Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
A nation is easier to imagine if it has a human face. Since George Washington, the American president has been a physical embodiment of the United States. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 was a high-point of latter-day British national feeling. Dictators are imagined as the repository of national virtues, even if, like Hitler or Stalin, they scarcely look the part.
Crimea has been the centre of international affairs three times in the last 160 years. On each occasion, the peninsula has been an accelerator of Russian — imperial Russian, Soviet Russian, or just plain Russian — fellow-feeling and identity. And on each occasion, that sense of the nation was to a greater or lesser extent associated with a particular human being.
Leo Tolstoy, aged 26, served inside the Crimean port of Sevastopol during the siege of 1854-5. In his Sevastopol Sketches, a vivid sequence of war reportage that helped to establish his literary reputation, he describes ordinary peasant-soldiers with great affection. It’s clear that he saw such men as the carriers of Russian nationhood. But he also shows that for many officers, the face of the Russian nation was not a weatherbeaten peasant-in-arms expressing profound if earthy wisdom, but the ‘beloved Tsar’. Many of these men, especially at times of the deepest anxiety and enthusiasm — those times when the distant Nicholas I assumed some of the dimensions of a parent — seemed unable to distinguish between fatherland and tsar. The two could not be disentangled: one could not exist without the other.
In 1941, the Soviet writer and Pravda journalist, Boris Voitekhov, made his way to Sevastopol as the city faced a still more terrible anguish. No doubt Voitekhov had Tolstoy in mind as he described the men and women he came across in train compartments, streets and fields. They fill the pages of his book, The Last Days of Sevastopol, which as a result rises beyond the form in which it was written, the propaganda tract for an international audience. They more or less explicitly personify the Soviet and Russian nation (the two categories seem interchangeable). Yet Voitekhov ritually pays homage, without irony, given that Stalin was a Georgian, to ‘the most Russian of all Russians — Stalin’. And Lenin personifies the nation too: ‘Lenin with his compelling outstretched arm, standing firm and secure among the wreckage of the city, called on all to whom the honour of Sevastopol and the motherland were dear.’
Meanwhile, in 2014, ethnic Russians in Crimea, calling for their peninsula to be annexed by the Russian Federation, brandished posters of Putin. His image perhaps gave a face to the Russian state and nation, useful for themselves and their international audience alike. But these people’s Russianness — their connection to the Russian state and territory, and their ethnic and cultural identity — scarcely starts and ends with their support for Putin, or if it does, they are likely to be a certain type of person or to have a particular agenda. So seems the lesson of Tolstoy and Voitekhov.
(Image: Tolstoy aged 20; Wikipedia Commons)