Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum
by Martin Edward Malia
Release Date: April, 1999
Why I bought this book:
I was reading The Bathhouse at Midnight, which is about magic in Russia. Malia's book was cited lots. I didn't have it, and was starting to feel that "I'm missing something" sensation. So I went on a bookstore crawl and found Russia Under Western Eyes.
This is a good book.
I enter this rather tentatively. I don't usually comment on what I call "real books" even though I read them, feeling that I don't have the qualifications. Ye Olde BA doesn't seem to mean much, anymore.
On the other hand, if you are an educated person who generally flees at high speed from "intellectual history", read this.
Malia is not a socialist. He may or may not deconstruct in other books, for all I know he is a firm believer in what Kelly Neff refers to as literary donatism (which is all I believe deconstruction is in the end). In this book he writes as if you were meant to read it, which makes a nice change.
He chooses to bounce Western intellectual history off dreams of Russia. Is there anything new in it? No. His point is simple and (if you bothered to pay any attention to pre-Revolutionary Russia) glaringly obvious. On the other hand, we are so enamoured of the disaffected intelligent from the 1860's on that we ignore what they were painfully aware of - their ideas were adapted from the West. It irritated them, but there it was. The West has consistently shown a tendency to bounce its ideals and its nightmares off Russia; as a point for guidance in a sea of material, it's not a bad one.
Malia doesn't like what communism did to Russia. Neither do I. Anyone who stands up and says communism was a bad thing tends to get a "good boy!" from me. Good little socialists, beware: he handles hard and soft versions of the ideal briskly. The reviewer who wants to make him an embittered right-winger needs to do a re-think, and maybe a re-read without the blinkers; Malia mentions that Europe asked if Russia was part of it, he never questions it. Malia points up a pattern - Russia tends to hit similar points of politics and economics about 50 years after the West. OK, but this doesn't mean Russia is out of the modern world, and Malia says so. That, in fact, was part of the problem.
Ask the average Russian if he'd like to live like an American without having to be one. He'd probably say "Bring it on!" We're still letting the disaffected intelligentsia form our opinions - oh, suburbia, too boring, such ennui, oh, the deadening of our souls by wealth! Our souls are our personal responsibility, and poverty in my view is miserable, not enlightening. Sharing the wealth is a fine thing, provided that we remember that the point is to have no more poor, not reduce everyone to an identical level of penury.
Malia gets it right, the book is interesting if not new, and it remembers that the question the socialists never ask is, in your new society of fulfillment, who handles the garbage?
It is difficult to explain this book in the space of a few sentences, because the scope of its topic is breathtaking, and its depth considerable. This is not a book about Russia per se; rather, it is about the symbiosis of Russia and Europe over the last 300 years. For as Malia clearly demonstrates, Russia - in all her iterations - cannot be considered without taking into account the philosophical (and hence ideological and political) influences of Europe. Russia is Europe, and very much the product of evolving European movements spawned by the Enlightenment - such rationalism, romanticism, and socialism.
In this reader's analysis, a central theme in Russia Under Western Eyes is how efforts to rationalize human society culminated in the dark experiment launched in the Red October of 1917. Malia demonstrates how Lenin perverted Marx by making the proletariat subservient to the Party, and how sheer folly was maintained through a jettisoning of principles and reliance on 'the Method' through the successive stewardship of Stalin, Khruschev, Breshnev, and ending with Gorbachev.
My only complaint: while Malia is right in asserting that the planned economy of the USSR was decaying on its own from the end of World War II, Ronald Reagan's appearance on the world stage, and the effect his policy of confrontation had on bringing the Cold War to its omega point, deserves a more considered treatment. This is mitigated, however, by Malia's excellent treatment of the dissidents and their contribution to exposing the Soviet lie.
This is a tome of erudition, written by a scholar who has an amazing grasp of the 'big picture.' One will draw from it a good understanding of the philosophical development of Europe, the ideas that changed the face of the Continent, and their effect on Russia through the centuries.
Like the Marquis de Custine, Malia has peeked through the sometimes brocaded, sometimes iron curtains of Russia and recorded poignant observations for posterity. Unlike Custine, however, Malia has produced a balanced work that will be ranked as indispensable to an understanding of Russia and Europe.