Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Wandering Count

As we await the Canada-Russia hockey game this afternoon, most Canadians will be thinking of Jarome Iginla when they hear the name "Iggy". But I was struck by thoughts of someone else when reading last night a passage from Yuri Slezkine's book, The Jewish Century. Slezkine was discussing the turn in 1930s Soviet policy from the earlier 1920s identification of the ideal Soviet citizen as an internationalist, to the growing reliance of the Stalin regime on the promotion of Russian nationalism.

On pages 279-80 we find Slezkine illustrating this development with a passage from the Jewish writer Lev Kopelev, then still, in the 1930s, a true believer in the Commmunist system:
The young Lev Kopelev had not been alone in being impressed by Stalin's "We do not want to be beaten" speech. "It was then that I, a convinced internationalist, a Soviet patriot, and a representative of the newly formed multinational Soviety people, began to feel an acute sense of hurt and injustice on behalf of Russia, Russian history, and the Russian word."
I was very pleased with this new turn in political propaganda and historical research, this decisive rejection of national nihilism. The party confirmed and affirmed what I had felt since childhood and became conscious of in my youth.

Such concepts as the "Motherland," "patriotism," the "people," and "national" were being restored. And I mean restored - because previously they had been toppled, overthrown....

I enjoyed the films about Peter the Great, Alexander Nevsky, and Suvorov; I liked the patriotic poems by Simonov, the books by E. Tarle and the "Soviet Count," Ignatiev; I reconciled myself to the return of officers' ranks and epaulets.
The "Soviet Count" Ignatiev? This line shocked me as in my limited knowledge of Russian history I had always associated the Ignatiev family solely with the Czarist regime (and indeed they became refugees from the Bolsheviks which is why today the "Soviet Count's" great grandson, Michael Ignatieff, has been able to grasp for power as the unelected leader of the Liberal Party of Canada).

I have seen on occasion Canadian bloggers with an anti-Michael Ignatieff agenda pointing out that Michael's great grandfather, the Count Ignatiev, was the Czar's Minister of the Interior at the start of the violent pogroms in 1881, which some historians believe he tacitly encouraged, and the man who headed the introduction of the May Laws which aimed to limit Jewish settlement in rural areas while at the same time limiting Jewish access to higher education in the urban centres. This was the start of the period of the three great Jewish migrations away from their former homes in the Russian empire's Pale of Settlement - to the Americas, to Israel, and to the cities of the Russian (and later Soviet) empire, the last being the focal point of Slezkine's book.

Now I understand there is some difference of opinion about the antisemitic intent of Count Ignatiev's policies. Some would see them as anti-Jewish only to the extent they were a way of trying to keep peace and order among an antisemitic peasantry and thus actually to protect Jews from pogroms. But, as I also understand it, the more dominant line of interpretation from Western historians is less sympathetic to the Count.

So it is not surprising to me that the politically-calculating Michael Ignatieff makes very little of his Russian ancestry in public. But that the Soviets rehabilitated the memory of Count Ignatiev when they sought to promote Russian nationalism in the 1930s was news to me. I have done a little Googling today and have not yet found more information on this phenomenon. Perhaps the sources in English on the internet will prove too limited for a relatively small historical concern. But I did find an interesting portrait of Michael Ignatieff in a 2008 paper by Valery Tishkov that is discussing, among other things, the worldwide Russian diaspora as an aspect of Russian influence and power in today's global village. Tishkov writes:
If one were to exclude from the total number of historical emigrants from Russia and their descendants all those who are completely assimilated and cannot speak Russian—all those who consider themselves to be French, Argentine, Mexican, or Jordanian and have no sense of connection to Russia—even so the number of “overseas countrymen” would remain large and difficult to define through objective” traits. Membership in a diaspora depends upon self-identity and reflects emotional choice.

Here is a personal example. I was acquainted with the late George Ignatieff, the famous Canadian diplomat and rector of Trinity College at the University of Toronto. He not only considered himself Canadian but, precisely, a “Russian– Canadian” (which was what Nikita Khrushchev had taken him to be when they met at the UN and when Ignatieff went to the USSR in 1955 as part of the official Canadian delegation). There is no question that Count Ignatieff should be considered to be part of the Russian diaspora.

Almost 20 years later I met his son, Michael Ignatieff, a well known journalist and writer, who did not know a single word of Russian, and considered himself part of the Canadian diaspora in England, stating that, “For me, being a Canadian,” he said, “is simply one of those privileges that I received as a birth-right.” To categorize the younger Ignatieff as a member of the Russian diaspora would have been an obvious usurpation of his right to choose how to live his own life. In 1987 he wrote a marvelous book called The Russian Album, about his journey to a childhood to which he could no longer return and his connections to family heirlooms.

For a reader in Russia the book is a historical and cultural document created by a member of the Russian diaspora despite the fact that Michael himself would not grant this. However, during a meeting with him in his bohemian apartment in old London in January 1997, he did not look like a representative of the Russian diaspora, unlike his father, whom I had seen in Toronto.

However, Michael wrote the following curious words about him: “At the same time he always kept himself apart from the Russian emigration, with its fractional intrigues and antediluvian politics. When I was a child he always seemed more Canadian than Russian to me. Even today he remains a more patriotic and sentimental Canadian than I am myself. For him Canada was the country that gave him a new life.” In London Michael told me that he was first of all an Englishman because his mother was English.

However, in 2006, when he decided to run for prime minister of Canada as a Liberal Party candidate, he emphasized his “Canadianness” as his sole and unquestioned identity. Which of the two Ignatieffs was part of the diaspora, and which of them belonged to the “Russian world?” There is no clear answer. Identity drift of an individual or a group can be situational and, in any event, dynamic. A great deal depends upon instrumental (or personal) calculations and also on the economic and political influences of the country of exodus and that of emigration.
So one wonders what Valery Tishkov would make of Michael Ignatieff's current siding with the enemies of Israel lodged in Canada's so-called "Rights and Democracy" agency/bureaucracy. Are his Russian roots showing, or perhaps his aristocratic prejudices? Or is this "Englishman" just being pulled around by the prejudices of the party that allowed him to become their unelected leader? Many have wondered, just what is this latest version of the Counts Ignatieff. In any case, let us rest easy for the moment, knowing that when Canada plays Russia, it's safe to cheer for Iggy.

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