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The Russia We Have Lost

On a mural.

It is late one winter evening in the charming residence of one of the smaller western embassies in Moscow. The date is some time in the 1980s. The building is one of those handsome, well-proportioned nineteenth-century houses in the old unspoiled streets south of the river, classical, low, modest and set back from the road. Once, long ago, it must have belonged to a middle-class family of musicians, intense, over-sensitive girls and bad poets, squabbling around the samovar about literary controversies. Its most delightful feature is a mural high on the walls of the main reception room showing several rather beautiful children happily at play in an idyllic garden.

There is a soft knocking at the door, and the diplomat’s wife, who is alone in the house, cautiously opens up. On the doorstep, in the snow, stands one of those eternal Russian grandmothers, wrapped in black. Her face is appallingly lined with wrinkles of age and care. She is mumbling and nearly toothless. Out of nothing more than human kindness, the diplomat’s wife invites her in. And she is astonished to hear from the crone’s mouth a few words in halting French. “Please,” she asks, “may I see inside the salon?” How can she refuse?  She conducts the shrunken, trembling figure into the large warm chamber. There she stops and stares silently at the painted walls. Is she perhaps crying? It is hard to tell. Eventually, she whispers, “These are my children.” Then, refusing all questions or offers of hospitality, she hurries out into the night and disappears.

This urban legend, or something very like it, was sometimes told in Moscow, among journalists and diplomats, around the time I lived there in the early 1990s. I never tried to track it down, or heard it confirmed. For me it has the virtue that, if it is not true, it ought to be. For in a few harrowing moments it describes one of the most terrible consequences of the Bolshevik seizure of power, the obliteration of an entire stratum of society by exile, proscription, death, deportation and expropriation. None of the Russian middle classes, as war began in 1914, could possibly have seen the nightmare future. Nor would they have believed it if they had been shown it. They thought, much as we do, that their happy world was permanent.

We in the prosperous, safe Western nations may find the middle classes tiresome, stuck up, over-rewarded and self-important. But if we are sensible, deep down we are glad of them. Without this layer of independent, educated, conservative men and women, there is no real brake on our society. Who knows what madness might happen, without opposition or criticism from this layer of our solid societies? As the Czech democrat Jan Masaryk once pointed out, happy is the country in which respectable gentlemen riding down the main street of the capital in a tram may say to their neighbors “I don’t think much of the present government!” without being denounced and arrested.

Moscow once had such a middle class. You can see a gallery of their serious Christian, responsible faces near the beginning of Stanislav Govorukhin’s heartbreaking film from 1992, The Russia We Have Lost, a work barely known in the West and, as far as I know, never shown there. It mourns the destruction of a great civilization, full of calm and beauty, by the Bolsheviks. And it demolishes the standard revolutionary myth that the old society was so bad that it justified the upheaval. As George Orwell noted in Nineteen Eighty Four, the past is all too easily suppressed. Winston Smith muses after a failed attempt to get an old man to tell him about the past, “When memory failed and written records were falsified—when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested.”

Govorukhin’s film rescued the slandered past and changed many Russian minds. The story of the mural did much the same for me. In some private places in the Russian capital there were moving traces of an obliterated time. There were not many of them. They were often quite slight. It required much imagination to realize that there might once have been another city under all the filth and ugliness. But it was so. There is a particular part of Moscow, near the Tretyakov Gallery, where the past always seemed closer, especially near a graceful church whose name, “The Consolation of All Sorrows,” seemed so heartening then and seems so necessary now.

I had gone to live in Moscow as a repentant ex-Bolshevik, more savagely hostile to the Communist regime than most Westerners can imagine. In my Trotskyist years I had imagined the Russian Revolution as a momentous change in the history of the world and, my mind intoxicated by too much Beethoven and too much Trotsky, I had pictured insurrectionary Petrograd as the center of a new world, surmounted by a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. I had fairly quickly found in the years since that this was, in general, a grave mistake. It is many years since I retained any sympathy for utopianism. But it was only when I went to live there that I saw, in particular and miniature, that what I had once idealized had in fact been a great convulsion of cruelty and loss. I also discovered a thing we are inclined to forget, that Russians are individuals, most remarkably like us.

What if this could now be put right, if once again the sweet, low houses of Moscow could be populated by gentle, literate, moral people rather than the worn-down, demoralized Homo Sovieticus, the poor victims of seven decades of mistaken dogma? What if after a few years of recovery and reconstruction, the lost glories of the city’s hundreds of churches could be restored, and Russia, the most moving place I ever visited or lived in, might at last become the free, happy, prosperous society it was on the edge of becoming before war and Bolshevism wrecked everything for seven long decades? So few people understand now that Lenin’s putsch of 1917 did not overthrow the Czar, who was already gone. It overthrew a new-born democracy which in the middle of a terrible war had managed to conduct the only free, fair election in Russian history.  

I so wanted Russia to be given the chance to find law and liberty again. I could see, as the years went trundling past, that it could not be a simple restoration, the filth cleared away, the grime scrubbed off, the old beauties restored. The Bolshevik damage was far deeper than that. The new Russia, after seventy years of sneering official scorn for God and His angels, was often coarse and greedy. Its attempts at proper government were clumsy and frequently actually stupid. The new wealth flowed into the hands of crude and tasteless persons, rather than to gentle men and women who loved books and concerts. But even so, this was the unsurprising result of a society damaged very deep down by Communism. Given time, given exposure to the freedom of others, given the chance to rekindle the flame of Christian belief, it might yet work. The young Russians who had grown up since the end of Bolshevism often seemed to me to be admirably untouched by the horrible past, and full of possibilities. There were people with genuine civil courage.

In the meantime, I would try to put in a good word for Russia when others would not. People in the West did not know what its sufferings and sorrows had been, or how reasonably concerned its people were about their security, so many times invaded,  massacred, burned, starved and destroyed. They allowed anti-Russian prejudice to close their minds to the undoubted virtues of a brave and stoical people. My time there had utterly changed my life, and for the better, made me a fuller, more adult person than I could ever otherwise have been. It would never leave me. The least I could do was to urge that we keep our channels of communication open, and not make everything worse by treating the whole country as a fearful pariah. I noticed as I made this case that nobody was listening. Even so, I felt it was a case worth making. I still do. If anyone had listened to me and the others who made these warnings, this might not have happened.

But a few days ago, I put away all these hopes. By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin confirmed all the worst anti-Russian prejudices in the world. He condemned his country to a new dingy period of isolation, censorship, and institutional stupidity. He showed that those who believed he had ultimately been shaped in the iniquity of Soviet malice were right. If a recovery is to come, it will not come in his time, or thanks to him. It probably will not come at all. The Russia we have lost turns out to be even more lost than it was. The curse placed on the land by Lenin and Stalin will turn out not to have been lifted after all as I fondly hoped it had been thirty years ago. For me, therefore, this is a time of temporal despair. Every morning is gray, as I wake to the realization that one of the most important desires of my life will now definitely never come true. I had hoped to make perhaps two or three more visits to Moscow to see life improving and civilization returning. Now I don’t think I shall ever go there again.

Yes, yes, I know very well that these small and insignificant personal disappointments are nothing compared to the griefs of those now under Russian bombardment, and of those in Russia now realizing that their state has destroyed their future. We need, once again, the Consolation of All Sorrows, and as usual it will not come from any temporal source.