Home > Uncategorized > Vladimir Odoevsky: City without a name, system with one

Vladimir Odoevsky: City without a name, system with one

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Russian writers on war

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Vladimir Odoevsky
From Russian Nights (1844)
The Fifth Night: A City Without Name
Translated by Olga Koshansky-Olienikov

“…Not far away from us there settled another colony, likewise on an uninhabited island. It consisted of common people, farmers, who did not come here to put any system into operation, but simply to provide for their existence…

“This neighboring colony seemed to us a rather convenient place for the so-called exploitation; we started trade relations with it, but guided by the word benefit, we didn’t consider it necessary to spare our neighbors. By various guises we detained the transport of things they needed and then sold them ours at three times the price. Many of us, using all the legal forms for our protection, undertook rather successful bankruptcies against our neighbors, which caused their factories to go to ruin, to our own benefit. We made them quarrel with other colonies, helped them in such cases with money, which, of course, returned to us a hundredfold. We enticed them into stock-jobbing and by means of clever manipulations we always came out ahead. Our agents lived with our neighbors uninterruptedly: by flattery, insidiousness, money, and threats, they constantly spread our monopoly. Our people grew wealthy – the colony prospered.

“When our neighbors were completely ruined, thanks to our wise, firm policy, our rulers summoned the elective officers and proposed to discuss whether it would not be for the benefit of our colony to acquire the land of our impoverished neighbors for good. Everybody’s answer was affirmative. This motion was followed by the other: how to acquire this land, by money or by force? It was suggested that money should be tried first, but if this means should not prove successful, to use force. Although some of the members of the council agreed that the population of our colony required new land, they thought it would be far more just to occupy some other uninhabited island rather than to encroach upon somebody else’s property. But these people were identified as harmful dreamers, idealists. By means of mathematical calculations it was demonstrated to them how many times more profitable it would be to use land already cultivated than land as yet untouched by human hands. A resolution was passed to propose to our neighbors to cede their land to us for a certain amount of money. The neighbors refused. Then, having balanced mercantile accounts of expenditures for the war with the profit which could be extracted from the land of our neighbors, we attacked them with our armed forces, destroying everyone who showed resistance; the rest of them we forced to leave for distant countries, and took possession of the island.

“Guided by our needs, we acted similarly in other cases. Unfortunate inhabitants of the surrounding lands seemed to be cultivating them only in order to become our victims at the end. Incessantly keeping only our own benefit in mind, we considered all means permissible in dealing with our neighbors: political shrewdness, deceit, and bribery. We made our neighbors quarrel with one another with the purpose of weakening their strength as we had done before; we supported the weak in order to raise the strong against them; we attacked the strong in order to set the weak against them. Little by little all the surrounding colonies fell under our domination one after another, and Benthamia became a rigorous and powerful state. We praised ourselves for our great deeds and we taught our children to uphold as an example those illustrious men who by weapons, and even more by deceit, added to the wealth of our colony. The colony prospered.

“Many long years passed again. Shortly after we subdued our neighbors, we met others whose subjugation was not quite so convenient. This led to arguments. The frontier cities of our state, enjoying sizable profit from trade with the foreigners, considered it useful to be on peaceful terms with them. On the other hand, the inhabitants of our internal cities, limited in space, sought an expansion of the state borders and found it rather profitable to start quarrelling with neighbors if only for the purpose of getting rid of their own surplus population. The vote was divided. Both sides had one and the same thing, the common benefit, in mind without noticing that each side used this word only to mean its own good. There were still others who thought of preventing this argument by starting to talk about self-sacrifice, about mutual concessions, about the necessity of sacrificing something now for the good of future generations. Both sides overwhelmed these people by irrefutable mathematical calculations. Both sides called them harmful dreamers, idealists, and the state split into two factions – one declared war against foreigners, the other signed a trade treaty with them.”

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“Many years passed in these internecine and external wars, which would now stop for a while, now flare up again with added bitterness. Common and individual sorrows led to a common feeling of general despondence. Exhausted by the long struggle people gave themselves up to idleness. No one wanted to do anything for the future. All feelings, all thoughts, all man’s incentive were limited to the present moment…The divine, inspiring language of poetry was inaccessible to a Benthamite. Great phenomena of nature did not plunge him into lighthearted thought which diverts man from earthly sorrow. Mothers knew no songs they could sing at their babies’ cradles. The natural, poetical element was long since killed by selfish calculations of profit. The death of this element contaminated all other elements of human nature; all abstract, general thoughts which unite people seemed to be madness; books, knowledge, laws of morality – useless luxury. Only one word – benefit – had remained from former glorious times, but it, too, acquired an indefinite meaning; everyone interpreted it in his own way.”

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