Behind the Iron Curtain – Chapter XI (fifth part)

Yesterday (August 17, 2012), the world chess champion Garry Kasparov was arrested and brutally beaten by the Russian police. This happened while he attended a peaceful event in support of freedom of expression in Moscow, in front of the courthouse where three punk rockers were sentenced to prison for “hooliganism”.

This event unfolding in 2012 inspired me to go back to what George Manu wrote about the Russian political regimes in his “Behind the Iron Curtain”, in 1948.

43. How might Russia be stopped? (excerpt)

In fact, the difficulties encountered by the American and English people in their relations with the Russians seem to be the result of an illusion. Democratic ideology and anti-racial propaganda during war broadly spread the rather simple idea that all men were perfectly identical all over the world. Besides, American and British people know very little about foreign mentalities and are prone to be too generous in their estimations. Hence the illusion mentioned above. Cabinet members in Washington and London, as well as American and English journalists, and the more so the English speaking man in the street, think of the Russians as they would do about themselves and seem to be amazed and even puzzled when they find a difference. As a matter of fact, Russian mentality has very little in common with Anglo-Saxon mentality.

First of all, the Russians possess no tradition of liberty, of representative government and of political education of the people. Nothing ever existed in Russian history approaching “Magna Charta”, “Habeas Corpus”, the Pilgrim Fathers or the Declaration of Independence.  The Russian people, from the very beginning of their history, that is over 1 000 years, have always lived under autocratic regimes of terror, supported by a secret police. These autocratic regimes of terror were mostly created by foreigners and led by them, thus clearly demonstrating how little prepared Russian people are for political life in their own country. The only great leader of true Russian stock in the whole Russian history was Peter the Great. A government of the people, by the people and for the people never existed in Russia and still less exists to-day. Russia has always had and still has a government of the foreign minority, by the secret police and for the military caste. To-day, Russia has the government of the Georgian Stalin, by the N.K.V.D., for the Red Army. Such a government, if free from internal trouble, might only be expansionist, just as it was in the past.

In the second instance, Russia has never had precise limits. Russia is an immense plain, boundlessly outstretched. No large rivers, no high mountains, no infinite oceans divide Russia from her neighbouring countries. Russia is not an island like Great Britain, nor strictly limited between two oceans like the United States. For a Russian, the idea of being bound is as intolerable as would have been for an American of 1820 or 1830 the idea of the United States being forbidden to extend into the Far West[1].

In the third instance, the Russian is no sedate man, who feels happy to live where he is born and where his parents and ancestors were born, have lived and died. The Russian is a nomad. He therefore considers the ideas of removal and deportation as quite natural. All those who have travelled in Russia are familiar with the sight of a small two-wheeled cart going, on and on, on endless roads, carrying a bundle of old rags and pushed in turns by the members of a family moving hundreds of miles west, south and eastwards because they had been told a better living could be found there, far away.

These three Russian characteristic features: the autocratic and military regime, the lack of geographical bounds and the nomadic mood, can only bring on a tendency of expansion, that is to say an imperialistic policy, just as the whole history of Russia proves.

Another characteristic feature of the Russian people is that they have never partaken in any way, during the last thousand years, of the slow creation of the present Western Civilization, under none of its forms, spiritual, moral, social, scientific, artistic, technical or economic. A thin upper class began after 1750 to assimilate these forms and, after 1830, even to create, but this class was swept away by the Soviet Revolution.

The Russian people and their present leading class have been educated, have lived and go on living in the atmosphere of an Asiatic conception of life, the roots of which are in a very far-off past and which is almost impossible to grasp for a Western mentality. First of all, the Russians only understand power and constraint as grounds of a government and of law. Tolerance, goodwill, the respect of one another, freely accepted discipline, are completely strange to them, and are regarded as signs of weakness. Promises and signatures are not considered as freely accepted engagements but as simple formalities, settled on the spur of the moment. Lies are considered shameful only if they are discovered and good faith is considered a sign of simplicity of mind. An atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust is the normal consequence of such a conception of life.

The Asiatic mentality is especially noticeable when a Russian is in contact with a Western man, whom he envies for his education, riches and cleverness, whom he despises for his sincerity regarded as simplicity, and whom he instinctively suspects of being an enemy.

The rather violent misunderstanding which occurred in London in September 1945 between Mr. Bevin and M. Molotov and in February 1946 between Mr. Bevin and M. Vyshinski was due to this fundamental difference of mentalities. Mr. Bevin was certainly aware of the fact when he reproached M. Molotov his “Mongolic” way of discussing.

The Russians regard the American and British declarations about the four – years’ “brotherhood of arms” against Germany as childish and ridiculous. They fought Germany quite naturally because the latter invaded their country, they are proud to the outmost for having beaten the “fascist invaders” and they simply welcomed the American war material because they wanted it. But they certainly have no such thing as a feeling of comradeship towards their former allies. This feeling is purely Western and completely strange to their minds. To-day, the Russians only think of drawing the utmost profit out of their success and no feeling of comradeship would ever prevent them from prompting any kind of trouble against Western Powers. Besides, in Russian military circles, they openly speak of the third World War which they consider unavoidable and about the successes they expect to have against their former allies.

Therefore, all efforts made by the United States and Great Britain in order to attract Russia into an international system of mutual understanding seem to be fatally doomed to fail. Russia cannot be caught in the game of the universal peace because this game allows freely accepted rules and no Russian could ever understand the meaning of the word “game-rule”. The only rules the Russians understand are those imposed by strength.[2]


[1] On the question of boundless Russia, see for instance: Grégoire Gafenco, “Préliminaires de la guerre à l’est”, Fribourg, Egloff, 1944, pp. 370 – 375.

[2] On all these questions, one may consult Brooks Atkinson’s highly interesting article “Russia 1946” in the “Life” issue of July 22-th 1946.

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