7 aphorisms that are essential to understanding Russian civilization

1. ‘Our land is great and rich, but there’s no order in it’

The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga. Source: public domain

These words are from The Tale of Past Years, better known as the Primary Chronicle, and date back to the early 12th century. That document says that the lands of the future Russian state were populated by tribes paying tribute to the Varangians, also known as Vikings.

The tribes eventually drove the Varangians away and tried to govern themselves, but eventually ended up quarreling with each other. To end the infighting, they decided to invite a foreign prince and sent an embassy to the Varangians with the following message:

“Our land is great and rich, but there‘s no order in it. Come rule and reign over us.”

The offer was taken up by Rurik, who became the founder of Russia’s first ruling dynasty, the Rurikids. By the second half of the 19th century, the phrase began to be quoted sarcastically. Often it was used in the sense that despite Russia’s vast size and the wealth of its natural resources, no one has ever been able to establish order and prosperity in the country.

2. ‘Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar’

A still from ‘The Horde.’ Source: Kinopoisk.ru

These days, this expression is usually used as evidence that the Russian people have many bloodlines mixed in them. The phrase, which is attributed to different writers, in fact came to Russia in the 19th century from France. Dostoevsky wrote: “The Europeans did not want to recognize us as their own, not for any sacrifices, no matter what: Grattez, they would say,  russе еt vouz vеrrеz lе tartаrе, and so it continues still. We have become part of a proverb for them.”

It’s not known who in France was the first to come up with that phrase. Marquis de Custine in his book, La Russie en 1839, has a similar passage: “The Russians’ morals are cruel, and despite all pretensions of those half…

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