On Peter and the mysterious Russian soul.

A couple of weeks ago, I had another one of my regular spats with friends or acquaintances that happen whenever there’s something Russian or other I refuse to explain or declare untranslatable. As much as I protested and tried ineptly to describe my bi-lingual, bi-cultural dilemma, all was in vain: I was once again accused of arrogance and Russian exceptionalism and given up on. It happens.

Peter the GreatThen yesterday I was reading something quite unrelated: looking up some particular detail of Peter the Great’s activities — this czar, the founder of my home city and arguably Russia’ most important sovereign, rivaled only by Ivan the Terrible, is a frequent companion to our family conversations – and a thought occurred to me that my arguments with my friends about the “mysterious Russian soul” are really, at their core, Peter’s fault.

The myth I’m talking about is not obscure, but I am honestly not sure who is more affected by it: the “West” with its idea of the “mysterious Russian soul” or Russia with its idea of the “unique Russian destiny.” On both sides there are people who don’t buy it and push back against it, missing the underlying foundation of truth that bore the myth into existence; the proponents of the myth crank it up and lose all critical perspective; yelling and name-calling begins, closely followed by hair-pulling, and human condition once again reigns confusing and victorious over the issue.

Long story short, in yesterday’s reading I came across a curious fact: today is an anniversary of one of Peter’s persistent attempts to turn Russia into a “civilized” — meaning “Germanized” — nation. Peter was essentially raised by the German immigrant community in Moscow. To them he was attached, and their efficiency and precision and their culture and achievement he admired. With their customs and dress he was comfortable. Them he wanted to emulate, and he badly wanted to bring his huge, somewhat unwashed empire brimming with potential up to par with the Western world’s technology and sophistication.

Peter builds a boatPeter was more than unusual as a monarch; he was one of a kind. Nearly always in the uniform of a German officer, he measured Russia with his legendarily long legs in the heat, sleet, or snow. He slept on bivouac. He despised his own landed aristocrats and told them so in their faces. He began to build the first Russian Navy, and when I say “began to build,” I mean this emperor would roll up his sleeves and put an axe to the wood, muscles bulging and sweat rolling. Adored and feared, he was brilliant and ruthless — toward the people under his command and toward the people under his rule. He founded St. Petersburg as an entirely European city and made it his capital, but the strategic spot he had picked, where the most spectacular city in the world now reigns, is a primordial swamp, and the construction kept sinking time after time. Peter built his monument and the pride of Russia almost literally on three layers of the serfs’ bodies.

He did a lot during his reign. He did change Russia. On a lighter note, he wrote a lengthy instruction for young aristocrats on table manners and etiquette, the most famous paragraph of which forbids them to build “fences” around their plates from their meals’ bones and crusts.

And, to our initial point, on September 5, 1698, Peter I instituted a tax on beards.

That’s right. Peter wanted his people to think, act, and look…let’s say, “decent.” From his very particular point of view.

Now, the tax wasn’t his first choice. He tried just issuing a decree and even took out some scissors and cut the beards off his court nobility, right there in the Duma. Hey, the kid was 26. The problem is, strong-arming didn’t immediately work: beards in Russia were symbols of dignity, and shaving them off was considered a sin. Priests would deny blessing to beardless men; some people forcibly afflicted with beardlessness committed suicide. So Peter stepped back to a more incremental strategy of financial disincentive. Not bad for a 26-year-old.

First the nobility had to pay for the right to wear a beard, then other urban castes, until everyone looked Western with some exceptions: The law did not apply to the monks, priests, and deacons, who were allowed to obey a higher law of the Church, and the Church said, “beard up.” The czar didn’t mess with the Church. Neither did the law apply to the peasants. The literally “unwashed” masses of the empire, its bone, muscle, and gut, the overwhelming majority of its population — the serfdom — would remain exactly as they had been. Nobody cared what they looked like: they were not the face of Russia. Plus, they wouldn’t understand. Plus, it was probably impossible to teach them how to use a razor — and who would even undertake the titanic task of trying? And where would you even put all that hair?

I imagine the thinking would go along those lines.

And, of course, the law did not apply to Jews, though it had nothing to do with religious freedom. They just weren’t members of society. They didn’t belong to any of the urban castes.

Peter 1

And so, at the dusk of the 17th century, Russia, still unbending from the Mongolian yoke and exhausted from battling the Swedes, began its somewhat jerky march toward the setting sun, led by the insanely tall figure of Peter I, made occasionally taller by his German military hat. Most of the time, though, he went bare-headed.

Russia would never become Western. We are too Eastern for that. But we are too Western to be Eastern. The result of the process started by Peter and continued by an ensuing chain of Western European czars, as well as by the flow of history’s osmosis with the West and the East (Near and Far, for that matter), is a combination of sensibilities and influences, mentalities and customs, emotional make-up and historical upheavals from both edges of the round world — a whirlpool mind-boggling and yet not unfitting for a country so large that it straddles the boundary of Europe and Asia and spans from the Baltic to the Caspian to the Bering.

I think maybe that’s where the myth of the “mysterious Russian soul” is coming from. Russian soul, of course, is no more mysterious than any other: all souls are mysterious and no two souls are alike, which is a truth pretty universally acknowledged. It’s just that Russia resists being pegged by an outsider as much as it resists being explained by an insider. A long history of everything that’s ever happened has made us a people who talk a lot but understand the most from what isn’t said. And you can’t translate what isn’t said.

It’s not that Russia is more mysterious than anybody else. It’s just that it is uniquely so. Russia is a part of the world all unto itself. Not a European country and not Asian. Both. Neither. Russia.

Thanks, Pete.

Peter bronze horseman

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