The Chaco War

Paraguay, it turns out, owes much to Russia. Thanks largely to a few dozen Russian officers, the country emerged victorious in an almost unwinnable war, and doubled its territory in the process.

The Chaco War (1932-1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay was the bloodiest conflict in Latin America, in which well-over 100,000 lives were lost. It was also the first air-war fought in South America. It is a war little remembered now. A key role in the hostilities was played by Russian and German émigré officers on the two warring sides. It was, in effect, a continuation of WWI on another continent.

For decades, Paraguay and Bolivia had bickered over the vast region of Gran Chaco. Both considered it as its own, yet neither risked an open confrontation. That was until 1928, when geologists claimed that this sparsely populated, impassable territory could be a source of oil.

Asuncion and La Paz (the administrative capital of Bolivia) were soon at each other’s throats. And oil companies added literal fuel to the metaphorical fire. The sworn enemies Standard Oil (a U.S. company supporting Bolivia) and Royal-Dutch Shell (an Anglo-Dutch company backing Paraguay) saw great prospects in Gran Chaco.

The first clash occurred between a Paraguayan cavalry detachment and Bolivian police in August 1928. All-out war was prevented only through the intervention of the League of Nations. Four years later, however, the organization was powerless to do anything. On June 15, 1932, the Bolivian army launched a surprise attack on Paraguayan outposts in the disputed territory.

Tiny Paraguay seemed to have little hope against the far mightier Bolivia. Not only was the latter’s manpower 3.5 times larger, but just 60 years previously Paraguay had endured a brutal war against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, which claimed the lives of up to 70% of its male population.

Moreover, the Bolivian armed forces had three times as much air power and an overwhelming advantage in terms of armored vehicles. The Paraguayans could not field a single armored vehicle against the Vickers Mk E light tanks and Carden Lloyd VI tankettes of Bolivia. Only in respect of artillery guns was a certain parity maintained.

In this dire situation, only a miracle could save the country, and one duly arrived in the form of several dozen Russian officers who had left their homeland after the Russian Civil War and found a new home across the ocean.

One of the émigré officers, Lieutenant General Nikolai Stogov, wrote: “There seems not to be a single area of military affairs that our Russian émigré officers in Paraguay have not contributed to in terms of know-how and experience.”

Even before the conflict began, realizing the invaluable experience of the Russian officers, Paraguay’s leadership actively engaged them in modernizing both the armed forces and the country as a whole. “Russian émigrés were a boon to Paraguay, which needed to restore its shaky economy. Bridges, roads, administrative buildings, barracks, etc. all started to be built. The country gradually came to life thanks to the help of Russian technical personnel,” said Russian architect Georges Benois, who visited Asuncion in the 1920s.

It was Russian advisers who insisted on adopting the Danish Madsen machine gun, which the Tsarist cavalry had used in WWI. It was far more effective and reliable than the Chauchat machine gun, which the French military mission gave the Paraguayans.

Thanks to the Russians, in 1932, Paraguay created its first cavalry division. In this regard, it outpaced Bolivia, where such a formation appeared only two years later. The Paraguayan cavalry was trained to carry out blitz raids on the enemy rear, and Major Nikolai Korsakov even translated Russian cavalry songs into Spanish to instill military spirit.

Meanwhile, 120 German officers had settled in Bolivia and were now serving in the national army, which had been remodeled along German lines and dressed in the uniform of the Reichswehr. WWI veteran officer Hans Kundt was appointed commander-in-chief, arrogantly asserting that he would easily deal with the Russians (meaning the Paraguayan army).

At that time, 86 Russian émigrés were serving in the ranks of the Paraguayan armed forces. Despite their small number, most were officers with invaluable combat experience, and almost all proved their considerable worth in their respective area of expertise.

Having completed 13 reconnaissance trips to Gran Chaco, General Ivan Belyaev had vast experience as both a cartographer of the region and an artilleryman. And as the head of the cartographic unit of the General Staff and adviser to the Paraguayan president, he was heavily involved in planning the offensive and defensive operations of the Paraguayan army.

Thanks to the deciphering of the Bolivian military codes at the very start of the war by the head of Paraguay’s military intelligence, Nikolai Ern, and Captain Sergei Kern, the Paraguayan military secured an invaluable advantage. They often knew about the enemy’s intentions before the Bolivian troops had even received their orders.

A major role in the organization of the Paraguayan air defenses was played by aviator Captain Sergei Schetinin. Through his efforts, Bolivian aviation became far more potent. On his advice, the Paraguayans created dummy artillery, which the Bolivian planes wastefully bombarded.

The culmination of the Bolivian-Paraguayan (as well as Russian-German) Chaco War was the second battle of Nanawa (a suburb of Asuncion) in July 1933. In this operation, Kundt concentrated 6,000 of his Bolivian men against 3,600 Paraguayans.

Under the cover of German-crewed tanks, led by a detachment of flamethrowers, the Bolivians advanced on the Paraguayan army’s positions. Thanks to the solid defenses set up by the Russian military experts (fortified areas equipped with mortars and machine guns, surrounded by minefields and barbed wire), eight enemy attacks were repelled, followed by a successful counterattack. The Bolivian army lost several tanks and around 2,000 men, against Paraguayan losses of just 448. Shortly after the failed operation, Kundt was removed from his post.

The following year, after several major victories, Paraguay finally gained the strategic upper hand. When its armed forces entered Bolivia, the latter turned to the League of Nations for assistance in concluding a peace.
Under the 1935 peace treaty, Paraguay received most of Gran Chaco, which almost doubled its territory. In an evil twist of irony, oil was discovered in the valley only 77 years later, in 2012.

The Paraguayans praised the Russian officers for their vital role in the Chaco War. The future president of Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner, who had served under General Stepan Vysokolyan, had deep respect for both his commander and the entire Russian officer corps, calling them “people of honor.”

After the war, many of these Russian émigrés received all kinds of awards, were proclaimed national heroes, and occupied high positions in the country. To this day, six streets in Asuncion are named after the six Russian officers who were killed in the Chaco War.

How Ivan Belyaev Became Juan Belaieff (1875–1957)

Belyaev lost everything in his homeland after the Bolshevik revolution, so he moved to Latin America, chasing his childhood dreams – and became Juan Belaieff, Paraguay’s national hero.

Imagine your country just had a terrible civil war and the side you fought for lost. Your land is occupied by communists who killed your friends; you have nothing and are forced out to foreign lands. What would you do?

That’s the question all the officers and soldiers of the anti-Bolshevik White Army had to answer in the 1920s, after losing in the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. Some settled down in Europe or the U.S., becoming successful bourgeois. Those less successful had to work as butlers or taxi drivers; some succumbed to alcoholism or committed suicide.

But General Ivan Timofeevich Belyaev (better known as Juan Belaieff), a hero of World War I and old-school Russian imperial officer, had a far more impressive and adventurous fate than any other emigre. He moved to Paraguay and tried to build a second home for Russian émigrés there, at the same time studying the South American Indians and becoming their hero. How so?

“My fate was decided by a completely minor event,” Belyaev wrote in his autobiography, Notes of a Russian Exile. “As a child, having a stroll with my aunt in St. Petersburg, I noticed a small book at a book market, with a picture of an Indian, named The Last of the Mohicans.”

After reading that adventure novel and many other, far more serious, stories, touching upon customs and civilization of American Indians, little Belyaev completely fell in love with this theme, becoming interested in Indians for the rest of his life. “Each night I was praying for my Indians,” he recalled of his childhood. Yet, it would take several decades and Russia’s national disaster to make Belyaev actually meet Indians.
He had another career ahead of him – born to a family where all men were in military service, Belyaev became an artillerist and devotedly served Russia.

By the time World War I began in 1914, Belyaev held a rank of colonel. When hearing the news that Russia had declared war on Austro-Hungary and Germany, he reacted simply: “Long live Russia, death to her enemies!” and headed to the front to fight.

“Artillery is a mother of a child who got sick,” he used to say. “We are to watch our infantry close, listen to its pulse, being always ready to help it.” Loved by his soldiers, Belyaev was a classic Russian officer of his time, conservative and brave.

At war, the colonel survived many dangers, but once – only by chance. A bullet came through his chest but didn’t reach his spine or guts. Wounded Belyaev was transferred to a hospital near Petrograd, where he met Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and was promoted to general. After recovery, Belyaev headed back to the front-line.

In his memoirs, Belyaev admitted that despite the bravery and efforts of the Russian army, by 1917, Russia was too exhausted with the war, losing its best sons. “The last of the decent drowned in a sea of blood, the last impulse to fight burned out,” he wrote. The chaos of revolutions made Russian people turn their weapons against each other – at first Belyaev refused to fight against Russians but then his monarchist views prevail.

The White Army lost the war. In the 1920s, Belyaev, as well as many other soldiers and officers, sailed away from the shores of Russia. Along with his family, he moved to Europe, but didn’t stay there either. He decided to find a new home in Latin America.

In the 1920s, Russian émigrés in Paris could find a strange Russian-language newspaper called Paraguay, published in France by Belyaev. Each issue read on the front page: “Europe failed the Russian hope. Paraguay is a country to build a future in.” The general called on his compatriots to go to Paraguay and help him to, basically, build a new small Russia there. As for him, he had already been living in Paraguay since 1924, and was known as, Juan Belaieff.

Why Paraguay? Even by Latin America’s standards, that poor and underpopulated country was hardly a popular destination – but that’s why the local authorities welcomed immigration. Ever since losing the Paraguayan War of 1864-1870 to the alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay remained weak and lacked military force – and inviting some Russian officers was a good option for the government.

Belaieff, along with 12 other White Army officers, entered Paraguayan military service in 1924, joining the General Staff. His interests, however, lied beyond just military – in Paraguay he became a scientist.

Belaieff led 13 expeditions to the Gran Chaco, a vast area in West Paraguay populated by indigenous Maká people. “They spoke their own languages and hardly communicated with the other Paraguayans,” historian Boris Martynov, author of Russian Paraguay, notes. Belaieff, fascinated by Indians since his childhood, immediately established close ties with them, helping with supplies and clothes, studying their ancient culture, opening schools and even theaters.

Paradoxically, the Russian officer became a bridge uniting the Maká with their more-Westernized compatriots. The Indians adored Belaieff, calling him the ‘White Father’.

Even though he enjoyed his communication with the Maká, Belaieff had bigger plans. “I’d like to find a corner where everything sacred that created eternal holy Russia could be preserved, as Noah’s Ark did during the flood until better times,” he recalled. With his help, several Russian settlements were founded in Paraguay, but Russian migration to the country didn’t become widespread, and internal conflicts condemned the idea of some kind of “new Russia” in Latin America.

Though disappointed, Belaieff considered Paraguay his second home and, along with many Russian officers, gladly supported it in the Chaco war of 1932-1935, when neighboring Bolivia attacked Paraguay. Wounded and infected with malaria, Belaieff could have died a dozen times – but he survived and his side, though outnumbered, prevailed, with the help of the Maká, who were loyal to Belaieff.

He never returned to Russia, living out the rest of his long life in Paraguay. When he died, the Maká transported his body to their area and kept it in a mausoleum, worshipping the spirit of the White Father as a deity. A fellow Russian émigré officer in Paraguay said to a friend about Belaieff: “We, perhaps, will be forgotten after we die, but not him.”

Boris Egorov and Oleg Yegorov write for Russia Beyond.

The image shows a colored drawing of a military telephone depot, by Juan Belaieff, dated 1935.

The Art Of The Wanderers

The Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions was registered in 1870 and lasted until 1923. It was the first independent exhibition association of Russian artists. Its first exhibition, with 16 participating artists, was held in 1871. In the years of its existence, the society staged a total of 48 exhibitions, not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also in other cities within the Russian Empire.

One of the main reasons for the founding of the society was the artists’ desire to acquire financial independence from the Academy of Arts, which essentially had a monopoly on the sale of paintings via its exhibitions. In turn, financial independence gave the artists the right not just to earn an income by “cutting out the middleman”, but also to decide on the subjects of their paintings themselves.

In the 19th century, the Russian Academy of Arts was a conservative institution which prioritized the portrayal of mythological, biblical and historical subjects. The young artists wanted to show scenes from contemporary life and preferred “realism” to myths and legends.

The precursors of the Peredvizhniki (known in English as The Wanderers or The Itinerants) were artists from the St. Petersburg Artel [“Cooperative”] of Artists. In 1863, fourteen students from the Academy of Arts had submitted a petition demanding to independently choose the subjects for their diploma works. The petition was turned down by the academy’s authorities.

Subsequently, the students refused to take part in the annual gold medal competition and left the academy. The “rebels”, led by Ivan Kramskoi, set up an art artel along commune lines. From the new artel, participants – members of the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions – inherited a policy of independence and confrontation with the Academy of Arts.

The initiative to found the new association belonged to Grigoriy Myasoyedov. The core of the society was made up of successful and already famous artists – academicians of the Academy of Arts, including Vasily Perov, Alexei Savrasov, Ivan Kramskoi and Ivan Shishkin, as well as professors Nikolai Ge, Mikhail Clodt and Konstantin Makovsky.

With time, the ranks of the Peredvizhniki grew considerably – Vasily Surikov, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Valentin Serov, Ilya Repin, Isaac Levitan and Vasily Polenov joined the group. During the time of its existence, the society numbered over 100 members. 

Art critic Vladimir Stasov was the ideologist of the society. In 1882, he proclaimed that “nationalism and realism” were the group’s main principles. Stasov passionately opposed the provincial and imitative nature of Russian art of the first half of the 19th century and dreamed of Russian art occupying a worthy place alongside European art.

Stasov essentially formulated the ideological platform of the new school of Russian art, urging artists to turn to scenes from Russian contemporary life that often contained social criticism.

Enlightenment was another key goal pursued by the Peredvizhniki. Their exhibitions introduced the metropolitan and provincial public to the latest movements in art. According to the artist Nikolai Yaroshenko, the Peredvizhniki’s dream was “to take art out of the inaccessible palaces in which it was the domain of the few and make it the domain of all”.

One of the rules of the Peredvizhniki’s exhibitions, which to a large extent ensured their success, was the requirement that artists should exhibit only new paintings that had not been shown anywhere else before.

Essentially, the Peredvizhniki formed the first private commercial art venture, independent of state patronage. The artists’ income was determined by selling exhibitions organized in different cities. The artists considerably expanded the market for their works by also displaying them in provincial towns.

The sale of entrance tickets to exhibitions was another considerable part of their income. Each artist donated 5 percent from the sale of their work to the society’s pooled funds, which were used to cover the costs of mounting exhibitions.

Collector and philanthropist Pavel Tretyakov supported the society, not just by buying pictures for his gallery at itinerant exhibitions, but also by commissioning original work from artists.

At the Peredvizhniki’s exhibitions, landmark works of Russian art, such as The Rooks Have Come Back by Alexei Savrasov, Moscow Courtyard by Vasily Polenov, The Morning of the Streltsy Execution and Boyarina Morozova by Vasily Surikov, The Birch Grove by Arkhip Kuindzhi, The Stoker by Nikolai Yaroshenko and A Rye Field by Ivan Shishkin, were shown for the first time. 

In 1878, Ilya Repin joined the society. Exhibitions of his paintings were almost always accompanied by scandal. His work Religious Procession in Kursk Governorate was seen as a “squalid attack on all sections of Russian society”, They Did Not Expect Him was described as a “pseudo-liberal denunciation and protest” and in front of Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan ladies just fainted. The latter painting was banned from being exhibited by imperial decree – and because of Repin’s “gory” works, all art exhibitions in Russia were subject to censorship from 1885.

By 1923, the society ceased to exist. Over the years of its existence, its members were often involved in conflicts with one another. Ilya Repin, who twice left the group and then returned, accused his associates of suffering from a bureaucratic mindset. Nikolai Ge, Arkhip Kuindzhi and Viktor Vasnetsov all left the association. In 1901, 11 members left, including Valentin Serov, Mikhail Nesterov and Victor Vasnetsov.

The society’s board eventually began to pursue a conservative policy, not really encouraging young artists to get involved, and, with many leading lights of the society having left the art scene, in the end the activities of the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions petered out.

Yelena Fedotova writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The River Oyat,” by Vasily Polenov, painted 1883.

The Gulag In Five Books

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich

Any conversation about the Gulag would be unthinkable without Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, for he was the first in the USSR to introduce the topic to the public.

The risky publication of his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the literary magazine New World in 1962 became a bombshell. Previously, the topic of Stalin’s camps had not been raised in public although it had – of course – touched almost every family in the country.

In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist, a peasant, recalls how he went to fight the Germans, was captured, escaped, and was immediately sent to the camps. That was how the Stalinist regime treated anyone who had fallen into German captivity: they were viewed as spies or deserters. The book also offers vivid descriptions of the hardships of everyday life in the labor camps.

Those who want to study the topic more deeply and get a broader picture of the scale of Stalin’s camps should read Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago, which he himself called an experiment in artistic research. 

Kolyma Tales

Varlam Shalamov foresaw the appearance of a large number of memoirs and non-fiction works about this terrible period of Soviet history. He believed that authenticity would become the main strength of the literature of the future. In a dry and succinct manner, as if through the eyes of a documentary filmmaker, Shalamov writes about prisoners’ backbreaking work, awful and scant food, beatings and the terrible cold of Kolyma. Behind these daily observations, there are the writer’s ruminations about human beings and the value of life. His bleak writing style penetrates deeply into readers’ consciousness and this document about the Gulag may turn out to be more affecting than any work of art.

“Backbreaking work inflicted irreparable wounds on us, and our life in old age will be a life of pain, endless and varied physical and mental pain.”

Here are some excerpts from Shalamov’s short stories…

From, “The Carpenters”

“But the cold kept up, and Potashnikov knew he couldn’t hold out any longer. Breakfast sustained his strength for no more than an hour of work, and then exhaustion ensued. Frost penetrated the body to the ‘marrow of the bone’ — the phrase was no metaphor. A man could wave his pick or shovel, jump up and down so as not to freeze — till dinner. Dinner was hot — a thin broth and two spoons of kasha that restored one’s strength only a little but nevertheless provided some warmth. And then there was strength to work for an hour, and after that Potashnikov again felt himself in the grip of the cold. The day would finally come to a close, and after supper all the workers would take their bread back to the barracks, where they would eat it, washing it down with a mug of hot water. Not a single man would eat his bread in the mess hall with his soup. After that Potashnikov would go to sleep.

He slept, of course, on one of the upper berths, because the lower ones were like an ice cellar. Everyone who had a lower berth would stand half the night at the stove, taking turns with his neighbors in embracing it; the stove retained a slight remnant of warmth. There was never enough firewood, because to go for it meant a four-kilometer walk after work and everyone avoided the task. The upper berths were warmer, but even so everyone slept in his working clothes — hats, padded coats, pea jackets, felt pants. Even with the extra warmth, by the morning a man’s hair would be frozen to the pillow.

Potashnikov felt his strength leaving him every day. A thirty-year-old man, he had difficulty in climbing on to an upper berth and even in getting down from it. His neighbor had died yesterday. The man simply didn’t wake up, and no one asked for the cause of death, as if there were only one cause that everyone knew.”

From, “In the Night”

“Are you a doctor?” asked Bagretsov, sucking the wound.

Glebov remained silent. The time when he had been a doctor seemed very far away. Had it ever existed? Too often the world beyond the mountains and seas seemed unreal, like something out of a dream. Real were the minute, the hour, the day — from reveille to the end of work. He never guessed further, nor did he have the strength to guess. Nor did anyone else.

He didn’t know the past of the people who surrounded him and didn’t want to know. But then, if tomorrow Bagretsov were to declare himself a doctor of philosophy or a marshal of aviation, Glebov would believe him without a second thought. Had he himself really been a doctor? Not only the habit of judgment was lost, but even the habit of observation. Glebov watched Bagretsov suck the blood from his finger but said nothing. The circumstance slid across his consciousness, but he couldn’t find or even seek within himself the will to answer.

From, “Quiet”

We tried to work, but our lives were too distant from anything that could be expressed in figures, wheelbarrows, or percent of plan. The figures were a mockery. But for an hour, for one moment after that night’s dinner, we got our strength back.

And suddenly I realized that that night’s dinner had given the sectarian the strength he needed for his suicide. He needed that extra portion of kasha to make up his mind to die. There are times when a man has to hurry so as not to lose his will to die.

As usual, we encircled the stove. But today there was no one to sing any hymns. And I guess I was even happy that it was finally quiet.

From, “Dry Rations”

We were all tired of barracks food. Each time they brought in the soup in large zinc tubs suspended on poles, it made us all want to cry. We were ready to cry for fear that the soup would be thin. And when a miracle occurred and the soup was thick, we couldn’t believe it and ate it as slowly as possible. But even with thick soup in a warm stomach there remained a sucking pain; we’d been hungry for too long. All human emotions — love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellow man, compassion, longing for fame, honesty — had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during their long fasts…

“Just imagine,” said Savelev. “We’ll survive, leave for the mainland, and quickly become sick old men. We’ll have heart pains and rheumatism, and all the sleepless nights, the hunger, and long hard work of our youth will leave their mark on us even if we remain alive. We’ll be sick without knowing why, groan and drag ourselves from one dispensary to another. This unbearable work will leave us with wounds that can’t be healed, and all our later years will lead to lives of physical and psychological pain. And that pain will be endless and assume many different forms. But even among those terrible future days there will be good ones when we’ll be almost healthy and we won’t think about our sufferings. And the number of those days will be exactly equal to the number of days each of us has been able to loaf in camp.”

From, “A Child’s Drawings”

We finished the work, stacked the wood, and waited for the guards. Our guard was keeping warm in the building for which we’d been chopping wood, but we were supposed to march back in formation, breaking up in town into smaller groups.

We didn’t go to warm up, though, since we had long since noticed, next to a fence, a large heap of garbage — something we could not afford to ignore. Both my companions were soon removing one frozen layer after another with the adroitness that comes from practice. Their booty consisted of lumps of frozen bread, an icy piece of hamburger, and a torn pair of men’s socks. The socks were the most valuable item, of course, and I regretted that I hadn’t found them first. “Civvies” — socks, scarves, gloves, shirts, pants — were prized by people who for decades had nothing to wear but convict garb. The socks could be darned and exchanged for tobacco or bread.

From, “The Red Cross”

The evil acts committed by criminals in camp are innumerable. The unfortunates are those from whom the thief steals their last rags, confiscates their last coin. The working man is afraid to complain, for he sees that the criminals are stronger than the camp authorities. The thief beats the working man and forces him to work. Tens of thousands of people have been beaten to death by thieves. Hundreds of thousands of people who have been in the camps are permanently seduced by the ideology of these criminals and have ceased to be people. Something criminal has entered into their souls for ever. Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each.

The camp administrator is rude and cruel; the persons responsible for propaganda lie; the doctor has no conscience. But all this is trivial in comparison with the corrupting power of the criminal world. In spite of everything, the authorities are still human beings, and the human element in them does survive. The criminals are not human.

The influence of their morality on camp life is boundless and many-sided. The camps are in every way schools of the negative. No one will ever receive anything useful or necessary from them — neither the convict himself, nor his superiors, nor the guard, nor the inadvertent witnesses (engineers, geologists, doctors), nor the camp administrators, nor their subordinates.

Every minute of camp life is a poisoned minute.

What’s a Human Being Worth?

Female authors who went through the camps are less well known. One of the more notable is Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya: she accompanied her memoirs with drawings – simple, child-like images, but for that reason even more terrifying.

Kersnovskaya possessed incredible strength, both physical and mental, and asked to be given men’s work – she even worked in a mine. Her story is amazing: she managed to escape and survived in the taiga when her only food was a frozen piece of horse-meat.

She describes, without embellishment, the most terrible things that were going on in the Gulag, the lowly position occupied by women prisoners and what many of them were prepared to do in order to survive.

The title of her book reflects her attempts to understand under what conditions a person can lose their essential humanity.

Now exhibitions of Kersnovskaya’s drawings from the camps are held all over the world. 

The Monastery

Present-day writers too turn to the topic of the Gulag. For example, one of Russia’s leading authors, Zakhar Prilepin, sent his hero to a camp on the Solovetsky Islands – the very same Gulag archipelago.

This major novel is based on thorough archival research. The author made numerous trips to the Solovetsky Islands, working in the archives there. He offers an extremely accurate depiction of the head of the camp, as well as the entire camp structure – from prison cells made out of former monastic cells and wooden bunks in churches to punishment cells set up in remote monastic retreats.

Prilepin also portrays different groups of inmates – political prisoners and ordinary criminals rubbed shoulders in these camps.

Zuleikha

This is another contemporary novel on our list, the debut novel by writer Guzel Yakhina, which became a bestseller in Russia and has already been translated into 10 languages. It tells not so much the story of the Gulag itself as of the Stalin-era repressions, namely the dispossession of Tatar peasants and their deportation to Siberia.

The book’s heroine, together with a group of prisoners, finds herself in the middle of the taiga under the escort of one officer. They have to dig their own dugout, forage for food and fend off the cold. But, strangely, in these circumstances, she feels a freer person than when she was when oppressed by her husband and mother-in-law.

Although this is a work of fiction, but Yakhina studied archive materials about deportations to Siberia in Stalin’s times. In addition, her grandmother was among those dispossessed in the 1930s, and when depicting the everyday life of her characters, the author relied on her grandmother’s recollections. 

Alexandra Guzeva writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “Magadan Hills,” by Nikolai Getman.

The Glory That Was Lithuania

In the Middle Ages, Moscow was by no means the only center of gravity in the Russian lands. For several centuries, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had designs on its own unified Russia.

Today, Lithuania is a small country on the north-eastern fringe of the European Union. However, 600 years ago it was one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe.

Having been destroyed by the Mongols, Russia was fertile soil for Lithuanian expansion. Through dynastic marriages, military campaigns, and outright annexation, Lithuania subjugated vast swathes of the variegated Russian principalities – so much so that it threatened Moscow’s status as the center of Russian unification.

When, in the early 13th century, the East Baltic pagan tribes suffered the horrors of the Northern Crusades, it seemed that the Lithuanians would share the sad fate of other Baltic tribes crushed by the Teutonic Knights.

Surprisingly, however, the Lithuanian tribes managed to consolidate and not only halt the German onslaught, but inflict some punishing counterattacks on the aggressors. In 1236, at the Battle of Saule, they almost completely destroyed the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, a Catholic military order operating in the territories of modern Latvia and Estonia. Interestingly, 200 soldiers from Pskov, then an ally of the order, perished along with the swordsmen.

From the west (today’s Kaliningrad Region), the Teutonic Order subdued the Prussian tribes on its way to the Lithuanian lands. The Teutons annexed the remains of the so-called Sword Brethren, forming the Livonian Order, and set about clamping the Lithuanians in a pincer movement from both sides.

The Lithuanian rulers realized that they couldn’t survive in isolation. Fortunately for them (but not for the Russians), in 1237 the Mongols invaded the Russian principalities, which largely solved Lithuania’s problems.

The Mongol invasion devastated the Russian principalities of north-eastern Rus and weakened the western Russian principalities, which Lithuania sought to exploit.

Its expansion into the Russian lands was not all through fire and sword, however. In fact, the annexation was largely peaceful, for in the powerful Lithuania the Russian rulers saw the chance of protection from the Mongols. The Lithuanians in turn received much-needed support in the struggle against the Teutonic Knights, and they too were threatened by the marauding Mongols.

The Lithuanian princes did not encroach on the rights of the local nobility, establishing relations with regional rulers under a vassalage system. In case of military exigency, they could rely on local armed contingents.

In the mid-13th century, Lithuania annexed the so-called “Black Russia,” the territory of modern western Belarus, renaming itself the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The Grand Duchy reached its maximum extent in the 14th century under Princes Gediminas and Algirdas. The Lithuanian state included vast territories that today lie inside Belarus, Ukraine, and south-west Russia.

Now the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had to reckon not only with its old enemy the Teutons, but also the Mongols, the Poles, the Hungarians, as well as the Muscovites. Moscow and the Lithuanian territories were separated by no more than 200 kilometers.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was only Lithuanian in name. 90% of its population was made up of the ancestors of modern Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. Maintaining the integrity of such a patchwork state was not an easy task, and its rulers had to skillfully navigate between different groups of subjects.

A central pillar of the state was tolerance. Although officially pagan, not only did it not violate the rights of the Orthodox population, it actively supported them. In 1316, the Lithuanians even sought to set up its own metropolitan see in Novogrodok (modern Novogrudok in Belarus), and established direct contacts with the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Much later, in the 16th century, the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire, Sigismund Herberstein, wrote about the Lithuanian capital, then called Vilna: “There are considerably more Russian churches than ones of the Catholic faith.”

The Lithuanian princes first established a protectorate, before finally annexing Kiev in the 1360s, recognizing it as the “mother of Russian cities.” Ruthenian supplanted Lithuanian as the official language, and remained so until the late 17th century.

Lithuania pulled out all the stops to demonstrate to the Russian principalities and its main rival in the east, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, that it was the political and spiritual center of unification for the Russian lands.

For a long time, the Lithuanian princes maneuvered between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds without taking sides.

For instance, Grand Duke Mindaugas was baptized into Catholicism and crowned “king of Lithuania” by Pope Innocent IV. However, after his death in 1263, Lithuania returned once more to the fold of paganism, which, incidentally, did not prevent Mindaugas’ son Vaisvilkas, who succeeded his father, from being a fanatical adherent of Orthodoxy.

However, this state of affairs could not continue indefinitely. As the last pagan state of Europe, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania could not be regarded as an equal by the Christian sovereigns of Europe. It also played into the hands of the Teutonic Order, which could legitimately wage unending holy war against Lithuanian paganism.The situation was resolved by Lithuania’s political and cultural convergence with Poland, with whom it had fought against the Teutons. In 1387, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Jogaila, who was concurrently King of Poland under the name Wladyslaw II Jagiello, converted Lithuania to Catholicism.

From that moment on, the Grand Duchy’s encouragement of Orthodoxy ceased, and the Catholic faith took root. Hence, Lithuania could no longer lay claim to the title of unifier of the Russian lands.

The union of Lithuania and Poland as one state in the 16th century exerted tremendous political, cultural, and religious pressure on the Grand Duchy’s Orthodox population, namely the Belarusian and Ukrainian people. Over the coming centuries, they would be a bone of contention between the Polish and Russian civilizations. It remains a live issue to this day.

Boris Egorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The Battle of Grunwald,” by Jan Matejko, painted in 1878.

Who Was Lavrentiy Beria?

That corpulent man wearing a pince-nez remains one of the most symbolic faces of Joseph Stalin’s era. Lavrentiy Beria was calculating and vicious, hard-working and hedonist – and people feared him so much that it led to his downfall.

Just like his boss Joseph Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria (1899 – 1953) was born and bred in Georgia. An ethnic Mingrelian (a small nation closely-related to Georgians), during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) he specialized in spying and undercover operations for the Bolsheviks in neighboring Azerbaijan. Later, Beria returned to Georgia to work for the Soviet secret police, known as the Cheka – the Extraordinary Commission.

He made a great career in Georgia: in the 1930s, after Stalin got rid of the old Georgian Communists, Beria led the republic. “Beria had no values, was always ready to discard ideology or personal relations – and Stalin liked that about him,” historian Lev Lurie writes. 

Plus, Beria was indeed a good manager. “During his reign in Georgia, the republic became the main supplier of tea, grape and citrus for the entire USSR… the republic that was among the poorest turned into the most prosperous,” Lurie notes.

Cunning Beria established excellent personal relations with Stalin, who visited Georgia many times during his vacations. That helped him a lot – Beria was one of only two heads of Soviet republics ( there were 15) who survived the purges of 1937. Moreover, Stalin took Beria to Moscow, appointing him chief of the NKVD, the notorious secret police.

In Russia, it is common to associate Beria, the longest-sitting head of the NKVD during Stalin’s era, with mass repressions. In fact, it was Beria’s predecessor Nikolai Yezhov who ran the secret police during the height of the terror, 1937-1938. As far as Stalin was concerned, appointing Beria to head the NKVD was a way to scale back the extent of the executions.

“Stalin was a violent yet clever man who was well aware of the fact that further repressions would lead to the failure of his power,” wrote Sergo Beria, Lavrentiy’s son, in his memoirs. “He needed a man of a different kind [from Yezhov] to lead the NKVD.” Sergo’s objectivity can be disputed, but his father did alleviate the violence: in 1938 (the last year of Yezhov’s tenure as head of the NKVD), 328,000 people were sentenced to death in the USSR; in 1939, with Beria in charge that figure was 2,600.

Certainly, that doesn’t mean Beria was a bleeding-heart liberal: like everyone else in Stalin’s government he was always ready to spill blood if there was an order. For instance, it was Beria’s NKVD that sentenced 14,500 Polish war prisoners to death in 1940 (the infamous Katyn massacre).

Stalin appreciated Beria’s organizational skills enough to put him in charge of the manufacture of armaments, aircraft and aircraft engines during World War II – which was in addition to his duties in state security that included both coordinating the work of spies and the infamous deportations of ethnic groups accused of collaborating with the Germans – Chechens, Crimean Tatars and so on.

When the war ended, the USSR faced new challenges – the nuclear arms race, with Washington ahead of Moscow. Stalin had no doubt who could supervise the Soviet atomic project: Beria headed the Special Committee on Creating Nuclear Weapons in the shortest time possible.

The ruthless minister spent 1945 to 1949 providing Soviet scientists with everything they needed. Ninel Epatova, an engineer who used to work on the atomic project, saw Beria periodically, and she recalled: “Back then, Beria always looked exhausted… with red eyes, bags under them… It seemed he didn’t care about anything except work.”

That work consumed Beria, and historian Oleg Khlevniuk writes that: “Soviet nuclear testing could result in his triumph or, in case of failure, the end of his career or even life.” But testing was successful: in 1949, the USSR became a nuclear power, and Beria was among those who made it possible.

“Stalin’s attitude towards Beria was special. He was the only one among the top members of the Communist Party not to have an apartment but a mansion in Moscow all to himself,” Lurie states. Today, this mansion on Malaya Nikitskaya Street in the Moscow center hosts the embassy of Tunisia and… is rumored to be haunted.

There are dark legends surrounding Beria: allegedly he was something of a sexual maniac, having young girls delivered to his house, raping and (sometimes) murdering them, while his guards helped him get rid of the bodies. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no proof for this urban legend, and most historians suppose it was Beria’s posthumous bad publicity that led to such rumors.

What has been proved is that Beria had, in addition to his wife, an ‘unofficial’ one – Valentina Drozdova, who was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when they met in 1949. Their relations lasted until Beria’s death in 1953. Later, Drozdova claimed that Beria raped her, but it’s unclear if it was true or whether she wanted to distance herself from Beria’s legacy.

When Stalin died on March 5, 1953, Beria became one of the most influential people in the USSR, forming a ‘triumvirate’ with two other leaders – Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov. In that ‘collective ruling’ system Beria was in charge of state security, which, along with his dark reputation, resulted in Khrushchev and Malenkov fearing Beria and a possible plot against them.  

So, they decided to strike first. In June 1953, Beria was detained, denounced as the architect of repressions and a British spy (a fabricated accusation) and executed the same year. Beria was Stalin’s only secret police chief to outlive his boss, but not for long.

Oleg Yegorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a Soviet poster of Lavrentiy Beria, from the 1953.

The Lattice Towers of Vladimir Shukhov

Believe it or not, but the inspiration for this highly unusual engineering structure came from Russian wicker baskets. Despite being made of brittle twigs, they are able to withstand considerable weight. It is commonly known that a large wicker basket turned upside down can readily support the weight of a person, thanks to the interlaced weaving.

The first Shukhov tower was publicly unveiled at the All-Russian Industrial and Art Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod in 1896, where visitors were shown some of the most interesting and advanced engineering inventions of the day.

The tower was no mere curiosity. It was there on duty, serving as a water tower and supplying water for the entire exhibition. What’s more, a viewing platform was installed above the water tank for all exhibition guests to come up and enjoy.

Shukhov’s tower was not the only construction he presented at the Nizhny Novgorod exhibition. Another was an oval-shaped pavilion with a hanging steel-mesh cover. Soon afterwards, Russia adopted Shukhov’s pioneering technique for installing overhead covers on buildings, a prime example of which can be seen atop Moscow’s GUM department store.

The world’s first Shukhov tower immediately found an owner in the shape of Russian aristocrat, industrialist, and philanthropist Yuri Nechaev-Maltsov, whose place in Russian history is ensured as one of the founders of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.

Nechaev-Maltsov purchased the tower in Nizhny Novgorod and had it transported to his estate at Polibino, where it was used as a water tower and viewing platform. Writer Leo Tolstoy, poet Anna Akhmatova, and Russian academic and cultural figure Ivan Tsvetaev (father of poet Marina Tsvetaeva) are all said to have climbed the tower at various times.

Today, the Nechaev-Maltsov estate is located in Lipetsk Region. The first Shukhov tower was preserved at Polibino, where it stands behind the main manor house. The tower almost perished in Soviet times, but was miraculously saved by the local history society. The tower has since been restored, and tourists can climb up to the viewing platform once more, as happened more than a century ago.

There are other Shukhov towers in Russia, of course. The most famous are surely the former TV tower at Shabolovka in Moscow and the world’s only hyperboloid multisectional transmission tower, which stands on the banks of the Oka River not far from the city of Dzerzhinsk.

Shukhov towers and other structures conceived by the great Russian engineer are found across the globe. The TV towers in Sydney and Guangzhou, Aspire Tower in Doha, and Kobe Port Tower in Japan (destroyed during the 1995 earthquake, but since reconstructed) all sprang up thanks to Shukhov’s genius.

Shukhov’s techniques are widely used in modern Russian engineering projects, not least in the construction of the Moscow International Business Center (aka Moskva-City), a major high-rise commercial development that dominates the capital’s skyline.

Vadim Razumov writes fro Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a Constructionist work, entitled, “Space Force,” by Lyubov Popova, 1921.

The Assassination Of Paul Doumer

The assassination of the popular French leader by a Russian shocked France and the whole of Europe. By doing so, the killer wanted somehow to end Bolshevik rule in Russia.

On May 6, 1932, the entire French Republic was shocked to the core when President Paul Doumer was shot in Paris by a Russian émigré. Even more terrified was the huge Russian community in France. They were sure that the French authorities would punish them all for the actions of one madman.

During a visit by the president to a book fair in Paris, a young tall man came up to him, took a pistol out of his pocket, and fired twice. The bullets hit Doumer at the base of the skull and in the right armpit.

The president was taken to the hospital for urgent surgery. Doumer regained consciousness only once before dying the next day.

As for his killer, he was immediately seized after the shooting. The furious crowd was ready to tear him apart, and police quickly took the suspect away to find out who he was and what had driven him to commit such an awful act.

The subsequent investigation revealed that the killer of French President Paul Doumer was Pavel Gorgulov, a doctor, writer and poet who had emigrated to France from Russia after the 1917 Revolution.

During the interrogation, Gorgulov proclaimed himself a Russian fascist with a mission to end Bolshevik rule in Russia.

Other documents discovered mentioned him as the president of the “Peasant All-Russian People’s Green Party.” The so-called “greens” during the Civil War in Russia were mainly peasant forces who opposed both warring sides – the Reds (Communists) and the Whites (Monarchists, republicans, etc).

Most likely, Gorgulov was the only member of this party. He stated he had nothing personal against Doumer. The president was chosen as a target because he was the leader of France – a country that stopped the fight against the Soviet Union and the Bolsheviks, and so was preparing for the destruction of itself and the whole world.

“Europe and America seem favorable to Bolshevism, so I decided to kill the president and cause France to declare war on Russia! I am a great Russian patriot. I had no accomplices,” Gorgulov said.

Nevertheless, the “great Russian patriot” was not supported by the Russian community in France. On the contrary, Russian émigrés strongly condemned his actions.

Afraid of the possible consequences, the émigrés tried hard to demonstrate their loyalty to France and that they had nothing in common with the assassin. All prominent figures among the Russian community sent their condolences to the government and the president’s widow, and took part in the memorial service.

There were even some absurd cases. On the very next day after the assassination, a waiter at one Paris cafe, former officer Sergey Dmitriev, committed suicide to wash away the dishonor. In his suicide note, he wrote: “I die for France!”

Despite the odd anti-Russian statement in the French press and parliament, there were no mass reprisals.

Benito Mussolini also declared his distance from the “Russian fascist.” The time for Il Duce to enter into conflict with France had yet to come.

Gorgulov’s lawyer wanted to portray his client’s actions as those of a madman, and thus save his life. Indeed, what the police found in Gorgulov’s documents clearly indicated some kind of mental illness.

Gorgulov had a detailed plan to overthrow the Bolsheviks in Russia by means of an uprising by ‘”The Green Brothers.” And the head of the future “All-Russian Nationalist Republic” was meant to be Gorgulov himself – the “Great Green Dictator.”

The documents meticulously described the political establishment of the “new” Russia, with flags and even army officers’ uniforms. Gorgulov expected to seize power with the help of certain “portable machines” that possessed great destructive power and were supposedly invented by the “dictator” himself.

Apparently, after Paul Doumer’s assassination, Gorgulov had plans to kill German President Paul von Hindenburg and the president of Czechoslovakia, Thomas Masaryk. Remarkably, listed among Gorgulov’s future victims was a certain Vladimir Lenin, who had in fact died eight years previously.

However, the court refused to recognize Pavel Gorgulov as mentally ill and sentenced him to death. The accused responded as follows: “I die as a hero for myself and for my friends! Vive la France! Vive la Russie! I will love you until the day I die!” (Anatoly Tereshchenko. Mysteries of the Silver Age. Moscow, 2017)

On September 14, 1932, Pavel Gorgulov was executed at La Santé prison in Paris by guillotine.

Boris Egorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows President Paul Doumer, illustrated in repose, drawing by Louveau-Rouveyre

Granny Was A Spy

Nobody among the residents of Bexleyheath, south-east London, could ever have imagined that their nice neighbor – the charming old lady Melita Norwood – was in fact one of the most important Soviet spies in Great Britain.

Courtesy of Melita Norwood, Stalin was better informed about the construction of the British nuclear bomb than most members of the UK Cabinet.

For almost 35 years, Mrs Norwood copied and transferred to the Soviet Union hundreds of secret documents on the British nuclear program.
Due to her socialism-oriented parents, Melita Sirnis (after marriage – Norwood) was a devoted Communist since childhood. In the 1930s she secretly joined the British Communist Party.

At the same time, she was hired as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which was developing Britain’s nuclear technology.

The British overlooked the Communist among their ranks, but the Soviets saw a great opportunity. In 1937 Melita was recruited by Soviet intelligence and started to work for “the cause of the World Revolution.”

“I did what I did not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had at great cost given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, good education and a health service,” recalled Melita many years later.

Norwood had direct access to all the details of the British nuclear program, codenamed “Tube Alloys.” Her boss, G. L. Bailey, was a member of its advisory committee. Completely trusted, Melita had access to Bailey’s two safes: one at the office, the other at his London home.

Top secret correspondence, scientific reports, analyses, etc. were photographed by Norwood and handed over to the Soviets. This information significantly helped them in developing their own nuclear technologies.

Melita Norwood, known as “Agent Hola,” was highly praised in the Soviet Union, even more than the more famous Kim Philby. She was characterized as a “disciplined and devoted agent, who does everything that she can to help Soviet intelligence.”

Twice, in 1945 and 1965, MI5 counterintelligence service raised suspicions about Norwood’s true identity, but both times they did not have enough proof. So it was that in 1972 she quietly retired from her job at Non-Ferrous Metals, and hence from the Soviet secret service.

Disclosure came only 20 years later, when former KGB officer Vasili Mitrokhin defected to Britain and exposed a huge number of files on Soviet agents, including Melita Norwood.

However, due to her old age “Agent Hola” was neither arrested, nor interrogated. The British government decided nothing was to be gained from sending the “granny spy” to prison, and Mrs Norwood was left in peace at her home in Bexleyheath.

Until her death in 2005, Melita Norwood never regretted what she had done. Working for the Soviet Union was a matter of principle for her. She even declined a secret lifelong pension from the Soviets, but gladly received the prestigious Order of the Red Banner.

“I did not want money. It was not that side I was interested in. I wanted Russia to be on equal footing with the West,” Mrs Norwood used to say.

The photo shows a famous poster of “Agent Fifi,” from World War Two.

The Demons

In 1872, Dostoevsky published his novel, The Demons [Бесы]. It demonstrated in a microcosm, the insanity that lay within the revolutionary movements of 19th century Russia. That insanity broke upon the world in 1917 and has remained present with us, in one form or another, ever since.

The madness that he describes takes place in a small town, away from the great capitals of Russia. It involves a relatively small cast of characters (at least for a Russian novel and revolution). There is love and intrigue. But mostly there is murder and mayhem. For the only revolutionary who succeeds is the one who fears nothing himself but creates and feeds on the fear of others.

It is interesting that great theories of economics and social justice do not form a part of this novel. Dostoevsky was no stranger to Russia’s radical movements and their political and economic theories: he spent a number of years in prison under the Tsar for having participated in one such group.

But he does not make the theory out to be of much importance. He rightly recognized that the spirit of revolution is not about a struggle for a glorious future. Revolution is about the destruction of the present and the will to power. Hitler’s rise to power and Lenin’s rise to power both belong to differing ideologies. What they share in common are lies and murder.

Dostoevsky’s revolutionary sees the world as teetering on chaos. The old order is a roadblock, an encumbrance that stands in the way of progress and the forces of renewal. Every convention, every custom and practice of tradition is the enemy. The revolutionary has to be prepared to sweep everything aside for the sake of his cause.

In Dostoevsky’s Russia, the Church was a primary conserving force. Its Orthodox practice was a shrine to Tradition and custom. Every aspect of life moved in obedience to the seasons of the Church. It is thus not surprising that the Church, God and the Christian view of the world were the primary targets of his drama.

But the title of Dostoevsky’s novel is even more to the point. Though he does not say so, the actors in the small “revolution” in the provinces, are only pawns. There is a larger game afoot, and that game is revealed in the title of the novel.

The work of the demons is not an ancient conspiracy, a carefully-planned work that ultimately results in the enthronement of the anti-Christ. Demons do not seem to be driven towards the construction of great empires – that activity is particularly human.

The work of the demons (both in the novel and in the real world) is the work of destruction. Existence is the gift of God. All that we know as existing is His gift. Its order, laws, even “reasonableness,” are all reflective of God’s creative work. Non-existence, non-being is the drive of the wicked ones.

Non-existence is not something that can be achieved by created beings, for existence is the gift of God and He alone sustains all things. Thus, the work of those in rebellion is to move things “towards” non-being. Lies, murder, destruction, disarray, deception, and the like are hallmarks of their work.

The demons are not the builders of civilizations, even civilizations that seem to have evil purposes. They corrupt and distort. The farcical “opera” that was the Nazi regime was a demonic attempt at civilization, a mimicry of the true thing.

Its delusional aspects seem so obvious now that people can only wonder how anyone ever took seriously its grand productions and Wagnerian pretensions (the delusions of our own time should be considered as well). The destructive character of that regime began to manifest itself quite early. In almost every effort, its constructions were distortions, an anti-civilization.

Where do the demons lurk in our own time? Look to the places of chaos and destruction, where order is slipping away and violence triumphs. Take note of despair and mayhem, any place where the drive towards non-existence has taken hold. Occasionally these forces manifest themselves in larger eruptions.

The bizarre extremism within radical Islam has all of the hallmarks of the demonic. It is a form of madness, of chaos, unleashed. Other extremes seem bent on the destruction of traditional ideas and norms that have existed for millennia.

The Orthodox resistance to iconoclasm recognizes the true nature of this urge to destruction. For the discussion about icons has never been limited to quiet theological thoughts about the nature of images. Iconoclasm is not a theological position, it is what its Greek name says, “Smashing.”

The smashers in the modern world have multiplied. The revolution of 1917 initially swelled their ranks. Films of icon burnings and Church explosions were only the most visible expressions. The smashing of human beings, images of God, were among the most brutal in all of history.

We see as well the sad cases of individual iconoclasm. The mass murders in schools, theaters, shopping malls (which sometimes seem to occur on a weekly basis) represent the demonic collapse within a single person. The wanton destruction of strangers, murder for the sake of murder, reveals a frightening drive towards non-existence. Of course, such events involve mental illness and other social problems, all of which are exploited by the demons of our time.

But more to the point for readers of this article is the unraveling of existence within our own lives and souls. Solzhenitsyn famously said: “…the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

In the existential/spiritual terms that I’ve used here, we must recognize that the forces of disintegration and entropy war within us with the forces of order and true being. And we must recognize that true being only occurs in relationship – for it is the gift of God and has its existence in its giftedness and in its self-offering in return.

This life of receiving and offering extends not only to God but to all persons and things around us. It is nothing other than love. The Scriptures tell us that God is love. We must also understand that love is the only true existence – all else is a distraction and a distortion, a movement towards non-being.

For the individual who can walk through an elementary school and blithely shoot teachers and children, the heart has grown cold – on the order of demonic coldness. But by the same token, we ourselves can walk through any number of crowded places, our hearts filled with judgment and envy, or worse still, nothing at all. The former is only a demonic sacrament of the latter.

The demons in Dostoevsky’s novel ended their melee in an orgy of violence – a short spree that came to nothing. He wrote of other such eruptions of madness. The student Raskolnikov murdered an old woman in the name of a bizarre Nietzschean will to power. Dmitri Karamazov was convicted of murdering his father, though he was only guilty of wanting to. But in both of these latter cases, the outcome was not destruction, but repentance – in prison. Imprisonment for these Dostoevskian heroes is the place of rebirth, just as it was for the author himself.

Repentance, in prison or not, is the only way forward from the nightmare of our present demons. It is love that has grown cold. What we see in our present world is not the result of mistaken political decisions or failures of diplomacy. It is as Solzhenitsyn said – a battle within the heart of every human being. It is there that the demons must be defeated.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Demon Fallen,” by Mikhail Vrubel, painted in 1902.

Edvard Munch And Dostoevsky

Ever get the impression that the somber pictures of Munch are ready-made illustrations for the equally somber works of Dostoevsky? We do, and it turns out there’s more to this hunch than meets the eye.

In April, Russia’s first ever major exhibition of one of Norway’s most famous sons, Edvard Munch, opens at the Tretyakov Gallery after several years of negotiations with the Munch Museum in Oslo. Although relatively few of his paintings are known in Russia, Munch’s work has a greater connection with Russia than one might imagine. His idol and inspiration was Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the artist’s most famous piece The Scream looks as if it is possessed by one of Dostoevsky’s demons.

The director of the Tretyakov Gallery, Zelfira Tregulova, noted that Munch essentially did for art what Dostoevsky did for literature: “He turned the human soul inside out and peered into the abyss and the vortex of passions that rip people apart, revealing the complexity of human nature.”

The bohemian atmosphere of 1880s Oslo, of which the young Munch was part, consisted of creative anarchists who fed on the works of Dostoevsky, freshly translated into Norwegian.

“Will anyone ever be able to describe those times?” We need Dostoevsky, or at least a mixture of Krogh [an artist, Munch’s mentor], Jeager [a scandalous anarchist writer], and perhaps myself to describe the wretched existence in Christiania [the old name for Oslo] as convincingly as Dostoevsky’s depiction of a Siberian town—not only then, but now as well,” wrote Munch.

A little-known work of Dostoevsky (or at least overshadowed by the later novels), A Gentle Creature had a profound influence on Munch. It tells the story of the suicide of an unhappy girl who, out of poverty, marries a moneylender she despises.

Experts believe that one of Munch’s most famous self-portraits Between the Clock and the Bed, which shows a nude female figure, might easily be an illustration for A Gentle Creature.

Munch and Dostoevsky shared an artistic weakness for sick, poverty-stricken wenches. Another of Munch’s most famous paintings, The Sick Child, which prompted a hail of indignation from critics for its “incompleteness,” was a reflection of the artist’s grief over the death of his beloved sister from tuberculosis.

“I am not entirely sure why I became attached to her, perhaps because she was always ill… If she had been lame or hunchbacked as well, I think I would have loved her even more…” says Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

Munch biographer Rolf Stenersen describes how the idiosyncratic artist considered his paintings to be his own children and showed tough love to those that didn’t turn out quite right. Such pictures he exhibited outside in rain, wind, and snow, and returned them indoors only after some time. It is known for a fact that this happened to the painting Separation, which suffered greatly as a consequence. Stains, smudges, and traces of bird droppings became part of the picture.

This strange method Munch called hestekur (translated as “horse treatment”). Experts believe it to be a reference to Raskolnikov’s dream, in which the protagonist, transported back to childhood, witnesses a peasant beating an old nag just because it is “mine.” Soon the crowd joins in with chants of “Flog it to death!”

Munch created what might these days be described as fan art—artwork created by fans of a particular work. In one of his numerous self-portraits, Munch depicts himself with a skeleton hand. This work is said to have been inspired by a portrait of Dostoevsky made using a similar technique by Swiss artist Felix Vallotton.

On display at the exhibition, there is a small volume that belonged to the artist. It is called Djasvlene, the Norwegian title of Dostoevsky’s novel, Demons. It was this book that Munch had on his bedside table on being found dead at his country estate, not far from Oslo, in 1944.

Alexandra Guzeva writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “Evening on Karl Johan Street,” painted in 1892.