Page 8 Chapter 7:
Formation of the Russian Character
The Russian character is a very complex aggregate. It is tied indelibly to the turbulent, violent, and passionate history of the Russian people. To understand how it has been formed over the centuries and why there are so many contradictions and paradoxes, let me take you on an excursion into the history of Russia. The interpretation of this history is still a topic of dispute, and there is no widely accepted consensus of opinion. I’ll take a bold step and share with you a historical concept that seems the most rational.
More than a thousand years ago, the richest and largest territory of the European part of modern Russia was populated with feuding Slavic tribes. They possessed neither formal laws nor government, and lived in near anarchy. Eventually tiring of the disorder, the Slavs asked the more civilized people living next to them for help.
It is likely that they went to the territory of what is now modern Sweden. The request of the Slavs was unusual. They asked their northern neighbors to give them wise rulers who would establish laws and rule the Slavic tribes. Three brothers — Scandinavians — responded to the request of the Slavs. One of them, Rurick, became the first prince of Russia. (Incidentally, the word “Russians” came from the name of a family of one of these Scandinavian princes.
The difference between the “Russians” and the “Slavs” has been well traced in ancient chronicles.) Rurick was based in the city of Novgorod, which soon became the first capital of a nascent Russian state. Rurick gave rise to the most celebrated Russian royal family, who would rule Russia for 700 years.
From the very first days of the formation of the Russian state, two different cultures have existed: the “Russian” or European culture of rulers, princes, and their comrades in arms, and the “Slavic” culture of the native population. Over time, both of these cultures have interacted with and affected each other, but the fundamental differences between them have never disappeared completely.
The dynasty of the Rurickoviches, the descendants of Prince Rurick, had always been cosmopolitan in its culture. As a rule, the princes married European women and considered it dishonorable to become related to any Slavic family. This rule was broken on occasion, but that was rare. The highest Russian class, in the veins of which there was only a minor mixture of Slavic blood, came from the dynasty of Rurickoviches. The ancient Russian princes were the transmitters of European culture. They united the alienated and feuding tribes of the Slavs under their power and built a powerful state.
The whole population of Russia was baptized by Prince Vladimir’s decree in 988. The country officially moved from a life of paganism into a life of Christianity.
But the Slavs, pagans by nature and history, remained so for centuries. The vestiges of this pagan culture have remained in Russia even until the present time. The Slavic population of Russia followed their customs for many centuries, even while under the rule of foreign princes.
The family or “clan” was the base of Slavic society. Family life brought about the practice of common, indivisible property. This communal possession of family property led in time to a change in the meaning of “father” — the head of the family, and after his death, another man chosen to take his place.
As only men had real power in the family, the value of men to Slavs was incomparably higher than that of women. Slavic women often voluntarily took their own lives upon the death of their husbands, and were cremated alongside them. A living widow was a disgrace to her family. It is the opinion of some that the Slavs established this barbaric custom in order to prevent the murders of husbands by their wives.
The Slavs often bought their women, and treated them as chattel. They allowed them neither to contradict men nor to complain; they burdened them with work and with maintaining the house; and they envisioned that the wife who died with her husband must serve him in the next world, as well.
Devoid of any civil rights, Slavic women sometimes went to war together with their fathers and spouses. Thus, the Greeks found many women’s corpses among the dead Slavs during the siege of Constantinople in 626. Mothers, while bringing up their children, prepared them to be warriors and irreconcilable enemies of those people who insulted her relatives, because the Slavs would never forgive an offense.
On the other hand, the attitude of the women in Russia, especially in the princes’ families, was far different. These women had significant rights, and although they did not enjoy equality with the men, they were not their slaves, either. Thus, according to the chronicles, Princess Olga, the wife of slain Prince Igor, took over for him as leader of Russia in 945.
She was at the helm of state until her death in 972. The period of her rule was a favorable time. Olga has been remembered in Russian history as a wise and diligent ruler, a skillful diplomat who signed profitable treaties with neighbor-countries, and the first Christian in the House of Rurick.
The princesses had their own property and they handled it as they desired. They were respected and loved within their families and amongst the people. Prince Vladimir consulted with his wife Anna about church affairs and regulations. Other princes discussed political matters with their wives, and they give their daughters the right to choose their husbands.
The acceptance of Christianity by the princes helped women advance in high Russian society. We read in sagas that Prince Vladimir’s wife had numerous military units under her direct command, separate from those of the prince. The prince himself and his wife were competing over who would have the fiercest warriors. If a courageous wanderer appeared, each of them tried to win him over to their military retinue. The princesses ruled their own administrative districts, supporting their individual military retinues, and argued with their husbands over who would find and retain the most courageous men.
Women’s influence in the princes’ families became so significant that even the famous Prince Monomach gave these instructions to his children: “Love your wives, but don’t give them power over yourself.” Russian princes taught their sons to respect their mothers as well as their fathers. Prince Donskoy ordered his children: “Live together and listen to your mother in everything. And which son won’t listen to his mother won’t receive my blessing.”
Culture and education were highly respected in the princes’ families. Many Russian princes knew several foreign languages, were well-read, and composed philosophical, moral, and Christian manuscripts masterfully and poetically. From what we can tell, their wives and daughters didn’t fall behind in their love for knowledge and culture.
Of course, not all princes were the same. History records the names of Russian princes who were perfidious, uneducated, cruel, and dishonest. But as a whole, morality and a love of knowledge and culture were remarkably strong in the family of the Rurickoviches.
This sense of morality was especially well developed in Russia after the acceptance of Christianity. Judging by the comments of contemporary foreigners, the Slavs made favorable impressions on them with their morality ; the simplicity of Slav customs was a refreshing change from the spoiled ways of the educated and moderately educated people of those times. The Slavs treated their elderly people with respect and cared about their children. The relationships between relatives were warm and loving.
The hospitality of the Slavs and their affection for foreigners and strangers was especially noted. The care for strangers was a holy duty of the Slavs. The hearth of every house was considered the residence of the domestic deity. Slavs were probably the only people who had a pagan god of hospitality. The love of a guest or wanderer lies so deep in Russian genes that traveling foreigners are still surprised today at the hospitality with which they are met in Russia.
The basic social classes within Russia formed in the 11th and 12th centuries. At the top of society were the Russian princes. Next to them stood the rich Slavs, who formed the class of the aristocracy — Boyars — who nevertheless were lower in rank than the princes. (The princes and the Boyars squabbled incessantly throughout Russian history. The difference in their origins and cultures forever separated these two aristocratic stratums from each other.) A bit later a lower class of the military-serving noblemen appeared. Below them came the free peasants, who lived in self-managed communities.
Though all of the Russian princes were members of the family of the Rurickoviches, they still fought amongst each other. By the end of the 13th century the rivalry between them had reached its apogee. The Russian state was divided into numerous principalities, competing and feuding with each other. The internal weakness caused by so much infighting led Russia’s neighbors to successfully assault her as well. The subsequent division and dismemberment of Russia became a great national tragedy, and their subjugation under the Tatar-Mongolian yoke lasted almost 250 years.
The huge army of the Tatars, headed by Batiy, the grandson of Genghis-Khan, pillaged and plundered the northeast, south, and southwestern Russian territories during the thirteenth century. A great number of the villages and the cities including Vladimir, Suzdal, Ryasan, Kiev, Moscow, and many others were burned, and their populations, from the elderly to infants, were either murdered or taken prisoner. The northeast territories were subjugated to the power of the “Golden Horde,” established by Batiy.
At the same time German and Danish crusaders began their onslaught against Russian lands after having conquered Livonia and Estlandia (modern Latvia and Estonia), and the Swedish army joined them. These attacks effectively cut Russia off from the Baltic Sea. At the same time, the territories of modern Ukraine and Byelorussia were conquered by Latvia and Poland.
Surrounded on all sides by powerful and hostile nations, divided into a number of mutually feuding small principalities, and subjugated to the power of the Golden Horde, the northeast territories found themselves in a critical situation by the first half of the fourteen century. Only through the rebirth of the united state could Russia hope to hold on to its remaining territory. The Russian Orthodox Church called the people to take up arms and fight against Islam to the east and Catholicism to the west.
By the end of the 14th century, Moscow-based princes won the fight for political primacy in the northeast territories. They turned the Moscow principality into the strongest and richest amongst those territories and brought the other Russian princes under its influence. Finally, in 1480, the Hordian yoke was thrown off and a powerful Russian state was established.
A new page of Russian history began. The Moscow Prince Ivan III married Byzantine princess Sofia Paleolog. The Byzantine coat of arms — the two-headed eagle — became the coat of arms of Ivan III and all of the Russian state. This symbolized the succession of power from the dead Byzantine Empire to a young and powerful Russian state.
But the devastation of Russia during the Tatar-Mongolian invasion, the exhaustion of the material and people’s resources during the Hordian yoke, and the 250-year isolation from the countries of Western Europe had taken their toll. Economic, cultural, and moral development within Russia had slowed or even declined.
In the 12th century, one of Russia’s most respected princes, Vladimir Monomakh, known for his morality and strong Christian faith, had cancelled the death penalty and replaced it with a system of fines. He had said, “Don’t kill either innocent or guilty, as human life is holy to God.” But by the end of the 14th century, the first public execution was carried out in Moscow. The chronicle reported at the time that “there were many people and many were crying.” But that was to change.
In fact, little time would pass before executions would become so commonplace that it would be difficult to find a single sympathetic person in a crowd of idle onlookers at such barbarous events. The Russian people became desensitized to violence. The acute cruelty, the deprecation of human life, and the violence toward the weak and small introduced into the Russian principalities by the wild, nomadic Tatars spread as a plague amongst all the classes of Russia.
In the 16th century, the Orthodox priest Silvestr wrote his famous collection of rules called “Domostroy” (“Homebuilder”) — how to manage the house and the people living in it. It quickly became an extremely popular table book found in the homes of many people of the Moscow kingdom . In it, he “corrected” people by the use of cruel punishments.
The “Homebuilder” was especially vicious to children. It commanded the parents to never to have fun with their children, to always be strict with them, never to play, and to beat them for any misdeed. Though many of Silvestr’s ideas were based on apostolic words about relations in a family, he never included any apostolic with the words “Love each other” in it.
The book also discussed in great detail the duties of the wives to their husbands and the necessity to obey one’s husband in all matters. The chapter on “How to Teach a Woman” is dedicated to the daily duties of the woman in the home, which included everything from cooking to cleaning and looking after domestic animals. In the author’s opinion, the wife must always be busy and should never speak about anything but her duties.
This book was written for men. This edification reaffirmed the unlimited power of a man and mastery over women and children in Russian society. He was proclaimed the owner, the will, and the mind of his wife, children, and servants. They were obliged to serve him unquestioningly or suffer severe consequences.
They had no rights and no property. The physical punishment of servants, children, and wives was considered the obligatory virtue of a real father in the family. There is even a threat at the end of the book: “If you do not fulfill everything that is written here, you will suffer on Judgment Day.”
With this mindset as a basis, it is not surprising then that slavery-serfdom was officially declared and ratified in Russia in 1649. Serf-servants were considered the full property of their masters and were treated as “speaking” tools. Moreover, around the same time, persecution against freedom of thought began. Any independent opinion was called destructive pride.
The blind subordination to power was being successfully implemented in Russia. Devoid of freedom and often humiliated, people took out their anger on the weaker and unprotected ones. At the lowest tier of subordinates were the wives and children of the common men, and they bore the brunt of this abuse.
The 16th century marked not only a new social acceptance of barbarism and cruelty, but a political acceptance as well. The Russian state turned into a totalitarian model of the Tatar-Mongolian political system. Tsar Ivan IV, called “Ivan the Terrible” (1533-1584), was the product of this cruel century.
Obsessed by a persecution complex and insanity, Ivan The Terrible murdered and executed people with his own hands for offenses as small as a minor suspicion of infidelity. He invented “Oprichnina,” the KGB-style military organization made up of people who were close to him and who were given unlimited power in the state in return for their dedication to the Tsar.
Many young Boyars and noblemen who were cruelly abused at homes under the rules of “Domostroy” enrolled into Oprichnina, which gave them an opportunity to unleash their unsatisfied hate and anger. The blood lust of the Tsar and his Oprichnina plunged the country into horror. The fact that such a man could rise to power was an indicator of the moral degradation suffered by the Russian people. If a prince such as Ivan The Terrible had appeared before the times of the Tatar-Mongolian yoke, he would have been shunned. But the Tatar yoke had broken the spirit of the Russian people.
Also, in a very unfortunate twisting of events, Tsar’s supposedly holy right to the throne, validated by the Orthodox Church, made the people feel powerless to resist the crimes of Oprichnina. Most of the countries thus sat on its knees as a handful of people were allowed to rob, kill, and torment with impunity. The Orthodox Church had convinced people of the virtue of patience and suffering. Over the centuries, this unlimited patience and acceptance became one of the main features of the Russian character.
It seems that the sins of Ivan the Terrible were so horrible that the once kind and glorious family of the Rurickoviches, holding power in Russia for nearly 700 years, ended with him. All the sons of Ivan the Terrible died except the weak and mentally retarded Prince Feodor, from whom the Tsar power passed into the hands of an outsider, Boris Godunov. Thus began the “Time of Great Strife,” as historians call it. The country was plunged into civil war for years.
Finally, in 1613 first Tsar from the Boyar family of the Romanovs, Mikhail, ascended to the Russian throne. A time of relative peace, stability, spirituality, and morality came to Russia. Curiously, this new age was ushered in with another act of wanton barbarism. It’s not widely known that the first Romanov marked the beginning of his rule with a cruel public execution of the 4-year-old, Ivan, son of Tsar Pseudodmitriy I, a usurper.
The boy was officially considered a legal heir of the Russian crown, so Mikhail dispensed with him. Legend says that after the execution of the son, the boy’s mother, Maria Mnishek, damned the Romano family. Soon afterwards, she died in a jail because of melancholy over her son’s death.
Many historians note that something fatal seemed to be hanging over the new Tsar dynasty. The princes of the Romanov family were born weak, lived short lives, and were often wretched people.
As a rule, the Romanovs were quiet and religious, both in their daily lives and private lives, but their rule became more thoughtless and cruel. The name of the Tsar was equated with the name of God, and the life of his subordinates was greatly diminished in value. According to the accounts of the contemporaries of that time, life for the Russian people was like life in a “stagnant, stinking swamp.”
On the 30th of May, 1672, the young wife of Tsar Alexei Michailovich gave birth to a boy named Peter. He was destined to totally change the direction and history of Russia. The personality of Peter I was so bright and extraordinary that it is impossible to characterize him in just a couple of words. He was certainly a man of opposites, and his reign still confounds historians and philosophers today. Some call him a genius that brought Russia incredible prosperity, and others call him a villain who forcibly directed Russia into the unknown course of West European development.
But however contradictory those characteristics were, one thing is certain: due to the rule of Peter I, Russia rose from its stagnation and turned into one of the most powerful and richest countries of Europe in a remarkably short time. The great rebirth of Russia had begun. Peter I began and successfully finished the first reconstruction of the country, decisively destroying the old systems and the traditions of the Boyars in Russia.
Interestingly, among the people the Tsar was called “Antichrist.” The majority of the populace didn’t like so many innovations being so quickly and unceremoniously instituted into the country. It seemed that Peter hated all the patriarchs and “Boyars” and loved European culture far more than his own. “So that everything here must be as everywhere,” was his slogan.
Unfortunately, together with European progress and education, the Tsar brought evil and depravity from the West into 18th-century Russia. In comparison with Europe, Russia had been a chaste country, although a wild one. Peter had once admitted, “I deal not with the people but with the animals which I want to turn into people”.
He forcibly taught those who surrounded him to smoke tobacco, which had been unknown in Russia until then. He regularly made young noblemen and their wives drunk during the court balls. He also showed a double standard to religion. He personally was a religious man, but he violated all conceivable limits in politics and delighted himself with cruel amusements.
It’s true that Peter the Great reformed many aspects of Russian life. The unique culture of the higher class of noblemen started taking shape in Russia beginning in Peter’s time. The culture absorbed all the best that had been created in Europe and enriched its works of literature, art, and music enormously. Before Peter’s times, many noblemen, especially the provincial ones, had been uneducated and sometimes even illiterate. But in the period of Peter’s rule, the young sons of the noblemen were forcibly sent to study in Europe.
Sometimes, even talented “common people” were enrolled in universities together with those on which the Tsar would later bestow noblemen’s titles for achievements in the sciences. Education and culture became synonyms of nobility. The role of education had begun to play a significant role. The Academy of Science was created. St. Petersburg was planned and founded by Peter in 1703, and within a decade had become the capital of Russia and its powerful cultural center.
Politically, the 18th century in Russia could be labeled “The Women’s Century.” Soon after Peter’s death, the Russian throne passed to his widow, Ekaterina I; then to his niece, Anna Ioanovna; and finally to his daughter, Elizaveta Petrovna. His grandson, Peter III, ruled briefly from 1761-1762, but was overthrown in the palace revolution organized by his wife Ekaterina because he was far too fond of the neighboring Prussians for Russian tastes. Thus, Ekaterina II, “Catherine the Great,” became the Empress of all Russia.
Having received a wonderful home education, and having a brilliant mind, Ekaterina set out on a mission to win the love of all Russians. She supported the teaching of the Russian language, culture, and history, but was very worldly, much like Peter the Great. Her intelligence, respect for traditions, and a sincere love of Russia favorably distinguished her from her spouse in the eyes of all of the Russian high society.
Ekaterina was notable for her extraordinary mind and knowledge of people. She ably picked helpers and consultants, not being afraid to surround herself with bright and talented people. The period of her rule was the real “golden age” in the history of Russia with respect to science, culture, and education. She continued the reforms of Peter the Great, whom she had greatly admired. She opened the first schools for the women, Smolny Institute and the Ekaterina’s School. A whole generation of outstanding Russian political activists, scientists, musicians, writers, and artists appeared during her reign. Because of her, a unique culture bloomed in the next century and enriched the world’s literature, art and music.
Ekaterina had a special admiration for French philosophers and, accordingly, for French culture and literature. And indeed, after a while, this admiration had a pervasive effect on Russian culture. French fashion and customs penetrated into more and more circles of Russian society. For decades, Russians immersed themselves in French language and culture, so much so that many of them could hardly speak properly in Russian.
It was considered almost indecent to speak Russian in society, and French, English, and German tutors brought up the children of noblemen from birth. The typical home education for both boys and girls of noble families included a knowledge of several foreign languages, world literature, philosophy, history, art, music and sports. The century of education swept even into the most distant provincial Russian towns. Although there were still uneducated people among the landowners living far from the capital, a whole epoch of ignorance had come to an end in Russia.
Western culture was conquering more and more space in the vast territory of Russia. But it was not shared with the common people. There were still very sharp class distinctions. The idea was that it was dangerous to present peasants with freedom and education because of their spiritual wildness and ignorance. One of the main tasks of that time was to create generous, cultured, and fair landowners in society that would be responsible for the well-being of his peasants. Russian society polarized radically, with the rich and well-educated nobility on one side, and the completely destitute, illiterate, enslaved peasantry on the other side.
With time, the Russian ruling elite turned into spiritual strangers in their own country, not understanding and indeed despising all things Russian. Meanwhile, many noblemen and commoners alike were rediscovering their pride in their country and culture.
The destruction of Napoleon in 1812 brought Russia not only military glory but also high prestige on the international stage. The war with once-adored France reduced the passion of the Russian nobility for the French and gave a lift to patriotic feelings toward all Russian-Slavic things. In the highest St. Petersburg salons, women were now trying to have fashionable conversations in Russian for the first time in decades. The interest in native history and culture was alive.
Simultaneously, the dissatisfaction with the totalitarianism of the Tsar and the humiliatingly powerless position of the peasants, who had shown heroism and selflessness in defense of their Motherland during the war with Napoleon, started growing among the Russian nobility. The peasants as well began making demands of their own. Peasant riots appeared in various areas around Russia. Free thought was becoming widespread in Russia. Noblemen and peasants alike aspired to bring the ideas of liberalism into the Russian consciousness.
The secret societies of the “Decembrists,” visionaries wanting to transform Russian into a semblance of the young United States, consisted of the best minds of noble Russia, and were growing stronger and spreading all over Russia after the National war of 1812. Finally, on the 14th of December, 1825, they revolted. But it came to naught, and five instigators were hanged in the public square of Petersburg; all the rest were deprived of the noblemen’s titles and banished to Siberia.
Fearful of the new revolutionaries and the ideals spurring them on, the Russian autocracy started a complete offensive on free thought and liberalism. Free speech, and even free thought, was absolutely prohibited. The secret chancellery kept close watch on all of the “politically unreliable” citizens of Russia, and a powerful police structure was created to enforce the suppression. Strong censorship was strictly enforced in the country.
Magazines of liberal thought and ideology were closed down. The bureaucracy that kept the machinery of censorship and oppression alive snowballed, and reached its pinnacle during the 19th century. It was practically impossible to do anything quickly and efficiently without the use of bribery. Bribery and procrastination became a standard way of life.
It is easy to manipulate poorly educated people. It’s much more difficult to control those with developed minds. In the 19th century, the level of education among the nobility and free people was much higher than among their European counterparts. Their thirst for knowledge and love of the printed word distinguished the Russians of almost all the classes. Even with oppression from above, Russians knew and remembered what life had been.
The boys (and very often the girls) from good Russian families had a deep knowledge of philosophy, history, literature and languages by the age of 14 or 15. Though teenagers in modern terms, they generally possessed an adult’s maturity of mind and opinion. They heard the stories about the “good old times” in Russia, when it had been easy to live and breathe. Their fathers and grandfathers compared those times with present-day life in Russia, and they felt cheated out of their rightful share.
The young generation of Russians began seeking a solution to the problem. The writers and philosophers during those years created works full of an inner search for truth and a better way of life. Their souls were toiling and suffering in search of something inexplicable. And their efforts reached the Tsar’s ears.
In 1861, Russia abolished slavery and the peasants were freed from the landowners. Ruling at that time, Alexander II stated: “Sooner or later we must come to it; it is much better for it to happen from above than from below.” The reforms of the 1860s and 1870s caused huge changes in the country. They allowed Russia to emerge from her protracted crisis and sped development in social, economic, and political spheres.
But the reforms stopped short of changing the structure of power, and they didn’t satisfy the public. A revolution had been put off, but not averted. The Russian monarch was still wielding his power without any restrictions, listening only to the opinions of those closest to him. Whatever their individual personal characteristics — Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicolai II — it seemed that the whole of the Russian society hated them. The people of all classes and levels of education understood that absolutism in Russia had outlived itself, and only the Romanovs themselves refused to see the fact.
After a series of terrorist acts and political murders came the so-called “first Russian revolution of 1905.”
Alarmed by increased activity of the revolutionary movement in the country, the Emperor Nicolai II signed a manifesto about civil freedoms and about the creation of the Duma (parliament), restricting his absolute power. But it was too little, too late. These half-hearted measures failed to snuff out the revolution. Another series of political blunders and Russia’s entrance into World War I poured new strength into the revolutionary movement.