Monday, August 22, 2011

Russka, by Edward Rutherford

While I was listening to the audio recording of Anna Karenina, I decided to completely Russify myself by picking up Edward Rutherford's epic historical novel, Russka, in print.  Edward Rutherford is perhaps best known for Sarum, his first novel set in the region of Salisbury, England, spanning millennia.

Cap of Monomakh, Vladimir II
As the book opens, Russka is a fictional village in what is now Ukraine.  Eventually, some of its residents migrate northwards and establish another village, which they also name Russka, not far from present-day Moscow. The story begins in AD 180 and closes with the epilogue in 1990. At both moments, "Softly the wind moved over the land." The wind and vast landscape have, at least, remained constant.

Attempting a single-volume historical novel about Russia spanning such a colossal period is audacious, to put it mildly. The people who occupy the two Russkas are fictional, but they interact with historical figures in a very cleverly devised plot. For the avid Russophile, this book will be relatively light reading, but for someone who is looking for the sweeping overview of Russian history in a enjoyably readable package, Russka is just the ticket.

In AD 180, Russka is a settlement on the edge of the steppe. Its residents don't stray far and remain alert for raids by mounted tribes such as the Alans. The story then moves  forward to the rule of Vladimir I, who established his capital in nearby Kiev and decided, after some research, that his kingdom would be Orthodox Christian.  (I remember from other sources that Vladimir rejected Islam as soon as his ambassadors reported that Muslims eschewed alcohol.)
Everyone knew the story of the Blessed Vladimir’s conversion: how he had sent out to the three great religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – and how his ambassadors, having visited Constantinople, reported to him that in the Christian church of the Greek, ‘We did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven.’

Although he emphasises the Russian admiration for the Greek Orthodox religion and culture, Mr. Rutherford makes plain that Russia has always had one foot solidly in the orient; it has never been and will likely never be a European culture.
The courts in the land of Rus were not like those of western Europe. The Russian princes did not seek, like the rulers of Bohemia and Poland, to join the elaborate feudal network of Europe; nor were they interested in its manners or the new ideas of knightly chivalry. Their models, rather, came from the orient. For had not all the rulers of these vast lands come from the east? From the ancient Scythians and Alans who could still be found in their druzhina, from the once vanished Avars and Huns, from the mighty Khazars, the rulers of the borderlands had always been godlike despots from far away. 

Russian history is dotted with tyrants. Whether you lived under Tsar the Terrible or Tsar the Great or even Tsar the Mildly Disturbed, you lived under an iron fist. Throughout the book, however, various characters suggest that autocracy is the only possible government for Russia. In 1113, a character voices the desire for someone to wrest order from the chaos.
‘All we need,’ he told the Khazar, ‘is a wise and godly man, a true prince, a strong ruler.’ It was a medieval phantom that was to be the curse of most of Russian history.

Russka also faced outside menaces galore, like the Tatars, AKA the Mongols, who swept in from the east on their scruffy ponies, wreaking mayhem.  They were not the most highly civilised people, but the Mongols were terrifying archers, armed with...
...bows and two quivers with which they could shoot at the gallop. The bows were fearsome – very large, composite, with a pull of over one hundred and sixty pounds – more powerful, that is, than the famous English longbow. They had a destructive range of up to three hundred yards. Like all his men, Mengu had first learned to draw a bow when he was three.

Weather did not deter the Mongols.
For the general view, that Russia is protected by her winter, is incorrect. The winter is a very good time to attack Russia. In spring and autumn, mud makes the land impassable. In summer, there are large rivers to cross. But in winter, the rivers are frozen solid and it is easy to travel if one is prepared for the cold and knows how to move over the snow. The Mongols were no strangers to harsh winters. They liked them.

By 1454, the Mongols/Tatars had largely taken over Russia, and things were looking grim in other directions, as well.  
How she [Russia] had suffered. For two centuries now she had lain, dismembered, under the Tatar yoke. On every side she was threatened. To the south, Tatars swept across the steppe; to the east, the Tatar Khan – the Tsar, as the Russians called him – and his vassals the Volga Bulgars held their vast Asiatic dominion. And to the west, now, a huge new power had arisen: for in the vacuum left by the collapse of old Russia, the Baltic tribe of Lithuanians – first pagan, now Catholic – had swept across western Russia and taken the land even as far as ancient Kiev itself.

Not long after, Tsar Ivan (the Terrible, or the Awesome, depending upon the translator's bias) took charge.
Ivan: Holy Tsar, Autocrat of all the Russias. No ruler before had taken such titles. And his capital was Moscow. This was the state known to history as Muscovy, and it was already a tremendous power. One by one, in the process known as the Gathering, the mighty cities of northern Russia had fallen to Moscow and her armies. Tver, Riazan, Smolensk – even mighty Novgorod – had given up their ancient independence. And this new state was no federation: the Prince of Moscow was as great a despot as was once the Tatar Khan. Absolute obedience to the centre: this was the doctrine of the Moscow princes. ‘Only in this way,’ their supporters claimed, ‘will the state of Rus return to her ancient glory.’ There was still a long way to go. Even now, most of western Russia and the lands of ancient Kiev in the south, were still in the grip of mighty Lithuania.

Mr. Rutherford does not limit himself to Russian politics -- his characters in the two Russkas give us great views of the local culture and customs throughout the centuries. Rus vs. Tatar, noble vs. peasant, man vs. woman, Cossack (Ukrainian) vs. Russian...  It's far from a homogeneous population.
The Tatars on Muscovy’s borders often lived in these strange, mobile houses – not so much caravans, like those used by the gypsies of western Europe, as wooden huts with small wheels underneath them. To the Tatars, the fixed abodes of the Russians, attracting rats and all kinds of vermin, were like pigsties. To Boris their mobile homes proved that they were shifting and untrustworthy.

The author even slaughters a sacred cow or two. Vodka, not originally Russian?! I haven't been so flabbergasted since I read that the Viennese, not the French, invented the croissant.  
They stopped, briefly, at a little drinking booth where they were serving vodka. He liked this spirit that went down one so easily, even though at this time it was mainly used by the lower classes. It was not a Russian drink at all, but had started to enter Russia from the west through Poland in the last century. Indeed, its very name was only the mispronunciation by Russian merchants of the Latin name it bore: aqua vitae.

We see Tsars come and go, and the families of the two Russkas continue, one generation after the next, to play their small parts in Russia's history.  The Cossacks yearn for greater Ukrainian independence; the Jews meet with increasing hostility; the Orthodox faith confronts a minor schism; the nobles and rulers agonise over how best to deal with the intractable and suffering Russian peasant; the French enlightenment invites interest from some of the nobles and utter scorn from others, but it presages the western European concept of Socialism. All of this history washes through the homes of Russka -- we are not viewing it from within the Kremlin or St. Basil's Cathedral.

As the reign of Tsar Nicholas II winds to its close, one of Russka's noble land-owners has given up. Trying to maintain his estate has ruined him, so he and his family abandon it to the peasants who live upon it as they retire to an apartment in Moscow.  Socialism may be on its way, but Russka does not seem especially fertile ground for the premise that "all men are equal".  The chasms between them are so vast.

They were a typical contrast: the noble in his straw hat, open linen jacket, waistcoat, fob watch and tie, looking so western he might just have come from watching an English cricket match; the Russian peasant, the perfect muzhik, in loose trousers, bast shoes, red shirt and broad belt, unchanged since the ancient times of golden Kiev. Two cultures, both calling themselves Russian, yet with nothing in common except their land, their language, and a church in which neither of them usually bothered to worship.

Maybe, in the end, Russia does need an autocratic ruler, a Tsar of All Russias, a ruler worthy to wear the Cap of Monomakh.

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