U.S.S.R. summary map, 1968. CREDIT: <a href=https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7000.ct002923/">Library of Congress</a>
U.S.S.R. summary map, 1968. CREDIT: Library of Congress

Russia's Nightmare Joke--and Daytime Reality

Jul 1, 1981

By 1981, the Soviet Union's economy had remained stagnant for years, yet it was a global superpower because of its military might. This seemingly unsustainable combination led Russian-born writers Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova to ask "What if, today, the last great empire on earth were nothing more than a fiction trying its best to convince both itself and others of its reality? Most important of all, which factor predominates in the Russian empire today—its strength or its weakness?"

In this prescient piece, a decade before the fall of the Soviet Union, Solovyov and Kleplikova explore why empire and the military are so important to Russian history and how this was pushing the Soviets to create an illusion of strength, despite early signs of an eventual collapse. Though the Soviet empire is no more, their observations on the history shaping the worldview of many Russians is still useful today.

WORLDVIEW ran from 1958-85 and featured articles by political philosophers, scholars, churchmen, statesmen, and writers from across the political spectrum. Find the entire archive online here.

Both of us remember from our schooldays in Russia how the teacher’s proud pointer would roam here and there across the political map as we learned by rote that the Soviet Union covered one-sixth of the earth’s surface and that its territory was vast enough to accommodate 2.3 Americas, 40 Frances, or 92 Great Britains. That by itself was supposed to inspire us with patriotic fervor. It was not official propaganda but nationalist feeling.

In the USSR geography takes the place of history, politics, and ideology. And this applies to the people no less than to the government; the unanimity here is astounding. For example, with few exceptions all of the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century were confirmed imperialists in their political (or, more precisely, geographical) views. Gogol wrote ecstatically about how his country covered almost half the world. Pushkin penned a militaristic poem about the suppression of the Polish uprising of 1931 and the taking of Warsaw by Russian troops. Griboyedov drafted several colonialist treaties for the government. (It was while he was putting one of them into effect as Russian ambassador to Teheran that he was killed by a mob of Muslim fanatics.) Dostoevski yearned for the capture of Constantinople. And Tyutchev, dying, asked for details of how the Khanate of Khiva was captured. Since these were the best minds of Russia, what could one expect of government officials and the common people? Aristotle held that if an object was too tiny or too huge for the eye to take in, it hardly could be said to exist. Russia is too vast to be real. It is a geographical and political fiction that must expand and extend its borders to sustain the illusion. And this is precisely what Russia has been doing successfully for ages, whether ruled by a czarist autocracy or a dictatorship of the proletariat. Petr Chaadayev, a philosopher of the last century, wrote of his country’s “historical nothingness”: “If we didn’t stretch from the Bering Strait to the Oder, no one would even notice us.”

The process was begun under Grand Duke Ivan Kalita (Ivan I), who, in the fourteenth century, “gathered in” the lands around Moscow. Beginning in 1500, Fridtjof Nansen has calculated, Russia added every seven years as much territory to its empire as that occupied the kingdom of Norway. Imperialism is a traditional, basic, and integral trait of Russia—its chief trait, in fact, as well as its national stimulus and international style.

We are now observing a splotch that is spreading all over the political map, a sleeping beast that is stretched out on the cushion of two parts of the world yet still feels cramped. Russia seems in the same condition in which the Marquis de Custine found it in 1839, when he said: “Today the Russian people are incapable of anything except conquering the world.” Hence the catastrophic contrast between economic and military development. It is not the specter of communism that is haunting Europe but, as Karl Marx wrote, Russian history, for which expansion has always been a substitute for inner vigor. The countries that have been tacked onto Russia—from Poland and Czechoslovakia to Georgia and Afghanistan—have been forcibly involved in that malignant development of Russian history.

The most astounding thing, however, is how the Russians themselves view this obvious imperialist bent. Inter alia, their attitude can be ascribed to one of the most tragic and distressing features of Russian history: the country’s constant invasion by enemies. For some three hundred years—about a third of its entire history—Russia was under the Mongol-Tatar yoke. One wonders whether an American can even imagine such an experience. For century after century, right through the last war, Mongols, Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians, French, and Germans made devastating incursions into Russia, even capturing and burning its capital. And the memory of those national humiliations is preserved in two forms: an acute xenophobia (anti-Semitism in the USSR is not merely a result of official propaganda but also an expression of the Russian allergy to aliens); and the great-power instinct of the people, to whom their imperialism seems a strictly defensive phenomenon. In fact, their aggressiveness is a sublimation of their fears.

Today these fears have taken a specific form and a new name: China. Moreover, an analogy that is close, even in racial terms, has been preserved and prompted by the nation’s historical memory: the catastrophe of the three hundred-year occupation by the Mongols. With this sense of danger, and directly opposed to it, there has been an increase in Russia’s aggressiveness toward China, its potential allies, and the countries bordering it. And tot this one must add Russia’s fear of the peoples it has subdued—the hangman’s fear of his victims, the master’s of his slaves, the persecution mania of the persecutor. After the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia there was a story going around Moscow that Brezhnev dreamed he saw a Czech squatting in Red Square eating matzo balls with chopsticks.


Good jokes never die; they just hibernate like bears until the right season comes along and awakens them. Today the story is being told in two versions. In one it is an Afghan rebel who is using the chopsticks; in the other it is Lech Walesa.

The story will stay alive so long as the Russian empire exists. There are two characters in it that are constants, and one that is a variable and symbolic: The dinner guest could be replaced by a German, a Lithuanian, a Georgian, an Estonian, another Czech, or anyone at all from a neighboring nation that has been “Sovietized” but not “Russianized.”

When Brezhnev dies, his heir will have the same dream. Just who that heir will be is something many Westerners have tried to predict, more or less in the manner of fortune tellers. But there is something idle and academic about their speculations, because the character of the heir is unimportant; what matters is the character of the inheritance. Whoever succeeds Brezhnev will inherit a spacious empire bulging with peoples, contradictions, and weapons. The nightmare about the “minoritarian” who came to dinner in Red Square is not just Brezhnev’s own: It is a collective nightmare of the Russian empire.

Although invulnerable militarily, the empire is emotionally weak. It is frightened by the least show of rebellion—not only by the Polish workers demanding the right to strike, but by the Estonian schoolchildren who marched in the streets of Tallin demanding that their Russian classes be replaced by courses in Estonian literature. To the Russians the use of a foreign language within their empire seems out-and-out disobedience. The kind of integration that matters to them is not economic, political, or military but linguistic. In their multinational family there is no such thing as equality. Since the time of Stalin the Russians have regarded themselves as “the older brother” in the most patriarchal and unattractive sense. And they are worried about the survival of their empire because, in recent history, they have known nothing but empire.

What if, today, the last great empire on earth were nothing more than a fiction trying its best to convince both itself and others of its reality? What if Brezhnev needed Potemkin countries, just as Catherine needed Potemkin villages? We live, after all, in a world of artifice like the Globe Theatre, where in lieu of stage settings there were signs reading “A Forest,” “A River,” “A Tavern.” And one may well ask: Why is Poland obliged to remain within the Soviet sphere of influence while Austria is not? Why is Finland dependent on its neighbor to the east while Norway, the neighbor of both, is a member of NATO? Most important of all, which factor predominates in the Russian empire today—its strength or its weakness? After Russia had suppressed the Polish uprising of 1831 the Russian poet Prince Vyazemsky wrote in his secret diary:

The Polish affair is a disease of a kind that has shown us a defect in our nature. What does it profit Russia to be Poland’s policeman? It would be much easier to have Poland as an out-and-out enemy on occasion. Whenever we get into a war, or whatever there is a disturbance in Russia, Poland rises up against us, so that there has to be one Russian sentinel for every Pole.

Not only for every Pole, one might add, but for every national minoritarian of the Russian empire.

Russia, however, regards this defect in its nature as its chief virtue and is trying to make more of it. Hence Afghanistan, another Potemkin country, which can bring the Russians nought but more problems. But the fictitious empire needs fictitious acquisitions: One sign on the stage reads “Afghanistan,” another “Poland,” and a third “the USSR.” Yet through it all the scene is being played on an empty stage, so that one recalls Shakespeare’s words: “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them.” Russia is waging war in Afghanistan while it should be reconquering Poland, which it no longer possesses. This is the syndrome of King Lear, a fictitious king: the illusion of possession. Russia needs Potemkin countries because it is a Potemkin empire. No longer pinning their hopes on reality, the Russians are relying on the imagination of the playgoers.


In Russia the relatively liberal Khrushchev era is remembered as a period of the empire’s enfeeblement, There is real resentment against Khrushchev for having returned one military base (Port Arthur) to China and another (Porkkala) to Finland, and for having pulled the Soviet troops out of Austria. The empire’s fear of breaking up suggests to it that the best defense is to go on the offensive. It is in this perspective that one must view the invasion of Afghanistan, which is not a new page in Russian history but an old one.

This resolute retrogression indicates that the period of dual government in Russia has come to an end; that behind the ceremonial figure of Brezhnev stand men who are far more strong minded and willing to take desperate gambles. This is all the more true in view of a factor that grows not only from day to day but from hour to hour: the Russian fear of China. The Chinese are not Afghans, Czechs, or Poles; they cannot be frightened, tamed, or occupied.

One can get a notion of this fear from both the stepped-up aggressiveness of official anti-Chinese propaganda and the jokes that are being told in Moscow. Along with explicit propaganda, the empire draws upon two Eastern traditions—the Byzantine and the Tatar-Mongolian—in employing a language of allusions, parables, historical allegories, and parallels. There are some striking examples of this in the flood of articles, novels, poems, and scholarly studies devoted to the six hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kulikovo between the Russians and the Tatars (1380). All this fuss about the sixth centennial of Kulikovo has marked a new upsurge of nationalist chauvinism and militaristic propaganda. Here, history has been nothing more than a camouflage, making it possible, in a paradoxical way, to speak openly about current events.

The following is only one example; but it is eloquent enough, if we bear in mind that we are dealing with a state-controlled press. The anniversary number of the journal Our Contemporary contained a poem about the campfires lit on Kulikovo field six hundred years ago, “which still have not been put out with ashes”

I cast an anxious gaze toward the East,And an equally anxious one toward the West.Who knows? Tomorrow we may set outAlong a road lighted by campfires.Who is ready to lead us in this campaign?Are the young princes yet in the saddle?

Meantime, it looks as if the “young princes”—or “the iron young men,” as Brezhnev’s successors are called in Moscow—are not just getting into the saddle but have been there for some time. They are waiting for the trumpet to sound the charge and summon them to defend the Russian empire against both East and West—Afghans and Poles, Chinese and Americans, native Jews and foreign Jews—against all those who, from the Russian viewpoint, are goyim. This is not black humor or a nightmare: It is a daytime reality in the last great empire on earth.

Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova are Russian-born historians, journalists, and novelists. This article is adapted from their recently completed work, Russian Paradoxes, translated by Guy Daniels.

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