Forlag: Cappelen Damm (Norge)
A thousand years ago, Russia could appear as a haven seen from Norway. Both Olav Tryggvason and Olav the saint found refuge in the town of Holmgard in Gardarike when their lives were threatened at home. Holmgard was the Vikings' name for Novgorod, and Gardarike, the land of the cities, was Russia. Today, few people see Russia as a safe haven. What was it that happened? How did Russia, despite its rich culture, become so monstrous, so ugly?
The award-winning Russian author Mikhail Shishkin, known for, among other things, the novel Venushar from 2005, gives in the essay collection Peace or war his answer to the question. The book opens with the sentence "It hurts to be Russian". Today, it's a feeling you can understand. Senseless, monstrous acts are committed by the Russian regime and in the name of the Russian people. The land many have been fascinated by because of its literature, icons, beauty and mystery, is now turned away in disgust. And many Russians do the same. How could it be like this? In eleven short essays, Shishkin tries to find an answer to the question.
The land many have been fascinated by because of its literature, icons, beauty and mystery, is now turned away in disgust.
Growing up in Moscow
The author, who was born in 1961, no longer lives in Russia. He has lived in Switzerland for more than 20 years. He can well be considered a Russian émigré writer, a successor to Vladimir Nabokov and Ivan Bunin.
We get glimpses of growing up in Moscow. It was typical in many ways. The father was an alcoholic. As a young man during the Great Patriotic War, he served on board a submarine. The fear of sinking to the bottom trapped in a steel coffin left its mark. For the rest of his life, his father drank vodka with his war comrades. The author's mother was the principal of a school. In many ways a typical Soviet family: a resourceful and capable mother and an overstuffed father. The family was also typical in another way. The father was Russian, the mother Ukrainian. There were hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of such mixed marriages in the Soviet Union.
The Moscow princes and khans
In the essay "The Tsar on the Mound", the author takes us on a journey through Russian history from the Middle Ages to the present day. It can be objected that it goes a little beyond stone and rock. Given the subject, it is strange that he does not spend more time on Ivan IV, who in Russian has the nickname "the menacing" and in the West "the cruel". In contrast, the hero-prince Aleksandr Nevsky, who defeated the Swedes and the German crusaders in important battles, is assigned a villainous role. Shishkin emphasizes that the prince was also a willing tool for the Mongol khan in Saraj.
Two historical events have been decisive for Russia becoming what it became – and not becoming part of Europe. One is that in 988 Russia was Christianized not from Rome, but from Byzantium. The Russians did not learn Latin. It was one of the reasons why the country fell outside the European Community. The second event was the Mongol invasion of the Russian city-states in 1240. Then followed a night that lasted two hundred and fifty years, the so-called the tartar race. Except that, according to Shishkin, it was nothing tartaryoke. The yoke was Russian. The Khans stayed far away, in the city of Saraj on the Volga. But the Russian princes were more than willing to run the khan's errands. They terrorized their own people, pressed them for taxes and took the riches to Saraj, where they won the favor of the khans.
The most skilled were the Moscow princes. Moscow was barely on the map before mongol-invasion, but the city grew and became strong under the power of the khans. The Moscow princes understood how to put part of the treasure in their own pockets. One of them was called Ivan Kalita, or the wallet.
But it was also the Moscow princes who rebelled against tartarone and beat them. The problem was, Shishkin writes, that the Moscow princes became as despotic and cruel as the khans had ever been, and the Moscow Empire was nothing more than a continuation of the Golden Horde.
The author gives a personal and vivid picture of Soviet Unions collapse in 1991 and what happened since. Russia went from despotism to anarki and back to despot again. Somewhere in the middle there was perhaps a brief period of hope. But the movement of the pendulum was lawful and inexorable.
Shishkin asserts that there is another Russia, another Russian people who, despite Asian despotism and Byzantine Orthodox Christianity, are Europeans.
At the same time, Shishkin asserts that there is another Russia, another Russian people who, despite Asian despotism and Byzantine Orthodox Christianity, are Europeane. It is these who have created the rich Russian literature, music and visual arts, in short, the culture.
But does Shishkin himself believe in the saving power of culture? Some points in the book are particularly interesting. Shishkin has long pointed out that Russia, unlike Germany, has never come to terms with its own totalitariane past. One difference, of course, is that Germany lost World War II. Another is that Berlin was never a province of the Golden Horde.
Another point is related to Putin's incomprehensible invasion of Ukraine. Shishkins says: "Under no circumstances are those in power in Russia going to allow a democratic Russian state to exist." The author is undoubtedly right in this, also in the fact that those in power in Moscow regard Ukraine as one Russian state. But the wording shows that Shishkin does it too. Emigrant, democrat and Westerner, he is still a Muscovite.
Much of what is written in this book is known to many, but it also gives a personal picture of Shishkin's Russia, the country he chose to leave.
I recommend Peace or war. It is worth reading.
The book has been translated by Merete Franz.