Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose
When Denis Diderot visited St Petersburg at Catherine the Great’s invitation, the great philosopher and founder of the Encyclopédie, whose writings made substantial contributions to the Enlightenment sometimes sounded like a selfish sophist. How could anyone have said, “I had the soul of a slave in France, where men thought they were free, and of a free man in Russia, where men were called slaves?” How could one feel free in the Russia of 1774, the vast majority of whose population was straightjacketed in serfdom? Nevertheless, many Americans who’ve lived with Russians at home or abroad think that’s not absurd. My own years in Moscow, during Soviet rule when many restrictions on my notion of fundamental freedoms remained abhorrent, told me Diderot was on to something.
There are libraries full of books about the similarities of Russians and Americans… which is true in some ways, deriving from our still relatively rough-hewn nature after national childhoods in wide-open spaces where formality counted for little, but decidedly not in others, such as attitudes to work and to pleasure. Russians can work all other peoples I know, including Americans, under the table, as they easily do with drink, and, maybe, still combat, as during World War II, when motivated by a cause, ambition, or an ideal. However, getting a job done for its own sake motivates only a few, as opposed to doing it out of a personal vocation springing from flesh, blood, or fantasy. As for pleasure, my experience was that they enjoy it with considerably more abandon and less guilt than Americans, many of whom remain in the grip of one or another Puritan inhibition.
However, Diderot’s seemingly puzzling statement about freedom prompts scepticism. I’d have felt even more hesitant to add my two cents to all that’s out there if I hadn’t spent much of my working life in contact with Russians. Having done so, much of my answer lies in the yawning gap between how they live their private and public lives. As people, many I know are a treat as they behave distinctly more as free spirits than Americans, who forever boast about their freedoms, but fear others seeing them as eccentric. As citizens, they’re invariably much less appealing, no doubt, because their government has usually been fairly-to-seriously miserable over the centuries, and the country’s civil society was and remains deplorably weak.
Starting with not needing to pretend you’ll soon be a success with them or in a good mood when it’s bad, their appeal as people… here, meaning the kind likely to read this newspaper… roughly, my counterparts with good (but not exceptional) education and social standing… is great even when their politics disappoint. Long ago, an Intourist guide told me her training included practise in smiling for Americans because, they instructed her, we’re uncomfortable without that reassurance that has something in common with advertising when there’s no reason for it. I value the Russian toleration for aberration even more. The country sometimes seems to me a giant preserve for oddballs… my category too… who seem to feel entirely at home. A recent description of the Russian psyche as managing to make its owners “broad, generous, reckless, narrow, mean, calculating… not in fits and starts, but all at once” seems to me on the mark.
As with the characters of Russian fiction, many seem emotionally uninhibited enough to hide little, from balmy generosity to gross vanity and grabbing. Tatyana Tolstaya, a distant relative of Lev Tolstoy, wrote in 2003, “Our country possesses certain peculiarities that verge on the fantastic. Russia has its own logic, which its most intelligent people have been unable to explain”. Of course, misfits are often unhappy but they can also be free in their way, a freedom of which few Americans are aware any more than of their own conformism. Most were convinced that Russians were robots during the Cold War, those with whom I kept company seemed to be connected to the legendary and real Russian disorder that gave the country a certain consistency, even if not order itself. Americans driven to “make it” know little about the profusion of nonchalant and impetuous conduct… of impulse, whim, caprice, extravagance, obsession, unpredictability, insouciance, impracticality, surrender to urges, willingness to lose, willingness to expose self-doubt and vulnerability… and few would envy it if they did know.
Whether or not the Russian instinct to seize the moment developed because there were sadly few moments to seize, it’s powerful. In Comrade, a play performed in New York by Vladivostok’s Maksim Gorky State Drama Theatre, the son of a very rich American living in Paris in the 1930s kept complaining about how boring everyone else is compared to Russians. Lamenting his bad luck for not having been born in Russia, he tells his sister they must make the other guests at an upcoming New Year’s party think they’re also “gay and mad and charming”. He confessed to the butler, “We’re congenitally dull”. The butler, a Russian prince who fled after the revolution, for whom New Year’s is occasion for lament rather than celebration, replied, “The trouble is, we’re congenitally savage”. The butler’s wife, a former grand duchess who’s now a maid, added, “Sentimental, but barbarian. Everything’s so sad, isn’t it. Even happiness”. Comrade’s half-caricaturist reflections about the Russian character rang bells for me, and so did an admirer of the huge bestseller in Russia by veteran journalist Nikolai Zlobin about the American character, America… What a Life!. The Zlobin admirer said, “He says it’s boring. It’s all okay, but it’s boring”.
25 April 2013
Russia Behind the Headlines