10 JUNE 1978, Page 21

Mad magic

George Feifer The Russian Mind Ronald Hingley (Bod'121Y Head £5.50) °Ile of the last trials I watched in a year of wandering through the People's Courts of Moscow was of a worker who had hobbled from his factory lunch hour with a large electric motor on his back. The judge spent more time berating one of the witnesses than the defendant, whose head was already had as a kind of emblem that he oad been convicted of the theft long ago. The tattered witness with the hoary beard Was the picture of the Russian peasant grandfather and the keeper of the factory


L.Cin the basis of what, the judge asked nisna, did he permit valuable objects to leave the gate? On the basis of documents. What documents? 'I don't know.' (Laughter in the seedy courtroom.) Who signs the transfer-of-materials papers? Grandpa didn't remember. Why, then, is he stationed a. I the gate? To open and close it.' (Belly laughter.) Then mightn't he just as well leave it open all the time? Islaw, of course 1n3t, I'd be out of a job.' (Pandemonium.) Then why did he sit there? Sitting there was his lob. What was his job, what exactly was he e supposed to do at that gate? The old

an's squint said he wasn't sure. Didn't he ;Tow that the main reason was to prevent "left? 'Sure, but I'm no greener, everybody

at that place steals anyway.' (Embarrassed tittering

of uncomfortable truth.)

When my account of this exchange was Published fifteen years ago, much less than now was being written about Russian life, as °I?Posed to Soviet politics. Charges of trivialising came from the Right, of slander from the Left. Several people with passionate feelings about the Russia they had never seen, or had visited on an Intourist tour, accused me of inventing the dialogue by Paraphrasing Gogol. Denying this, I simultaneously tried to explain that Russians did behave like Gogol's figures at times; and at other times, like Tolstoy's, `-nekhov's, Dostoievsky's, Turgenev's, Saltyakov-Shchedrin's. Since then, I keep saying to anyone who will listen that the great nineteenth-century novelists (with a selection of twentieth-century progeny such as Babel and Bulgakov) were the best reporters of Russia, and offer more insights !into current Russian attitudes and life than does any contemporary journalist I know. The first bounty of The Russian Mind is Its introductory anecdotes: a policeman thrown into a river with a bear, a civil servant whose nose has mysteriously disappeared, a dog solemnly lecturing its owner about human rights. Ronald Hingley begins

with these makings of well known Russian stories because 'the activities of the imagination as expressed in belles-lettres can be the most potent illustration possible of at collective national mind.' Episodes from relatively recent Russian history — Rasputin and Stalin, show trials and mock executions — press home the point that it has outdone literature in the bizarre, the obscene, the cruel and the irrational.

From this insight to larger ones that approach, and often grasp, the formative factors of Russian life. Why do Russians feel 'an irresistable inner drive to submit to absolute rule'? How can it be that Russian state power 'has always worn an awesome, crushing aspect' in the eyes of its subjects, whereas one supreme ruler after another regards his position as intolerably precarious and vulnerable? Hinglcy has read, seen and felt enough to put the fundamental dilemmas, and not to romanticise, even while making use of literature's licences as illustrations. He knows, for example, that while Russians have long seemed mar vellously vivid and dramatic to foreigners — 'more vital, more spontaneous, more dynamic' than Westerners because lib erated from customary taboos — the common denominators of Russian existence include monumental monotony And bore dom, which go together with frustration, spiritual unease and inability to come to terms with life. Hertzen wrote that 'The stifling emptiness and dumbness of Russian life, curiously combined with its vitality and rumbustious character, provoke all sorts of crackpot outbursts in our midst.' Quoting this, Hingley observes that Russians seem to proclaim and to actout the reverse of the classical admonition: not 'nothing' but 'everything in excess'.

Hingley will no doubt agree that he writes less well than the great Russian novelists.

Although The Russian Mind deals intel ligently and wisely with many of the vast subject's major themes, I will continue recommending the art of the best Russian writers to his criticism — or my own. I hope he will forgive me too for having 'grown slightly weary of the Gogol characters and of the old Russian paradoxes that once fascinated me — how can a people be so enchanting and infuriating so free of inhibitions in their personal lives and so slave-like in their civil behaviour? — and to put more emphasis than he does on the not-entirely-literary questions of when or whether the Russians will grow up politically, and what they might do to us in the meantime.

One of Hingley's most enlightening observations is drawn from his own experi

ences as the head of a London institute that employed Russian teachers. By ignoring all the rules, they 'virtually compelled me .

to adopt the methods of an Ivan [the Terrible], a Peter [the Great], of a Stalin writ exceedingly small' — after which they worked cheerfully and well. 'The mailed fist or total anarchy: here is the choice with which subordinate Russians tend to face those responsible for their collective efforts.' Hingley also points out that Russians `like a touch of magic or even madness' in their despots, which is why so many preferred Stalin to Khrushchev. We have gone on to observe that the present leadership is composed of screamingly dull mediocrities, which is one reason — the death of Marxism-Leninism is another — that emptiness, purposelessness and hopelessness are again pressing in on the Russian landmass like a vast cloud of malaise. The old monumental boredom also floats in the miasma, but of the relatively few Russians who hope for a new revolution to clear it, fewer still believe that social sunshine — rather than some harsh new salvation from anarchy — will follow. Everything to excess.