The metaphysical gap between mid-19th-century Russia and early-21st-century America is narrowing. The parallels between them then and us now, political and social but mostly characterological, are becoming sharper, more unavoidable.
We can reassure ourselves by repeating obvious truths: The United States is not czarist Russia. The present is not the past. History does not repeat itself. But those facts are not immutable laws so much as observations, and even though they are built on solid foundations, those foundations are not impervious to shifting sands. We can go backward. We can descend into a primal state we thought we had escaped forever. That is the lesson of the 20th century.
The similarities between past and present are legion: The coarsening of the culture, our economic woes, our political logjams, the opportunism and fecklessness of our so-called elites, the corruption of our institutions, the ease with which we talk about â€œrevolutionâ€ (as in Bernie Sandersâ€™ romanticization of â€œpolitical revolutionâ€), the anger, the polarization, the anti-Semitism.
But the most important thing is the new characters, who are not that dissimilar to the old ones.
Consider Yevgeny Bazarov. To Bazarov, one of the sons in Turgenevâ€™s Fathers and Sons, the whole of Russia is rotten, and anyone who canâ€™t see that is an idiot or a knave, and the only solution is to raze everything. There is a logic to his thinking. Russia was ruled by a backward-looking monarchy. The nobility was complicit in perpetuating grotesque inequality. The Orthodox Church was allied with the ruling classes. And the ruling classes moved glacially to liberalize. (In Western Europe, the feudal system started to collapse nearly four centuries before it did in Russia.)
One can imagine arriving at the conclusion that Russia would never reform itself, that the only way to liberate it from its medievalism was to start over. Bazarov, a doctor whose empirical nature, we are led to understand, informs his nihilism, is convinced that Russia must start over, and everything about himâ€”his sarcasm, his lack of empathyâ€”is meant to convey disdain, destruction, a sweeping away of the old. He is openly disrespectful of the fathers in the novelâ€”Nikolai Petrovich and Vasily Ivanovichâ€”because theyâ€™re old. Theyâ€™re fathers. They come before, so they are necessarily less developed. To Bazarov, those who do not see the world exactly as he doesâ€”most peopleâ€”are simply roadblocks or enemies. They are not really people. They are not wholly human.
One wonders if Bazarov is that different from todayâ€™s protesters and statue-topplers, the 20-somethings sowing discord in our newsrooms, the cancellers, the uber-woke, the sociopaths who police our social media feeds, those who would massage or rewrite history in the service of a glorious future. Like Bazarov, they are incapable of empathizing with those who do not view the world the way they do. Like Bazarov, they assume that the place they come from (America) is cancerous to the coreâ€”regressive, hateful, an affront to right-thinking people everywhere. Like Bazarov, there is about them a crude sarcasm (or snark). Like Bazarov, there is a logic to their outrage: Today, we are witnessing Americans revolting against the vestiges of a barbaric, racial hierarchy that was constructed four centuries ago. That hierarchy continues to be felt. It is not unreasonable to wonder, When will we finally transcend the past?
The only important obvious difference between the fictional, Russian nihilist and his nonfictional, American counterpart is the lens through which they view history. Bazarovâ€™s radicalism, descending directly from Marx, amounts to a typical economic determinismâ€”a conviction that the entire human story can be boiled down to those with the means of production exploiting those without it. Today, the radicals have mostly abandoned economic determinism in favor of a race-gender, or identitarian, determinism that also claims to explain the whole of usâ€”our etiology, our political and economic development, our moral worth. This appears to be the animating force, for example, behind The New York Timesâ€™ 1619 Project, which squeezes the entire American story into the Procrustean bed of race relations.