Monday, July 02, 2018

Long suffering Russians

There's something deeply broken in Russian society. That simple minded statement is what I've taken away from reading a series of books about Russia recently: Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoir of survival and devastation during Stalin's Terror in the 1930s; Peter Pomerantsev's vertigo-inducing Surreal Heart of the New Russia; and Svetlana Alexievich's Nobel Literature prize-winning collection of mini-interviews with post-Soviet citizens.

Russian/American journalist Masha Gessen's National Book Award winning The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia is another contribution on the same theme. She chronicles Russian political and social experience through stories of the lives of seven individuals between the 1980s when the Soviet regime was dissolving amid its own contradictions and failures through the 2010s when Putin was seizing increasingly unchallengeable power. For U.S. readers who have struggled with Russian naming conventions in those hard-to-follow Russian novels we were supposed to read in school, she provides a wonderfully helpful introductory explanation of how she uses these forms; you don't have to get lost in the names here.

Gessen ties the trajectories of her individuals together through describing the ongoing research of pioneering post-Soviet pollster and sociologist Lev Gudkov, a student of communist Russia's father of indigenous sociology, Yuri Levada. (Putin eventually drove Levada out of the institute he founded where Gudkov also worked.) Levada had propounded the notion that the Soviet system had indeed made possible the emergence of a New Man: Homo Sovieticus.

The system had bred him over the course of decades by rewarding obedience, conformity and subservience. ... The Soviet state was the ultimate parent: it fed, clothed, housed and educated its citizens; it gave him a job and gave his life meaning. It rewarded him for doing good and punished him for doing wrong, no matter how small the transgression.

It also taught its citizens to live inside "double-think" -- at once permanently victimized by encircling capitalist enemies and also a conquering heroic empire which had defeated Germany in the 1940s and was standing up against an aggressive America. In the late 1980s, Levada expected Homo Sovieticus to die off after the Soviet state failed.

But in the 1990s, Gudkov's polling showed that Homo Sovieticus was making a comeback. A complete economic crash, oligarchic privatization that amounted to theft of the USSR's industry and farms, the peeling off of non-Russian minorities into their own states -- all of this led Russians to yearn for renewed stability and order.

Now Russians were distinctly tired of thinking of themselves, and their country, as inferior. So what did they see as the innate positive qualities of Russians? This open question elicited, on the basis of 2,957 surveys, three leading qualities: "open," "simple," and "patient." The ideal Russian, it seemed was a person without qualities. It was clear to Gudkov that this was the blank mirror of the hostile and violent regimes under which Russians had long lived. ...

... Homo Sovieticus was not going anywhere: there was no clear evidence that this sociological type was less prevalent among young people than in their parent's generation. Homo Sovieticus's central trait -- double-think -- was in full display across age groups. ... A majority of respondents agreed with the following statement: "Over the seventy-five years of the Soviet regime our people have become different from the people of the West, and it is too late to change that." A slightly larger majority agreed with the statement "Sooner or later Russia will follow the path that is common for all civilized countries." Most people agreed with both statements at the same time, and that that they did seemed to affirm the former, and made the latter seem vanishingly unlikely.

Living with these unresolved contradictions made Russians ready to give Vladimir Putin 80 percent approval ratings when another economic crash in 1998 was short lived and the new strongman promised decisive action against Chechen terrorists. By 1999, 58 percent of Russians wanted to go back to how things were before Gorbachov loosened the regime's controls in 1985; 26 percent believed Stalin's rule had been good for the country. Nostalgia ruled.

By the early 2000s, Gudkov believed he was seeing in Putin's rule something he called "pseudo-totalitarianism." The same bureaucrats ruled; mass media were state controlled; the secret police had changed its name but not its powers. Neither reliable rule of law nor an independent judiciary had emerged. Education was militarized and the state determined the distribution of goods.

One thing was certain: this regime was not going to develop into a functioning democracy. In fact, it did not seem capable of developing at all. It probably could not re-create the old systems of terror and complete mobilization. Its sole purpose ... was to stay afloat, to maintain just enough inertia. In this its main resource was the Russian citizen weaned on generations of doublethink ...: the Homo Sovieticus.

As the Putin regime moved closer to being a recognizable totalitarian state in the 2010s, Gudkov developed a theory that Russia's periodic popular eruptions, whether in 1990 or in subsequent repeated mass protests against elections devoid of choices, were a feature serving to revitalze an unchanging system.

This was Gudkov's depressing, and he had to admit, radical idea: the last century could be viewed as a continuity, with periodic bumps of "aborted modernization" and the society he had been studying his entire adult life had stayed essentially the same. What made this idea radical was that no one wanted to hear it.

Perhaps it is proof that merely compiling the truth doesn't set people free since all this sociological theory and data exists without discernible impact on the country's development. Dictators don't have to hide their scat anymore, it seems.

The heart of Gessen's book is not these sociological observations I summarized crudely here, but the stories of particular individuals. Her subjects are city people, educated, relatively privileged, middle and upper middle class in our terms. They are not Russia's bottom dwellers. (Alexievich goes deep in that stratum.) I found them by turns interesting, repellent, and attractive and you probably would as well. None of these lives are easy; but then, even the most idealistic didn't expect life to be easy.

One of Gessen's people, Lyosha, is a young gay man trying to make a life as a professor of gender studies at a provincial university. It's a tough road, but he makes something of a go of it until Putin's regime realizes it can create an aggressive xenophobic Russian patriotism by inciting mass hatred of queers. U.S.-based homophobes from an outfit called the World Congress of Families (listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center) assist Russia's homegrown anti-gay zealots. Lyosha becomes first an object of suspicion during a national pedophilia panic, then a prospective target of bashers and murderers. He emigrates.

Some reviewers, including Francis Fukuyama in the Times, imply that Gessen -- a lesbian who decamped to New York to protect her children -- is making too much of the role of gay bashing in Putin's consolidating his regime. Actually, I am grateful that Gessen shows so vividly that violence and bigotry derived from fear of gender fluidity can be a very potent instrument in a dictator's arsenal. Not every society would be so subject to this particular intra-community wedge as contemporary Russia, but violent gender terrors are potent inflammatory agents. This is not some piddling minor issue; we should not look away.

Marina Arutyunyan, a Russian psychoanalyst, came to believe that nearly all her clients should be understood as suffering ongoing trauma. Gessen lets her sum up.

Most of her clients craved "stability," whatever that meant. It had all been too much for them for years. ... When the first constraints began snapping back into place, to the beat of the "stability" drum, they had felt calmer.... [A client with a small business] had a strong sense -- she got signals -- that she should be cultivating connections and giving bribes, but she did not know how and, more to the point, she felt strongly that she should not. The signals she was getting about what was right came into conflict with her own inner sense of what was right. If only the law was clear and permanent and applied to all equality ... It was the oldest trick in the book -- a constant state of low-level dread made people easy to control, because it robbed them of the sense they could control anything themselves. This was not the sort of anxiety that moved people to action and accomplishment. This was the sort of anxiety that exceeded human capacity.

... The whole country felt helpless. ... What options did this frightening country offer its intolerably anxious citizens? They could curl up into total passivity, or they could join a whole that was greater than they were. ... they could rejoice alongside other citizens that Crimea was "theirs." ... Paranoia offered a measure of comfort: at least it placed the source of overwhelming anxiety securely outside the person and even the country. It was a great relief to belong, and to entrust authority to someone stronger. ... One could belong, but one could never feel in control.

As I say so often, the remedy for helplessness is action. Do something to build power and community. Resist and protect much.


Michael Strickland said...

Loved this roundup, and there was nothing simpleminded about it. Just saw "Boris Godunov" at the SF Symphony, which is a 19th century opera about a late 16th century period of Russian history. It's striking how contemporary the politics felt, and made me realize these Russian cultural attitudes are much deeper and older than the last 75+ years of the Soviet Republic.

janinsanfran said...

Yes Mike. Once upon a time I did a lot of reading in 19th century Russian history; Alexander Herzen was a fascinating, contradictory figure. Russia never quite got to live in hope (even if hope is merely illusion in human history). I am grateful to have come up with hope (even if that hope is as much self-justifying fantasy as reality).

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