20 years under Putin: a timeline

Patriotic Hysteria

Since 1806, when the Russian army suffered crushing defeats at Austerlitz and Friedland, Russia has periodically been overcome with sudden hysterical fits of hatred for the West.

To start, the Orthodox Church anathemized Napoleon, calling him the Antichrist. Great ladies started showing up to balls in kokoshniki, traditional Russian headpieces; in drawing rooms, the belle monde would charge one another fines for speaking French. However, at the time, the patriotic hysteria was of a harmless nature, and was for the most part limited to high society.

The first signs of it evolving into a national phenomenon came in 1831, during the previous Polish uprising (recall Pushkin's "To the Slanderers of Russia") and in 1853, on the eve of the Crimean War. This mass hysteria is reminiscent of Orwell's Two Minutes Hate from 1984. The difference being that in 1863, the mass hysteria lasted not two minutes, but 18 months—that's how long it took the 200,000 strong Russian army to drown the Polish partisans in their own blood. In terms of both duration and scope, the frenzy was without precedent—nothing like that happened in 1806, or 1831, or 1853 (but since then, it has been repeated, and more than once).

Countless loyalist petitions were addressed to the Tsar from landowners' meetings and municipal dumas, from the clergy and the bureaucratic circles, from gymnasium and university students, peasants and Old Believers, all demaning a ruthless assault on the Poles. Everywhere, people prayed for the victory of the Russian army.

What can be said on this count? For decades, Russian minds had ripened the imperial nationalism of Nicholas I of Russia with its Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality. The harvest was terrible. As Herzen reported in his Kolokol, "The aristocracy, the liberals, the writers, the scientists, and even the students all, without exception, have turned out infected: The syphilis of imperial patriotism had seeped into their flesh and blood." Let us recall poet Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev's ominous verses:

В крови до пят мы бьемся с мертвецами,
Воскресшыми для новых похорон.

Covered in blood from head to toe, we battle with the dead,
Who have risen again to be reburied.

The dead here are the Poles. The threat to "bury them" this time, forever, so they will not rise again, was no joke. Life and death were the very terms in which Katkov formulated the ideology of hysterical patriotism, writing, "Between these brother-nations, history has posed the fatal question of life and death. These states are not mere competitors, they are enemies, that cannot exist side by side, foes to the bitter end." As it turned out, the Tsar Liberator Alexander II had taken on this very task.


"The Annihilation of an Entire People"

So what did Herzen do in this situation, as yesterday's most powerful political thinker, overnight transformed into an outcast (is a more radical turn possible)? At first, believing there was some sort of misunderstanding, that Russia would not chose to be the executioner of its brothers, fellow Slavs, in shock, he tried to change his readers' minds: "Why shouldn't we live alongside Poland like free men neighboring free men, like equals next to equals? Why do we need to enslave them? What makes us better than them?"



After series of patriotic riots, the Russian namestnik of Tsar Alexander II, General Karl Lambert, introduced martial law in Poland on 14 October 1861. Public gatherings were banned and some public leaders made outlaws.


Alas, beginning on January 23, 1863, Herzen found himself in a completely different, unfamiliar Katkovian Russia. Herzen did not lay down his arms, however: "We will not stand by the annihilation of an entire people in silence." He simply could not keep silent, while right before his eyes, in complete accordance with Katkov's writ, there was quite literally an "annihilation of an entire people" going on.

Polish was forbidden in Poland. Conversations in Polish at school, even during breaks (classes were conducted entirely in Russian), were treated as criminal offenses. The national church was dissolved: monasteries shuttered, bishops fired. Even the very word 'Poland' was to disappear, to henceforth be referred to as Privislinsky Krai.

Nikolai I had already dismantled all institutions and symbols of Polish statehood in 1831. Alexander II had thought up something even scarier. As it became apparent, he was aiming at the very foundations of the national culture—the language and the faith. This time, the "dead" were to never rise again. Even Nikolai hadn't dared attempt this. But the Tsar Liberator showed no restraint. This this the example of what imperial nationalism can look like at the peak of patriotic hysteria–even in one of the most progressive periods in Russian history.


A Traitor to the Fatherland

From a letter written by one of Alexander Herzen's contemporaries: "Kolokol has suddenly ceased to be influential, and indeed, is nearly irrelevant." Moskovskie vedomosti loudly proclaimed to the nation that Herzen was a traitor, citing his "traitorous" articles on the Warsaw massacre. Herzen's reply is famous, "If our call finds no sympathizers, if not a single ray of reason can penetrate into this dark night and not a single sobering word can be heard over the patriotic orgy, we stand alone in our dissent, we do not rescind it. We will continue to to repeat our beliefs to serve as testaments to the fact that in times of a nearly universal intoxication with narrow-minded patriotism, there were still some who found the strength to object to a rotting empire in the name of an emerging Russia, who weren't afriad to be called traitors in the name of their love for the Russian people."


These were proud words, only there was no sense in repeating them. Contemporaries no longer heard Herzen, having turned their attention to Katkov. "The people are ordinary and ignorant. But they are Russian people, and they have heard the voice of their Fatherland. They pray for the souls of the Russian soldiers fallen in battle with the Polish insurgents. They pray for the blessed success of Russian army!" Katkov wrote.

Here is a question inspired by the heirs of Katkov in Russia today (after all, it is his words that are repeated in conversations about "the ordinary, ignorant Russian people" who are not understood by "our foreign intelligensia"): who was in the right in this historic feud? Katkov with his incendiary and unfulfilled prophecy that Russia and Poland cannot exist side by side? Or was it Herzen, who had foreseen the collapse of the "rotting Russian Empire"? Herzen's prophecy came true 120 years after his death, while Katkov's never did.

Indeed, the idealogue behind hysterical patriotism, Katkov, kicked at his diminished enemy with all his might. But he is not the one remembered today (and if he's remembered, it is with shame). It wasn't Katkov who had saved the country's honor. It was Herzen, whose 200th birthday was commemorated in Russia, albeit without recalling his life's drammatic turn.

What's left is reminding the New Decembrists the lessons they can learn from Herzen's story. It's not by accident that Katkov was dragged to the forefront when crisis struck. And Putin's reaction to the first demonstration on Bolotnaya was no accident, either. Didn't he address those very same "ordinary, ignorant Russians" then at the Uralvagonzavod tank-building plant? And didn't they respond to the suggestion of driving a tank into the anti-Putin rally in Nizhny Tagil.

Hysterical patriotism has been treated like an authoritarian cure—all for the past 200 years. It has the power to, as Herzen unfortunately saw for himself in 1863, silence all dissent. The moral of Herzen's story is that we must not forget about this last ace up the gosudarstvenniki's sleeve, of their ability to foment, when necessary, anti-Western sentiment, and with it, to mobilize the "ordinary, ignorant Russian people." There are much fewer of them today than there were in Herzen's time, but they remain the majority.

In conclusion, a trifle, almost a joke. "How do we get to Bolotnaya?" asked on May 6th at a Moscow train station some Nashi supporters arriving from Saratov, "They say it's where the enemies of Russia can be found."