Mir v okeanye – The World in the Ocean

I remember the 2001 deorbiting of Mir, the Russian space station launched in 1986, because my dad worked at an astronomical telescope and told me about these things, and because I remember a dumb chronological mistake I made listening to Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”.[1] At the time I think there was a kind of sad symbolism in crashing the decrepit thing into the Pacific – the once-terrifying Soviet space program concludes with a sigh. These days I suspect it was a different kind of symbol.

The Russian word mir (Cyrillic: мир) means both “world” and “peace”[2], but it also refers, slightly archaically, to the communal structure of pre-revolutionary Russian peasant society. Nobody’s sure exactly how far back the mir dates, and part of that may be because it’s difficult to separate the real thing from the kind of insistently naive picture many late-imperial Russian intellectuals had of it.

The decades approaching the Revolution, needless to say, were plump with political disagreement, but no one should be particularly surprised to hear that the radicals on the left and right had a great deal in common.[3] Both conservative Slavophiles (who dug, and thought it a kind of sin to stop digging, autocracy) and the nascent-Marxist narodniki[4] (who didn’t) believed, or wanted to believe, in a kind of inherent Russian nobility of spirit. In the Slavophiles’ case this was tangled up with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, as betrayed by the Westernized aristocracy but purely represented by the unsullied Russian peasant; in the socialists’ it was tangled up with the mir, as inhabited by the unsullied Russian peasant.[5]

When the narodniki left St. Petersburg to visit and enlighten the noble peasants of the miri, they mostly got laughed at and spat on, because the mir was not a socialist paradise but a nonfunctioning and fatally static trap full of pridefully uneducated and extremely stubborn people that prevented the major agrarian reform that would let Russia take advantage of all the land she had. Annoyed and disillusioned, a lot of the narodniki went home, stewed for a little, and decided it would be more helpful if they just shot government officials.

After 1905, when enormous strikes and riots[6] finally forced Nicholas II, whom history (maybe unfairly, but probably not) tends to remember as the Tsar As Doofus, to institute something resembling a representative government, members of said government under prime minister Peter Stolypin managed to push through genuine agricultural reform despite not actually having any power. Thus, the weakening of the previously impregnable miri – but naturally, after the coup of October 1917 locked in socialism as an official ideology, the communes were once again idealized as the organic source of Russian Marxism – the thing that made it inevitable.[7]

Everyone knows at this point that the Soviet story’s as sad as the other Russian stories, so we’ll leave it alone. Obviously the Communists did not succeed in making the world in the pristine image of the mir. The mir was never pristine anyway. But there’s a long and wistful tradition in history of looking up to find our Edens – above’s where the Greeks put their dead heroes and living gods, where they surmised the fifth and purest element to drift. It’s where everyone puts Heaven. And it’s where the Soviets – after Lenin, after Stalin, after Khruschev’s ragged Thaw, after Brezhnev’s refrosting and Gorbachev’s gregarious dismantling – finally put their Mir. Which was Peace and World but which was something else too. And which fell into the sea.

Crankshaw, Edward. The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s drift to revolution, 1825-1917 (Viking, 1976).

Engelstein, Laura. Slavophile Empire: Imperial Russia’s Illiberal Path (Cornell University Press, 2009).

1. Dylan claims a girl named Louise is “delicate, and seems like the mirror”, the last word of which he compresses into a single syllable for the sake of the meter; amidst the news of the planned disintegration of Mir, which thirteen-year-old me found really sad, I couldn’t keep myself from misreading the simile.

2. Though the Russians, in a frustrating move for euphony fans, do not translate “peace on earth” as mir v mirye, opting instead for the literal mir na zemlye. Fans of Nabokov’s Pale Fire will note here a similarity between the Russian zemla, “earth” or “land”, and the imagined country Zembla.

3. The moderate liberals who would end up helplessly trying to use the Duma, Nicholas II’s sham Parliament, to move Russia peacefully towards some compromised version of modernity and democracy, were thinned, absorbed, and ultimately destroyed by the twitchy radicalization of Russian politics, the reasons for which are very complicated and debatable and not necessarily well understood by me.

4. A decent way to translate this is populists, but there are slightly spooky connotations to the prefix narod that have to do, again, with a vague kind of imperial Russian spirit.

5. An Ursula K. LeGuin novel about some peaceful aliens who live on a forest planet and get screwed by human capitalists is not called Avatar but rather (in reference to said aliens’ language) The Word for World is Forest, thinking about which should help in understanding the old mir-dreams.

6. Russia had just fought a deeply embarrassing war with Japan, one of the low points of which was the long and breathlessly advertised voyage of Russia’s Baltic fleet around Europe, past Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, past India, and north to Port Arthur, where the Japanese sank it in a morning.

7. The slightly sharky peasants who’d thrived under Stolypin’s reforms and become successful landowners and exploiters in their own right were called kulaks. They were too capitalist for Stalin, who, trying to bring back the collective farm, killed most of them while starving much of western Russia to death.

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