I rediscovered the following in this site’s “media library”. From the book The Scientist as Rebel by Freeman J. Dyson (published 2008):
The last stop on our tour was the city museum of Vladimir. Here we found the densest concentration of schoolchildren. The museum is in a tower over one of the ancient gates of the city. Its emphasis is historical rather than artistic. The main exhibit is an enormous diorama of the city as it was at the moment of its destruction in 1238, with every detail faithfully modeled in wood and clay. Across the plains come riding endless lines of Mongol horsemen slashing arms, legs, and heads off defenseless Russians whom they meet outside the city walls. The armed defenders of the city are on top of the walls, but the flaming arrows of the Mongols have set fire to the buildings behind them. Already a party of horsemen has broken into the city through a side gate and is beginning a general slaughter of the inhabitants. Blood is running in the streets and flames are rising from the churches. On the wall above this scene of horror there is a large notice for schoolchildren and other visitors to read. It says: “The heroic people of Vladimir chose to die rather than submit to the invader. By their self-sacrifice they saved Western Europe from suffering the same fate, and saved European civilization from extinction.”
The diorama of Vladimir gives visible form to the dreams and fears which have molded the Russian people’s perception of themselves and their place in history. Central to their dreams is the Mongol horde slicing through their country, swift and implacable.
It took the Russians 150 years to learn to fight them on equal terms, and three hundred years to defeat them decisively. The horde in the folk memory of Russia means an alien presence moving through the homeland, ravaging and consuming the substance of the people, subverting the loyalty of their leaders with blackmail and bribes. This is the image of Asia which three centuries of suffering implanted in the Russian mind. It is easy for us in the strategically inviolate West to dismiss Russian fears of China as “paranoid.” If we had lived for three centuries at the mercy of the alien horsemen, we would be paranoid too.
British prime minsters, soon after they come into office, customarily visit Washington and Moscow to get acquainted with American and Russian leaders. When Prime Minister James Callahan made his state visit to Moscow he had two amicable meetings with Chairman Leonid Brezhnev. At the end of the second day he remarked that he was happy to discover that there were no urgent problems threatening to bring the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union into conflict. Brezhnev then replied with some emphatic words in Russian. Callahan’s interpreter hesitated, and instead of translating Brezhnev’s remark asked him to repeat it. Brezhnev repeated it and the interpreter translated: “Mr Prime Minister, there is only one important question facing us, and that is the question whether the white race will survive.” Callahan was so taken aback that he did not venture either to agree or to disagree with this sentiment. He made his exit without further comment. What he had heard was a distant echo of the Mongol hoofbeat still reverberating in Russian memory.
It took them three hundred years to drive out the Mongols but only four years to drive out the Germans.
During the intervening centuries the Russians, while still thinking of themselves as victims, had become in fact a nation of warriors. In order to survive in a territory perennially exposed to invasion, they maintained great armies and gave serious study to the art of war. They imposed upon themselves a regime of rigid political unity and military discipline. They gave high honor and prestige to their soldiers, and devoted a large fraction of their resources to the production of weapons. Within a few years after 1941, the Russians who survived the German invasion had organized themselves into the most formidable army on earth. The more they think of themselves as victims, the more formidable they become.
James Callaghan was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1976 to 1979.
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