In Joseph Conrad, a Lens on Russia’s Barbarism

Joseph Conrad has never stopped condemning the violence and brutality of Russia, whose forces are destroying cities and raping and murdering civilians in the Ukraine war today. Russian troops recently moved past Berdichev, 200 km southwest of Kyiv, where Conrad was born in 1857, and near Zhitomir, where he lived as a young child. Raised in Ukraine by Polish parents, Conrad grew up under Russian rule. In his youth, the local society consisted of Russian officials, Polish landowners, Jewish merchants, and Ukrainian peasants.

After Conrad’s father Apollo became involved in the Polish Revolution, which was suppressed by Russia in 1863, he and his family were exiled to the harsh climate and brutal life of Vologda, a penal town 250 miles northeast of Moscow. Conrad had a harrowing relationship with his dark and guilt-ridden father that had a profound impact on his life. Apollo’s political essay “Poland and Muscovy” (1864) described Russia’s centuries-old oppression of Poland and denounced Russia as a “terrible, depraved, destructive embodiment of barbarism and chaos,” a “plague of mankind,” and a “negation of human progress.” Apollo believed that Catholic, democratic Poland was historically destined to defend Western Europe from the relentless hordes of Moscow. Conrad adored his patriotic father but disliked Apollo’s disastrous policies that had traumatized his childhood and believed the quest for revolution was futile and destructive. As a teenager, Conrad fled the morbid atmosphere of Polish martyrdom for the freedom of England and life at sea.

Conrad’s most important political statement, Autocracy and War (1905), was published the year Japan defeated Russia and a Russian revolution failed. Echoing Apollo’s themes in words that sound familiar today, Conrad’s essay argued that Russia was a barbaric Asian despotism implacably opposed to the humane values ​​of Western civilization: “This dreaded and strange apparition, full of bayonets, armed with Chains hung over with sacred images; that something not of this world that eats from a starving ghoul still faces us with its old stupidity, with its strange mystical arrogance that heaves into the blood-soaked ground with the first stirrings of a resurrection.”

In his two major political novels, Conrad drew on Apollo’s chilling vision of Russia as “unbridled, organized, and ready to spit millions of her criminals out over Europe.” The Secret Agent (1907) portrays the disastrous revolutionary underworld of Conrad’s father and the rabid anarchists who threaten the stable and overly tolerant society of Edwardian England. Adolf Verloc owns a seedy porn shop that provides a front for his violent activities. Mr Vladimir, the first secretary of the Russian embassy, ​​forces Verloc to try to blow up the Greenwich observatory and ‘stop time’. Verloc botches the job and kills his mentally challenged young brother-in-law, Stevie, who unknowingly carries the bomb and blows himself up. Verloc’s wife avenges her innocent brother’s death by murdering Verloc and subsequently commits suicide.

Set in 1904, Under Western Eyes begins with the conflict between the Russian revolutionary movement and the Tsarist secret police. Razumov, a student in St. Petersburg, betrays his friend Haldin, who has taken refuge in his rooms after a Russian official was assassinated. The secret police then forces Razumov to spy on a group of anti-Russian exiles in Geneva, Switzerland. When Razumov confesses his betrayal to these revolutionaries, one of them, also exposed as a police spy, expresses his loyalty to his comrades by bursting Razumov’s eardrum as punishment. Permanently deaf, Razumov is crippled by a tram and returns to Russia an invalid. These Exiles capture what Conrad calls “the true soul of Russian things”: the hypocrisy and senseless destruction. The compulsion to betray, to repent and to humiliate oneself. The Dostoevsky mixture of instinctive cowardice and tormenting longing for spiritual absolution.

The novel’s narrator, a language professor, expresses Conrad’s prescient theme—the inevitable betrayal of the revolution: “The conscientious and just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and intelligent may start a movement – but it passes on them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are his victims: the victims of disgust, of disillusionment – often of remorse. Grotesquely betrayed hopes, caricatured ideals – that is the definition of revolutionary success.”

In May 1917, Conrad accurately predicted that Russia was an untrustworthy ally in the war against Germany and would inevitably desert England. In February 1918, after the Russian Revolution the previous October, he was also farsighted about the dangers of the revolution plaguing Western Europe: “Whatever happens, Russia is now out of the war. The great thing is to keep the Russian infection, its corrosive power, away from the social organism of the rest of the world.” In March 1920 he warned that the Russian danger, rooted in the barbarism of the Central Asian tribes, was greater than ever: “Once Tatars and Turks, and now even worse because they are no longer born of the sheer savagery of the nomadic races, but of an enormous seething mass of sheer moral corruption—producing violence of a more purposeful kind.”

Conrad’s sense of bitter humiliation could never be quenched. His anger at the cruel treatment of Poland, intense late in life, applies to the current devastation in Ukraine. “I come from an oppressed race in which oppression was not a matter of history, but a stifling fact in the daily lives of all men, made more bitter by avowed hatred and contempt,” he wrote. “I have always disliked the Russian mentality and its emotionality. I don’t often think of Poland. It feels bad, bitter, painful. That would make life unbearable.”

Conrad also revealed the contradiction between Russian politics and high culture. He was unfashionably anti-Russian when Russian ballet was all the rage in Europe and leading English writers – DH Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, assisted by their Russian friend SS Koteliansky – translated Ivan Bunin, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Conrad said to his friend and editor Edward Garnett, who was a Russian anarchist sympathizer and visited his wife Constance Tolstoy in Russia and translated many of his works: “You are so Russian, my dear, that you do not know the truth when you see it – unless it smells like cabbage soup, when it immediately commands your deepest respect.”

Conrad’s brilliant analysis confirms that Russian barbarism is worse than ever. It continues to carve a destructive path through civilized Europe.

Mr. Meyers is the author of Joseph Conrad: A Biography (1991). He wrote introductions to editions of Conrad’s The Mirror of the Sea, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes.

Vladimir Putin blames his war in Ukraine on a planned attack on Russia led by US-backed neo-Nazis, despite evidence that Putin “now reflects the fascism and tyranny of 77 years ago”. Images: Shutterstock/Reuters/Zuma Press Composite: Mark Kelly

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