They hired so many French girls to tutor me that all their features have gotten mixed up, merged into one common blur of a portrait. To my mind, all the little songs, dictations, chrestomathies, and conjugations made these French and Swiss girls regress into childhood themselves. At the center of a worldview dislocated by chrestomathies stood the figure of the great emperor Napoleon and the war of 1812, followed by Joan of Arc (though one Swiss girl turned out to be a Calvinist), and no matter how hard I tried, being a curious boy, to get them to tell me something about France, I could get nothing more than that it was beautiful. The French girls prized the art of speaking quickly and loquaciously, while the Swiss valued the knowledge of children's songs--the "Malborough song" taking pride of place. These poor young women were deeply taken by the cult of great men: Hugo, Lamartine, Napoleon, and Molière... On Sundays, they were given leave to attend Mass; they were not supposed to have any acquaintances.When Americans hear that Stalin was recently voted one of the greatest Russian heroes, or some such thing, they often take it the wrong way--as if the love of Stalin were evidence of some underlying allegiance to communism, or, indeed, Stalinism. In other words, they take Stalin's ideological position to be identical with Stalin's ideological significance. This is, of course, a mistake. If it were really the ideological position that mattered, Lenin would have won out--after all, Stalin made his career as Lenin's vicar on Earth. The reason Stalin can be ranked today in the same poll as Stolypin and Peter the Great is that his "greatness" is profoundly non-Leninist: to the extent that he had genius, it was in the grafting of a barefaced Great Russianism onto an ideology that by 1928 had largely outlived its usefulness. (Perhaps it was only because Stalin was Georgian, as well as an expert on the problem of the nationalities, that he managed to pull it off so cleanly.)
Somewhere in Île-de-France: grape casks, white roads, poplars, the vintner with his daughters goes to Grandma's house in Rouen. He comes back--everything is "scellé," all the presses and vats are sealed, sealing-wax on the doors and cellars. The foreman tried to hide a few buckets of new wine from the excise. He was caught. The family is ruined. An enormous fine--and, thus, the harsh French laws have given me a tutor.
Well, what business did I have with the guardsmen's festivals, the monotonous prettiness of the infantry regiments and horses, with the stone-faced battalions that flowed with resounding step down the Millionnaya, graying with granite and marble?
The whole graceful mirage of St. Petersburg was only a dream, a glittering shroud spread over the abyss, and around it was the chaos of Judaism, not a motherland, a home, or a hearth, but precisely a chaos, an unknown womb-world from which I had been born, which I feared, of which I had a vague inkling, and from which I was fleeing, always fleeing.
The chaos of Judaism seeped through all the cracks of the stone St. Petersburg apartment--with the threat of ruin, with a hat left in the room of a houseguest from the provinces, with the hooklike type of the unreadable books of Genesis discarded on the dusty bookshelf under Goethe and Schiller, and with the tatters of yellow-black ritual.
The strong, ruddy Russian year rolled through the calendar with painted eggs, Christmas trees, steel-bladed Finnish iceskates, December, Shrovetide sleighs, and summer-houses. But there was also a specter that was always in the way--a New Year in September and strange somber feasts that tore the ears with their wild names: Rosh-Hashanah and Yom-Kippur.
- Osip Mandelstam, The Noise of Time (Шум Времени)
The poll may be regarded as only the most recent development in an ideological project of enormous significance for post-communist Russia. This is the sifting of the communist experience into two bins: "Marxism-Leninism" and "national greatness." The former is embarrassing, obsolete, and profoundly unsexy. The latter is the only conceivable moral framework and policy objective for any self-respecting Russian. The former's existence could be justified because it served as a womb for the latter, with Stalin acting as midwife; the emergence of democratic/Putinist Russia is thus less of a break with the past and more of a qualitative Aufhebung of the World Spirit of Great Russian nationalism.
A feature of this duality that is acknowledged rather less often is that it possesses a clearly defined ethnic-cultural dimension. National greatness is the work of Russians (and a couple Georgians). Marxism-Leninism is the work of--you guessed it--Jews. The most firmly established self-vindicating contemporary narrative of the communist era is that dirty, ratfaced Trotsky and dirty Lenin (who not only had a Jewish grandfather or something but is also generally described as dropping his Rs in speech, a trait normally associated with Jews) fucked over "our" country and "us" with "their" communism. Thus Putinism has only to pick the pure Russianness out of the adulterated twentieth century and write a revisionist history where it marches triumphantly forward.
But, as Mandelstam's experience demonstrates, things were never quite so simple. He escapes the encroaching chaos of Jewishness only to discover that, circa 1900, there is nothing on the other side. There is the "glittering shroud," to be sure; but there is no Russian culture to join. His upwardly (and outwardly) mobile family hires French people to tutor him, not because they want to broaden his horizons, but to enable him to participate in a culture where everyone has been tutored in French. It is a culture that exists as a hybrid, a collection of accumulated influences--pseudo-French aristocratism, Jewishness, "raznochinstvo," science and commerce. Even the seasonal traditions he cites are far from being rooted in Russian soil, as the Finnish iceskates and sleighs (actually "вейки," defined as "Finnish [or Estonian] coachmen in old St. Petersburg who would give rides every year on Shrovetide in sleighs bedecked with bells and ribbons") testify.
Mandelstam, who would soon convert to Lutheranism, was hardly a less hostile critic of Jewish culture than the contemporary revisionists from Solzhenitsyn on down. Yet today's benighted Kulturmachers prefer to invent a mock-Russian culture to champion, complete with onion domes, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and sanctified Romanovs (all of which paraphernalia are as if ready-made for sale to tourists). Mandelstam, for his part, tried to create a culture from the ground up--and I would say he was much the nobler man, despite, or because of, his failure.