russian knight, Ilya Muromets
Ilya Muromets
In recent years, both the Western as well as the liberal Russian press have had a lot to say about Russian "barbarianism," as if to contrast it with European "civilization." But a closer inspection - through the prism of the heroic pages of Russian history - of the two groups' moral ideals and actual lives presents us with quite a different picture.

For example, in pagan times, ancient Russians never worshipped a god of war, although their contemporaries in Europe were transfixed by their own martial deity, constructing an entire epic narrative around the concepts of war and conquest.

After defeating the "infidels" (the Golden Horde), Russians never sought to forcibly convert them to Christianity. In the epic poem "Ilya Muromets and the Pagan Idol," the Russian hero liberates Constantinople from that mythological monstrosity, but refuses to become the voevoda (or ruler) of the city and returns home. Ancient Russian literature does not include tales of personal enrichment through conquest or plunder, although this is a common theme in the Western canon.

The hero of the "Nibelungenlied" is obsessed with his search for a hidden treasure - the Rheingold. The main character of the ancient English poem "Beowulf" dies, having beheld "the gorgeous heirlooms, golden store ... Now I've bartered here for booty of treasure the last of my life." It would never occur to any hero from a Russian epic to sacrifice his life in exchange for riches. Ilya Muromets is not even able to accept the inducement offered by the brigands he meets - the "golden treasure, richly colored robe, and as many fine horses as he needed" (citation from the Russian fairytale "Ilya Muromets and Nightingale the Robber"). He did not hesitate to reject the path by which he would "be rich," instead voluntarily taking the road on which he would "be killed."

And it is not only in this epic, but also in the legends, tales, songs, proverbs, and folk wisdom of the Russian people where it is evident that one's duty to uphold one's personal or tribal honor is something quite distinct from any duty to exact personal or tribal revenge.

The notion of retaliation, as such, is absent from Russian folklore, as if it were never part of the original "genetic code" of its people - the Russian champion has always gone to war as a liberator. And in this we can see the difference between Russians and Western Europeans.

The Russian historian and philosopher Ivan Ilyin wrote:
"Europe cannot grasp us ... because the Slavic and Russian way of contemplating the world, nature, and man is something alien to it. Humanity in Western Europe is motivated by will and intellect. The Russian people are above all guided by their hearts and imaginations, relegating the mind and will to a supporting role. Therefore, the average European is ashamed of sincerity, scruples, and kindness, viewing them as "foolishness."
A European, nursed on the ideals of Rome, is secretly contemptuous of other nations and desires to rule over them. Russians, however, on the whole expect kindness, scruples, and sincerity from others.

The Russian people have always enjoyed the natural freedom of the vast space they inhabit ... gazing "in wonder" at other nations, getting along with them amiably, with hatred only for oppressive invaders ... "Russians' congenial relationships with their geographic neighbors are testament to their sense of justice and mercy. The Russian people never committed the same atrocities for which the enlightened Europeans were responsible in their own conquered lands.

The psychology of the nation includes a certain principle of moral restraint. These naturally strong, resilient, dynamic people have been endowed with an amazing ability to survive.

This spiritual strength is also the basis for Russians' renowned forbearance and tolerance toward others.

Continually invaded from all sides and forced to live in an incredibly harsh climate, the Russian people managed to colonize vast swathes of land, but without slaughtering, enslaving, robbing, or forcibly baptizing any nation.

Western Europeans' policies of colonialism annihilated the aboriginal populations on three continents and forced natives from across Africa into slavery, while its cities grew rich on the backs of those colonies.

The Russian nation, which also waged wars that were not purely defensive, acquired, like all great nations, large tracts of land, but never treated their conquered subjects as the Europeans did. The European people reaped the benefits of Europe's conquests and its cities were enriched by the colonial plunder.

Emperor Peter I the Great
© Artist: Franz RuboEmperor Peter I the Great in Tarqui June 13, 1722. Tarqui is located in today’s Dagestan.
Russians robbed neither Siberia nor Central Asia nor the Caucasus nor the Baltics. Russia has preserved every nation within its borders, acting as their protector, granting them the right to own land and property and to practice their own faith, traditions, and culture.

Russia has never been a nationalist state - it has belonged to all who inhabit her. The Russian people were granted only one "advantage" - to bear the burden of nation-building.

The resulting state was like no other in the history of the world, and the Russian people defended it with their own blood, willingly sacrificing their very lives.

Precisely because they have borne so much suffering and heavy sacrifice, my people deeply empathized with the pain and suffering of other peoples languishing under the Nazi yoke.

And after liberating their own homeland, Russians channeled that same spirit of self-sacrifice and energy into liberating half of Europe.

This was an example of epic heroism! These are the stouthearted people born of the Russian earth! And I believe that such a feat can be accomplished even by a great nation only once a century.

The patriotism displayed by Russian soldiers in the fields of the Great Patriotic War met the highest ideal of patriotism - something unprecedented in the history of any nation anywhere in the world. And I will never agree with the media's pronouncements about Russian "barbarianism" vs. European "virtue."

I stand proud that our ancestors - our heroic ancestors - were so lovely, steadfast, courageous, and resilient, and that we are their descendants!

Anna Zhdanova is the 16-year-old student of a higher school in the Belgorod region (Central Russia). She is a laureate of a regional contest for the young journalists.