The living legacy of Russia’s slavery


Russian society has never learnt what it is to feel responsibility for anything. Serfdom was abolished 150 years ago, engendering feelings of panic in many of the ‘liberated’ peasants. Ivan Karamazov uses the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor to demonstrate that it’s easier when there is no freedom and decisions are taken higher up the vertical of power. Slavery too is a vertical, says Andrei Konchalovsky.

Andrei Konchalovsky
9 September 2011

“Cursed be those who express our thoughts before us!”

(Aelius Donatus, Roman grammarian and teacher of rhetoric)

Donatus, living in ancient Rome, was fortunate – he wanted to be the first to express a seditious thought. If I, living in today’s Russia, wish to express an opinion that someone might find offensive, I need to attribute it to some recognised authority, ideally an eminent Russian thinker. Otherwise I will be accused of every sin in general, and of hatred of everything Russian in particular.

So, here are my thoughts.

“I am particularly suspicious, particularly distrustful of a Russian in power – a recent slave himself, he becomes the most unbridled despot as soon as he is given any authority over his neighbour. “  Thus wrote Maxim Gorky in his ‘Untimely Thoughts’ ninety years ago, but just as timely today.

We encounter despots on an hourly basis – the doorman demanding to see your pass; the woman in the ID card office asking for extra documents; the customs officer going through your luggage – at such moments you have a clammy sensation of terror and humiliation – another symptom of slavery. In Gorky’s words, we are recent slaves who, having cast off “our outward slavery, continue to feel ourselves slaves within”. This is how we should understand Chekhov’s remark that we must “squeeze the slave out of us drop by drop”. And that is not easy.


Serfdom in Russia lasted much longer than slavery in other European countries. Slavery in Russia was an important institution, but in 1723 Peter the Great ordained that household slaves should become house serfs. Until the Emancipation in 1861, at least half of Russia’s population were serfs.

"Truth”, to quote Gorky again, “in its ‘honest’ form, untainted by the interests of individuals, groups, classes or nations …. is highly inconvenient to the man in the street and therefore unacceptable to him. This is the damned annoying thing about ‘honest truth’, but it is still the kind of truth we need most”. So, let’s talk honestly about  us – Russians. 

When analysing the Russian character, we can undoubtedly count among its positive elements sensitivity, kindness and hospitableness, quick wittedness, sympathy and compassion, as well as a capacity for self-sacrifice and altruism. Its main negative features, on the other hand, are inconsistency and low self-esteem, cruelty, lack of belief in oneself and one’s future, indifference to one’s present, lack of interest in, and respect for, property. The Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev discussed this in his 1915 article ‘The Psychology of the Russian People. The Soul of Russia’, where he wrote, “Russia is a country of unbelievable servility and terrible humility, a country lacking any consciousness of the rights of the individual, and which fails to stand up for the dignity of the individual…” Is it hard to read this? It certainly is. But there it is - the honest truth.

"We encounter despots on an hourly basis – the doorman demanding to see your pass; the woman in the ID card office asking for extra documents; the customs officer going through your luggage – at such moments you have a clammy sensation of terror and humiliation – another symptom of slavery."

Where did this aspect of the Russian character come from? I think a lot of it can be explained by our history, in which slavery, in the form of serfdom, survived until the middle of the 19th century. Serfdom existed in Russia until later than anywhere else, and was abolished a mere 150 years ago, whereas in most Western countries it ceased to exist several hundred years earlier, in the 12th-14th centuries. In Europe such concepts as civil society and economic relations as the basis of life, with the concomitant organisation of production, are also several centuries old. We need to admit that Russia lags several centuries behind Western Europe.

The abolition of serfdom led to widespread misery and disaster. The peasants may have been granted personal freedom, but they received no land outright, and had to pay the landlord to redeem it or work out an obligation to their landlord to have the use of it. They had expected their liberty and land, but their expectations were cruelly dashed. The government of the day delayed the publication of the Emancipation Manifesto signed by the Tsar until they had redeployed troops around the country. In the Kazan and Penza districts gunfire was used to disperse angry peasant crowds. The clandestine organisation ‘Land and Liberty’ was founded in 1876 to spread discontent with the reforms among the peasants and provoke social unrest, and the government responded with renewed force. It was only five years after the abolition of serfdom that the terrorist Karakozov made an attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II.

Firs, the old servant in Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’, says that all these troubles began with the Emancipation: “The peasants had their masters, the masters their peasants, and now everything’s all over the place, there’s no sense any more.” Emancipation aroused feelings of panic among the peasants, who were left without anywhere to turn for their social needs. Their landlord may have been a despot to them, but he also provided for their basic needs from cradle to grave. Over time this system had inevitably become, if not a tradition, at least a way of life. To quote Gorky again, “The conditions in which they [the Russian people – AK] lived could foster neither respect for the individual, nor any concept of civil rights, nor a feeling for justice – they lived without any rights, under total oppression, shamelessly lied to and subject to bestial cruelty. One can only be amazed that after all that the people retained a degree of human emotion and a certain amount of common sense.” 

Chekhov’s phrase about “squeezing the slave out of us drop by drop” says a lot. Not about the author’s own serf background, but about the fact that Russians have an inbuilt tendency to defer to people in power. Consider me, for example – I have written about this before. As you walk through the Kremlin’s corridors of power, the higher the official you meet, the ‘lower’ you become. I get to then Prime Minister Kosygin’s office, and …can’t even touch the door handle.  As French writer Pierre Beauchamp wrote, “Palace doors are not as tall as people think. The only way to get through them is to bow low.” 


Orthodox churches have no benches and the faithful stand or kneel throughout the mass, which may last for hours. Is this one of the reasons why the Russians idolize power? (photo: pravoslavie.ru)

This is a typical Russian thing – reverence towards the bosses. You need to constantly ‘squeeze’ this inherited Byzantine trait out of yourself – this residual feeling of obsequiousness, cringing, fawning and servility. You smile particularly widely at a VIP – it’s terrible, but there it is. If, on the other hand, someone is not, or not yet, a VIP, you can be as rude to them as you like, and even spit contemptuously in their direction after they pass. As Saltykov-Schedrin remarked, “We have no middle way – we either kiss someone’s hand or slap their face”.

Slavery is a vertical, a continuation of ‘Byzantine excesses’. For us Orthodox, God is above us, and we won’t sit in church – we either stand or kneel. And we see the earthly powers-that-be also as having their place on that vertical, between the individual and God. That is why a Russian idolises power, and a Swede, for example, not. Catholic churches have pews, and it seems to me that if you can sit, and your legs don’t go numb, then you can direct all your thoughts towards prayer, and not just long for the service to end. For Protestants, God is on a horizontal; that is why you can sit with him at a Communion table. 

"The lack of a sense of responsibility that is characteristic of Russians is perhaps the most terrible legacy of slavery."

Nikolai Berdyaev said that “freedom is difficult, slavery easy”. Indeed, being a ‘slave’ is very convenient: the boss takes all the decisions, “and I won’t lift a finger until someone tells me to”. The lack of a sense of responsibility that is characteristic of Russians is perhaps the most terrible legacy of slavery. A lack of responsibility to your country, the society of which you are a member, even your own parents and children!  And without a sense of responsibility there can be no sense of guilt. To quote Berdyaev again, “A feeling of guilt is the feeling of a master”. And this is why it is naive to call for a collective national act of repentance for the evils of Bolshevism.  

I believe that the sense of historical guilt for Nazism shown by the German people demonstrates that this is a nation capable of taking responsibility for those tragic years when it took a conscious decision that resulted in monstrous acts of evil against humanity. We, on the other hand, do not suffer from a sense of historical guilt – we are convinced that Bolshevism was imposed on us, hammered into our souls, and that we are not responsible for anything – it is ‘THEY’ who are responsible! And how many more centuries will this continue?

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