or better, Great Patriotic War. And for good reasons: approximately 80.000 people were killed in a nearby concentration camp, and after the war only 716 survivors remained.

Vyazma’s past isn’t unique in this regard. One of the most estranging perceptions Western Europeans have about Russia is the ubiquity of war in the country’s public space; while citizens from the rest of Europe are familiar with marmoreal, dismissive monuments to the fallen, cities like Vyazma proudly tout eternal flames. Similarly, in countries like France or Italy, “civic education” means learning how society and government are organized; in Russia, it involves teaching first aid to girls and a pre-draft exercises for boys. “Our” schools train how to evacuate in case of fire; “theirs” how to wear gas masks in less than 30 seconds. Russian scouts shoot with AK-47s, while Europeans sell cookies for charities. The political implication is straight-forward: Russia has been in arms for so long that war has become the only language it will ever understand.

Given these perceptions it’s surprising how little historiography exists on a seemingly omnipresent aspect of Russian culture. Russia: The Story of War (Belknap Press) is the most recent — and prominent — academic work dealing with the topic. Beyond the strengths and weaknesses of the book itself, author Gregory Carleton has a substantial advantage as an academic: he’s not a historian of war. Despite how paradoxical it may seem, observing war as an immense tragedy rather than a science (or even a political phenomenon) allows for an original and unique understanding of its repercussions.

As suggested by the subtitle, the book analyses the story of war, or more precisely the narrative of a besieged country that was built on Russia’s military vicissitudes. To this aim, Carleton’s work runs on two tracks: at the core we have a sardonic recounting of the country’s history, from the Kievan Rus’ up until the annexation of Crimea; parallelly, he unravels how tsars, patriarchs and secretary-generals rationalized victory and defeat for the purpose of social control. As the recounting unfolds chronologically, he details the emergence of Russia’s war mythology battle by battle, focusing on the feudal-religious origins in the first third of the book and then moving to the immense hagiography of the Second World War. For every epoch, the author shuttles between the political state of affairs and its illustrious narrators: anonymous renaissance chroniclers, Dostoevsky, anonymous chroniclers from the Defence Ministry, as well as modern authors such as Soviet director Sergey Bondarchuk or Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.

To do so, he strikes a careful balance between wider political context and the myth of the single wars, between observing society through the lenses of conflict and avoiding transforming the Russian people in formulaic characters of a wartime drama. In other words, Carleton tries to solve the same tension he remarks in the literature of Tolstoy, Russia’s greatest war writer: How does one write about the “Great History” without neglecting the plight of its victims? Be it under imperial, soviet or federal guises, Russian autocrats have always pushed a narrative of exceptionalism to justify their policies: “this self-image operates as a shield against accusations of belligerence, assuages anxieties and fears, accentuates the country’s prestige and, when needed, promotes national insularity as a virtuous destiny”. Wars are framed both as the apocalyptic defence of the Orthodox faith and the ultimate destiny of Russia as the saviour of humanity. As in 1812 and 1941, it’s the country’s call to protect the world from the evil of the next megalomaniac: however, the West will never recognize this millennial struggle and will always turn a blind eye to the fact that if it wasn’t for the Eurasian colossus, the world would’ve fallen under the rule of European monsters such as Napoleon and Hitler. The West’s lack of gratitude is integral part of Russia’s war myth, as it both confirms its role as a noble outcast and reinforces its worst expectations.

Writing about this exceptionalism, one runs the serious risk of reinforcing the notion that Russia isn’t a normal (read: Western) country — as acknowledged by the author himself. Nevertheless, The Story of War still suffers by putting emphasis on this apartness of Russia, even unfairly. So, while the role of the orthodox faith is undeniably particular to the Russian case, the same can’t be said about the historiographic tradition of alleviating defeats by framing them as acts of heroic valour. Similarly, the trauma of the Mongolian domination over the Rus (“The Yoke”), is often used as a cheap explanation for the Russian obsession with honour and political humiliation; but while Carleton goes to great lengths to dissect its paradoxical role in modern politics, he does little to push back against its use in the euroatlantic sphere. In the same way the Internet associates every sickness with cancer, pundits like to link Russian politics to its “tartar roots”.

What truly lacks in an otherwise great work is a comparative approach, which would have undermined Moscow’s propaganda by pointing out how much of the country’s grim history is shared by the rest of Europe, from the fratricidal wars to periods of anarchy such as the catastrophic “Times of Troubles” and the 30 Years War.

But it’s hard to blame the The Story of War. Foreign observers are caught in a vicious cycle: as they write about a country exceptional enough to earn their attention, they become potential vectors for superficial justifications. Another recent example would be Charles Clover’s excellent book Black Wind White Snow, which in the process of ridiculing pan-Eurasian ideology ended up giving to the movement far more importance than it politically has. This tendency can be only countered by field work and distrust for the deceiving power of abstraction. Explorations like those of Carleton and Clover are too often caught in intellectual reveries in which the human element is mostly inconsistent. The mundane, personal dimensions are largely neglected in favour of the grand narrative tracked by the authors.

A counterexample can be found in connoisseur of “mobsters, cops and spooks” Mark Galeotti, who delivers books that are certainly drier than the philosophical adventures by Clover or Carleton, but that draw strength from a fabric of personal stories. In his latest work on the Russian mob, The Vory, Galeotti equates the long battle between legality and crime to the paths taken by countries such as Italy. He strikes a note of useful self-evidence: endemic criminality and corruption have plenty equivalent abroad, and the reader should beware of who is benefitting from the myths espoused by public opinion.

The same obvious tone permeates the writings of Russian political experts and opposers of the regime: Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan’s account of digital censorship in Red Web, Arkady Ostrovsky’s history of mass media The Invention of Russia and Mikhail Zygar’s All the Kremlin’s Men all assume that Russia isn’t an exceptional country — and that a pivot to liberal democracy is possible. What they all have in common is a deep interest in the human experience, not exclusively the narrative that has been built around it. These are stories of street politics, of banal personal greed that forms the backbone of social engagement. If to them political myths are a tool of oppression to be ignored, foreign experts are fascinated by myths as such; what makes them interesting is not nature as tools of power, but rather their literary construction. Unlike their Russian colleagues, they struggle to build a competing account from which readers can take inspiration.

This is not to say that admirable The Story of War is a work lacking empathy. In fact, it’s when relying on the first-hand experiences of soldiers and civilians that it truly shines: the atrocities of the siege of Sevastopol, the senseless carnage of Red Army offensives and the systematic oppression of veterans returning home are horrendously vivid. Beyond manifestations of sympathy or the pretension of comprehension, he forces the reader to follow the logic that has lead generations to bear tyranny, mostly out of exhaustion. There’s an emotional but linear progression that connects the heroic resistance of Soviet troops at Brest fortress in 1941 to the occupation of Crimea. According to philosopher Sarah Ahmed, collective pain is the most efficient tool to forge a sentiment of togetherness because it creates a clear demarcation between the body politics and the foreign object injuring it.[2] As the USSR before it, the multicultural Russian Federation has rallied around its wartime history to ignore the dangerous intestine forces that could lead to its corrosion. The book’s returning theme of anarchy through civil war is a masterful reminder of how this type of conflict is portrayed in the country’s official history: not primarily as the dramatic decay of social order, but as the foolish exposure of Russia’s soft underbelly to its preying enemies. The frictions, caprices and confrontations that may eventually spark civil unrest are to be ignored — the danger from abroad is too dangerous. And here is where I think Carleton both excels and fails: throughout the book he leads the reader trough the butchery of history, forcing the reader to feel why the concept of a “nation under siege” is so effective. However, he does so from a perspective of exceptionalism, positing that this incredible suffering is what makes the country ultimately abnormal. The result is that The Story of War entertains both the best and the worst notions on Russia: it eviscerates its “civic religion” of war, but by opting for a purely impartial observation, it comes near to “flatten[ing] conceptual horizons and drive meaningful discussion into the ground[3]. Putting the myth under the magnifying glass doesn’t discard it by revealing its imperfections: it swells it to the point of intellectual ubiquity. It encourages the reader to empathize with an image of the Russian people rather than the real, historic suffering of the imperial subjects. The complex social, cultural and political network that shapes history is deprived of agency in favour of a simulacrum, one that we fully know being purely rhetorical, but which is nevertheless king.

From a European perspective, the immersion into this war myth can easily encourage to look at the immense neighbour as a black mirror, where the greatest flaws and aberrations of our societies materialize. As written by (the rabid nationalist) Dostoevsky, “[Us Russians] have become one of their proverbs[4]. To accuse The Story of Russia of this would probably be as unjust as blaming a book on mythology to not care about the plight of ancient Greek slaves. But then again, dwellers of the Oracle of Delphi don’t have access to the world’s largest nuclear stockpile. And with relations this strained, the last thing we need is the temptation to accept this estrangement. This book is certainly a good starting point to better understand the rhetoric of Russian nationalism — but beware. The Kremlin is already doing much to culturally amputate its country from the rest of the world: do we really need to give them a hand?

[1] His previous work was Sexual revolution in Bolshevik Russia. Pittsburgh : University of Pittsburgh Press, c2005.

[2] Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004. 10

[3] Russia: The Story of War, p. 254

[4] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh, vol. 25 (Leningrad: Nauka, 1983), 49, 22.