The Future Empire
Read Part 1 of the Russia essays.
On the thirteen hour flight from Los Angeles to Moscow last month, I ignored the various entertainments that Aeroflot was offering, and concentrated on two things: finishing a book I had started on Russian history (Russia: The Once and Future Empire, by Philip Longworth) and looking out the window at the strange and impressive sights.
In the history book, I had arrived at the 20th century and the catalog of tragedy and catastrophe (compacted into a few hundred pages) was almost too much to take. First there was the story of the Russian Revolution, born amid the hardships of World War One, and which involved the wrenching of a country from one system of living and governance to its virtual opposite, in an incredibly short period of time. This was intensified by Stalin’s sudden push to modernize the country in the late 20s and early 30s, which created untold suffering and loss of lives.
Then came World War II. In our minds, we played a decisive role in this war, and that is true to some extent. In terms of casualties, some 300,000 Americans were killed, a high price to pay by any standard. Russian casualties totaled some 20 to 40 million (military and civilian), depending on whom you read, and how such things are calculated. The only country that comes close is China, with some 10 million people killed in the war; China has a much larger population, and so the percentage of Russians who died in the War is astronomical and almost impossible for us to fathom.
After World War II came the stultifying years of the Cold War, which demanded the utmost patience in its people. Then, another revolution in the 80s and early 90s, in which the country was yet again wrenched from one extreme to another, from bureaucratic socialism to pirate capitalism. Shortly afterwards the Russian economy collapsed and the government teetered. The Yeltsin Revolution was followed by the Putin Reaction, the Thermidor.
When I read history I tend to focus on the leaders and principal players who determine the fates of millions with their decisions. But for some reason, in reading this particular book, I kept focusing on the sufferings of the Russian people themselves and the tremendous effect these traumas must have on their psyche. Some Russians would know grandparents who had lived through the 20s and 30s. Many would have parents or elders who had survived World War II. Almost all young people would have vivid memories themselves of the troubling years of the late 80s and 90s. For us Americans, history is something distant, something we read about, that plays itself out on television and only occasionally touches our lives. For Russians, history is a constant, living pressure, bordering on a nightmare.
The path of the Aeroflot flight to Moscow was most unusual, for me at least. From Los Angeles, the plane headed northeast, to the frozen reaches of Canada, and then due east, over Greenland. When we finally crossed over to Russia, I could look down at an endless spectacle of white, frozen, empty space, occasionally punctuated by a town. This went on for hours. I consulted my map of Russia and noticed that we were only crossing a small part of the country, compared to what lay east with Siberia, etc. I mentally calculated the voyage to the other end of Russia and how surreal it would be to fly over this bleak landscape for another ten hours.
I grew up in Los Angeles, only a few miles from the ocean. When I attended college in Wisconsin it took me a while to get over a feeling of claustrophobia; the ocean represented release, freedom, an escape, something I could not imagine living without. In Wisconsin the ocean was far far away. The entire country of Russia is landlocked, and throughout its history it has struggled to find access in all directions to the ocean. The weather is unbearably harsh, the landscape unfriendly, the outlets for escape (by sea) not there. The effects of such geography on the Russians must be profound.
These images and thoughts stayed with me throughout the trip, but they were intensified and adjusted by a series of encounters with people and places (and vodka) that made my head spin with some new and old theories of my own–centering on the critical role that environment plays on our psychology.
The Kremlin, or Pure Power: Two days into the trip, I was given a private tour of the Kremlin palace, which is now generally inaccessible to the public. The palace is sublimely beautiful, and this was only heightened by being virtually alone inside it. It stands apart from other such European palaces by the strange mix of bright colors, the endless curves in the ceilings and doorways, and the elaborate decorations on the walls. It was once the living quarters for the royal family and select members of the aristocracy. In the Soviet era, its large rooms became an occasional meeting place for communist congresses. Now, it is reserved for large state functions.
One expansive room was particularly telling: it had originally housed the Romanov throne and was used for coronations. The Soviets had converted it into a drab conference room, stripping away all the splendor. In the 90s President Yeltsin commissioned a complete re-conversion of the room to the original. This ended up costing a fortune and the man responsible for the remodeling was eventually imprisoned for overcharging. It is a spectacular space, but the gold on the walls is a little too bright for it to pass as the original.
What struck me was that no longer serving as living quarters, or as simply a space to meet in, the new palace was really a symbol of unadulterated power. It represented a new Russian nostalgia for the Imperial past. Later, as I saw more of the city, I would see this nostalgia reflected in other places–restaurants that were exact replicas of a nineteenth century establishment, with waiters in full costume of the period; displays in bookstore windows that were full of Imperial images; costume dramas on television; the new Russian flag, on and on.
This is not a nostalgia for simpler, more colorful days, but for the power and prestige that Russia once embodied. It is not something superficial and imposed by the government from on high; it actually comes from below, from the people, who are intensely aware of their own history and how recent events have humiliated their pride. It is a hunger for power in a pure form, stripped of royalty or ideology.
Russian faces: One day, walking near the Kremlin with Irina Bachkalo–the charming foreign rights chief of Ripol who had originally invited me over–we were stopped by some stern-looking soldiers. They demanded to see our papers. I had to show my passport, complete with visa and accompanying documents. They were somewhat gruff with us. I don’t know what would have happened if I had not been carrying my passport. They looked over the documents and let us go.
To Irina it was somewhat strange they had accosted us (among the hundreds of people walking by), but then she figured it was due to me–I simply looked like an outsider, a tourist. I was a little taken aback with this explanation. I have a little Russian blood in me; I have traveled throughout northern Europe and normally I am taken for a local. I make a virtue out of blending in this way. What would separate me and my face from other Russians? Well, she explained, it was not my features per se, but my bearing, my expression. It was different.
I wanted to understand what she meant. In the days to come, as I walked through the streets, I studied the faces. I began to notice what she had been talking about: most Russians had a hardened look; something on the suspicious side, not so open and willing to embrace anything that came their way. Difficult to put into words, but there was a toughness in their expression. And by comparison, I would indeed stand out.
Despite the relative stability Putin has brought, life in Moscow can still be quite harsh. The weather is as brutal as it always has been. People tend to work very long hours, and under much pressure. I have never seen such intense traffic on the city roads. To get from one side of Moscow to the other can take hours of the most mind-numbing, bumper-to-bumper crawl. It makes the traffic in Los Angeles seem paltry by comparison. (The Moscow Metro is fantastic, but stations are often quite far apart, and many prefer to drive, despite the time it takes.) And yet the people do not complain, or even really pay much attention to it. They are accustomed to waiting in lines, to having their patience taxed to the maximum, to doing without the amenities we take for granted–and they bear it with surprising ease.
Because the traffic is so bad, taxis are almost non-existent. They would cost too much; the meters would go crazy in such gridlock. And so they have come up with their own illegal accommodation. You can stand on the sidewalk and make a hitchhiking motion; any old driver will pull up, usually in a beat-up car, and you can negotiate a fee for them to take you where you want. This becomes a source of side-income for those who need it and a cheaper way to get around. With all they have to put up with, the Russians seem to find away around the absurd rules, the bureaucratic constrictions, the painful circumstances of city life. They are tough and resourceful people.
America through the looking glass: In my talks in bookstores and with regular citizens, I found they were quite disdainful about certain features of life in America and the West. They almost all have an intense dislike of President Bush. They find America to be a power that is not content with merely dominating the world, but also preaching to it about standards of behavior. For anyone who travels now to Europe, or anywhere really, this has become quite normal: America-bashing, centered on Bush. But what was different to me was their implied opinion that many things in Western culture reflect an inner weakness, a lack of resilience in the people. This kind of talk is too politically incorrect to be heard in Germany or France.
One evening, I was trying to explain to a TV producer the whole Don Imus fiasco. He did not react really to the racial component in the story, although he was sensitive to the issue as I presented it. Many Russians seem quite enamored with black culture; hip hop and artists like 50 cent are extremely popular. Instead, he could not help expressing some disdain for the pusillanimity of America: why does it get so easily upset over this and that? Why do people constantly resolve their problems or differences by resorting to lawsuits, or screaming harassment? You seem pampered, a little oversensitive, he implied.
This TV producer happened to be a middle-aged man with long hair, who had an intense interest in American counterculture. He could easily pass for an older hippie in America, not some right-wing proto-Fascist.
I heard similar things from other Russians (from all walks of life and social classes) about our hysterical response to the merest hint of a possible terrorist attack; to the whole poisoning scandal in London which seem to them way overblown; to the 15 or so English soldiers who had been held hostage in Iran while I was in Russia, and were treated as heroes when they returned to England. Why were they heroes? They seemed rather weak and submissive to their Iranian captors. They did nothing heroic except stay alive. Millions of Russians have been through a lot worse and we do not see them as heroes. .
This reverse perspective on America and the West was strangely refreshing. It made me reflect: compared to our parents and grandparents, we are much more nervous, high-strung, sensitive to affronts. We feel things are owed to us, whereas the average Russian feels nothing of the sort. Their first instinct when confronted with hardships or resistance is to somehow find a way around, to get by, to accommodate. This comes from years of managing life under a totally unresponsive and dictatorial regime. .
Russian Pleasures: The Russians love to have a good time. They work very hard. When it is over, they want to enjoy themselves, just as hard. Why did I keep detecting a touch of suffering and pain in all of these pleasures?
The Russian love to gamble, and so my hosts–Sergei, the very wise and creative general of Ripol, and the other Sergei, his smart field lieutenant–took me to a brightly colored casino in the center of town. I quickly proceeded to lose a fair amount of their money. I am not a bad gambler, but the Russians have managed to create a system that subtly stacks the odds further in the house’s favor–you can win more than in your average Vegas casino, but the chances are less great. And yet, the Russians love to gamble and do not complain of the odds, or how quickly the money vanishes. It is the thrill of the moment, the chance turning of the card that excites them. And perhaps some guilty desire to lose as well, to be punished. (See page 355 in The 48 Laws.)
The Russians love to drink. The vodka flows with deceptive ease, and you cannot help but get caught up in it. It tastes like chilled water, almost. It is followed by all kinds of delightful appetizers that make the drinking easier and more delicious. The host will offer a toast to the guest, glasses are raised, and somehow more toasts are offered from this person and that. Before you know it, you are staggering to your feet, talking a bit loud, saying things you have never really said before. Vodka is a great equalizer. President or proletariat, it turns you into the same mumbling, bumbling fool. (Of course, the Russians can take it so much better than I could, so six shots on my part would equal ten or twelve of theirs.) The drinking inevitably slides into an excess that turns quite painful. All my vodka memories are a mix of excitement and depression.
I cannot say whether they love their Russian bath houses, or not, but I was lead to one nonetheless, as an experience I had to taste. It was an intense mixture of pleasure and pain. It required five torturous minutes in a claustrophobic sauna, your body and face covered by sweet-smelling tree branches. The masseur then comes in and begins to beat your back with another branch, then pours ice cold water over your face, as you scream, not necessarily out of pain, but out of the sharp sensation. Minutes later, he then takes you out to be dunked in a barrel of freezing cold water, and orders you to put your whole head underneath for a few seconds.
You are then escorted to a room where you lie down for several minutes while the friend who accompanies you there goes through the same traumatic ritual you went through. For those minutes, you feel grateful to be alive, to not have drowned or died from the heat; and you feel…exhilarated. This cycle is repeated a few times (each a little shorter, but the hot and the cold are more extreme), your pain and your gratitude intensifying, until you have survived it all, and the masseur covers your body in Siberian honey, then washes it off. When it is all over, you have a strange sensation of ecstasy, which lasts for maybe an hour, until the drinking begins and you reenter the cycle of pain and pleasure.
I have had a theory for many years about the effect of the environment on our personality, our psyche, our core. It has to do with the level of pressure this environment places on us. This pressure could be physical–poverty, destruction, danger–or it could be more psychological–abuse, neglect, alienation. This theory came into focus more recently, as I was reading From Pieces to Weight, 50 cent’s autobiography. As I read the book, I really tried to put myself in his shoes, as best I could. And what I felt was a constant pressure coming from his environment, in southside Queens. He could not go a day without feeling it pressing in on him, in the form of the police as a threatening presence, the derelict buildings, the junkies and drug dealers, the men and women who were dying every day in gunfights, etc., the noise, the lack of private space. This pressure was very tight and physical–the equivalent of having to live in a small prison cell. .
This tightness could crush you and your spirit, as it did for many people in his neighborhood. It could crush you by making you turn to drugs and drink, to a life of crime that would lead to an early death, or to just giving up. But for those people who burned with ambition, such as 50 himself, it concentrates your energy and your mind to a powerful degree.
Such types would not take things for granted, would not waste their time, knowing that death is a real presence; their eyes would be constantly open to angles and opportunities (the hustler’s creed); they would become experimenters, trying this out or that, not afraid to fail, since they have spent most of your life with nothing to lose. This tight, pressurized environment adds a layer of toughness to their character which gives them an advantage later in life if they manage to have success in any venture. They know how to take risks, how to go at things with intensity, and how to land back on their feet when there are setbacks. They are living on death ground, even after they leave their original neighborhood.
This pressure, as mentioned before, could be psychological, and as I wrote about in The Art of Seduction, many charismatics are people who come from broken homes. This has nothing to do with social class. Charismatics like Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy or FDR came from privileged backgrounds. But they were largely neglected as children, and felt a great lack of affection in their lives; they also felt alienated from the center of the family. They were ambitious young men, and this caused them later in life to gain this affection and closeness from public life, from the adulation of the crowd, from political power. It gave them charisma and a resilience that served them well. .
The other side of this is equally clear: those who come from backgrounds that are reasonably well off, in which their environments do not present much pressure, these types tend to have a spirit that is slack. Their energy and ambition is never heated up enough to impel them forward. They will try many things in life, wandering around from this and that, but never concentrating on one thing. There is no necessity in their actions. Behind them stands a loving parent who will bail them out with money or affection or both. And this slackness infects everything they do. You can see it in their eyes, in their body language, in the tone of their voice. Nothing is sharp; everything is hazy. We see a lot of this slack spirit in America and to me it is depressing.
Which brings me back to the Russians. In many ways, their entire country is like southside Queens. Their environment is tight and pressurized. Nothing in the past one hundred years has come easy to them. They have had to withstand constant misery, deprivation, hardship. And now, as stability has seemingly set in, and a corner is being turned in their long history, the slight breathing space they are offered has opened up great possibilities.
For centuries their spirit has been crushed by an authoritarian regime of one stripe or another. This authoritarianism might be creeping back in, but it is nowhere near to the same degree as in the past. Comparisons of contemporary Russia to the Soviet period are appallingly stupid and do not take into consideration the tremendous changes going on. These are people who are tough, who can withstand the shocks of the globalized economy, of terrorist threats, of almost anything. This combined with the high levels of education of the average Russian make for a potent mix of qualities that I believe will make of their country one of the preeminent powers of the 21st century and beyond. Everything moves in cycles, empires fall and others rise; nothing stays the same. The future, in America and the world, belongs to those with a hunger for something they do not have in the present.
The only wild card and danger is political: that in facing the chaos of the modern world, Russian politicians opt for more and more control, and stifle this immense pot of creativity and energy that is boiling up from underneath–a subject for my next blog on President Putin, and the political situation in Russia.
Read Part 3 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…