Behind the New Iron Curtain

Caviar, counterculture, and the cult of Stalin reborn

Marzio G. Mian at Harper’s Magazine: Russia has become, to observers in the West, a distant, mysterious, and hostile land once again. It seems implausible, in the age of social media, that so little should be known about the country that has shattered the international order, but the shadows surrounding Russia have only grown since the days of the Soviet Union. Of course, it is one thing to observe the country from the outside; it is another to try to understand how Russians experience the war and react to sanctions from within, and what they hope the future holds. If Russia seems to have become another planet, it is largely because its regime has also waged war on foreign journalists, preventing them from straying beyond established perimeters.

Over the summer, hoping to do precisely that, I spent a month traveling down the Volga River. In a land of great rivers, the Volga is the river. They call it matushka, the mother; it flows from the Valdai Hills to the land of the Chuvash, the Tatars, the Cossacks, the Kalmyks, and into the Caspian Sea. It’s where Europe and Asia meet or part, are bridged or blocked, depending on whether the compass of Russian history is pointing east or west. It’s where it all started, after all, where the empire took root: Along the river one finds many of the cities that have established Russian culture and faith—from Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Lenin, to Stalingrad (now called Volgograd), the site of the infamous World War II siege. This is a history that weighs heavily on Russian identity today, as the country continues to look backward, sifting its vaunted past for new myths of grandeur. It seems prepared to resist and to suffer, acts at which Russians have always excelled, and to have resigned itself to a future of isolation, autocracy, and perhaps even self-destruction.

Before starting down the river, I met with Mikhail Piotrovsky, who is an old acquaintance and the director of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, in his office on the museum’s ground floor, where he has carved out a space for himself among piles of books, stacks of paper, and various sculptures. The photographs crowding the room, of him with eminent Western leaders—a smiling Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth—are now themselves relics, not unlike the tapestry of Catherine the Great hanging above his desk.

I asked him about the river. “The Volga was everything, and is still everything,” he told me. “Because it makes you aspire to greatness. It has a sort of intimacy, sheltering and bright skies, not like the wide-open spaces of the steppe or Siberian rivers, which make you feel like a speck in the cosmos.”

Piotrovsky is an illustrious scholar of Arabic studies. I’ve known him for years, but we would normally talk about Canaletto and Byzantium, the great Islamic explorers and his beloved Sicilian wines. This time I found him in full war fervor. And, I was convinced, it was not only to defend his prestigious position: At his age, seventy-nine, he could easily keep his head down and carry on quietly, like most Russians have elected to do. He spoke with his usual calm but looked feverish, as if something were devouring him from the inside. More here.