Accessibility links

Can Russia Move From Mess Hall To Restaurant?

The author says Russia doesn't have two misfortunes but just one: militarism.

The author says Russia doesn't have two misfortunes but just one: militarism.

People who are leaving Russia to live abroad often hear people whispering behind their backs that they are "going to where everything is ready."

Before the revolution, people didn't talk like that. For centuries, leaving the tsar was as difficult as leaving Stalin later became. The difference was that under the tsar, emigration was illegal, while under Stalin it was forbidden by informal rules and the state apparatus. Ironically, though, under the tsar emigration was considered treason, while under Stalin it was considered both treason and punishment for treason.

The prism of socialism forced us to view the capitalist world as a place where everything was "ready." In the Soviet Union, by contrast, we were destroying everything down to the foundation and building a new world. But some people didn't want to wait.

But the "foundation" in the Soviet Union wasn't destroyed a bit. Exchanging the tsar's portrait for the portrait of the prime minister means that not very much has been destroyed. The main thing remains: combat readiness.

'Normal' And Antiworld

In the "normal" world, readiness signifies a readiness to start something, like a race. Sometimes you hear the phrase "equal opportunity," but even the United States is far from achieving that in reality. But it does signify a readiness to compete under strict rules, a recognition that one might lose and a readiness to take that loss and make something of one's own out of it. As Dale Carnegie said, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

The normal world is not just the West, but the East as well, although the rules there are often different. But in addition to the West and the East and other such worlds, there is also an antiworld -- Russia. In Russia, "readiness" means that weapons are in hand, targets are available, the commander is in position. The commander is free to give the order to fire at any moment and in any direction.

In this sense, Russia is a land of despotism, where the only person who is free is the one who gives the orders. But even the Supreme Petty Tyrant cannot order us to hold our fire. He can only tell us whom to shoot; but the fact that there will be shooting is beyond discussion. In Russia, "readiness" means only the readiness to carry out orders. Everything is ready and all that remains is to make oneself ready. Not "be ready," but "get ready."

Of course, people have to prepare themselves in the normal world too, but they do that at the very beginning of the work. Sowing a field or writing a book or winning an election (a real one) or building a road -- these things take time.

But a soldier looks at an unplowed field or a pitted road with anger: "Everything should have been prepared long ago! Our tanks have to pass through here!"

In short, Russia doesn't have two misfortunes -- roads and fools, as the old saying goes -- but just one: militarism. Everything else is just a consequence.

The soldier doesn't only look on those who are leaving and say he's going "where everything is ready." He also looks on those who are coming with the same thought. He is a soldier and so he always thinks that the outside world is constantly seeking to grab his tiny world. What are those Europeans or Orientals or whatever preparing for us? They aren't marching in formation, but all walking around on their own. It seems like many of them have everything -- and all of it better than ours -- but that is just an illusion! After all, we are strong, because we are a fortress.

Joining The Feast

But there is no such thing as an army that can't be broken. If an army exists, that means it is fated to be broken eventually. Life is not a battlefield. It is not an egg that needs to be broken in order to make an omelet. Life is a feast that began before we came and will continue after we are gone. And, maybe, it will never end.

There is no need to prepare ourselves for anything. We just need to be ready -- be ready to be satisfied because the feast is delicious, because the chef is joyful and generous, because there is enough for him and for that fellow and that other fellow and for that poor devil over there and for all their friends and relations and for all the strangers and foreigners out there as well. There is no need to hiss behind people's backs that they are going "where everything is ready" or to tell people who are arriving to "get the hell out of here."

Incidentally, those who prepare feasts don't talk like that. This is the talk of hangers-on and parasites who don't draw water themselves or knead dough. They only know how to give orders, teach others, guard them, and -- in a word -- be in the way. There are a lot of people like that -- people who are ready to instruct but who themselves never learned to cook. And there are especially a lot of these people in Russia because our revolution was not an uprising of the poor against the rich, the oppressed against the oppressor. It was an uprising of those who don't want to do anything against those who were forbidding everyone from doing anything. And obviously, the ones who suffered the most in this conflict were those who knew how and loved to do things, those who knew how to cook. In the worst cases, the cooks were literally eaten and in the best cases, they were forced into military mess halls.

But, fear not. The entire history of humanity over the last several thousand years has been a gradual (with lapses) return from the barracks to the restaurant. To a first-class restaurant with more stars than one can count, where the kitchen and the dining hall are one and the same, where the Host and the guests are one and the same, and where everything that is prepared by one person, any person, each person, is enough for all and everyone thinks it is delicious.

Yakov Krotov is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Show comments