Friday, October 22, 2010

Cold War Mentality in Ken Follett's Fall of Giants

I can never say no to my readers, so after getting several requests for a review of Ken Follett's new book Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy) I started reading it. The book is almost 1000 pages long and I will post a review as soon as I'm done. For now, I wanted to discuss this curious phenomenon that I have been noticing for a while where English-speaking writers fall into an outdated and ridiculous Cold War mentality whenever they write about Russia. I shared a while ago that I feel a deep-seated postcolonial resentment against Russia. Even so, things that Follett writes about that country are completely wrong and often offensive.

Take, for example, Follett's description of the Russian Orthodox Church. I'm no fan of the ROC. Today, they represent a very conservative and stifling force within Russia. During the Soviet era, Russian Orthodox Church collaborated with the KGB, betraying the confidences of their parishioners. Still, this doesn't mean that accusing the ROC of every sin under the sun is either reasonable or acceptable. The following passage in the novel is so blatantly wrong that it's scary:
I went to the church and told the priest we had nowhere to sleep.” Katerina laughed harshly. “I can guess what happened there.” He was surprised. “Can you?” “The priest offered you a bed—his bed. That’s what happened to me.” “Something like that,” Grigori said. “He gave me a few kopeks and sent me to buy hot potatoes. The shop wasn’t where he said, but instead of searching for it I hurried back to the church, because I didn’t like the look of him. Sure enough, when I went into the vestry he was taking Lev’s trousers down.” She nodded. “Priests have been doing that sort of thing to me since I was twelve.” Grigori was shocked. He had assumed that that particular priest was uniquely evil. Katerina obviously believed that depravity was the norm. “Are they all like that?” he said angrily. “Most of them, in my experience.”
Of course, there are freaks and criminals everywhere, but this blanket accusation of mass pedophilia amongst the priests of the ROC is not sustained by any kind of historic evidence. The priests of the Russian Orthodox Church are not only allowed to marry, they are required to do so. This suggestion that the ROC priests molest their parishioners' children en masse is simply wrong.

Follett also states that the ROC priests massively collaborated with the secret police during the tsarist regime. As I said, such collaboration with the secret police did, in fact, take place. However, it happened during a completely different time period and under completely different circumstances. I'd never even heard of any suggestion that the priests of the Russian Empire collectively betrayed secrets told to them in confession to the tsar's secret police. This is a figment of Follett's unhealthy imagination.

This tendency to collapse historic periods in Russia into one huge mess is evident in many other aspects of Follett's novel. He doesn't seem to realize that serfdom (the Russian equivalent of slavery) was abolished in 1861. The nobles who owned peasants before serfdom was abolished did, indeed, torture, maim and kill their serfs almost indiscriminately and sometimes with no punishment. That, however, became impossible after 1861. At the turn of the XX century, the relationship between the nobles and the peasants, while still problematic, was in no way similar to the way it was in the pre-1861 era.

Another facet of Follett's annoying Cold War mentality is his tendency to present all Russians as heartless, vile jerks. There is a scene (that takes place in 1914) when a police officer assaults and tries to rape a young woman in the streets of St. Petersburg. The narrator makes a very weird statement about how "no Russian would address a peasant . . . courteously." This is, of course, ridiculously wrong. There always were many people in Russia who would address anybody in a courteous way. Suggesting otherwise, is simply offensive.

Thankfully, the young woman who is assaulted by the police officer is saved by a character whose kindness, helpfullness and charitability turn him into some kind of a Jesus-like figure. So who is this Christ-like character who roams the streets of St. Petersburg saving damsels in distress and offering his assistance to anybody in need of it? Who is this Savior of the poor and Redeemer of the downtrodden? The answer is obvious. He is an American from Buffalo and against the background of the vile, abusive, nasty Russians, he offers an example of what a good human being looks like.

So if you thought the Cold War is over, read Follett's book and think again.


Pagan Topologist said...

This is curious. I am reminded that many students I met in Poland were contemptuous of peasant farmers. I have no idea how universal it was, and I never heard it from anyone my age. But I did encounter this attitude from people ten years younger than I.

I cannot generalize as to whether this is a statistically typical Slavic trait for people born in the 1950's or not. But it did exist enough that I noticed it.

Clarissa said...

There is, of course, a lot of snobbery, just as anywhere else. What bothers me is this tendency towards blanket generalizations about all Russians being nasty towards peasants.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot to Clarissa! Now I know what novel I should not spend time reading.

I pity the author of the novel deeply: he is mistaken thinking that he is a literary writer. To think so, in his case, is, as Otto von Bismack put it, worse than a crime, it's a mistake.

Clarissa said...

I like the Bismarck quote. :-)

This isn't as much a literary writer as a bestselling author. :-) There is a huge difference, you know. :-)