Euphorias of Hatred

The grim lessons of a novel by Gogol

The ancient Greeks, it has been said, were too reasonable to ignore the intoxicating power of the unreasonable. They worshiped Dionysus, the god of excess and ecstasy, and they admired tragedy—an art form that shows that human feelings are far too intense and varied to be contained by the narrow strictures of rational selfinterest. Explosions of passion—romantic and destructive, cruel and self-sacrificing, among nations as among individuals—not only are to be expected but are central to the human spirit. Tragedy, as the classicist Edith Hamilton once observed, is the beauty of intolerable truths.

The signal error of the American elite after the end of the Cold War was its trust in rationalism, which, it was assumed, would eventually propel the world's societies toward systems based on individual rights and united by American-style capitalism and technology. Recent explanations for terrorism have themselves been excessively rational. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the United States many commentators and academics asserted that terrorism stemmed from poverty. Then, looking more closely, they said it stemmed from rising expectations and the perception of inequalities. True enough: economic development often leads to upheaval and insurrection, as migration to cities and the rise of the middle class unleash all manner of ambitions and yearnings. But even if poverty and perceived inequality were to vanish, and the rough places in the road of development were smoothed, depravity and outrage would continue. The more advanced a civilization, the more cerebral and subtly conformist it is likely to be—and, consequently, the more extreme the pent-up frustration and the more spectacular the violence it fuels.

If realism is to be truly realistic, it must acknowledge human beings' romantic and heroic impulses, in all their healthy and perverse forms. Few writers do this as economically as Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol did in Taras Bulba. This short novel is a story of the Dnieper Cossacks. It takes place in a hazy past, sometime from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century, when the Ukrainians struggled for independence from Poland even as a threat persisted from the Turks. It is a work that the critic John Cournos called "the finest epic in Russian history" and likened to the Odyssey. The novel has a Kiplingesque gusto, too, that makes it a pleasure to read, but central to its theme is an unredemptive, darkly evil violence that is far beyond anything Kipling ever touched on. We need more works like Taras Bulba, to better understand the emotional wellsprings of the threat we face today in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Gogol gave his best years to the story; he finished the initial version in 1835 and the final version a decade later. According to David Magarshack, one of Gogol's translators, Taras Bulba, with its romantic evocation of galloping Cossacks, created the myth of the "Russian soul." But Gogol was no dreamy idealist: in Taras Bulba he wrote of a "savage age when man's whole life seemed to be steeped in violence and blood and his heart was so hardened that he felt no pity."

Gogol was a Russian nationalist, but to him the real, primordial Russia was in Ukraine (a word meaning "borderland"), whose unremitting and unimpeded steppe—lacking natural boundaries and graced with few navi-gable rivers—had made its colliding peoples warlike. Although Gogol used the words "Russian," "Ukrainian," and "Cossack" to denote specific identities, he also recognized that these identities greatly overlapped (as identities in the region still do). His account anticipates the conflicts, the confusions, and the nuances of our own era. It remains unclear, for instance, whether Ukraine will survive as an independent country or will at some point be drawn into a resurgent Russian empire.

In Gogol's account, the absence of natural boundaries leaves the Ukrainian steppe open to invaders from all sides. It also makes political frontiers even more artificial than usual. Compare Central Asia today: a quarrelsome tableland of calcified regimes and nationalities inside false borders. Ethnic Tajiks dominate the great cities of Uzbekistan. Ethnic Uzbeks make up a quarter of the population of Tajikistan. The great divisions in Taras Bulba are those of civilizations: the Eastern Orthodox Dnieper Cossacks are pitted against the Catholic Poles and the Muslim Turks and Tatars. This is a world so coarse, and so unreceptive to enlightenment, that freedom means only the freedom to express oneself through a stultifying yet energizing group identity—a sad commonplace in many parts of the world today, where dictatorships are crumbling but democracy is weak or nonexistent. In such places a fury burns that is beyond the cultivated bourgeois imagination. Gogol communicated this fury brilliantly.

Taras Bulba, a Dnieper Cossack, is an old regular-army colonel. He is a man, in Gogol's words, "created for the alarms of war ... distinguished by the coarse directness of his character." Taras abuses his wife, who he fears will soften the character of his two sons. His worst nightmare is that his sons will never experience violence; he doesn't care if they die young and horribly, so long as they prove themselves capable of cruelty against an enemy.

Gogol explained that a fearsome character like Taras could be forged only out of the chaos that had engulfed southern Russia, "abandoned by its princes and laid waste and burnt to ashes by the ruthless Mongol freebooters." A treeless landscape of charred villages stretched for hundreds of miles. Deprived of security—indeed, of any real government—and surrounded by predatory neighbors, men became cruel and fearless. In response the Cossack brotherhoods emerged, with their glorification of "comradeship." Private life and material comfort came to be considered shameful. Russian communism may be best understood less as an import from Central European intellectuals than as a reflection of Russia's long-standing psychological tendencies. (According to the Russian intellectual Nicolas Berdyaev, Bolshevism was the Eastern Orthodox form of Marxism, a faith imbued with the idea of "totality.")

For the Dnieper Cossacks in Taras Bulba, violence is a way of life, an expression of joy and belief, unlinked to any strategic or tactical necessity. Warfare in the novel is nearly continuous. As one Cossack declares, "I need hardly tell you that a young man cannot exist without war." In such a world the notion of a rational "balance of power" with the Catholic Poles or the Islamic Tatars is not a pragmatic goal but a corrupting and effeminate conceit. Those outside the marrow of Orthodoxy exist only to be annihilated, or to be converted en masse to the faith.

The rare breaks in the fighting are given over to "spellbinding," prolonged drunken orgies. "The inns in the suburb were smashed," Gogol wrote, "and the Cossacks helped themselves to mead, vodka and beer without payment, the innkeepers being too glad to escape with their lives." Hearing stories of Catholic victories to the west, and of Jewish collusion in those victories, the Cossacks take murderous revenge on local Jews, whom they toss into the river.

Gogol's Cossacks represent the ultimate mob, fueled by the crude belief systems and symbolism that sustain what the national-security analyst Ralph Peters has called "euphorias of hatred." Peters notes that although individual people are equally capable of love and hatred, crowds are incomparably better at hatred: individuals within a crowd are able to take part in cathartic violence without having to accept responsibility for it. The crowd that cheered in Ramallah in October of 2000, as two Israeli soldiers were tortured and defenestrated, is a classic example of this.

Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian-born Nobel laureate who devoted a career to the study of crowds, has written, "The crowd needs a direction ... Its constant fear of disintegration means that it will accept any goal." There's no reasoning with a crowd, in other words; against the absolute faith of a Cossack horde, for example, the urban civilization of the Poles is nothing. This kind of faith, Gogol wrote, is "as firm and as terrible as the rock, unwrought by the hand of man."

The raw, even delusional, passion at the heart of such faith has played a frightful role in human affairs. One need look no further than the devastation brought about in twentieth-century Europe by what Canetti labels human "packs" to understand the destructive power that this passion can unleash. And yet, ironically, meeting the challenge of these human packs—indeed, even surviving as a society—requires a willingness to tap into the same dangerously elemental passion. Channeled effectively, it can also become the source of liberal patriotism, heroism, and romance.

Such passion remains robust in the United States—a firm conclusion one can draw from our post-9/11 stocktaking. Foreigners often find Americans as a group more than a little hard to take, in their overt nationalism, deep religiosity, proud vulgarity, unashamed sentimentality, battered but defiant idealism, and propensity for searing public debate. These are precisely the qualities that are disappearing in Europe. Traumatized by world war and absolutist political ideologies, Western Europe's political elites have been working for decades to neutralize passion altogether. Europe's intellectuals and politicians have become increasingly effete, bureaucratic, and defeatist; their foreign policies, to the extent that they even exist, amount to a form of regulatory compromise, guaranteed to pursue the path of least resistance. Europe, if it seeks to avoid decline, will have to relearn the lesson of Gogol and the ancient Greeks: that rational argument alone will never fully overcome those who simply and passionately believe.