Misunderstanding - and in particular the misunderstanding of one culture by another - has become a popular theme of intellectual history. The initiator of this fashion was Edward Said's famous Orientalism. Said argued that the "Orient" of European scholarship is a chimera born of religious prejudice, political interest and sexual fantasy, bearing only the most superficial resemblance to the cultures of the Near East. Although he refused to say much about the reality of those cultures, the implication was that they are much more similar to the west than the west cares to acknowledge. The oriental "veil of mystery" conceals the lineaments of a common humanity.
Misunderstanding is also the theme of Martin Malia's book on western perceptions of Russia. He lacks Said's reproachful tone and his heavy terminology, derived from Foucault, of "constructs" and "discourses", but his gist is basically the same: "We have, to a significant degree, produced our images of Russia out of ourselves." The common western perception of Russia as essentially different is a myth. The myth exists in negative and positive versions. According to the negative version, Russia is a species of oriental despotism, a society to which the European norms of legality, freedom and human dignity are fundamentally alien. According to the positive version, Russia is a land uncorrupted by the artifices of western civilisation, her natives preserving a childlike simplicity of spirit which we have long since lost. The negative version of the myth refers primarily to the Russian state, the positive version to Russian literature.
The truth, according to Malia, is more banal. Russia is not essentially different from the west; she merely occupies the nethermost point of what he calls "the west-east cultural gradient". All the nations of Europe are travelling along a single highway from "tradition" to "modernity" - from a sacred, hierarchical and monarchical order to a secular, liberal and democratic order. Russia reaches the various milestones on this great highway of progress several decades after her nearest neighbours in the west. Prussia abolished serfdom in 1806; Austria in 1848; Russia in 1861. Prussia acquired a constitution in 1849; Austria in 1867; Russia in 1906. Western travellers to Russia, who felt that they had entered a fundamentally alien society, were in fact merely revisiting their own recent history.
This neat rule breaks down after the 1917 revolution. The highway of progress suddenly split into two divergent paths, each one claiming the succession. The Soviet Union engendered new versions of the Russian myth, both positive and negative. The positive variant, popular on the left, was a curious resurrection of the old 18th-century fantasy of Russia as an enlightened despotism. The Soviet state appeared as the instrument of Utopia, the only power capable of realising humanity's dream of a just and rational society. (It was in just this guise that Catherine the Great had appeared to Voltaire and Diderot.) To a sceptical right the Soviet Union was nothing more than our old friend oriental despotism, decked out in the livery of science and progress. Both, according to Malia, got it wrong. The Soviet Union sprang neither from the light of universal reason nor from the gloom of medieval Muscovy; it was merely a variant - a skewed, "looking-glass" variant - on the common European theme of modernity. Its collapse has left Russia once again free to rejoin the highway of progress.
This is an enormously attractive book, written with great intelligence and verve. But it is also somewhat superficial. Malia, like Edward Said, dismisses the various "myths" about Russia without pausing to examine the reality to which they ostensibly refer. How, then, can he be so confident that they are myths? And the little he does say about the real Russia is perfunctory and schematic. Malia is clearly in the grip of some sort of historicism, according to which all nations pass through various "stages of development" on their way from "tradition" to "modernity". No need, then, to attend too closely to detail.
Malia's intellectual background is in the history of ideas. In this book he skilfully interweaves ideas and international relations. In some periods, fear of Russia's territorial ambitions darkened foreign perceptions of her civilisation; in others, admiration for her civilisation lightened fear of her territorial ambitions. Interesting as this perspective is, it has the effect of splintering - as in a hall of mirrors - the dense realities of Russian life into a multitude of flickering representations. What is distinctive about Russia is lost in the process.
The history of ideas, as a discipline, can never reveal what is peculiar about a nation, for the simple reason that ideas are inherently cosmopolitan. They are the most rootless and effervescent of all human products. The intelligentsia, the class that lives for ideas, is the most international of classes. A nation's peculiarity is revealed not in the ideas it has about itself, nor in the ideas that others have about it, but in the way it does business, plays games, sings songs and tells jokes. The historian of ideas will never perceive it, because it does not fall within his field of vision.
Why does Thomas Mann's description of Russian holidaymakers, "barbarously rich" in their sables and diamonds, seem so applicable to their modern descendants? Why do Russian customs inspectors still erect huge, hideous dachas, in the manner of their Gogolian predecessors? Malia's "west-east cultural gradient" cannot answer these questions; indeed it forbids us even to raise them. Any answer would have to appeal to some more enduring feature of Russian life, some substratum of habit and feeling that survives all changes of regime and ideology. It is just such a substratum that Malia denies.
One plausible contestant for this substratum is religion. According to the Russian philosopher Peter Chaadaev, it was the failure of Orthodoxy to inculcate the basic civic virtues "of duty, of justice, of right, of order" that accounts for the backwardness of Russia and the restless frivolity of Russians - a kind of inversion of the Puritan work ethic. Chaadaev's hypothesis is by its nature unprovable - the influence of religion is too vague and too pervasive - but it strikes me as immensely plausible. The eastern church has always been more otherworldly than its western counterpart. Rooted in monasticism, it has emphasised personal sanctification over involvement in the affairs of the world. Unlike the Catholic church, it has never developed a body of legal or political doctrine. Its delicate spirituality has proved incapable of laying the foundations of temporal order. Surely this is the root of that terrible and destructive dreaminess, the glory of Russian literature and the bane of Russian history.
This kind of explanation is deeply unfashionable, for the good reason that it is too often used as an excuse for fatalism. Anyone who has travelled to Russia will recall listening to such ideas, expounded in a tearful fashion over a glass of vodka, as providing the ultimate explanation for the failure of the latest tax reforms. This kind of indulgence is clearly absurd, but it shouldn't lead one to dismiss the power of history. Russia will not save herself by plunging into the Lethe of consumerism. Only through a sober reckoning with her past will she find the strength to liberate herself from it. Nor will this come about - as Malia seems to suggest in his conclusion - through the spontaneous operations of the global market. It requires an act of will and imagination on the part of Russia herself.
A nation is only ever enslaved by its past to the extent that it chooses to be enslaved by it. The task for Russia is to transform its past from a burden to a source of inspiration. That shouldn't be impossible. Russians have always recognised freedom as an ideal. The Orthodox church, even if it failed to lay the foundations of civic freedom, always cultivated the "inward freedom" of prayer and worship. The freedom of the steppes, the freedom of the vagabond and gypsy, has always been celebrated in Russian literature. No 19th-century liberal was as passionate in his love of freedom as Herzen: "We are standing on the edge of a precipice and we see it crumbling. Twilight descends and no guiding star appears in the sky. We shall find no haven but in ourselves, in the consciousness of our unlimited freedom, of our autocratic independence." It is from the standpoint of this "autocratic independence" that Russians have looked down with contempt at the timid conventionality of the European bourgeoisie. If Russia could only translate this splendid vision of freedom into the mundane institutions of liberty, she would have achieved her goal. She might take inspiration from the motto of Yeats: "Responsibility begins in dreaming."
Edward Skidelsky's reviews appear monthly