The roots of Russia’s atomised mourning; Post-Soviet people have spent two decades mourning a society that never existed.
(opendemocracy.net – Kirill Kobrin – November 14, 2016)
Kirill Kobrin is a writer, historian and journalist. He is an editor of the Russian intellectual journal Neprikosnovennyi zapas, and is the author of 20 books and numerous publications in the Russian, German and Latvian press. He lives in London.
This is the third in a series of essays by Kirill Kobrin on the death of the post-Soviet project.
A casual observer should be amazed at the gulf between publicly expressed emotions and the reality of life in Russia over the past 25 years.
Almost immediately after the fall of the USSR, Russian society was gripped by an obsession with all things Soviet, but this obsession combined with support for the most anti-Soviet economic and social policies you could think of. With the catchphrases of everyone’s favourite late Soviet comedies on his or her lips, the post-Soviet individual busied himself with building a life that excluded both the heroes of those films and the possibility of making those films again. It was, in effect, like watching a Bolshevik-era militant atheist destroying a church brick-by-brick while singing psalms at the top of his voice.
From the viewpoint of the public consciousness, the post-Soviet period embodied this schizophrenia. Moreover, I’d even say that the “post-Soviet project” itself was based on this schizophrenia. But was this really schizophrenia as such? Or can these contrasts between sentiment and real life be connected? Is it possible they even came from the same place?
“The breakdown is not in our bathrooms but in our heads”
If you put together a glossary of a post-Soviet person’s most frequent phrases, especially if the person in question has a certain income and certain expectations of society, the following expressions would likely be the most popular”
“A thief must sit in jail!”
“The breakdown is not in our bathrooms but in our heads”
“I do not love the proletariat”
The first phrase belongs to the manly hero of Stanislav Govorukhin’s 1970s police serial “The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed”. The hero was played by Russian bard Vladimir Vysotsky, which immediately made this phrase sound 100% convincing. The second two expressions are lifted from Vladimir Bortko’s TV movie (and adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov) “Heart of a Dog”, used by the jovial Professor Preobrazhensky, a dedicated foe of the Soviet government and, at the same time, a doctor who treats and takes care of Soviet leaders.
The publicly expressed worldview of the post-Soviet person, especially a person who lived through perestroika at a conscious age, is almost entirely summed up by these three lines.
Instead of the law, you have a faceless tautology. Nobody says that a thief “must be put in prison” – this implies the existence of people who will do the judging and jailing. Instead, we see a purely abstract thought that pretends to describe how things really work. A thief must be in prison. If I’m not in jail, then I’m not a thief. What’s also interesting is the archaisation, typical for that miniseries. The word “thief” is used in its old, Russian meaning – “criminal”. So those who are in jail are criminals, those who are free are not criminals, everything happens on its own, without police, judges, or the state. That’s just how it happens.
As we have seen, there is no contradiction here – you can be a real thief, conman, corrupt official and criminal, and you can argue that thieves should be in jail, because if you are free and are allowed to speak out, then you are not a thief by definition. This is why there are so many security/law enforcement officials, ministers, Duma deputies, businessmen, journalists and regular people, who repeat this mantra daily without it being, in the strictest terms, an expression of doublethink or schizophrenia.
This manifestation of a total lack of belief in institutions – in the law, in the state, as well as the rejection of social responsibility for an individual – is widespread in an atomised society. You have the individual and then you have Fate, and How Things Really Work, which will either send this person to jail and make him into a “thief”, or leave him alone.
The expressions taken from “Heart of a Dog” (“The breakdown is not in our bathrooms but in our heads”; “I do not love the proletariat”) transfer this problem to the level of society. The reasoning behind the “breakdown” is not a philosophical maxim that calls on your fellow citizens to get their own thinking in order. It’s a doctor who says it – a doctor who pretends that he is above the new Soviet life that surrounds him, even though he owes his position to those who built this life and govern it.
Kindess, mutual assistance, justice?
Here we see a typical pattern of behaviour for two groups in post-Soviet society – the urban intelligentsia and public officials, especially officials at the top. The first group was almost always ready to serve a state it despised. The second group was forced to demonstrate a passionate love for “simple people”, so that it could keep squeezing those simple people for resources in order to support itself.
Professor Preobrazhensky helps rejuvenate Soviet party higher-ups, but gets a disdainful look on his face whenever he hears the very word “Soviet”. A liberal post-Soviet culture worker will travel abroad on the government dime (assuming he is invited), but will avoid being photographed next to culture minister Vladimir Medinsky.
A post-Soviet official with Swiss bank accounts, a house in Nice, and a daughter studying in Oxford is sometimes forced to travel to some factory and meet “the workers” there. He will even eat at the factory canteen, while straining from sheer disgust, but when he escapes to his official vehicle, he will wash away the taste of that eternal Soviet chicken cutlet with single malt whiskey from his flask.
This isn’t hypocrisy, no, this is a conscious separation of the different aspects of life, one aspect has nothing to do with the other – there is no schizophrenia here. It is here that an important truth about modern Russian society is buried.
Repeating, for the hundredth time, that line about a “breakdown in the heads,” the post-Soviet individual is talking about something else – this is his or her refusal to stop the breakdown taking place in the bathroom, wanting others to take care of it instead (“Nothing in my head is breaking down!” he or she believes, just as Professor Preobrazhensky did). The “breakdown” is not about me, it’s about other people. I have nothing to do with it.
The situation is the same as with the line about the thief who “must sit in jail.” It’s about others. Other people can be thieves, sit in jail, have a breakdown in their heads, clean up bathrooms, but I will stand off to the side, separately, I will take care of my own stuff and keep logic chopping. This is a social conscious that is completely free of any social, or even anthropological, solidarity.
This becomes evident in that third line about the proletariat. In my home neighbourhood of the town of Gorky, this would be known as being a cheap show-off. If Professor Preobrazhensky said that he doesn’t love the proletariat back in 1918, if the Red Army showed up at his door, then he would know that if you say the wrong word, the armed proletarian will tear you to shreds.
But in his new, stable, hierarchical Soviet world, protected by paperwork from the Central Committee, he can say whatever he wants to these funny dreamers from the local residential committee, say it directly to their faces with the disgusted grimace of a lord. The professor is just being rude.
The infamous post-Soviet rudeness, rudeness that exists on all levels of society, from top to bottom, is contained in its entirety in a single phrase – and it this rudeness which was behind the most despicable, brazen, inhuman phrase that Putin ever used when, referring to the tragedy of the Kursk submarine, he simply responded to the question of “What happened?” with “It sank”. This is the luxury of the cynical tautology, uttered by a powerful person who doesn’t have to pretend as he addresses the weak. Yes, I don’t love the proletariat – this is the truth that you can do nothing about, just as you can do nothing to me. Yes, the Kursk sank and we lied to you about it – this is the only truth in this story about a monstrous lie, but you can’t do anything about it or about us.
Here is something else that’s interesting: if you don’t love the proletariat while living in a country built by the proletariat and for it, you’re a coquettish hypocrite. Russia’s post-Soviet project was precisely hypocritical and coquettish, it enthusiastically used everything physically or culturally valuable that was built up by the Soviets, but pretended that this had nothing to do with anything, that this inheritance sort of fell out of the sky.
Soviet nostalgia was the other side of that, it was a kind of psychological compensation, an essential detail of the project – or else there wouldn’t be balance. As the years went by, the balance was destroyed – as Soviet infrastructure aged and crumbled, and as feelings of belonging to the previous epoch crumbled too.
As post-Soviet society moved further away in time from the Soviets, the nostalgia grew, because unmediated notions of what was “Soviet” was disappearing from collective memory. The balance was no longer needed. For new generations, Soviet infrastructure was just there – it wasn’t even Soviet to them, it was just the weather-beaten material ontology of life. Soviet life, which looked restored and nicely done up in Soviet films, began to replace Hollywood images. At this point, the post-Soviet project within Russia’s public conscious dies – it cannot exist without the balance.
These processes were meant to conceal the great catastrophe happening to society – it’s final atomisation. The history of Russia of the last two centuries and a half can be viewed as a series of social catastrophes, which destroyed horizontal ties in society, which connected the overwhelming majority of the population together. Serfdom abolished, urbanisation follows, the village community falls apart. The 1917 Revolution and the subsequent destruction of the social system. Stalinist industrialisation, collectivisation, and mass repressions.
A break began only in the second half of the 1960s and lasted for twenty years. For various reasons, the government left the Soviet people alone for a while. Beyond that, the government gave these people living spaces, some limited abilities to build up posessions, a settled way of life – and a wide spectrum of social connections, from nepotism and cronyism to collecting stamps, from chess clubs to learning Esperanto. Stalin wanted to kill esperantists, but Brezhnev couldn’t care less about them.
The end result was an unofficial, horizontal social world, which combined personal interests, territorial, professional and other social interests, and even that thing that almost disappeared under Stalin, which was solidarity. Crazy capitalism, which was set loose in Russia in 1992 and the absolute absence of social policies within government ripped up this world into pieces, into atoms. There were just phantom memories of alleged “kindness”, “mutual assistance” and “justice” that ruled the USSR. And if there was mutual assistance and solidarity on the personal level there – they were expressed by very different people. In either way, what we have is the last component of Soviet nostalgia as expressed by post-Soviet people.
As a socio-psychological or socio-cultural phenomenon, nostalgia can only exist privately, unofficially, as a process, and not as a complete entity. For several years now, Soviet nostalgia is being used as an ideological instrument and (for a longer period now) as a commercial strategy. From a sentiment, it has morphed into officious rhetoric and even “high style” – bringing an end to the kind of public conscious we could call “post-Soviet”. When nostalgia becomes a cast-iron slogan, it became apparent that post-Soviet atoms are not held together by anything – not even phantom sentiments.
This is where the danger lurks. The disintegration of social cultures and the atomization of society is the main reason behind the disasters plaguing several of the world’s regions, in Africa, in Central Asia, and, for example, in today’s Donbas. If you need to stop a war of everyone against everyone, to stop a prolonged catastrophe, you must lean on stable social structures – if they don’t exist, your efforts are meaningless.
The Russian state, which has taken up ultra-conservatism and traditionalism with a vengeance, knows this. The state is trying to create (while insisting that it is actually “re-creating”) these social structures, but with its other hand it destroys all timorous beginnings of a new, horizontally connected society which arise in contradiction to the government’s will.
By doing this, the government pushes both society and itself toward greater troubles. Attempts to avoid these troubles will, judging by how things are going, will come to define the next period of Russian history.
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