A Question of Mass Hatred

The other day, I read a book review in a Western journal by an Englishman who had lived for a while in St. Petersburg. The review was a sort of puzzled homage to the whole mystery of Russianness. And it ended with a question -- which the author said he had never, ever seen addressed, let alone answered. It was, he believed, the greatest mystery of them all: "Why do Russians hate each other so much?"

Now I know that the asking of such questions is deeply politically incorrect: One is not supposed to point a generalizing finger at social groups, let alone whole nations. But as it happens, I've been reading recently about the Russian Civil War, and it is exactly the sheer awful brutality of it -- the hatred -- that springs from every page.

The White general, Denikin, for example, recalled how a diver found the bodies of White officers thrown alive into the harbor of Novorossiisk, their "living, greenish, swollen, mangled corpses kept upright owing to the weights tied to their legs [so that they] stood in serried ranks, swaying to and fro, as if talking to one another." His troops, he remembered, once found a man who had been buried alive after having his hands and feet cut off and his stomach ripped open -- simply because his son had joined the Whites.

The Whites, it must be said, weren't much better. On one occasion they sent off three freight cars of obscenely exposed corpses, marked "Fresh meat, destination Petrograd." But it is the Reds, by and large, whom one has to be awed at. Lenin, the failed lawyer, spoke, once in power, with a brutal smugness about death and terror. And he found an enthusiastic ally in the aristocrat Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka, or state security service. Dzerzhinsky, before the Revolution, had mused to friends that "class-genocide" might ultimately solve "the Russian problem." And when the Revolution came, he set to his task with a will. He scarcely ate or slept, so consumed was he with hatred. In January 1919, after just a year of Cheka operations, he told his comrades he had spilt so much blood that they should shoot him there and then.

They didn't, more's the pity. So the orgy of hatred and killing continued. Between the Revolution and Lenin's death, the Cheka executed 100,000 "class aliens," seven times as many people as were killed under the tsars' regime during the whole of the 19th century. And the methods used would have been admired even by that specialist in death, Ivan the Terrible: dismemberment with axes, slow boiling or burning, crucifixion, skinning alive, the twisting off of heads. A memoir of the period says the basements of St. Petersburg were awash with blood and smelled like abattoirs.

"Ah, yes," you may say, "but that was then. Autres temps, autres moeurs. And Dzerzhinsky wasn't even a Russian; he was a Pole." On the other hand, when I recounted these stories to my Russian daughter Kseniya and asked her (again) the English reviewer's question, she said: "I don't know. I don't know. But it's true, it's completely true." And then she sent me an extraordinarily dense eight-page letter as part of her answer.

She began by writing about how difficult it is for Russians even to think of themselves as individuals. "It seems that so many things have not been thought through," she wrote, "that an individual -- as a cell of self-knowledge -- cannot be isolated: it cannot concentrate on itself. It lacks definition; it bleeds into some non-individual, impersonal space, a kind of flat surface about which nothing particular can be said -- at least when you're sober. For only for the drunk or mad or evil in Russia does the space acquire a shape; only they can see the things that a normal person can't."

What followed was a meditation on the relationship of Russians to history, to lies, to death, to reality, to force. "Power in Russia," she wrote, "has always been taken by force. And force is what Russians believe in, in its very primitiveness and straightforwardness, what it can do to you. ... Force, once in power, imposes its own reality -- everything is right which allows those who have power to remain in power. ... Reality-as-norm is a necessity of Russian history, reality with a whip. Slavery -- fully connived and believed in, fully subscribed to -- is what it really comes down to."

And why do Russians hate each other? "Because they survive, because they are alive. And those who survive in Russia have survived by lying; they are as bad as you are. ... We are all only half alive, you see; the other half has been taken away by force, by violence, deception and secrecy (miracle, mystery and authority). ... I sometimes think it's no surprise that Freud had so many Russian patients."