20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by well-known scholar Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism in the USSR. In this essay, published in two parts, the author discusses the nationalist-liberal life of Veche, a samizdat magazine, the public uproar from its readers, and the split amongst the members of the magazine’s editorial team.


Vladimir Osipov, Editor-in-Chief of Veche magazine. Photo: Alexei Nikolaev / Russian Planet.


Picture of the world 

The first part of this essay received quite a barrage of questions, and answering even a small sampling of them will not be an easy endeavor. One of the questions, for example, was how Nikolai Danilevsky’s national-liberal outlook (and consequently, that of Veche magazine) co-existed with Russia’s overtly reactionary international policy. The very fact that this reactionary foreign policy suggests a retrogressive regime inside the country is certainly an utter paradox. This is why Western historians viewed Danilevsky as “a totalitarian philosopher.”

The national-liberals adhered to a completely different plane of thought: “The political demands of the Russian people are absolutely moderate; they have complete faith in their authorities.” The basis for the existing political opposition in Russia was influenced by outside factors: “Any organization that can be called a party depends on the forcefully imposed foreign and non-autochthonous influence.” These are just some of Danilevsky’s statements, which recommended that the government isolate the country from any external pressure and eliminate all non-Russian influence, so as to realize that there was no such phenomenon as “anti-government sentiment” in Russia. Consequently, transparency and civil rights would not only be safe for the government, but also practical, since “the lack of transparency and constitutional protection of human rights prevent the implementation of national goals.” After such statements, who would doubt Danilevsky’s liberal philosophy? The significance of his liberal views, however, can be summed up as follows: The more international isolation, the more freedom. In other words, behind the safety of “the iron curtain,” the country’s government could afford to be perfectly liberal.

According to Danilevsky’s logic, the universe of political powers consists of Russia, Europe, and Turkey. The world vision according to Veche magazine also included three main driving forces, but instead of “a decaying Europe,” the magazine chose America, and instead of Turkey, it named a resurrected China. Veche’s editors believed that China was even worse than Turkey because not only was it a pebble in Russia’s shoe, but it also threatened to submerge a half-empty Siberia under its “sea of humans.” I have no doubt that Veche was absolutely honest about the horror it felt toward this Chinese “sea of humans.” One of the magazine’s contributing writers once told me that he had nightmares about the Chinese in Siberia. 

The strategy Veche magazine adhered to was the same as Danilevsky’s; that is, not to allow a second player (America) to prohibit Russia from destroying a third participant (China). The magazine, however, made a correction in its estimates. Danilevsky had not foreseen “the resurrection of China”; moreover, he considered it impossible, while having completely disregarded the vulnerable situation in Russia’s Far East. Veche, on the other hand, believed that “Siberia could save the country, freedom, and Soviet ambitions.” What solution could there be to this end?

The original position of Veche was as follows: “A nation trapped within the borders of cities is doomed to extinction.” This is why the Western world had no chance of survival. Yet all was not lost for Russia, a country in which almost everyone had either a mother or a grandmother who was a peasant. The country could not transform Siberia into a gigantic village to act as an eastern buffer, though the Kremlin leadership might have attempted to do just that, under one condition: if, prior to going into one of the most difficult wars in Russia’s history, the country could reinforce these areas for its fighting army. Since the Soviet regime was unable to do this swiftly, due to its bureaucratic backwardness, it might as well allow the unrestricted colonization of Siberia to take place.

And then, Veche imagined, “millions of devotees led by defrocked clergy and discharged dissidents will move to settle on free lands” to be later integrated into a brand-new Slavophile version of Atlantis. There was also something to be gained for the government in this scenario of the restoration of a peasant orthodox Russia on the vast territorial horizons of Siberia. This kind of Siberia would have detached the Soviet Union from the influence of the West’s urban overindulgence, as it is impossible to imagine cosmopolitanism in a Siberian village. Siberia would be the place to establish a secure home front, which was critically important to Russia in its pursuit of an inevitable war with China.

This was the alternative proposed by Veche to the hypothetical “reconciliation” with the Western world.  


Readers’ uproar

This alternative was as naive, utopian, and futile as the one suggested by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his Letter to Soviet Leaders; though, unlike Solzhenitsyn, Veche magazine did not demand that the Kremlin do away with its ideology (thereby also suggesting that it do away with its power). Vladimir Osipov, Veche editor-in-chief, understood the situation perfectly when he wrote, “The Soviet regime is naturally incapable of repudiating its interests in favor of moral principles. It is capable of making concessions only if it can maintain power and control.” Yet letters from the magazine’s readers suddenly revealed that the “patriotic” intellectuals to whom the magazine appealed, although loyal to the regime, were not interested in Danilevsky, or civil rights behind the iron curtain, or the threat of the Chinese “sea of humanity,” or the Siberian utopia offered as an alternative to a reconciliation with the West or the opposition. 

The readers asked if “the Russian sense of patriotism is incompatible with the doctrines of Marx and Lenin, or if Russian soldiers would always ask to be considered communists before giving their lives for their motherland?” The only time the magazine readers displayed keen interest was when the published articles dealt with ethnic issues or hatred of the West. “We, the Russian people, are used to being intimidated [by] and bashful toward the barbarians from other countries,” one reader wrote. “Europe is an inveterate adulteress, and America is her farewell night of wild orgy,” wrote another. Yet there were other, rather intelligent letters, albeit similar in tone and meaning: “Have you noticed that the founder of all of Western philosophy was the Jew Baruch Spinoza and that the roots of materialistic ideology run deep in Jewish character?” 

In other words, the Veche readership either showed no interest or rebelled openly against the national-liberal path taken by the magazine. What the editorial staff never expected was to be accused of betraying their own country. Veche even had to break its own solemn promise to publish every letter the magazine received from its readers.


“Critical Notes of a Russian Man” 

That was the title of the letter rejected by the Veche editors. Its main points were as follows: “The litmus test that differentiates patriotism from treason is Zionism”; and “Those who are not against Zionism are against the Russian people, Slavophiles, and everything that is genuine in this world. And if the magazine really wants to be truly Russian and patriotic, instead of becoming a harbor for defiant dissidents and their free agents, it should understand that out of all the issues the Russian people have to confront, the most important is its fight against the Zionist stranglehold.”

The letter goes on to ask what Veche was thinking, “offering its pages to the writings of [Andrei] Sakharov, Russia’s sworn enemy?” Would a truly patriotic magazine re-publish “the statements by Sakharov, [Igor] Shafarevich, and others in the Zionist clique of pseudo-scientists allegedly fighting for the freedom of speech?” Were the Russian people unaware that “the Western countries that enjoy plenty of freedom have their press monopolized by the Zionists?” “We would rather have Soviet censorship than this kind of freedom!” the writer declared. Who was Veche trying to fool, and why did the magazine feel compelled to do so? 

The circumstances described in this essay expose a country in which the power belonged to the nationalists with imperial ambitions, while the dissident nationalists were left with nothing but nationalistic hysteria.

The author of this letter had his own agenda befitting of a patriotic magazine, which he detailed extensively: “To publish articles exposing the worthlessness of research papers by Zionist pseudo-scientists (such articles have already been made public; for instance, the one by theoretical physicist [Alexey] Tiapkin, who proved that the worshiping of Einstein was created by talentless Jews). To publish information exposing the depravity of Zionists and their congregations in synagogues. To collect interest from the young Jews enrolling in institutions of higher education in accordance with the number of Jews residing in the country (1 percent). And, most importantly, to organize public events under the banners ‘Death to Zionist Invaders!’ or ‘All Men Fight Against Zionism!’”

What was Osipov supposed to think when he read this letter? He, who spent days and nights thinking of ways to save his country, which was caught in between the Western world and China. Having served seven years in gulags in Mordovia (for organizing “anti-Soviet mobs” on Mayakovsky Square in Moscow), he had to be exceptionally resourceful in order to set up a team of like-minded professionals in Moscow inaccessible to his former gulag inmates. He had to settle in Alexandrov in Vladimir Oblast and self-publish his typewritten magazine from Moscow. Now here was a letter, sent by an anonymous reader, attempting to tell him how to live his life and going so far as to accuse him of treason!

Unsurprisingly, this infamous lampoonist found some support among Veche’s editorial staff, and Osipov had to face a number of altercations with members of his own editorial team as he tried to assert his righteousness. It was painfully obvious that his proposed alternatives lacked support among “patriotic” intellectuals, who had turned away from discussing national interests and the future of the country in favor of debating nationalist hysterics and the Black Hundreds.

Why? Was it some wicked case of devilry? 


Inevitable split

If I had met Osipov at this time, I might have explained to him that there was no devilry involved. I could have even predicted the future of Veche magazine. Drawing upon the theoretical analysis at the beginning of this essay, making predictions would not have been difficult. Osipov found himself trapped in a situation that any other national-liberal—Alexei Navalny, for instance—might find himself in today. Osipov, however, was intellectually far ahead of Navalny. Neither did Navalny read Danilevsky’s works, staying away from making any foreign policy suggestions to the political regime.

The circumstances described in this essay expose a country in which the power belonged to the nationalists with imperial ambitions, while the dissident nationalists were left with nothing but nationalistic hysteria. The fact is that the ruling imperial proponents of a strong country were entirely unconcerned with the dissidents’ alternative foreign policies, while the “patriotic” masses treated the government’s foreign policy decision-making with what Danilevsky would call “complete faith.”

Admittedly, the masses never demanded alternatives to any existing foreign policy; their opposition was expressed only in the form of hate and loathing for anything or anyone foreign. I should add as an aside that Navalny has been more sensible than Osipov, in having found a unique niche to exploit: the hatred of corruption, which has united both the “patriotic” masses and liberals. It is unclear, though, how long Navalny will be able “to sit on two chairs,” straddling the divide between the liberals and the “patriots.”

For Veche to survive, it would have had to make an impossible choice. The magazine could have repudiated its national-liberal ideals and become another mouthpiece for the liberal opposition, like Chronika Tekushih Sobityi, or a work similar to “Critical Notes of a Russian Man.” Osipov’s Russian-orthodox and monarchic views, shared by the majority of Veche’s editors, would not allow that to happen, despite the fact that a minority in the editorial staff supported another direction for the magazine. It did not help that the magazine was published in Moscow, while Osipov lived in Alexandrov and had limited ability to control these developments remotely. There was only one solution left, and it was a split.


Sad finale

There was nothing Osipov could have done to prevent the split in his editorial staff. Firstly, it was impossible to sit on both chairs for long, even during the Soviet era (and even disregarding KGB involvement). Secondly, the split had already taken place informally—there is documented proof of this. 

“Critical Notes of a Russian Man” was published in 1975 in Novyi Jurnal, a magazine published in New York by Russian expatriates. The “Notes” were published by Mikhail Agursky, a Sovietologist well known for his unique position: he was a Russian nationalist in Israel. Like the majority of specialists in Soviet Union studies, Agursky was a famous advocate of national-liberalism, which many Sovietologists called “Christian nationalism.” The Novyi Jurnal edition of the “Notes” was prefaced by his own critical comments entitled “Neo-Nazi Threat in the USSR.” His conclusion was as follows: “It is quite evident that the only realistic alternative to neo-Nazism would be a humanist program put forth by Solzhenitsyn… and hierodeacon Barsanuphius.”  

It is clear why Agursky never referenced the program put forth by Sakharov: the latter was a man from another team, a cosmopolitan. Why he never mentioned Veche magazine and instead referred to the little-known hierodeacon Barsanuphius is quite strange, in my opinion. Moreover, it was Veche that refused to publish “Critical Notes of a Russian Man,” whose author was the aforementioned hierodeacon. 

Veche also published a document titled “The 1971 Petition to Local Council,” also known as “The Letter of Three” (one of these three was Barsanuphius). In his critical review of the first issue of Veche, American Sovietologist Dmitry Pospelovsky, an advocate of national-liberalism himself, called “The Letter of Three” “a sinister document” and gave a friendly warning to the magazine’s editors about its propensity toward “religious racism.” Veche was quick to express indignation and mocked the reviewer: “It was a simple grammatical mistake that caused his anger,” they wrote, “a humanist program of ‘The Letter of Three’ had Zionism connected by the conjunction ‘and’ with the word Satanism.” A simple typographical error causing a scandal? Let our readers decide who was right in this argument. 

“It is difficult to be silent when it is well known that the agents of Zionism and Satanism are trying to divide the Church and the State, to poison our society with liberal ideas, and to destroy the very foundations of morality, family, and statehood,” reads “The Letter of Three.” The authors go even further, painting an uncanny picture of “agents” dispersing both inside the Soviet Union and in the “Zionist centers of the West, especially in the United States of America, the home of a functioning church of Satan.” That same thought had previously been mentioned in “Critical Notes of a Russian Man.”The involvement of agents in “the propagation of alcohol abuse and abortion,” as well as their encouragement of “the neglect of household and parental responsibilities” were just some of the “original” contributions by the hierodeacon and his coauthors. That was one hell of a “humanist program”! Was there much difference between that typographical error and the main points of “Critical Notes of a Russian Man”? 

“The Letter of Three” was published when Veche’s front cover still featured Osipov’s name. The magazine’s editorial team openly defended the letter while Osipov was still editor-in-chief. Could we, then, doubt that the split in Veche’s editorial staff occurred long before the KGB got involved? Osipov was unable to prevent this degradation from occurring in his own staff—let alone to save “patriotic” intellectuals. During the magazine’s last year of existence, he was navigating the remains of the cause to which he’d dedicated his entire life. This was indeed a very sad finale.