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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Third Man on Snowden’s Reading List

The Russian lawyer Antatoly Kucherena speaking to the state-owned channel Russia Today on Wednesday after meeting Edward J. Snowden at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

As my colleagues in Moscow reported earlier, when Antatoly Kucherena emerged from the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Wednesday after meeting Edward J. Snowden, the Russian lawyer helping the former intelligence contractor with his asylum request was asked to explain what was in the brown paper shopping bag he had left behind.

Mr. Kucherena, a Putin supporter who reportedly sits on the public council of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the K.G.B., told the press scrum that he had brought his client a change of clothes and English translations of books by three Russian authors â€" “Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Karamzin” â€" that might help the American to learn about the nation around the airport he has been trapped in for the past month.

Perhaps inevitably, journalists with a taste for the absurd wondered just what Mr. Snowden might learn about modern Russia from the first two authors, whose great works of fiction and drama portrayed human dilemmas a century before the era of Total Information Awareness.

Writing in The New Republic, Julia Ioffe observed, “Kucherena said he brought Snowden a copy of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment,’ and some Chekhov ‘for dessert.’ It’s time, he said, for the young man to ‘learn about our reality.’ The reality that lies before Snowden, however, is not that of a Petersburg slum or a cherry orchard.”

A portrait of Nikolai Karamzin, the court historian of Czar Alexander I who died in 1826. A portrait of Nikolai Karamzin, the court historian of Czar Alexander I who died in 1826.

That left the question of what Mr. Snowden’s lawyer thought a would-be citizen might learn about life in Putin’s Russia by reading Nikolai Karamzin, the court historian to Czar Alexander I who began his 12-volume “History of the Russian State” in 1818.

Quite a lot, perhaps.

As the Harvard professor emeritus Richard Pipes explained in the introduction to his translation and analysis of Karamzin’s “Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia,” this conservative Russian thinker’s work offers a glimpse of a world in which “many Russians believed that autocracy was the only regime capable of providing the country with stability and assuring it of great power status: any alternative to it spelled chaos.”

Karamzin’s “Memoir,” Mr. Pipes observed, was written “for Alexander I in 1810-11 to discourage him from proceeding with his liberal reforms.” Mr. Pipes added: “Karamzin’s argument was purely pragmatic: history has shown that Russia thrived under autocracy and declined whenever the country departed from it. Proof of this contention he found in the collapse of the Kievan state and the resultant conquest of Russia by the Mongols, as well as in the so-called Time of Troubles of the early seventeenth century when the country disintegrated following the expiration of the Rurik dynasty.”

In one passage from the Pipes translation of the “Memoir,” Karamzin argues:

Autocracy has founded and resuscitated Russia. Any change in her political constitution has led in the past and must lead in the future to her perdition, for she consists of very many and very different parts, each of which has its own civic needs; what save unlimited monarchy can produce in such a machine the required unity of action?