Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine has turned the world on its head. As shocking as it is, those closer to Russia sense something familiar in the past three months. This personal dispatch is about the Russians and the Slavs (I am the latter).
LJUBLJANA — I don’t have a great relationship with Russia. Growing up in Slovenia, I did not need to learn Russian to grasp the beauty of classic pre-Soviet literature. The translations of Russian masterpieces into my native language have been admirable.
But besides my proxy relation to Russian culture, I had very few run-ins with actual Russians since, to my knowledge, none of them lived in Slovenia. Well, except one: An athletically-built young man with long curly hair. I recall him mingling with the poets and other groups in a bohemian bar in Ljubljana. I forgot his name, but he disappeared from the scene after a few years. There was talk that he might have been a Russian intelligence officer or a drug pusher. But I had no idea. The matter never interested me enough to investigate further.
During World War II, my parents took part in the resistance war against Nazi occupiers and spoke fluent German. As a consequence, German was the first foreign language I learned. But it was also the language I used the least. In high school, I learned English and French. I felt no attraction and no affinity to Russian, a language that I felt would be easy to grasp, something that, in a way, was too close and familiar.
But at the same time, there was always a great diffidence toward anything Russian. After the dispute between Joseph Stalin and Tito, and Yugoslavia’s exit from the Soviet bloc in 1948, both sides never recovered the comradeship from the revolutionary times of the Third International.
But to my mind, there was more to it.
Despite our common Slavic roots, the two cultures never fit together; Russians, with the pastoral, broad melody of their language, never blended in with our land, full of narrow valleys and Mediterranean fragrance. We were Slavs, but we were not Russian, and therefore learning Western languages made more sense to us, as they were the key to the greater world and more effervescent cultures.
I do not recall a single person in my youth who was particularly interested by Russian things. If my parents’ generation’s cultural gravitas was Vienna, mine was London, with America not far behind. Later on, Paris became the object of our desires.
Leningrad to Moscow
Nostalgia and melancholy and the occasional impulsiveness of our national character were all Slavic attributes, I was taught. While I lived in Slovenia, I knew of no one who had traveled to Russia and brought back first-hand information about this culturally distant place.
I'd had nothing to do with the Russians until I sat on the Tupolev Tu-134 of Aviogenex, a charter company from Belgrade that took me from Ljubljana to Leningrad. I was in a Yugoslavian tourist group traveling to visit the Soviet Union. As there were no regular flights to Moscow from Ljubljana, I had to pay a group visit, fly to Leningrad and then take a train to Moscow, from where I would then travel to Beijing.
When we landed at the Leningrad airport and the customs officer went through my things, he inquired about my destination. I said I was headed to China, which prompted him to ask why I would study in such a primitive country. I should study in Russia. I was happy with my choice, so I grinned at the officer, who seemed miserable and patronizing. How could someone who knows nothing about you suggest what you should do with your life?
I had a day to spend in Leningrad, so I went to Tretyakov Gallery, where the realistic social art depressed me while the great art was locked away from the public. Besides the grandeur of Leningrad, today’s St.Petersburg, I still remember the overwhelming smell of vodka at the train station. It was not pleasant. It felt like the whole nation was taking the same drug to make it through the day.
That particular day was in November of 1976. A few days in Moscow did not improve the dull impression I had of Russia. I ended my last visit to the Soviet Union and Russia a few days later in the following way:
After nearly two days, the train stopped at the Russian border. It was a long stop since the Soviets needed to adjust the train wheels to fit the standard size of the rail tracks that the Chinese and the rest of the world were using. As we waited, I was searched by Soviet customs officers. I planned on living in China for a couple of years, and I did not want to be there without reading. But my books were in several languages, and the officers wanted to make sure there was nothing they would not like. Five of them came into my cabin, one for each language. I could barely suppress a giggle as they tried to read my handwritten notes. Oh god, let me get to China, I thought as the officers tried to convince me to stay in the Soviet Union again.
Unlike Yugoslavia, China had traces of Soviet propaganda everywhere. Had I come to China to learn about Russia? There was Marxist-Leninist iconography, art, architecture, and imprints of soviet ideology in every step of my new life. It was expected; that the two countries were closely tied until Moscow and Beijing got into an ideological brawl that caused the split between the two communist giants
in 1960. After the separation, the Russian experts left China overnight. To fill the void, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward, an economic plan intended to replace Russian expertise. It turned out to be a disaster, just like the Maoization during the Great Cultural Revolution that threw the entire country into uproar and chaos. Then, in 1974, with international students beginning to trickle into China, the sleeping dragon began reopening its doors, and in 1979, Deng Xiaoping finally let Americans in.
They were the last to arrive, but China loved them. Before China’s grand opening to the West, the Russians had still been hoping to return and dominate China once again. This was the impression of the Beijing-based foreign correspondents’ inner circle. They had the proof that the Soviets, until 1979, had access to confidential information leaked to them by some members of China’s Communist Party Politburo.
Russians shared the leaks with their trusted friends whenever it served their strategic purposes. The Soviet Union’s Embassy was the biggest in Beijing during that period, with more than 1,000 diplomats. One day, one of them approached me when I was in park Ri Tang, near the diplomatic compound, taking photos of people practicing Tai Chi. He tried to recruit me. I was not in shock. I wondered why other agencies had not approached me, as my profile must have interested them. It would be a lot of fun teasing them. But they never knocked on my door.
Putin's visit to Tretyakov Gallery
Romanoff or socialist
The next time I touched Russian ground was when I was flying from Rome to Kyiv and needed to change planes in Moscow. It was a few months into Ukraine’s independence when I was working for an Italian Trading and Engineering company for a short time. Our Italian travel agent had forgotten to tell us that we needed to change airports in Moscow to catch our connecting flight to independent Kyiv.
The Russian soul was far above the Slav identity, and it was not even Russian. It was messianic.
In general, my rare encounters with Russians consisted of superficial conversations. After a Russian discovered my identity, they would begin speaking Russian to me in most cases. They always wondered why I did not answer them back in Russian. If we got involved in more intense conversation, I observed that Russians often had an air of superiority toward other Slavs; they felt more intelligent than the rest of the world. They seemed convinced that they were right and were a chosen people since they belonged to an empire state, no matter if it was Romanoff or socialist.
They only showed an appreciation for us, their minor cousins, when they needed support for their imperial attitude. Why? Just because I or any other minor Slav should, if nothing else, they thought, understand the Russian way of thinking. According to this principle, Slavs are wired to the Russian mind, yet it was evident that no other Slav would ever be equal to them.
We had no soul because we, the other Slavs, had a love for alien things, while the Russian identity was tied to the notion of great power – a power that could only flourish within the borders of Russian territory. The Russian soul was far above the Slav identity, and it was not even Russian. It was messianic.
What explains Putin's invasion
For weeks, I’ve been trying to understand why Putin started his war with Ukraine. Where did his almighty cruelty, his great determination to destroy everything on Ukrainian soil, come from?
Perhaps there is no point in talking about logic regarding dictators. I doubt we will ever understand why the utterly inhuman Trump was elected to run the most powerful country in the world. Maybe we should say he is simply insane, and move on. America may have survived Trump, but I do not believe that the world will survive if Putin continues his imperial madness. So, after long guessing how could Putin could commit such atrocities, the answer came from remote China.
As a young student in Beijing, I got to know a Slovenian diplomat – no less than the head of the Yugoslavian Chamber of Commerce. He was there with his young family (he had two small children). Unfortunately, I lost contact with him after leaving China. But I recently saw some reviews for a book written by a former Slovenian ambassador to Russia, Andrej Benedejčič. It took me some time to realize that Andrej was the son of a former Yugoslavian diplomat in Beijing who was there when I was studying in China decades ago. The book, entitled “Russia and Slavdom,” is a fascinating read, and it’s gotten a lot of attention in Slovenia, where it was published.
In an interview about the book, Benedejčič said that Slovenians never understood the Russian perception of Slavdom quite well. “During conversations with Russian officials, we talk about ‘our nation,’ and the Russians would reply ‘your nation and our nations,’” the former ambassador said. “It has never been different for Russian officials: the Slavic aspect is only one part of the ‘Russian’ great-power identity. This duality has existed since the inception of the modern Russian state.”
Therefore, there’s a dualism between Russia and Slavs, and the Russian official interpretation defines the Slavs as inferior, less developed entities.
Photo of the book "Rusija in Slovanstvo" written by Andrej Benedejčič
The relationship between Russia and the Slavs
All my questions fell into one place. The book Benedejčič wrote explained the relationship between Russia and the rest of the Slavs. The antagonism appeared from the very beginning, during the first East Slavic state, Kyivan (Kievan Rus), in the late 800. It continues till the current war in Ukraine. Benedejčič, who was eight years old when I got to know him in Beijing, has published a book explaining the Ukraine war today. The book is not an easy read, as the relations between the Russians and the rest of the Slavs are complex and controversial. But the author has put the Ukrainian massacre (the word is mine) into an essential historical context.
“Putin has spoken very explicitly about the Slavs several times,” said Benedejčič in an interview during the first month of the war in Ukraine. “Most explicitly at a press conference in 2014, he told Slavs were small dependent formations.
Similarly unforgiving is the current patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and former Metropolitan Kirill, who has a very unflattering opinion of the ancient Slavs. If we read Putin’s articles on his national identity, he tries to square the circle. He argues that Russian identity exists only in the context of the Russian state. Outside of this context, there are no Russians because they are merging abroad with the rest of the environment.
Russia’s mission is tied to a country that is poly-ethnic — not multicultural, but poly-ethnic. It is about its civilization. According to Putin, the Russians surpassed their Slavism and ethnicity. Here he is on the line of Dostoevsky, who considered the remaining Slavs immature, quarreling with each other and lost in their race.
The Russians, on the other hand, have a higher mission. Here he is in line with Dugin, who put forward a thesis on the Eastern and Western Slavs. The East is state-building, and the West is non-state-building. The main criticism of the Western Slavs is that they are always on the fringes of Western civilization and only copy its models. But they are not capable of creating separate cultures on their own.”
Russia thinks of itself as a pure, superior civilization.
This characterization indicates that Russia thinks of itself as a pure, superior civilization. Benedejčič, as a meticulous historian, does not suggest or compare Russia with other regimes that have claimed to be of a superior race. He is just listing historical facts.
Hope for building open societies
As much as I was horrified by Putin’s justifications for his horrific acts in Ukraine, I felt comfortable knowing that my intuitions about the Russian world had been correct. Recently, I met Benedejčiči in Ljubljana. We sat down in the Petit Cafe near the Napoleon monument in one of the loveliest corners in the city.
Ironically, the place we chose to meet proved that we are the western Slavs who, according to Putin, are the "copy-pasters" of Western civilization. Yet, as Benedejčič writes, those smaller communities of Slavs that are part of the larger European Union could contribute to a more vital and flexible future in further democratization of Europe. Could this be the same type of antagonism as the one between the authoritarianism China offers and the democracy America says it is defending?
In the dedication in my copy of his book, Benedejčič left me this note: “The fact that we met after all these years because of this book means that it was worth writing it.” A positive note made me feel like that Russian customs officer at Leningrad airport all those years ago.
Like him, I did not understand why the other Andrej, who had spent some years in China, would later focus on Russian history and culture. But we were both right and wrong simultaneously. Our interest in China and Russia led us to understand the birth of two authoritarian regimes. Perhaps, what remains is hope that Western, non-Russian Slavs will contribute to building open societies. Ukraine wanted to become one of them. As I finished writing this post, I learned that the former diplomat, historian, and writer had become member of the new Slovenian prime minister’s cabinet.
This piece was originally published on the author's website: Yonder