Russia is a land of stories. Stories of the czar and his people, of Lenin and the revolution, of the Great Patriotic War; of the transformation of a backward land into a mighty, modern industrial state; of Sputnik, of Laika, of Gagarin. Then the story of Stalin’s reign of terror, the story of a country that ossified and stagnated and eventually collapsed, the story of Vladimir Putin, the K.G.B. officer who climbed to power amid chaos and re-established order. And how did he do that? With stories of the past, retold in such a way that everything in them led up to and justified the Russia that exists today.
For almost my entire life, these stories have exerted a powerful pull on me. When I was growing up, Russia was not only closed, and therefore mysterious, it was presented as our antithesis: We were free, the Russians were oppressed; we were good, the Russians were evil. When I got older and started to read, the situation became more complicated, because it was from Russia that the best and most intense literature came: Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman.” What sort of a country was this where the souls were so deep and the spirit so wild? And why was it there that the thought of the profound inherent injustice of the class society was transformed into action, first by the revolution of 1917 and then by the proletariat’s 70-year dictatorship? And why did a beautiful story about the equality of all human beings end in horror, inhuman brutality and misery?