Letters to the editor

By
Russia Is Finished

Jeffrey Tayler ("Russia Is Finished," May Atlantic) would have us believe that the adoption of "suffocating" Orthodox Christianity and the invasion of the "cruel" Mongols are responsible for Russia's tradition of autocratic government. The chronology demonstrates that this is not so: Orthodoxy came to Russia in the tenth century, and the Mongols in the thirteenth, but nothing approaching autocracy appeared before the later fifteenth century.

In fact, Tayler's "Orthodoxy plus Asiatic hordes equals permanent tyranny" formula is a very old emanation of European Russophobia. In order to persuade the papacy to sanction a crusade against Moscow, anti-Russian propagandists of the sixteenth century argued that the Muscovites weren't Christians at all but, rather, "barbarous Orientals." The crusade was approved. This nasty piece of Western prejudice was passed down through the years until it appeared in Cold War "histories" of Russia, where Tayler doubtless found it. The authors of these books, in their own way, were also attempting to win approval for a crusade against the Russians. Happily, they failed.

Tayler also suggests that Russia's long isolation from Europe is the root of illiberal government. There is something to this, but not very much. Russia was relatively isolated from Europe, and thus was not deeply affected by liberalizing European currents. It was not, however, isolation from Europe that was the cause of despotism in Russia but, rather, harmful geopolitical interaction with Europe. From the sixteenth century to the present day Russian elites have perceived Europe as a serious strategic threat. And for good reason: European states have continually menaced, often invaded, and on several occasions laid waste to Russia.

Tayler is absolutely right to be alarmed by the cruelty with which Russia's rulers have treated and continue to treat their people. But recourse to crude Orientalism or naive faith in European culture does not help us understand the historical origins and persistence of illiberal government in Russia. The ruthless behavior of the Russian ruling elite must be put in the proper historical context—that is, of a backward state attempting to survive in the predatory environment that was and is modern European history. By taking drastic measures, Russia succeeded where the vast majority failed. Now the Russians are paying the price for their success.

Marshall Poe
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.

Russia was mugged. Jeffrey Tayler's depressing account of the decline and fall of Russia suffers from a serious elision. Despite three twentieth-century invasions from the Christian capitalist West, which took more than 40 million Russian lives, and Stalin's paranoia, which, given the invasions and our Cold War rhetoric, may not have been all that paranoid, the Soviets were able to establish universal education and health care and cheaply house the population. Living standards in the USSR were closer to those in the West than at any time in history and probably any time in the future. Had Gorbachev been allowed to remove the excesses of communism, the future might have been even brighter. However, we cheered Yeltsin and his vulpine associates and helped to bring on the ruin. Something in the Russian character and history may be responsible, as Tayler suggests, but credit for the present must be shared with Churchill, Hitler, Reagan, and the other ideological foes of godless communism.

Art Hilgart
Kalamazoo, Mich.

Jeffrey Tayler's critique falters considerably in assuming that Russia's precipitate descent is irreversible; that it will result in marginalizing Russia to the extent that it becomes internationally obscure; and, not least, that the West can afford to ignore the trends of decay that currently infect Russia because its "decline into obscurity" is likely to be "relatively peaceful."

Historically the Russian state has displayed an almost miraculous capacity for national rejuvenation in the face of serious internal discord and calamitous external strife. Nowhere was this capacity more clearly demonstrated than in the post-World War II Soviet Union. Although the USSR suffered monstrous human casualties and the near complete destruction of its industrial infrastructure as a consequence of World War II, a mere five years after the cessation of hostilities the USSR had recovered to the extent that it could challenge the United States as a de facto, if not yet a de jure, equal.

Tom Call
Norfolk, Va.

Jeffrey Tayler's methodology and conclusions are dangerously misleading. First, as befits his Western upbringing, Tayler projects Western business norms into a setting that has absolutely no historical precedent for what we would refer to as ethical practices and standards of conduct. What we consider corruption and theft do not translate into exactly that in a Russian context. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union there has been no framework on which to build efficient market institutions. Russia has just had to bumble along and hope for the best. It is irrational to expect that Western capitalist standards would randomly sprout in this setting.

More disturbing is Tayler's description of Russia as "just another corrupt Third World country." This marginalizes great efforts on the part of Western institutions and the International Monetary Fund to create economic development and raise living standards in Russia. Potential achievements and prospects for improvement vanish if we adopt Tayler's fatalistic view of Russian development. Since the 1998 financial crisis growth in Russia has slowly resumed, and institutions are reforming. To dismiss that is, in effect, to dismiss the very hope that inspired the transition process to begin with.

Richard Lee
Providence, R.I.

I was saddened to see Jeffrey Tayler add to our misperceptions about Russia by repeating long-dismissed theories as to why that country is the way it is. Tayler essentially blames the current catastrophe on Eastern Christianity, the Byzantine Empire, and Asian Tatar hordes. Sadly, any undergraduate studying Russia or Byzantium knows that these old Western European "theories" have long been discarded. Byzantium was far from "moribund," Eastern Christianity was (and is) permeated by Hellenistic thought, and the Mongol yoke had far less impact on the Russian psyche. In fact, Russia, especially from Peter the Great on, looked to Western Europe, especially to the French and Prussian absolutist monarchies, to learn the lessons of state tyranny and despotism and how to crush independence in religion, the arts, and public thought. Remember, this is the Europe that brought us the Inquisition and the Third Reich. Lenin and Stalin did not need to look to Byzantium for their bloody autocracy—Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Engels were much closer.

David B. Cole
Portland, Oreg.

Jeffrey Tayler replies:

In reducing the historical portion of my article to the assertion that "Orthodoxy plus Asiatic hordes equals permanent tyranny," Marshall Poe fogs one of the clearest distinctions between Russian and Western European history: that the Schism and the Mongol invasion set Russia on an isolationist course that eventually prevented it from experiencing positive influence from the intellectual and cultural movements (the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment) that shaped the modern democratic West. To state this hardly smacks of "crude Orientalism." Whether or not it is fashionable in U.S. academic circles to say so, an awareness of the divide between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity permeates Russians' reactions to Westerners to this day, and Russians are not shy about pointing this out. The tribulations of the Mongol era (and subsequent invasions and calamities) prompt Russians to conclude that their lot has been a particularly grievous one that Westerners—including, apparently, Poe—fail to understand. And it is most certainly not "naive" to grasp that life is better in the West, where ideals deriving from Western culture are dominant (if not realized), than it is in Russia—as the long lines of visa applicants outside the American and European embassies in Moscow attest. To argue otherwise leads us down the path of pointless academic relativism.

Poe comes close to apologizing for Russia's despotism in blaming it on hostile European-Russian interaction. Though such interaction was clearly a contributing factor in the rise of autocracy, it in no way gainsays the influence of the Schism or the Mongol invasion.

Apologists for Russia have always assigned blame to the West for the Cold War and Russian suffering, and have been fond of drawing specious, ultimately useless comparisons ("People are corrupt everywhere," and so forth). Art Hilgart, for example, suggests that communism merited rescue, and that Churchill, Hitler, and Reagan deserve blame for Russia's current plight. Communism was discredited among Soviet citizens before the fall of the USSR—before Gorbachev, even; perhaps only from the comfortable distance of the United States could it have appeared worthy of a second chance.

Roget's Thesaurus

I must complain that Simon Winchester ("Word Imperfect," May Atlantic) evinces an offensively blithe and dismissive attitude toward Peter Mark Roget's successors.

As one of these, the editor of the 1977 and 1992 updatings of the great original, I can assure Winchester that in my hands the name Roget has not become a synonym for intellectually second-rate. I urge him to look at the front matter of the 1992 edition, and at its text, to discover the responsible nature of my custodianship.

We lexicographers may or may not be harmless drudges, but we are certainly not foolish or second-rate ones.

Robert L. Chapman
Madison, N.J.

In the opening paragraph of his article on Roget's Thesaurus, Simon Winchester hints at Roget's "possibly altered standing" by noting that the latest version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica "gives him somewhat short shrift today, with an entry of a mere twenty lines." Winchester is wrong about the significance of that entry. In working on my book, Peter Mark Roget: The Word and the Man (1970), I had occasion to look closely into Roget's connection with the Britannica. Through the encyclopedia's many editions from 1824 to 1920 Roget was mentioned not at all; after that he was mentioned only spottily. In the 1974 edition, for example, he got six lines. If we use the Britannica's twenty-line entry as a measure, Roget's standing has improved.

D. L. Emblen
Santa Rosa, Calif.

Simon Winchester made the valid point that Roget's Thesaurus has enabled the lexically lazy to take some verbal shortcuts and may thus be contributing to the decline of the English language. However, Roget's work should not be wholeheartedly condemned because of the way some people have chosen to use it. A thesaurus can be a valuable tool to one who is interested in the specific meanings of related groups of words and who tackles the thesaurus with a good dictionary sitting nearby. The thesaurus lists related words together, making it easy to look up their meanings in the dictionary one at a time to discover the fine distinctions between them. This would be possible without a thesaurus, but unnecessarily time-consuming. If the price of this aid to literacy is that a few semiliterates will finish the crossword puzzle more quickly, so be it.

Christie Bane
Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

Roget's Thesaurus can be (and assuredly is) misused, not only in North America but also in Europe and elsewhere. So, too, are dictionaries misused—as are compilations of book reviews, indices of selected quotations, and software-based spelling-verification and grammar-evaluation functions.

Yet even if the Thesaurus is sometimes used to "cheat" at crossword puzzles, can Winchester not recognize that some people learn from the consultation? Would he prefer that persons who haven't the time to absorb the entire spectrum of English literature therefore forgo literary pursuits?

Elliott Black
Elmhurst, Ill.

Winchester: Arrogant, presumptuous, elitist, didactic, verbose, iconoclastic, impractical.

Jane Olm
Cibolo, Texas

Advice & Consent

Herbert Benson's study ("Thy Will Be Done," by Cullen Murphy, April Atlantic) to test the efficacy of intercessory prayer (IP) included three groups: one of people who knew they were being prayed for, and two of people who didn't know they were a part of a study; one of those two groups was prayed for, and one was not. I believe the study could have benefited from a fourth group—one that was told it was being prayed for when, in reality, it was not. I also wonder if any attempt was made to quantify the amount of IP. Were the intercessors instructed to pray for a specific duration (say, ten minutes) at a specified frequency (say, three times a day)? How does one factor in the intensity of the IP? Surely some intercessors pray more fervently than others. Do we assume that frequency, duration, and fervency matter when God decides which prayers to answer? Whatever the outcome of this study, I see nothing but a philosophical and theological quagmire.

Laura Barlow
Hilo, Hawaii

I greatly enjoyed William Langewiesche's excellent piece on Butte, Montana ("The Profits of Doom," April Atlantic). Curiously, however, the article fails to mention one of the most interesting examples of the area's environmental renewal—the Old Works Golf Course, in Anaconda. Designed by none other than Jack Nicklaus himself, the course is the first ever built on an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site. Some of the original smelting buildings remain, and the bunkers are filled not with sand but with black slag left over from the smelting process.

Jeff Dufour
New York, N.Y.

André Pelchat, of Victoriaville, Quebec, seems to believe that only French Roman Catholics emigrated to Quebec (Letters to the Editor, May Atlantic). As a descendant of French Protestants (Huguenots) who came to Quebec as early as 1604, I can assure him that he is in error.

The Edict of Nantes (1598), granting limited tolerance to Protestant dissenters, enabled the Huguenots Pierre Chauvin and the Sieur de Monts to sail from France with their followers and establish a post at Tadoussac, Quebec, in 1600. The Sieur de Monts later established a post at St. Croix, which was transferred to Port Royal in 1605. Thereafter a small but steady trickle of Huguenot refugees from religious oppression in France came to Canada. Most came to Quebec, as merchants, soldiers, indentured servants, and even filles du roi—wives for Quebec settlers.

Being in a minority, some Huguenots were, over time, absorbed into the French Roman Catholic majority. Some, among them my people, moved to friendlier territory in what would become Ontario.

Despite attempts to overlook it, the Huguenot contribution to Canadian identity cannot be denied. Perhaps it is Mr. Pelchat who owes an apology to Peter Davison, and not vice versa.

Farley Mowat
Port Hope, Ont.

Thanks to retired ambassador William Bodde Jr. for shedding some light on the U.S. Department of State's process of "losing" islands and vast seabeds to foreign countries (Letters to the Editor, June Atlantic).

He states that he was the lead negotiator in the Carter Administration, which ended up in 1979 with a treaty to give away fourteen U.S. islands and their 200-mile exclusive economic zones to the country of Kiribati, in the South Pacific. Our characterization of this as a "giveaway" was supported by the terms of the treaty, which required no quid pro quo for the American taxpayer.

He complained that it took four years to get congressional approval, but did not reveal that the State Department failed to seek in writing the advice of the Senate during the negotiations over the treaty.

However, the current concern is not over those fourteen U.S. islands. Rather, it's over four additional ones that mysteriously disappeared from American sovereignty to Kiribati with the blessings of the State Department but without benefit of treaty. These are Washington, Fanning, Makin, and Little Makin Islands. The Census Bureau still has not heard anything from the State Department as to how these parts of American soil have disappeared under no known legal method.

Ambassador Bodde mischaracterizes opponents of such giveaways as "fringe groups." State Department Watch was formed in 1984, a year after the 1983 Senate vote on the Kiribati treaty. Our vice-chairman, Mark Seidenberg, brought considerable expertise not only about giveaways to Kiribati but also about giveaways of eight Alaskan islands to the Soviets under the then secret Maritime Boundary Agreement between the United States and the USSR.

Instead of fewer mainstream watchdogs, we need more.

Carl Olson
Chairman, State Department Watch
Woodland Hills, Calif.

Editors' Note

In Alex Beam's article "The Mad Poets Society" (July/August Atlantic) biographical information and familial anecdotes about Robert Lowell were attributed to the poet's cousin, Sarah Payne Stuart. We neglected to mention the book in which they appear: Stuart's My First Cousin Once Removed: Money, Madness, and the Family of Robert Lowell, published by HarperCollins in 1998.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/letters-to-the-editor/302288/