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Why Switzerland and Russia need each other

Swissinfo Redaction

What do Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great humanist writer who was moved by “the tears of a child”, and Vladimir Lenin, who sent out orders from the Kremlin to shoot hostages, have in common? Not much. But they did both hate Switzerland. 

Mikhael Shishkin Keystone

Lenin, now an embalmed occupant of the mausoleum on Red Square, contemptuously called the country that had given him refuge for many years a “republic of lackeys”. Meanwhile, Dostoevsky, who worked on his novel “The Idiot” on the shores of Lake Geneva, wrote about the Swiss in the following terms in a letter to his friend, the poet Apollon Maikov: 

“Oh if you only knew, what a stupid, dull, insignificant, savage people it is! It is not enough to travel through as a tourist. No, try to live there for some time! But I cannot describe to you now even briefly my impressions: I have accumulated too many. Bourgeois life in this vile republic has reached the nec plus ultra [nothing further beyond]. In the administration, and all through the whole of Switzerland, there are parties and continuous squabbles, pauperism, terrible mediocrity in everything. A workman here is not worth the little finger of a workman of ours. It is ridiculous to see and to hear it all. The customs are savage; oh, if you only knew what they consider good and bad here…” 

Used to being seen as a paradise, Switzerland can hardly recognise itself in the Russian mirror. So is the mirror crooked? 

Switzerland entered the Russian cultural consciousness through the writer Nikolai Karamzin’s “Letters of a Russian Traveller” in the late 18th century. While his account contains little of the real Switzerland, it abounds with enthusiasm. 

“For centuries the Russian world atlas looked more or less as follows: in the centre of the world was the holy motherland, the only truly Christian country, surrounded on all sides by an ocean of enemies. Generations of service to the Czar had worn away people’s bodies, wills and minds but had given them a fullness of the soul and a righteous sense of existence. What seemed like despotism and slavery to the ambassadors from the shores of the Rhine was perceived on the Moscow River as selfless, self-sacrificing participation in a common struggle in which the Czar was the general and everyone else his children and soldiers. The lack of private life was made up for by the sweetness of dying for the motherland. The greatness of Russia across space and time held the promise of personal salvation and the universal, yet unacknowledged slavery was bitter for the body but life-giving for the soul. Like Noah’s Ark in the Flood, Russia fulfilled the mission of preserving holy life on Earth.” 

Mikhael Shishkin

Mikhael Shishkin was born in Moscow in 1961. He has lived in Zurich since 1995. 

He studied English and German at Moscow State Pedagogical Institute. After graduation he worked as a street sweeper, road worker, journalist, school teacher and translator. 

He debuted as a writer in 1993, when his short story “Calligraphy Lesson” was published in Znamya magazine. 

In his books he deals with universal themes like death and love and has been compared with writers including Chekhov, Nabokov and Joyce. 

He himself admits to being influenced by Chekhov along with Tolstoy and Bunin, saying “Bunin taught me not to compromise, and to go on believing in myself. Chekhov passed on his sense of humanity – that there can’t be any wholly negative characters in your text. And from Tolstoy I learned not to be afraid of being naïve”.

Seen in this context, Karamzin’s raptures are no longer purely touristic. On the banks of the Rhine outside Basel the young Russian threw himself on his knees, ready to kiss the Swiss ground, and exclaimed: “Happy Swiss! Daily and hourly you ought to thank heaven for your happiness, that you live in the embraces of charming nature, under the benign laws of a fraternal union, in simplicity of manners, serving none but your God!” 

To the modern Russian ear this sounds like the oath of a national traitor. 

Fist-fight of Russian ideas 

Karamzin made Switzerland the symbol of “European values” and the priority of private life. This concept was completely new for Russia, where people’s whole existence had for centuries been subordinated to the service of higher “homespun” values like carrying out the Czar’s will, defending the Orthodox motherland and sacrificing private interests for the public good. This image of Switzerland came to serve as a battering ram in the hands of Russian “Westernisers” seeking to breach the totalitarian consciousness of the motherland. 

But the tradition of putting higher “geopolitical” values before private ones proved to be too tenacious. The joy of the patriot sacrificing his life for the motherland very soon mutated into the joy of the revolutionary ready to sacrifice himself for the sake of a bright future. And here again the Switzerland portrayed by Karamzin as the paradise of private life in the absence of higher ideals became the symbol of the despised bourgeoisie and the “western lack of spirituality”. 

In the words of the 19th-century Russian writer and thinker Alexander Herzen, who after acquiring Swiss nationality referred to himself as a “tax-paying peasant from the village of Châtel, near Murten”: “But I ask you, what is their cause, where lie their higher interests? They do not have any…” 

This unsuspecting country found itself the scapegoat in the fist-fight of Russian ideas, in which Dostoevsky’s famed “tears of a child” somehow got lost in the desperate struggle against the ideal of private life and the priority of “Swiss” values. 

Giving importance to the individual’s small existence was branded as something unworthy of the higher destiny of man. Dostoevsky hated revolutionaries as “demons” but even more hateful to him were European burghers in their cosy homes with storks on their roofs. 

Some might try to blame the great body of Russian literature for the country’s woes, as it did not instil “Swiss” values in Russians. However, had it done so, it would simply have ceased to be great Russian literature. 

The ideal of private life had little chance of prevailing in Russia. The passion for sacrificing oneself and those around for the sake of higher interests reached its apogee in the Russian Revolution and the subsequent establishment of a super-totalitarian system in which nothing could be private any more – neither property nor life. 

Difference in mentality 

Meanwhile, Swiss-trained students built a concentration camp – a large number of Russian revolutionaries had studied at the universities of Zurich and Geneva. Recently trained doctors, engineers and scientists returned to Russia where, rather than exercising their professions, they soon joined the line for the scaffold: true Russian heroes, always ready to send others to the firing squad or to go before it themselves. 

How could the despised and derided bourgeois “Swiss” existence be compared with such sweet sacrifice, which guaranteed immortality in the revolutionary calendar of saints’ days? 

At that time the whole world was infected with the virus of revolution, but how differently the disease manifested itself among the Russians and the Swiss. 

The difference in mentality is clearly revealed in the memoirs of Ernst Nobs, a Social Democrat from Zurich. He recalls how, on a summer’s afternoon in 1916, he was walking along the lake front with Lenin. They sat down on a bench opposite the Tonhalle concert hall when the Bolshevik leader suddenly announced that “Switzerland is the most revolutionary country in the world”. 

This, he explained to the astounded Swiss politician, was because all Swiss males had a weapon and ammunition at home, according to long-standing tradition. 

New opportunities 

The opening of the Russian borders in the final decade of the last century provided new opportunities for Russians and Swiss. Russian travellers flocked to the Alps; enterprising Swiss set out to make money in Russia. 

Now we can draw some conclusions about where the clash of mentalities has led, and whether there has been a diffusion of values. Have Russians at last overcome their genetic predisposition to the pursuit of lofty ideals and transformed from a “God-chosen people” into individuals dreaming of “a cottage with a stork on the roof”? 

The answer to these questions can be found in the events of recent months. Alas, the Russian atlas looks just as it did in the Middle Ages with the holy motherland surrounded by an ocean of enemies. And only the Czar-father in the Kremlin can save the country from its external foes and their fifth column of foreign agents, who are surreptitiously unscrewing the nuts from our missiles. A diet of slogans such as “Crimea is ours” has replaced the nourishment of European values, and the “left” has joined forces with the “right” in the surge to send filling for zinc coffins to the Lugansk meat grinder.

The most hallowed Swiss site is the meadow where, long ago, the founding fathers of the first union of cantons swore their oath of allegiance. Both the grass and the cows are genuine. The 19th-century Russian poet Vassily Zhukovsky, who crossed to the Rütli meadow by boat, noted that: “There is no monument on it, but Swiss freedom still exists”. 

Russians are surprised to realise that the monument to the meadow is the meadow itself. In the land of ideas, the meadow would have been sacrificed to the monument. 

To the Russian eye, Swiss villages lack the omnipresent Russian obelisks. A Russian village may have no running water, telephone or other signs of civilisation, but there is sure to be a monument to those who went to war and never returned. It stands like a finger showing the Russian passer-by the path to heaven. Like a road-sign, reminding you of your predetermined purpose: to sacrifice yourself for the sake of the motherland. Here in Switzerland you don’t have this. 

Yearning for stability 

We could draw up a long list of the ways in which our national characters differ. We really are different. But maybe that is precisely what is so attractive both for Russians and for Swiss. Opposites attract. You are attracted by what you have not got. 

The Swiss live in a country where everything has already been taken care of by their forefathers. Each new generation must squeeze itself into the ossified shell of the existing public and social order. It is a legacy that cannot be escaped. 

Russia, meanwhile, is in a constant state of flux. Those born there cannot know in what country they will end up, even if they live their whole lives on the same street – not to mention that the street itself will have been renamed several times. Just in our lifetime the country has gone through as many upheavals as would last the Swiss for centuries. 

In Switzerland it is unthinkable, for instance, that with each new president the country would change not only its future but its past. Whereas in Russia, as we know, rewriting school textbooks, turning black into white and vice versa, is a common occurrence. 

The desire of some Swiss to escape from a world where everything is prescribed to the world of Russian impromptu is understandable – to live in a place where everything is created here and now and depends not on laws drawn up by past generations but only on yourself and the fantastical Russian reality, in which impossible things are possible. 

Thus, a former Communist youth leader can become an oligarch and buy an English football club. The longstanding mayor of the capital can suddenly become a refugee. All public prosecutors can have their passports taken away. In the 21st century you can seize a huge chunk of territory from your neighbour and nothing happens to you. Fantastical tales of Russian reality.  

The Swiss striving for perfection, orderliness and complete regulation leaves no latitude, no room for manoeuvre. Sooner or later you have difficulty breathing, and the flip side such as the need for human imperfection and unpredictability, emerges. The Swiss citizen is overcome by a longing for risk, for improvisation or in other words, a different kind of freedom. The freedom from rules that characterises Russia, a contrasting place that lacks that which Switzerland produces in surplus: stability. 

The eternal Russian yearning for stability and the Swiss longing to escape from it are two opposing vectors, two halves of life that strive to find each other, to come together but can never meet. Russians and Swiss are moreover also united by the belief that no foreigner can ever truly understand their country or people. 

We need each other, because we are so different. As Lev Tolstoy wrote in “Lucerne”: “Endless are the mercy and wisdom of Him who has permitted and formed all these contradictions.”

(Translated from Russian by Julia Bassam)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR