There are multiple ways to think about Russia's extremes. The obvious one is physical. Much of the vast country is lethally cold for half the year or more. Virtually any outdoor activity – starting a car; walking down the obstacle-course, snowbound streets – can be its own microdrama. This harsh environment helps to explain why Dostoevsky and others always seem to be stretching up their hands to heaven. The fundamental questions – Why are we here? Is anyone in charge? – somehow seem sharper at -20C, or on a three-day train ride.
Russia has for centuries been a distorting, fairground mirror for the west. It is both like and unlike the tamer nations. Throughout the cold war, it was alien, unknowable, the other, enemy world, and an easy setting for thrillers. Something of that menace persists, partly in the guise of the Russian mob, one of the elements in John le Carré's latest book Our Kind of Traitor. At the same time Russia is European, notionally Christian and industrialised. It has a familiar high culture and recognisable architecture. Go to Moscow for a day or two, and you might consider it a normal northern European city, with extra neon and worse roads. You have to stay a little longer to uncover the wildness. As the Marquis de Custine put it after visiting in 1839, it is "only too easy to be deceived by the appearances of civilisation".
Ultimately I’m unsure whether Russia has that great a prominence in our literature, considering it’s a nation of 141 million; France and England have nearly as much and Latin America is gaining. So this article fits into a long tradition of finding long-winded explanations for rather simple quantitative facts; but sometimes they’re worth thinking about, as this one his.
Also, this is it for this year—normal programming back on January 4th or 5th.