Russia and Power

Almost everyone is drawn somehow to the exotic, whatever is most different to what they know. It is the root of many a seduction. In California, where I grew up, the exotic was mostly represented by Asia. In the 1970s, this meant dabbling in yoga, Buddhism, Taoism, the I Ching, etc. I would develop an interest in things Asian much later in life. For me, what was most exotic was Russia. It began with my first Dostoyevsky novel (he remains my favorite writer to this day). The characters in his novels contained these powerful contradictions; they would say something and yet do the opposite. They were morally complex; and to me, this seemed the height of realism. Dostoyevsky is the greatest master at mining human nature.

After Dostoyevsky, I moved on to Gogol, and then a growing interest in Russian history. Figures like Rasputin and Stalin attracted me with their mix of the repellent and the charismatic. And then I discovered Ivan the Terrible, and I could not read enough about him. While others are drawn to Peter the Great, Ivan represented everything that fascinated me about Russia. For some reason, I identified with the story of his childhood.

I was also interested in the iconography of the Russian Revolution and the strange habits of life under the Soviet Union (how did these people live without money?). Perhaps this predilection of mine could be explained by the Russian blood in my family. Probably it had more to do with the violence, the drama, the intense power struggles that are so clear throughout Russian history and in their literature.

When The 48 Laws of Power came out in Russian in 2001 I was very excited. The cover was different and weird: the figure of a giant chess piece, the King sprouting wings, with a ball and chain holding it down. (What did this mean?)

In a few years, the book became a bestseller there (over 250,000 copies sold, making it the second largest market for my books). Then, a few months ago I was invited to come to Moscow for a little book tour (a translation of War was coming out), and I felt this was more than just a book tour. It would be the culmination of my childhood interests.

When I was on the airplane from Los Angeles to Moscow three weeks ago, however, I began to have some apprehensions. First, I spoke no Russian at all. In most countries I travel, I can speak the language, or English is fairly common. This allows me to have adventures, to explore, to do things most tourists do not do. In Russia, not only was the language an intense barrier, I could not even decipher the alphabet.

Second, many of the books I had been reading about Russia painted a rather ominous picture. According to many of them, the Russians were returning to the authoritarianism of the Soviet era. There was a clampdown on basic freedoms, and a nascent anti-Westernism and nationalism, with Fascist tendencies. Finally, my fantasies of Russia could never match the reality, and I would probably be disappointed.

When I finally landed after the 13-hour flight, the extreme drabness of the airport made me feel as if I had entered a time-warp into the Soviet Union. A driver met me at the airport and as we drove into the center of town, to my hotel, I could see nothing that was remotely familiar. The outer rings of Moscow are quite poor, with large, Soviet-style block buildings lining the route. Slowly, this gave way to brightly colored shopping malls, casinos, stands selling books and food, large billboards. But none of this seemed like anything in the West. It was a strange, fumbling form of capitalism, new and weird.

This was the polar opposite from Los Angeles, in look, in style, in feel. I was beginning to experience an exhilaration at the strangeness of it all. Nowadays, when you travel to Europe, everything is quite comfortable and familiar to you. There is a growing sameness to industrialized countries. Russia is highly industrialized and modern, but it is significantly different at the same time.

We arrived at my hotel, the Sovietsky, and my excitement grew. The word Sovietsky refers to anything that is from the Soviet period. I had chosen this hotel because it had been commissioned by Stalin himself to house visiting dignitaries. In the lobby, a pianist played classical music (this would go on from 8 in the morning to the evening). Everything was large and monumental, including the grand staircase, leading up to an enormous painting of Stalin himself, next to a painting of Brezhnev. The service was not from the period, but everything else was, and you could imagine yourself in the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

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Over the next few days, I would experience the wildest, most entertaining book tour of my life. There would be interviews with the major newspapers there; a press conference at TASS; radio and television appearances; a private tour of the Kremlin; a casual run-in with the police; access to the DUMA and an interview with one of the country’s most popular and bizarre politicians; signings at the three major bookstores in the city, where readers of my books had come in rather large numbers; tastes of Moscow’s infamous night life; time spent with perhaps Russia’s most interesting contemporary novelist and intellectual. And through it all, my perceptions would keep changing as I was confronted with things that were not at all what I had read about in the newspapers, and that were oddly more similar to my readings of history, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov.

I came away with a feeling–subjective, no doubt–that in the years to come Russia is going to reemerge as a great power on the world scene, one that has tremendous influence over events and the future. I base this not on their oil, or President Putin, but on my reading of the Russian people, their psychological and spiritual makeup, their hunger for power.

In the next few weeks I would like to share some of these impressions, because they transcend particular issues about Russia, and incorporate larger themes about the effect of the environment on who we are (my death-ground theory); about the tremendous war that goes on in countries (and individuals) between risk and freedom, security and adventure; the alternations between revolution and reaction, on and on. Russia is a microcosm of what Machiavelli had written about some 500 years ago, and what I have written about in my own books. It is a country undergoing a profound transformation. The power game is more intense and transparent, and for that reason all the more fascinating.

Read Part 2 of the Russia essays.

Will Russia be an empire once more?? Discuss Robert’s post, find more info on Robert’s trip, and analyze the topic through the lens of the 48 Laws of Power. Visit the Power, Seduction and War Room to hear from others and more from Robert Greene…

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