#11 - JRL 2009- End of the Year Edition - JRL Home
December 30, 2009
Tragedy as a Fact of Life
We Cannot Simply Drink to Liberation As We Did 20 Years Ago, We Must Work Hard To Bring About Meaningful Change
By Alexander Arkhangelsky
I am not referring to the murder of yet another Orthodox priest, or the beating of the wife of Yury Polyakov, the editor-in-chief of Literaturnaya Gazeta who is fighting for writers’ property in Peredelkino outside Moscow, even though these stand out in a cruel sequence of events in the past months. No, I have something else in mind.
Last fall Russia marked several 20-year anniversaries. Some were magnificent, like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some were sad, like the death of famous dissident Andrei Sakharov. Numerous meetings, roundtables and discussions were held in Moscow. Some of them were shocking. Some of them were encouraging to think.
I did not like that some people who are wary of modern Russia (and rightly so) spoke with a twisted nostalgia about the past. The older generation is pining for the Soviet Union as they remember it a distilled image without big problems. They pine for it, sending a strong message to the authorities give us back the illusion of stability, collective spirit and justice. They want a Soviet Union without hours of standing in line, without humiliation by local party committees, without the ash-gray boredom of annual election meetings, and without those wages you survived on only by earning more on the side. And without Afghanistan. And without lies as a common way of life. The current Russian authorities are doing all they can to comply with these requests - the more primitive a society, the easier it is to govern it.
Meanwhile, the descendants of those who fought against Soviet rule are pining for the illusion of clarity present during Soviet times. They want a black-and-white picture, a division into “us” and “them,” a life in which non-involvement in the authorities’ evil deeds is a must, where money, a social standing and business provenance do not matter, an existence without the endless contradictions that mark any activity outside of a partially underground life.
The logical outcome of this pining is to dream of democratic revolution as the simple and clear solution to all current problems. The authorities do not want such a revolution and are therefore allocating funds to prevent it, which all kinds of opponents to this evil readily snatch up. They do not believe in a revolution, but are happy when people call for it because the more calls there are, the more money will be allocated for counterpropaganda; the less ambiguous the arguments, the easier it is to end dialogue with dissenters.
Of course, memory of such great men as Sakharov is positive and crucial; it offers moral support in times of trouble. But trying to hide from modern realities in this memory is a dangerous fallacy. Swearing allegiance to Sakharov’s old ideas today is naïve; it is like a religious cult with saints but without a God. Pining for anti-Sovietism is more honest than pining for the most horrible elements of the Soviet way of life, but in essence they are equally bad.
So, let us return to a world where two times two equals four.
Some things encourage hope. During these meetings, some people said things they would not dared have said 20 years ago, things that do not reject the past experience but do not focus on it too much either. Unfortunately, it was mostly East Europeans who said these things, but anyway.
Ivan Krastev, chairman of the board at the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, said during the readings on Sakharov that Sakharov was not a messiah but a man who shared all the illusions of that period, and it was for that reason that he had such a strong influence on his compatriots. And he spoke about how the biggest danger of our current epoch is rejecting the great dreams, and striving to minimalize the historical risks in order to insure ourselves against the future.
This striving is characteristic of our politicians, particularly the European ones, but it is also characteristic of the global human rights movement. It has long since not confronted the dilemma: who to save and what to sacrifice. Activists think they can save everyone and everything including the seals, the climate, freedom, the minorities, the European civilization threatened by Islamic radicals, and Muslims’ right to live in Europe and be part of it.
The Bulgarian speaker also touched on a very difficult problem: should the human rights activists and the opposition interact with the authorities? He said that formulating the problem in this way is the equivalent of acting as mafia bosses. Since we are not mafia bosses, we should address the problem individually every time, deciding with which authorities to interact, on which problems, on what conditions, and for what purpose, and also deciding how far we may go when negotiating with them.
Krastev said one could interact with the authorities on some issues but not on others, deal with some power holders within specified boundaries, but never with others. Adam Michnik, a famous Polish dissident and a co-founder of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s and who is now editor in chief of the opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, voiced similar views.
The old Russian democrats who admired Poland’s Solidarity movement asked Michnik how they could work with the movement today to direct it towards democratic change and in this way improve the situation in the country. His answer dissatisfied them. Michnik said that a union of intellectuals with workers was only possible in the past century, but today workers mostly support the Communists, if not the Fascists. He also said that what was real yesterday is impossible today and unlikely tomorrow.
When thinking about Poland’s role in a possible Russian revolution, Michnik retorted coolly: don’t pin your hopes on a revolution; it would be a catastrophe. There are many intermediate stages between servility and a war of extinction. Instead of encouraging people to take up the axe, try to unite them in a systemic struggle for honest elections.
When talking about the dangers of seeing the world as a flat place and political Manichaeism in Europe and Russia, Michnik said: we think that everyone the party, the dissidents, as well as the loyal citizens and the Church lied during the Communist rule, and only the KGB spoke “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” This is why everyone is hoping to get the opportunity to have a look at the KGB archives. If these archives say N was a secret agent and B an informer, then this was indeed so, because the KGB did not lie. This means that the secret services not only knew everything and did not lie, but also recruited the leaders of the future revolts, which later brought democracy to Poland and the Soviet Union.
If this is so, let us stop putting out information in doses; let us publish it, all of it, on the Internet. Not quotations cited outside the context, but all of the information, so that not only the crooks will have the exclusive right to use scissors and paint, but every member of society will have equal access to political ambiguity, to its convoluted, partly true and partly falsified, complexity.
You may not like it, but we are not going to drink champagne, toasting liberation like we did 20 years ago. Instead, we will have to work day in and day out to reconfigure life, accumulating quality changes that will prevent our enemies from curbing resistance and pulling us below our mediocre standards.
This does not mean that we cannot and/or must not fight back when our chances for democracy and for defeating corruption are undermined. We must say a firm “No” to illegal persecution, to the domination of clans controlled by the authorities and to falsification. At the same time, we should say “Yes” to a chance to improve life even if this may conflict with our ideals, and trying to distinguish between a compromise and betrayal.
Russia was defeated in the 20th century largely because the majority of Russians believed in a world where tragedies never happen, where injustice never stings, and where the interests of different forces need not be balanced on the basis of a compromise.
But having renounced tragedy as a fact of life, we became players in a tragedy that is life. While wishing for guaranteed happiness, we got the horrors of the daily Gulag. Today we again want to cleanse our life of unpleasant complexities. The authorities are cleansing the political scene, but get bureaucratic entropy in the process. The opposition is dreaming of a clean combination of ethics and politics, but only gets marginalization.
Those who want to cleanse history of contradictions are creating a model of the world that consists only of contradictions. A relevant example is mathematician Anatoly Fomenko, who created a new chronology in a bid to cleanse history of contradictions. The result was a system consisting only of contradictions without a trace of history.