US on the brink of racial war?

Author : "New Journal of Zurich" Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Source : Neuen Zürcher Zeitung

Just as American liberals feel guilt towards blacks, so the Russian intelligentsia then felt guilty towards the proletariat and "common people"
10:00, 16 September 2020


Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin was "colored:" he had dark skin, black curly hair, and full, sensual lips. His great-grandfather, "Moor of the Sovereign" Abram Petrovich Hannibal, was born into the family of an African prince, either in Eritrea or in Cameroon; it was bought by the Russian envoy in Constantinople, Count Tolstoy, from an Ottoman slave trader - and presented to Peter the Great. Exotic origin did not prevent Peter’s godson from making a successful career and becoming a major general and governor of Reval (Tallinn), supervising the construction of sea fortresses and canals.

The poet was proud of his origin, but at the same was kind of self-ironic: "But I, an eternally idle rake, ugly descendant of Negroes, brought up in wild simplicity, not knowing the sufferings of love, I please young beauty with the shameless frenzy of desires: [thus] sometimes, with an involuntary fame on her cheeks, a young nymph, not understanding herself, looks stealthily at a faun," he wrote in 1820. The situation of black slaves depressed him so much that he compared them with the Greeks, who had fought for independence from Turkey since 1821: “About the fate of the Greeks one is permitted to reason, just as of the fate of my brothers the Negroes—one may wish both groups freedom from unendurable slavery.”

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Russia had no overseas colonies (with the exception of a brief possession of Alaska), and it did not participate in the slave trade – unlike the European powers. Nevertheless, contemporaries compared the position of serfs, who belonged to their landlords along with other property, with the position of black slaves in America. Accordingly, the slave system in America served as an important element in the criticism of economic and social relations in the Russian Empire in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The fact that serfs were no less slaves than Pushkin's "brothers" could be found in The Journey from Petersburg to Moscow written in 1790 by Alexander Radishchev, one of the first Russian fighters for the abolition of serfdom, who harshly criticized the ruling class for corruption and cruelty towards the serfs. He called the enslavement of "a man like himself" a "brutal custom." When Catherine II, with a pen in a hand, read his book and commented on the tragic episodes in which the author described the sale at an auction of a peasant family and the murder of one landowner who allegedly raped 60 girls, Radishchev was sentenced to death. However, later the empress pardoned him, and the execution was replaced by a ten-year exile to Siberia.

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In 1807, an article by a certain Vasyl Popugaev was published in "Thalia" collected works, which says: “A Negro cannot belong to a white man for any rights.” It was not difficult for the reader to guess that this meant serfdom in his own country. “Peasant farmers are still slaves among us.” Serf Andrei Lotsmanov, who set out to create his own anti-serf society, wrote a story entitled "The Negro, or Freedom Returned," the main character of which, a Negro young man, stigmatized everyone who, with their "inhumanity", trampled on religion and equality between people. As a result, by order of Tsar Nicholas I, he was imprisoned in a fortress.

Looking at this empathy in relation to black brothers and their white comrades in misfortune, one can easily forget that Pushkin, like almost all Russian poets and thinkers of the "Golden Age" of the first half of the 19th century (including the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev, poets Mikhail Lermontov and Ivan Turgenev, writer and opponent of the regime of Alexander Herzen) themselves were the owners of human "souls" or lived by exploiting serfs. Shortly before the abolition of serfdom in 1861, there were more serfs in the Russian Empire than black slaves in the United States. There, on the eve of the Civil War, there were four million blacks, which was 12% of the 34.4 million population of the country. In Russia, however, there were 23 million serfs, which accounted for about a third of the 67 million population.

In addition, the share of precisely Russian serfs significantly exceeded the share of serfs belonging to other nationalities and was twice as high as the share of Ukrainians. In the central provinces of Russia, for example, in Tula and Smolensk, this figure reached 70%. Thus, the Russian ethnos suffered from violence, atrocities, and exploitation within the framework of the serfdom system much more than the minorities colonized by Tsarist Russia.

So it is no coincidence that the actions in the famous novel by Nikolai Gogol "Dead Souls" (1842) and in "Notes of a Hunter" (1847-1852) by Ivan Turgenev took place in Central Russia. Literary historian Alexander Skabichevsky in 1891 called Turgenev's stories "a remarkable historical monument of his time" - including from the point of view of protest against serfdom. According to him, "Notes of a Hunter" were a kind of continuation of "Dead Souls", expressing the spirit of humanism and love for the "oppressed peasant". This spirit was also imbued with the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, written at the same time (in 1852).

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Equating Russian serfs and American slaves to each other becomes even more symbolic if we consider that fundamental changes began almost simultaneously in both countries: the liberation reforms of Alexander II in Russia and the abolition of slavery during the American Civil War. Soon after the announcement of the royal will to free the serfs in St. Petersburg, a translation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published. A year later, "populist" poet Nikolai Nekrasov published the novel as a supplement to his journal Sovremennik. In a letter to Turgenev, he wrote: "This question is now in full swing with us, regarding our domestic blacks."

Uncle Tom's Cabin was published countless times and in pre-revolutionary Russia was one of the compulsory works for children. The stories of black slaves and local serfs, according to the literary historian Skabishevsky, "were similar in cruelty typical of slave states and Russian noble estates."

However, in Russia, there were also enough thinkers who tried to justify serfdom as a "historical necessity." The greatest original was the conservative philosopher Konstantin Leontiev, who gained fame as "Russian Nietzsche." In his work "East, Russia and Slavs" (1885-1886), he made the following argument: over the centuries, a million Russian people suffered from despotism and serfdom "at least for Pushkin could write "Onegin" and "Godunov", to build the Kremlin and its cathedrals, so that Suvorov and Kutuzov could win their national victories."

According to Leontyev, without the cruel oppression of the subjects in a backward country, the empire's grandiose cultural achievements would have been impossible. This slavery allegedly gave Pushkin and Tolstoy the opportunity to "use" serf girls and leave behind hundreds of heirs thanks to this debauchery.

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Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, argued that freedom is the driving force of the Americans, while the driving force of the Russians is slavery. From this point of view that does not tolerate objections, it is completely wrong to look for common features among such different civilizations, which in the twentieth century "decided the fate of half of the world."

Surprisingly, just such an attempt was undertaken by none other than Vladimir Lenin, who in 1913 wrote a short article entitled "Russians and Negroes," which remained unpublished until his death. In it, he compared the social development of Russian and black Americans after the abolition of slavery using the example of illiteracy. Thus, in 1900, 73% of the population in Russia was illiterate, while among black Americans this figure was 44.5%. One of the reasons for such extensive illiteracy among his fellow citizens, Lenin considered, in particular, the late consequences of slavery. "Now, half a century later, there are many more traces of slavery left on the Russians than on the negroes. And it would even be more accurate if we were talking not only about traces but also about institutions..."

He explained the relative progress of black Americans by the fact that the slave system was destroyed during the bloody Civil War, while in Russia the peaceful liberation "from above" largely preserved the feudal institutions. At the same time, it is obvious that Lenin manipulated facts in order to substantiate his ideological line. After all, after the American Civil War, there was no question of equality. Both black Americans and Russian serfs received freedom "without land" and were forced to go into debt bondage to their former masters. Due to racial segregation in the southern states of the United States, the old power structures were partially mothballed.

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In Russia, the so-called "communities" - peasant associations with functions of self-government, which the revolutionaries considered the prototype of socialist society - prevented the development of capitalist relations. This was precisely the idea of ​​Lenin, who saw the only opportunity for the destruction of feudal society in the civil war, thanks to which the descendants of serfs could find the road to socialism.

As you know, the Bolshevik dictatorship did not confine itself to the seizure of the property of the old ruling class and its destruction as, in fact, a "class": many of its representatives were destroyed purely physically. Especially collectivization in agriculture in the late 1920s - early 1930s was associated with elements of the genocide of peasants and the introduction of "state slavery." Until 1974, Soviet collective farmers were limited in their rights, lacking identity cards and being, in fact, tied to the land.

In the United States, black and white citizens were fully equal in rights in the 1960s. Initiated in 1865 by Abraham Lincoln, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery on paper, was ratified by the state of Mississippi only in 1995. But even the human rights movement and the legal abolition of racial segregation, along with so-called "positive equalization measures" designed to compensate for the structural disadvantages of blacks, have yet to fully overcome the "legacy" of racial division. So the consequences of slavery, even a hundred years after its abolition, are noticeable both among Russians and among black Americans.

Russian-American cultural historian Alexander Etkind asked a question in this regard: does this mean that the Civil War in the United States can be brought to an end only now so that the problems that have not been resolved in 150 years will finally be resolved?

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For Russian émigrés, as well as for Western-oriented intellectuals in Russia itself, who still found themselves in the communist system, this view is destructive. Violent unrest, the radical left-wing demands of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the "cultural revolution" in universities and progressive media are perceived by many as a kind of "déjà vu". Too much the current events in the United States resemble the atmosphere on the eve of and during the October Revolution.

Journalist Mikhail Taratuta, who worked as a correspondent for Russian television in the United States in the 1990s, tries to find something in common between the events mentioned and Russian "factors" in his blog. So, according to him, the liberal public in the United States wants to change: social justice, the prohibition of police violence, and an uncompromising fight against racism. In exactly the same way, the Russian intelligentsia wanted to change, justice, and brotherhood more than 100 years ago - and that is how the Bolsheviks came to power.

Just as American liberals feel guilt towards blacks, so the Russian intelligentsia then felt guilty towards the proletariat and "common people." After the seizure of power, the Bolsheviks, according to Taratuta, destroyed the old institutions, turning the whole situation in the country upside down: people of non-proletarian origin, including the intelligentsia, were restricted in civil rights, their apartments were forcibly given to representatives of the "oppressed class" and turned into notorious communal apartments. The proletarians were to gain from "positive discrimination" and climb the Soviet "social ladder" - in accordance with the line from the "Internationale:" "Who was nobody, he will become everything!"

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According to Taratuta, the "progressives" found their "soldiers of the revolution" in the BLM movement, which is under the slogan "For racial justice!" seeks to destroy capitalism - on the principle of "take away and redistribute." Leftist ideas have deep roots in the American dark-skinned "milieu", in which an explosive mixture of "racial socialism" arose on this basis. The Russians, according to the journalist, are looking "with horror" at the bubble of like-mindedness. Now in America, the stigma of the racist resembles the former stigma of the "enemy of the people" in the Soviet Union.

Such an overreaction in the West might seem "alien to reality" or a manifestation of right-wing views, although Russia is by no means a role model for democracy and human rights. But this is precisely what is important to those who are desperate to wait for a "cultural revolution" in the United States: they are simply afraid that America will have its own "1917." Socialism has shed too much blood and the halo of America as an unattainable "dream country", which it seemed because of the "Iron Curtain", is too great.

Sonja Margolina

Read the original text at Neue Zürcher Zeitung 

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