Around 200 years ago, Russia experienced an uprising against despotism. Less an uprising than a gentle protest, a request for the kind of freedoms that Europe has been clamoring for in the aftermath of the Age of Enlightenment. The leaders were harshly punished — some with death, some with humiliating forced labor in remote Siberia. The Decemberist uprising of 1825 was one of the few times when voices were raised in Russia calling for a Russia respectful of human rights and aspirations rather than Russia despotic and brutally crushing any threat to its security. It is the Decemberists who inspired the idea of freedom as a shared pursuit — "For our freedom and yours" — later embraced by the Polish insurrection of November 1830.
By Unknown from Poland - Image taken by User:Mathiasrex Maciej Szczepańczyk, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1864374
This moment is one of the few in history that allow us to admire Russian greatness. Russians living with us in the West love to revel in a much broader narrative of Russian greatness, referring to massive outpouring of creativity in the arts, literature and music starting at the beginning of the 1800s. The fact of the Russian creativity is undeniable and remarkable — yet still it occurs against a backdrop of political system of aggressive despotism begun way before Enlightenment and spanning multiple ideologies from the idea of the Tsardom of All Russia, through the Russian Empire morphing into the Soviet Union, to the present Putinist dictatorship. With few exceptional moments in history, Russia has always been a despotic, soul crushing, brutally aggressive, autocracy, since its beginning, as the principality of Muscovy, in the late 1400s.
Those who are of Russia and wish to praise and take pride in its greatness need to stop and consider its despotic and murderous legacy. Why is it that so many Russian greats resident in the country have taken to apologies for despotism while so many prominent emigrés became aloof cosmopolitans? Perhaps because they all think the despotic system is unreformable? Perhaps because they understand that the Russian mentality cannot be shifted away from the habit of bending to despotic authority?
And finally understand that the greatness is likewise a product of the despotic system.
The world stands still in admiration of Russian greatness — and is muted in expressing it. Of course, this is due to the appalling aggression in Ukraine. I am, as many in the West, revolted to hear about Russian greatness — even from well-meaning Russian friends. Russian people, Russian elites, need to re-earn their standing in the world, similarly to Germans after World War II. I urge you to begin — and begin with humility.
I am writing this missive thinking about the poetic address by Mickiewicz in 1832 — "To my Muscovy friends (Do przyjaciół Moskali)" — mourning his former friends who had taken the side of the Tsarist regime or had been punished by it. Being an emigré Pole, I know that on foreign ground in the US we are friendly and actually like each other as people. We connect by the common experience of the underground culture opposed to Communist oppression, like Vysotsky and Okudzhava. It is a sort of Decemberist connection which aims at shared aspiration to freedom — but abhors Imperial Russia.