Native Soil and the Yearning for Identity

Before the country’s Revolution and subsequent decades under communism, Russian intellectuals were known for heading off into the countryside and monasteries in search of the “pure Russian soul”—a thing that they believed existed, and they were sure resided within the minds of the repressed and recently enslaved peasantry. They believed that if Russian peasants could be truly free, in mind and soul as well as body, the spirit of Russia would come into flower and thrive. Orlando Figes, author of Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, wrote of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol and the Slavophiles who believed a pure Christian soul, uniquely Russian, resided in the peasantry:

“Pyotr Plavilshikov [in his 1792 essay ‘On the Innate Qualities of the Russian Soul’] maintained, for example, that in its peasantry Russia had a natural creativity that had more potential than the science of the West. . . . After the triumph of 1812 the idea of the peasant’s soul, of his selfless virtue and self-sacrifice, began to be linked to the notion of Russia as the saviour of the West. This was the mission that Gogol first developed in Dead Souls.”

Dostoevsky, Figes wrote, attached himself to the writers who comprised the country’s “native soil” movement.

“They called on the intelligentsia (and on Russia’s writers in particular) to turn toward the peasants, not just to discover their own nationality and express it in their art but, more importantly, in that truly ‘Russian’ spirit of Christian brotherhood, to bring their Western learning to the backward villages. . . .

The simple Russian people, Dostoevsky claimed, had found the solution to the intellectual’s torment over faith. They needed their belief, it was central to their lives, and it gave them strength to go on living and endure their suffering.”

Tolstoy, too, has a well-documented history of relationship with Russian peasants and an abhorrence of wealth accumulation. He was evidently terrified of death, and, wrote Figes, “had long believed that the peasants died in a different way from the educated classes, a way that showed they knew the meaning of their lives.” Peasants’ acceptance of death seems to have been a recurring interest among the intellectuals, showing up frequently in literature, though not, Figes wrote, without some basis in reality: “Some put down the peasants’ resignation to a serf-like fatalism in which death was viewed as a release from suffering.” (An interesting quote as “fatalism” is a characteristic often ascribed to Russians even today.)

I was reminded of this history—especially the nearly three hundred years during which Russia was ruled by invading Mongolian khans—in unexpected ways recently when reading Rory Stewart’s book The Marches, about his walks along Hadrian’s Wall, the modern border between England and Scotland, and the British “Middleland,” a term coined by Stewart’s father to encompass “the geographical centre of the island of Britain,” that Stewart describes as “a land naturally unified by geography and culture for two thousand years, but repeatedly divided by political frontiers.”

(Thank you to Greg, who recommended this book after I wrote recently about choosing not to finish Stewart’s book The Places in Between, about his walk through Afghanistan.)

I admit to a longstanding fascination with the history of Romans in the British Isles—not due to interest in the Empire itself, but to curiosity about the indigenous populations they either repressed, or wiped out entirely. There is so little known about the people who inhabited those lands before the Romans invaded, and much of what is known is easily romanticized. The Marches could have used a more exacting editing knife in some places, but the histories that Stewart seeks, along with the doubtfulness of many speculations based on scant facts, are deftly told.

Early on, while walking along Hadrian’s Wall, or what remains of it, sometimes with his father but most often alone, Stewart relates the Roman Empire’s views of itself, its actions, and its conquered peoples to the ways in which the British Empire has viewed itself and its actions—specifically, the most recent “War on Terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which Stewart served in the military. The comparison is not always favorable to Britain, much less to Rome. The Romans, he told his father,

“‘still seemed much more interested than American and British commentators today in describing how their enemies lived, and much better at imagining why their enemies might consider their cause to be just.’ Tacitus, for example, a prominent Roman politician, did not describe Rome’s enemies as my father sometimes described Islamist insurgents, as ‘cowardly’ or ‘pure evil.’ . . . Tacitus found the British—notwithstanding their ‘fanatical religion,’ nudity and muddy legs—engaging, dignified, and often admirable. . . .

The climax of Tacitus’ Agricola, written in AD 90, comes in the final battle with the British leader Caratacus. Tacitus constructed a speech for the insurgent, praising British courage and love of freedom, and attacking Roman imperial hypocrisy. Most famously, he makes the insurgent say of his own father-in-law’s Roman army, ‘The Romans create a desert, and call it peace.’”

I’ve heard before that Rome’s power lay in its willingness to conquer and absorb any people anywhere, and bring their culture and people into the fold of the Roman Empire. As Stewart passed the ruins of ancient Roman forts, he catalogued the shrines and gods that different garrisons brought with them from their homelands: tribes from lands that are now Belgium and Holland, Hungarians, “Aramaic-speaking Iraqis, and 5,000 Sarmatians, who were nomadic horsemen from Central Asia. And in one of the camps there were Africans who had left behind their own ethnic cooking pot—a clay tagine.” The list is a reminder, if it’s needed, of the scale and multicultural nature of the Roman Empire.

Despite the vast scope of Rome’s successes, it seems that every time they pushed north into what is now Scotland, within ten years they’d fallen back to the fortifications of Hadrian’s Wall, a reality that lends much to speculation and national pride: they manned the wall with tens of thousands of troops and yet still couldn’t “conquer” the whole of Britain. “The fundamental fact,” wrote Stewart, “which historians seemed to resist, and which Romans too perhaps resisted—was that the very existence of the wall and its forts signified failure.”

“Egypt, a much wealthier and more populated Roman province, had needed only one legion to control it. The Romans struggled to hold Britain with three legions, and a total of almost 50,000 men—the equivalent proportionality of the British and Americans keeping half a million troops in Afghanistan—and they maintained this presence for 300 years. And even this remarkable commitment was not sufficient for them to pacify the North, or create in the South local state structures that could survive their departure.”

The problem in both Roman Britain and occupied Afghanistan—and Vietnam, and Iraq—Stewart told his father, was that no numbers would have been sufficient, no “surge” ever worked, because “the occupier lacked the knowledge, the legitimacy, or the power to ever shape such a society in the way that it wished.”

Stewart’s walk is through the lands of long-lost cultures that he honors in at least remembering that they existed, even if we know almost nothing about them: the Votadini, Selgorae, Novantae, and others, along with the slightly better-remembered Scots and Picts who, a priest in the sixth century wrote, promptly swarmed Hadrian’s Wall and reconquered parts of Britain once the Romans were gone.

I couldn’t help thinking, while reading these sections, of various empires trying to claim the North American continent. The military reality, from what I understand, is that almost no Native nation ever lost a battle against American armies, a claim that one of Montana’s pre-eminent historians, K. Ross Toole, made even back in the 1980s. Invaders resorted to massacres and treaty betrayal, along with using alcohol and the theft of children as a tool, and were assisted by deadly pandemic diseases, but they did not win battles in the traditional sense of the phrase. Which makes one wonder—how might have this continent’s history differed if the lack of immunity to diseases like smallpox hadn’t been an overwhelming factor? And how might the invading European culture “lose” in the long run, even if the people stay? 

On a second walk along the Scotland-England border, Stewart dwells on later Norse-influenced kingdoms like Northumberland and Cumbria. Here, he has more chronicled history to lean on, but it’s also here that he hits a stumbling block of story and imagination, and begins to remind me of those Russian intellectuals.

As Stewart walks through Middleland, he talks with all the people he encounters, never a bad practice in travel writing. But cumulatively, they disappoint him. Even if their family’s history on these lands is ancient, they lack, he feels, an identity formed by the soil beneath them and the stories it holds.

“In Afghanistan, each village home in which I stayed had a different set of stories of an ambush, or a lost animal, or a saint: stories from two years or two centuries ago, linked to local rocks. In Britain, the people I talked to were energetically absorbed in subjects which had little to do with the soil beneath their feet—pigeon-fancying for one (he flew his pigeons from his housing estate in France); disability legislation for another; Fair Trade bananas in the Leeward Islands for a third.”

Compare this phrasing with Figes’s description of Dostoevsky’s thoughts on the Russian peasant’s soul:

“Dosotevsky’s Orthodoxy was inseparable from his belief in the redemptive quality of the Russian peasant soul. . . . In all his novels the quest of the ‘Great Sinner’ for a ‘Russian faith’ is intimately linked to the idea of salvation through reconciliation with the native soil.”* (Emphasis added.)

Stewart’s disappointments deepen and clarify throughout his walk—“My walk had often made me feel how modern Britain was: how bewilderingly mobile, how thin in identity, how unconcerned with history, how severed from its deeper past”—and he compares the people he meets and their concerns unfavorably with the depth of village identity he observed while walking across Afghanistan.

I had to wonder what it was he had expected. Idyllic rural farmers whose families had been running sheep for over a thousand years, and could show him family artifacts of their Votadini heritage and the gods they had once worshipped? No, but he was disappointed in the lack of, say, Cumbrian identity, a feeling that became tangled in his probing for feelings about Scottish nationalism (Stewart was at the time a Member of Parliament, and this walk took place shortly before Scotland’s first referendum for independence).

I don’t want to be too critical of Stewart, as I enjoyed this book and appreciated the efforts to unearth a more indigenous British history, but his reflexive disappointment seems in part to reflect Stewart’s class. He seems to yearn for something pure, something born and nurtured and alive today in the British soil, something akin to the pure Russian soul of the peasants that drew Russia’s politically active intellectual class to the countryside and created that land’s own “native soil”-dependent mythologies. In her book Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia, historian Lesley Chamberlain wrote that,

“When the Russians faced up to the idea of becoming a modern country, they did so conscious of the fact that they were choosing naivety as a quality they, unlike the intellectual Germans, had never lost. They chose a myth of simplicity connected with the community and nominated ‘the people’ as their guide. . . . What the Greek vision was for the Germans, the peasant obschina became for the Russians.”

(Obschina were traditionally communal Russian peasant villages that had some slight autonomy even under serfdom.)

Stewart was born in Hong Kong and spent much of his life overseas, first where his father was posted for the Foreign Service, and then where he himself was. As a former commissioned officer in the British armed forces (if I understand his appointment correctly), he has clear views on military interventions in the Middle East. As an alum of Britain’s most elite schools—Eton followed by Balliol, the most upper-crust of upper-crust Oxford—he has robust if tattered opinions about the UK’s role in the world and its relation to itself.

He never ponders whether the “thin” nature of British identity is due to the very fact that it once strove for international empire, or if the heart of Rome might have been populated by the same kinds of people. Given the international nature of his upbringing and career, it seems odd to question others British citizens’ “bewildering mobility,” unless it’s a subconscious sense that the upper classes should travel for Queen and country while everyone else should stay home and make sure there is a reliably British Britain for them to come home to, akin to women maintaining hearth and home for adventuring or war-mongering men. To his credit, I don’t think he would consciously believe this, but I wonder if second-guessing his own expectations might have occurred to him in the years since this book was published.

Stewart wants Britain—and former Cumbria and Northumberland and the Highlands and Middleland—to meansomething, to have a clear, discoverable identity. It’s a craving that might be familiar to anyone, or at least the language is: Who is a “true” American patriot; where can we find the “pure Russian soul”; what does a “real” Montanan or Texan look like?

Humans are a species prone to intergenerational migration, and perhaps this search for identity has plagued us ever since we began forming tribes. Who are we? What are our traditions and beliefs? And how, fundamentally, is our sense of identity related to the lands we inhabit? Why do I feel so rootless away from mountains, and why is it so hard to persuade a New Englander to move away from the ocean?

This is not a light question. Perhaps it’s the deepest one of all. I’d be curious to know whether, over the past several years, Stewart has begun to look at this question at a broader and deeper planet-wide scale than simply, “Why do the people who populate what was once Cumbria not have a sense of Cumbrian identity?” The phrase “check your privilege” might be hackneyed by now, but this is a case where examining one’s privilege and experience in one specific culture might be very informative.

In the end, I came away wondering if Stewart’s real journey, one that hasn’t yet been revealed to him, was to find his own identity. He’s searching for Britain’s deep past while at the same time listening to his constituents’ modern concerns; he has a rather obvious reverence for sheep farmers and struggles to couch his contempt for “outsider” ecologists in polite language; he writes enough about his genealogical research on sites like Ancestry.com to make clear his yearning to ground his own family’s 3,000-year-old story on the soil he feels attached to. And through it all, he recounts his father’s stories, his father’s career and opinions, their walks and conversations together, and his own love for a man whose love for him in return is clear but whose approval he still seems to crave.

Stewart might have set out to search for Britain’s or the Middleland’s identity, but aren’t we all always searching for our own? Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Gogol, in all their writings and seeking for that amorphous Russian soul, were in truth grappling with their own tortured faiths and sense of identity within Orthodox Christianity and tsarist Russia. 

Stewart wrote at one point that he found it hard to express what long walks give to him, what he finds in them. I wonder if he set out on one not to examine a culture but to journey within himself, what he might find.

*I have long thought that most Americans, indeed most Westerners, can’t begin to comprehend the power and longevity of this history in Russia. For anyone who wonders “why Putin?” or what the dynamics are that inform many of Russian leaders’ current appeals to the populace, this section in Figes’s book is a good start: “It was the root of [Dostoevsky’s] nationalism and his messianic vision of the ‘Russian soul’ as the spiritual saviour of the rationalistic West, which ultimately led him, in the 1870s, to write in the nationalist press about the ‘holy mission’ of ‘our great Russia’ to build a Christian empire on the continent.”

Lesley Chamberlain addresses this history, too: “The economic extension of the [spiritual myth of naivety] was the idyll of peasant cooperation. The Russian ideal, the native way to happiness, never invited men to become individuals and think for themselves; it actively discouraged that independence. In compensation, it invited them to belong, and feel secure, and to protect themselves from a damaged, disintegrated, aggressive West. Right up to 1991, Russia remained with its willed naivety.”