Monday, November 21, 2016

Carol Saba: Eternal Russia- Her Saints and Demons

French original here.

Eternal Russia: Her Saints and Demons

Russia has been causing a lot of ink to be spilled lately. Particularly in France, on account of the new spiritual and cultural center that was just opened on October 19 of this year at the former sight of the headquarters of Météo France. The complex, which belongs to the Russian state, was set to be formally opened by the French and Russian heads of state but diplomatic tensions between the two countries reduced the scope of the official representation at the event. In an innovation at the level of diplomatic protocol, France, through the voice of her president, publicly questioned the advisability of the Russian president's coming to Paris in this context and then the latter decided to sulk. The new Russian cathedral dedicated to the Holy Trinity, one of the buildings of the complex next to the Eiffel Tower, is to be consecrated in December by Patriarch Cyril of Moscow. It now sits with its five golden onion domes on Quai Branly, not far from the place where President Jacques Chirac put the Museum of the Arts and Civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas now bearing the former head of state's name. The whole thing is thus a new tourist attraction, this time Russian, on the map of Paris monuments. Even before the Napoleonic military campaigns, Franco-Russian relations have always been of the love-hate variety and since then they have known cycles of rejection and attraction.

Russia is indeed fascinating. The Russia of yesterday and today is intriguing. Russia provokes a lot of ambivalence. Some idealize her. Others demonize her. General De Gaulle, who only ever called the Soviets "the Russians," refused to see in Soviet Russian anything other than "a temporary avatar of eternal Russia" and in her government "a modernized form of a deadly autocracy." The latest book by Pierre Goneau, published by Editions Tallandier, is dedicated to a study of the historical, political, cultural, artistic and spiritual depths of this eternal Russia, of this czarist Russia and its four centuries of imperial autocracy. The title chosen by this great specialist on Russia, professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and director of studies of the section for historical and philological sciences at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, already declares the enormous scope of the project: Histoire de la Russie, d'Ivan le Terrible à Nicolas II, 1547-1917. It is a wealth of information. A historical fresco that depicts the three times-- long, medium and short-- of Russian history. Writing that combines a novelistic style with the demands of historicity. A style that knows how to "enclose" personalities and periods, like Russian dolls, the great and the little history of eternal Russia. All the czars pass through it, the great and the less great, the glorious, the mysterious, the erased, the modest, the illumined, and the reasonable. A fresco also rich in portraits of emblematic figures of czarist Russia.

First, of course, Ivan the Terrible. This ambiguous, constantly tormented personality who in an excess of madness founded and combined political terror and a sort of radical mysticism whose secret and recipe only the Russians know. Then passing by Peter the Great, the builder, who constantly looked to Europe but who also embodied the Russian ambivalence, constantly oscillating between East and West. And how can we not mention Catherine II, that originally German czarina, an iron fist in a velvet glove, who knew how to not be a foreigner to the Russians, but rather knew how to fully embrace Orthodoxy and make herself to be seen by the Russians as one of their own. Then comes the figure of czar Alexander II, the civilized man, who dared to emancipate the serfs, one of the last great czars before the rumblings in the empire, before ending with the last of the czars, Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs to sit on the throne, who distilled in the Russian subconscious the entirety of the Russian tragedy, the double image of the czar upon the throne and the Christ-like czar who experiences martyrdom along with his family in extremely dramatic circumstances.

Gonneau's book is a fresco that also arouses real reflection on the Russian syntheses that have been wrought century after century between different confluences and inspirations, those coming from the European, Germanic and Latin, Catholic and Protestant West and those coming from the Asiatic Mongol and Tatar East. The whole of Russia, past and present, is in the crucible of these different confluences. The Russian millefeuille can be discerned in these different historical and sociopolitical strata. This work also and especially provides a framework for understanding today's Russia, which is also, in its own way, decidedly czarist. It informs us of the major characteristic traits of this czarist Russia and of the typical profile that marks its political governance. It reveals the factors of continuity and the factors of discontinuity of such autocratic and imperial, centralized and decentralized governance and its strategies of influence and mental geopolitics. It also informs us of the universal, spiritual and cultural tensions that animates these monarchs and of the geopolitical and geostrategic projection of their influence in the world.

Gonneau's book is not just a book of history, but also one of useful keys for deciphering the reality of Russia today. The book begins with a question: how does one become czar, extending the question with a historical account of the coronation of Ivan the Terrible on January 16, 1547, before affirming that change is continuity in Russia and continuity is change. Eras and personalities change. What underlies them remains. "The Russia of the czars perpetuates itself until the abdication of Nicholas II on March 2, 1917. Then, everything changes... or nothing changes. Stalin was often described as a red czar and Moscow's Kremlin has always been the site of power par excellence." For those who wish to conduct an objective and dispassionate analysis of today's Russia, this historical fresco offered to us by Pierre Gonneau is an ideal help for reflection, analysis, deciphering and questioning. There remain questions that speak to Russia's today.

How does the eternal Russia evoked by De Gaulle extend into Soviet Russia, then post-Soviet Russia, then Putin's Russia? Is there a historical determinism to be seen in the endless repetition of these cycles of attraction and repulsion between Russia and the Europe that she nevertheless claims? How can the factors of incomprehension and misunderstanding that develop be defused? Is there in principle an incompatibility between Russia and Europe? The demonization of Russia by some is just as dangerous for world security as the idealization of Russia by others. In any case, Gonneau's book, which contains valuable keys for further study including maps, an impressive bibliography, a chronological guide to the czars, and an index [embarrassingly rare in French publications], as well as a genealogy of the Romanovs is enlightening in its attempt at better understanding Russia, her saints and her demons, her deadly ambiguities and creative inspirations. It invites the reader to see Russia differently from the black and white of the approximate analyses of the moment, because beyond persons and conjectures, what remains and abides is indeed eternal Russia.

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