“The question is, where is Russia heading? This is the key problem with Putin — he is unable to deal with this issue,” said Pavel K. Baev, a Russia specialist at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “Holding power has become the goal in itself, and there is a deep underlying feeling that this cannot end well.”
(Khodorkovsky & Lebedev Communications Center, June 9, 2014)
“Братие, друзи, славяне!” (“Brothers, friends, Slavs!”), so we were greeted weekly by Anna Stepanovna Novikova, our professor of Old Slavonic (known in the West as Old-Church-Slavonic) at Moscow State University, where many years ago I started on my academic path as a major in Russian language and literature. In my memory, I still see her vividly: a somewhat overweight, stout woman with a wild hairdo reminiscent of a coonskin cap sitting askance, dressed in a too tight brown costume, with a big black leather bag over her shoulder and a stack of books and papers under her arm. She always arrived at the very last minute, bursting into the classroom suddenly at the precise moment when our hope that the class might be cancelled this time would begin to dawn.
She used to interrogate us mercilessly about Old Slavonic verb paradigms and phonetic laws. Her frowning displeasure over mistakes was terrifying. Oppressive silence and an unforgiving gaze usually accompanied her disapproval. She was adamant that whatever we aspired to be, not knowing Old Slavonic was not an option. We were scared to death of her imperious ways. And yet, her weekly greeting sent to us from the door, with a big smile on her plain face, has stayed with me until now as a declaration of good will.
It was in her class, at the age of eighteen, and not in the least thanks to her emphatic pan-Slavic address, that I for the first time became fully aware that to be Russian meant to be a member of the Slavic family. Anna Stepanovna used to marshal us to the blackboard, three at a time, to produce phonetic derivations from an Old Slavonic root of her choice: What was vlk- to become in Russian, Polish and Bulgarian? And here we stood, one next to another, scribbling with chalk the East Slavic, West Slavic and South Slavic variants on the root: East to the left, West in the middle and South to the right.
Russian, being of the East Slavic group, was not above, not apart but next to other Slavic paths that linguistic development has taken across time and geography. It crosses my mind only now that with a subtle push to the side of a blackboard, this innocuous exercise in historical phonetics was putting us askance to the single-mindedness of Russo-centric politics. For me, it was liberating and exhilarating to see that the Russian language that up to that point had circumscribed our whole existence was just a shift within one paradigm that we shared with others, that our linguistic identity was just one possibility among many…
In Intro to Slavic Philology, we talked of the double identity of the Slavs. Unlike speakers of Romance and Germanic tongues, Slavs have a much stronger sense of ethnic togetherness. There is a linguistic commonality which makes us identify as both Russian and Slavs, both Serbs and Slavs, both Poles and Slavs, and it is this shared Slavic DNA that makes us on one level of our consciousness into brothers. This might be an imaginary construct but it is strongly felt, and how often while knocking about the world I found it warmly confirmed.
I remember how traveling in Nepal, on another side of the world, many weeks away from meeting other Westerners, I was sitting with my German friends on the roof of a shaky old bus that was slowly climbing up a bumpy steep road high up in the Himalayas. In the middle of the nerve-racking ride, two reckless pale faces suddenly propelled themselves out of the cabin onto the roof and started on their way towards us over the bulky sacks and bags of the local co-passengers. Stunned, we were observing them lose their balance, fall over the bags, and rise again, excitedly gesticulating. “We heard there are Russians on the bus!” they said when they finally reached us. “Yes,” I said, “I’m Russian.” – “We are Czech!” they screamed. Suddenly, their crazy pirouetting over the roof appeared less crazy. I understood right away what it meant and stretched out my hand.
But there was also Yugoslavia, and now – Ukraine….
Dictatorships are like abusive relationships. Isolation is the condition of the abuse. Abusers tend to cut off victims’ ties from potential helpers, erase all possibilities of a different view, and by means of small favors establish themselves as the “sole benefactors” of the abused. The wall of isolation, conducive to a fatal confusion of enemy and friend, helps the abuser keep victims captive. This is precisely what is happening in Russia today. The possibility of a free, inclusive, peaceful civil society is what Mr. Putin now desperately tries to erase from Russian consciousness.
“Stockholm syndrome” was the word that my friend in Moscow dropped in describing Russians’ reaction to our dictator’s assault on Ukraine that in March of this year officially inaugurated the Russian turn to a fascist regime. In reality, this assault is nothing but the dictator’s ultimate form of abuse of his own country.
Frightened by the Ukrainians’ apparent success in liberating themselves from one corrupt tyrant, Mr. Putin today does everything to isolate his citizenry not only from the community of free nations but also and above all from their closest and most dedicated relatives – the Ukrainians, who more than anyone else would be in position to show the way out of the new totalitarian captivity to their incapacitated brothers to the East. Hence the crime of Crimea…
“The issue of Crimea is complex,” a progressive American friend tells me in a feeble attempt at justifying Putin. – No, it is not. As of March of 2014, the Crimean peninsula was unambiguously the territory of the sovereign state of Ukraine, annexed on the false pretext by Russia in direct violation of several legal agreements previously signed by the Russian government. This act of retaliation against Ukraine whose population had risen to assert their right to the political self-determination and independence from Moscow has been calculated as a way of boosting the image of the unwelcome, self-elected leader at home. Strangely enough, the calculation paid off.
Crimea, a Russian colonial territory since the late 18th century, was officially transferred from the Russian Federation to the Republic of Ukraine in 1954, the year after Stalin’s death. At the time, the peninsula was underdeveloped, arid, without electricity or industry. Its agriculture, once prosperous, was at the point of dying. Petro Vol’vach, a biology professor and member of the Ukrainian Academy of Ecological Sciences, has reconstructed the legal, economic and political history of the transfer in his article “’Khrushchev’s Gift.’ How Ukraine rebuilt Crimea,” published in the newspaper “Ukrainian Truth” in 2011. Already three years ago, the article responded to the voices of some Russian nationalists who claimed that the transfer of Crimea was an illegal act of random personal generosity to Ukraine by the Soviet leader of Ukrainian origin Nikita Khrushchev. Today, this myth is widely promoted by Putin’s propaganda.
According to Vol’vach, the transfer was the Kremlin’s attempt to rescue the region, which had been economically devastated by the Second World War and Stalinist repressions. By the beginning of the war, Stalin had deported about 50,000 Germans who had been living in the peninsula since the times of Catherine the Second. In 1944, the end of war in Crimea, Stalin forcibly deported also Crimea’s indigenous population of Tatars, as well as many other ethnicities of this diverse region – Armenians, Gypsies, Bulgarians, Czechs, and Greeks — presumably as an act of punishment for the Crimeans’ collaboration with the Germans in 1942-43. The massive deportations that touched 300,000 people along with the losses at war had depopulated the region and ruined its mainly agricultural economy. Since deportations had been conducted on purpose during the planting season, even those few residents who stayed behind were deprived of the crops.
An attempt to replace the lost population with ethnic Russians backfired. The Russian settlers, used to wooded areas, were unfamiliar with the arid and mountainous terrain, and did not know how to deal with exotic plants and seeds endemic to the peninsula’s climate: grapes, tobacco, corn, high-quality wheat. Cabbage and potatoes, which they continued planting in the dry ground by force of habit, were dying right away. Vol’vach hunted up agricultural data from the local Soviet press of the time. Here is an example: “If in 1940 the area yielding crops in Crimea was 987.4 thousand hectares, in 1950 it fell by almost 100 thousand (881.9 thousand hectares). The area yielding winter wheat in the Crimea in 1940 amounted to 447.5 thousand hectares, and in 1950 decreased by almost half (257.5 hectares). The leading branches of the Crimean economy of horticulture, viticulture and winemaking were in a very poor condition.”
The idea of subordinating Crimea to Ukraine was pragmatic: Ukrainians knew how to manage that particular soil and climate, and it is only through the territory of Ukraine that the peninsula could be provided with necessary water, or reached by land. This geographical circumstance put Ukrainian cities and industries in a better position for the agricultural and industrial reconstruction of the peninsula.
The plan stemmed from the plenum of the Central Committee about the problems of agriculture in September of 1953, where Nikita Khrushchev produced a report on the state of the Crimean economy. However, the decision to transfer the Crimea region to Ukraine “was a product of collective thought by the senior Party and the Soviet government. Without the participation of the Stalinist old guard – Malenkov, Molotov, Kaganovich, Voroshilov, Bulganin – it would not have happened,” Vol’vach writes.
He retraced the official documents and legislative steps of the transfer to show that it had been thoroughly prepared by the Soviet government under the pressure of an impending economic catastrophe:
The existence of an appropriate program by the top management of the country is confirmed by the document classified as “confidential,” and entitled “On the status of agricultural economy in the Crimea region” of January 4, 1954, prepared by the First Secretary of the Communist Party, A.I. Kirichenko. (It has relatively recently been found in the Central State Archive of Public Organizations of Ukraine (Ukraine TSDAHO. F-1 OPZO. Series 3590. Folders 109-110)).
The “Crimean issue” went through all instances of the RSFSR and the USSR government. The discussion at the meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on February 19, 1954, resulted in a decree “On the transfer of Crimea region of the RSFSR into composition of Ukrainian SSR.” It appeared in the press, including the Crimean, on February 27. […] However, the final version of the legislative decree on the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine was ratified only in two months, on April 26, 1954. Under existing law, the decision to change the existing borders between the republics with their consent could only be adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. [Translation and adaptation from Ukrainian is mine.]
While struggling through Vol’vach’s article in Ukrainian with the aid of “Google Translate,” I couldn’t help thinking back to my stay in West Ukraine in July 1986. With a group of other teenagers from Moscow I participated in a typical Soviet summer activity, which went under the eerie-sounding name of a “labor camp” (трудовой лагерь) but was rather innocuous in nature. We picked apples in the orchards or weeded the soybean fields in the village of Podvirne, not far from the city of Chernivtsi, the former capital of Bukovina (known to most literati as the home town of the great polyglot poet Paul Celan) on the very border to Romania and Moldova.
Podvirne was a rare kind of a prosperous collective farm (колхоз), which back then was called “kolkhoz-millionaire.” It was the first time in my life that I happened to see a functioning economy within the borders of my country: The agriculture prospered. The buildings and roads were well maintained. The school where we lived was already at that time fully equipped with computers. The shops were full of goods. The cafeteria cooks prepared delicious meals. The trucks that took us to work and the buses that took us on excursions into the Carpathians or to the city were in good condition. How surprised we were when two weeks into our stay, our hosts considerately remade our beds with new sheets, bought solely for us.
There were a music school and a kindergarten in the village. The high school students we met had just returned from the national foreign language competition in French. The population was perfectly bilingual in Russian and Ukrainian. Many were fluent in Moldovan as well. Such was the cosmopolitanism of the Central Europe that it was we, the monolingual Moscovites, who felt provincially impressed and overwhelmed.
The month spent in Podvirne was cloudlessly happy: We sang non-stop, poked fun at each other, enjoyed sun, apples, and generosity of our hosts. What a contrast it was to the dark, ailing, alcohol-drenched and deserted Russian countryside!
The laboriousness and competence we encountered in Podvirne were precisely what the Soviet government counted upon when deciding to transfer the devastated Crimea to Ukrainian management. And it was by the efforts of the Ukrainian people that the ruinous economy of the peninsula was restored to relative prosperity over the course of the next decades. It is difficult to disagree with Vol’vach that Crimea was not a gift but a burden put on Ukraine, starved by collectivization, devastated by the war and then forced to take responsibility for the reconstruction of a Russian territory.
This March, when Russia whimsically, ad hoc, took the peninsula back at gunpoint, the region has been plunged once again into an economic disaster. The worst is yet to come.
It is true that Crimea had been a bone of contention between Russia and Ukraine since Ukrainian independence and the official dissolution of the Soviet Union in December of 1991. As in a messy divorce, the disentanglement of Ukraine and Russia from the economic, military, administrative ties that used to bind them together in the Soviet Union was long, complex, and sometimes bitter. The legal and political details of this disentanglement can be found in Roman Wolczuk’s book Ukraine’s Foreign and Security Policy 1991-2000 (London: Routledge: 2003), pp. 25-52. For quite a while, Russia, the abandoned spouse, vengefully refused to recognize the Ukrainian borders, which included the region of Crimea, unless Ukraine entered into new contractual obligations within the successor of the Soviet Union – the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). Ukraine declined.
In the course of seven years, Russia continued raising claims to Crimea, sometimes in toto, sometimes in part, demanding that at least the city of Sevastopol, the base of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, fall under the Russian jurisdiction. There were attempts to co-administer the Fleet with Ukraine or to divide it into two. When finally divided, Russia insisted on purchasing back the Ukrainian part of the Fleet in exchange for reduced prices on gas. The legal hurdles continued from January of 1992 to May of 1999, when finally with two treaties at hand (the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, confirmed in 2009, and the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Co-Operation and Partnership), and not without compromises on both sides, Russia recognized Ukraine’s borders as inherited from the Soviet Union.
Despite political tricks and legal delays, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine had never taken a military form. Now, over twenty years later, Russia artificially enters into an aggressive commotion over a long-settled issue, into a delusional simulation of war with a non-existent enemy, into an imaginary celebration of victory where is nothing but shame and defeat…
In the popular imagination, Crimea was to the Soviet Union (and remains to many Russians) what Hawaii is to the United States. The name evokes not a history of ethnic cleansings, arid terrain and poverty but holiday tourism with its postcard allure of beaches, hotels, and exotic vegetation. This association accounts for the propaganda value of the territory. The civil liberties, economic stability and dignity of the Russian citizens were taken away in exchange for a postcard, the abuser’s small favor… Remember Godard’s The Soldiers?
That Mr. Putin modeled his annexation of Crimea exactly upon Hitler’s 1938 annexation of Austria was lost neither on Russian political scientists nor on people with a basic knowledge of historical facts: a take-over of the Crimean parliament by people in military uniforms without insignia; an installment of a pro-Russian prime minister who asked for “help” on behalf of Russian-language speakers at a time when the peninsula was already under the “helpers’” control; a farcical referendum ratifying the annexation, “monitored” by the European parties of the extreme right. — “Sudetenland” is another eerie word that I hear again and again recapture the Russian reenactment of the German history. The slogan is deliberately the same: Heim ins Reich (Back home to the Empire) = Домой в Россию (Back home to Russia). It feels like a blow at the pit of the stomach. But this is also how this language is intended …
“This has happened before” (“Это уже было”) was the title of an appeal to Russian citizens, published in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti by Andrei Zubov, a professor of political science, history and religion at MGIMO (Moscow School of International Relations). Upon the annexation of Crimea, his essay also broadly circulated on the internet as a reminder of German and Yugoslavian catastrophes, the losing, embarrassing, morally corrupt scenarios that the Russian government has decided to imitate. Such acts of civic courage as Zubov’s have happened before as well. And they were equally lost on the frenzied masses. I think of Thomas Mann’s agonizing writings of the 1930s: “An Appeal to Reason” (1930); “Europe Beware” (1935) “The Coming Victory of Democracy” (1937) “This War” (1939). — No more than two years ago my students and I were talking about the desperation of German dissenters, when their country ran amok posing a menace to mankind. When the outbreak of the Second World War made clear that the only commitment to Germany could be the commitment to its predictable defeat, one wished this defeat would be swift, and the international community forgiving… Little I knew that soon this dilemma would become mine.
Zubov’s appeal to reason, like Mann’s back then, does nothing today but provide for the future. It shows the world that there is and could be a different Russia, gives us something to hold onto, awaiting the time of reconstruction. So far, daily news from Russia replay Sebastian Haffner’s account of the German experience in the last days of the Weimar Republic: a Ukrainian film-director arrested for political activism, the curator of an art fair dismissed for speaking out against the annexation of Crimea, an exhibition cancelled, a music group deported, a talk show prohibited, and the latest – the Ministry of Culture withdraws its support from the project of a memorial to the victims of Soviet political repressions…
To return to the Ukrainian plains: They are endless. I remember them well. Being used to the city of Moscow or its wooded surroundings, it was the first time in my life that I could see so far… Standing barefoot in the warm tender dust of the road, hand over my eyes, I loved to watch the fields run toward the horizon in soft, animated waves. They were breathing. After work, my tired peers were not given to contemplation of nature. While they were waiting at the edge of the road for a pick-up truck to bring us back to Podvirne, I would depart on my own, irresistibly drawn to walk toward the receding skyline. It felt like freedom… It was there, in the Western Ukraine that I fell in love with the expanses of plains and deserts. I have looked for them ever since wherever I went: in the deserts of the Middle East, California and Nevada, in the plains of Nebraska… I did not think at that time that I walked in the middle of “bloodlands.”
Podvirne was just one point on the large map of the worst mass homicide of the twentieth century. Here, under the vast skies of the Central Europe caught between Hitler and Stalin, millions were executed and starved. The dimensions of this nameless crime were articulated only recently by Timothy Snyder in a book under precisely this name Bloodlands. In July of 1986, this grim history seemed to be far and unreal. Now, when the Russian tanks cross the Ukrainian borders, the Russian propagandists call for nuclear support to the parties of the European right and claim Lisbon as the desired limit of Russia’s Eurasian expansion, the menace to Europe becomes real again. Looters and bandits of all stripes under the name of “separatists” operate in the Eastern Ukraine anonymously, without insignia, on false pretext, as if once again the executioners of crimes in these lands were afraid of language that could pin them down… How far will they go?
The summer of 2000 was the last time that I happened to be in Russia, just three months after Mr. Putin had been installed in power by competitive parallel efforts of the oligarchs, on the one side, and of the KGB, on the other. The image Moscow gave at that time was mostly one of chaos and bad taste. Much of the rebuilding reminded me of the gaudiness and provincial splendor of Las Vegas: Manezhnaya Square with the kitschy banisters and street lights, the absurd statue of Columbus recycled as Peter the Great in the Moscow river… In the alley leading to my house in the center of Moscow, next to a big international hotel, a pimp would line up his prostitutes for an update on the nightly logistics in the way our military teacher, a former colonel, used to line us up at the beginning of a military lesson. TV broadcasted daily news about new killings of business and political leaders. The everyday life of regular residents was adventurous, too. One evening, upon coming back home I turned on the TV to hear the news that a bank which I had passed on my way home no more than twenty minutes ago had just been robbed with a shoot-out spilling onto the street. It was a colorfully absurd, dramatically dysfunctional world. The arrival of the pale ex-KGB agent as the head of state seemed to be one of those absurdities. It turned out to be the end of the fledgling Russian democracy.
When Gorbachev’s reforms of 1985 started, I was fourteen. I still remember this time with its euphoria of freedom and iconoclasm… Our literature teacher smuggled my friend and me from school to go see the first public showing of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, a modernist, stream-of-consciousness film that had long been forbidden… She thought it was more important for our education. In the high school class on “Ethics of Family Life,” our young teacher brought us the Kama Sutra… We were a threshold generation: I happened to be the last secretary of Komsomol (the Communist Youth) in my school. After me, so to speak, the organization ceased to exist. In our graduation year of 1988, the history exam had to be cancelled: No one knew how to reconcile the textbooks with the facts that were just coming to light in the press. At that time I, like my peers, was not ready yet to give up on the socialist ideals. We expected, as maybe Gorbachev did, that his reforms would bring a Western European form of welfare state, not the American Wild West. Lenin was still the untouched authority and a hero. We thought that Perestroika should start with what had gone wrong after the revolution, with Stalinism. At the age of sixteen, my boyfriend and I were spending nights in my kitchen reading Lenin. We wanted to understand what went wrong and how to right it… I’m pretty sure the idea was mine…
I ended up living through the successful version of social and political reforms I wished for Russia only through the mediation of East Germany, where I went to study in the Fall of 1991…
I gave up on Russia only after the Kursk incident. By August 12 of 2000, when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank during a training exercise in the Barents Sea with 118 sailors on board, I had already returned from Moscow to Berlin. The emotional rollercoaster of those days still haunts my memory: Long excruciating hours of waiting, happy news that there are survivors on board, shock at the failed rescue efforts, relief and delight at the British and Norwegian offers of help, and soon thereafter – Putin’s rejection of foreign assistance… Masha Gessen’s book The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, fills in the details:The submarine was not properly maintained. Its team was not properly trained. They were sent out to the sea in violation of safety regulations. One of the rusty, expired torpedoes must have caught fire and exploded, killing most of the crew. Twenty-three survivors escaped to another part of the vessel, from where they could have been rescued, if the vessel had been properly equipped, or if the rescue crew had been properly trained to do the rescue work. The survivors spent more than two days in the dark sunk boat before one of their air-regeneration plates caught fire and they suffocated. Their SOS signals were never answered, the international offers of help were turned down, both allegedly for security reasons, that is,so that the enemy (the British and Norwegians) would not know where the boat is located.
The betrayal of the Kursk with its paranoid absurdity, pseudo-military grandeur, and deliberate inhumanity showed that Russia was no longer the Soviet Union of Gorbachev where I came of age. It felt like Stalinism and the end of hope. I stopped going back to Russia and following Russian news. Some information I could not avoid: the bogus trial of the alleged murderers of Anna Politkovskaya; an AIDS epidemic in Siberia; a friend sent me Parry Anderson’s analysis of the failure of Russian neoliberal reforms. There were echoes of ever new disasters, of travesty of justice and political process… No surprise. I avoided the details. When I was asked by some dork at a job interview what I think about Putin, one couldn’t have asked a question more jarringly unpleasant. “I don’t think about him at all,” I answered, and it was true.
Ironically, this winter, for the first time in a long while, I came to read a piece of Russian scholarship in Russian – Boris Sumashedov’s biography of the Russian explorer of Siberia Vladimir Arseniev (Борис Сумашедов, Распятый в дебрях: Владимир Арсеньев: Судьба странника, Известия 2008). I was impressed. I read about Arseniev’s complicated double life as a reconnaissance officer and ethnographer first in the tsarist army, then in administrative positions under Soviet rule; about his many struggles to continue his scholarship and help the aboriginal populations of Siberia under progressively deteriorating conditions; about harassment and denunciations that cost him his life; about the execution of his wife and persecutions of his daughter… –What impressed me was not just the research and new availability of sources but Sumashedov’s voice. He talked about the harrowing history of Russia without defensive inferiority or bitterness. It was a kind book about unkind times. It felt as if the past was over and complete, as if a wise distance from history was possible. It was a book written by a free man. It gave me the sense that something must have changed.
It was also this winter that for the first time I saw a job announcement from Russia. It was inviting the applicants with foreign degrees. A new Russian institution, the Higher School of Economics, was asking for specialists in the literary and critical theory, who could bring the Russian students to the analytical standards of Western humanities. I never expected such a call from Russia. And it was not in the least thanks to Sumashedov’s book that I took it seriously. From Masha Gessen’s recent account of Pussy Riot I learnt how much the protest movement in Russia has been inspired by Western critical thought, in what demand the critical theory is among the Russian youth and what political potential and impact it possibly can have. I was impressed that something that in the US has deflated into a mere form of academic opportunism and banal identity politics inspired people in Russia to risk their lives, go on barricades, face time in jail, to struggle.
The Higher School of Economics was founded in 2008. Recently, they have started a program for bringing back Russians with foreign degrees, who for a long time have been barred from academic careers at home. I couldn’t imagine a more efficient and intelligent way of reforming the higher education than by reversing the brain drain that has been for several decades the country’s major affliction. I applied and was invited to come to Moscow in April. But this was just a Siren song. Short thereafter, there was Crimea, the breakthrough to Russian Orthodox fascism, and a crackdown on dissent… This reality was a surprise.
In his essay on the Russian situation published in May of this year in the NYRB, the writer Vladimir Sorokin addressed his fellow intelligenty: “Friends, over the last fifteen years comrade Putin has become what he is now only because of our own weakness.” He is right. I took a deep breath and finally went to Masha Gessen’s book on the rise of Putin to catch up on the details of Russian political life that I have conscientiously avoided for over a decade. I finally wanted to understand how Mr. Putin could have happened to us. Things, as it turned out, are much worse than I even thought.
Masha’s account makes clear that the rise of Putin started as the KGB’s plan of undoing Perestroika and restoring the Soviet Union, as we have known it. (Note that Putin was involved in some logistics of the putsch of 1991. The mastermind of the failed putsch, Krychkov, was ominously present as a guest at his presidential inauguration.) With his “election,” all new democratic state structures and electoral offices were, indeed, effectively dismantled in the rapid legislative steps between 2000 and 2004. However, the plan of attaining legally the same aims that had failed as a military coup soon derailed into competition with oligarchs over access to wealth. The secret police degraded into a network of organized crime. Instead of the Communist Party, a mafia hijacked the country and has ruled ever since in Mafioso style with paybacks, extortions, criminal intimidation, and extralegal killings. “President” is the nickname of its boss. The outbreak of massive anti-Putin demonstrations in December of 2011 came eleven years too late…
What will happen to many of the Russian new cultural institutions such as the Higher School of Economics is unclear. The radical nationalist, isolationist U-turn Russia made in March obviates any need to compete with the West. The ideological assertion of Russian superiority obviates once again any necessity of skill and competence. We have been there. How many decades will the nationalist isolation throw us back once more in all areas of human achievement?
There was a debate among Russian intelligentsia on Facebook whether one should or should not be be ashamed of Russia today. Some say they are not ashamed and not apologetic because they don’t associate themselves with this government. They did not vote for it, did not send troops without insignia to Ukraine. Fair enough. I don’t identify with the government either but I do identify with the culture. The Ministry of Culture will define from now on what this culture is on the basis of Mr. Putin’s vision. “Russia is not Europe” is the Ministry’s official position. The guidelines to Russian cultural policy are shameful. For example, I read: “In its implementation of the responsible cultural policy the state should promote and develop only those cultural tendencies and ‘local subcultures’ which conform to the state’s system of values.”
The cultural policy is now declared to serve the purposes of Russian-Orthodox, anti-Western, homophobic propaganda. Its goal is to form the citizenry’s “world view, social consciousness and norms of behavior” corresponding to so-called “traditional Russian values.” The “Black Square” painting of Kazimir Malevich is condemned again as not traditional, not Russian, and not a value. So are the principles of multiculturalism and tolerance. Anything deemed un-Russian or not confirming to the Orthodox values is to be censured. The promotion of Russian culture and language beyond the borders of Russia, especially in the countries of the former Soviet Union, that is the former Soviet-Russian expansionism, is called for again. The cultures and languages of the Russian Federation are to be subordinated to the hegemony of the Russian language. — “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate art), as defined by the German Ministry of Propaganda, has, too, already happened before…
History caught up with me of all places in rural Massachusetts in the spring of 1998. I taught German at UMass. A Russian colleague from a family of apparatchiks in Tver was hovering around me. In Russia, he and I would have never talked, but on foreign soil, as often happens, the superficial commonality of language brought us together. Sometimes he dragged me to the music department and played Soviet songs for me. I remember him complaining about the decay of morals in Moscow, whatever that meant, or trying to teach me how to live, that is how to adjust. He often said that he felt sorry for me. I never asked why. I politely endured his attention, usually by changing the topic to etymologies or linguistic paradigms.
One day after returning from Russia on a visit he hurried to tell me great news: He and his family had converted to Russian Orthodoxy. With a cross around his neck, he was telling me that from now on there was no uncertainty in his life, all was crystal clear, all answers were there, nothing to worry about. I could only answer something like “Good for you.” I had always thought Christianity was all about uncertainties and the drama of choice but what should I, a non-believer, know?…
I don’t remember if it was on that night or on another occasion that during a pause in conversation, out of the blue, he leaned toward me over the coffee table to make another confession. “My grandfather worked for the GPU,” he said. — It was sudden. When it came, I was lazily slouching in a chair, as always, passively enduring his monologue. I was not surprised at the fact, and nevertheless I could not have imagined the sensation these words would produce: a sudden burning of all nerves, a strange, paralyzing confusion… I froze in my chair. I don’t know how long it lasted, what my face expressed. To escape: I remember grabbing the arms of my chair and raising myself. I still remember how heavy it felt. But I could not leave it unanswered. “My great-grandfather was interrogated by the GPU…,” I breathed out while getting up. He was not surprised either. I understood why he was saying he felt sorry for me. I went to the kitchen to boil water for tea and to restore my composure. It was the first time that I had sat face to face with the past. And it was unbearable. When I came back, we changed the topic.
I always told myself, history is history. I don’t hold grudges. And here we were, in the fourth and third generations, on a different continent, still haunted by something we knew only from family lore. In the course of the last thirty years, when archives have been opened, memoirs of surviving witnesses published, we have learnt in all details what GPU interrogations looked like. The auto-genocide of the population of Soviet Russia was so severe and has lasted for so long that it has been cut very deeply into our genes. This year a few friends published information about their executed ancestors on Facebook. Only then did I realize that despite many years of friendship, we had never talked about it before. And yet, somehow we knew, and it was this intuitive knowledge that drew us together. When my Massachusetts acquaintance and I were parting, we did not exchange addresses or promise to be in touch. “Farewell,” I said, “I might run into you at some airport.” – He sneered. Whatever was behind his confession– his newly acquired Christian consciousness or an attempt to overcome a barrier to intimacy– there was something that couldn’t be bridged. We were coming from two paths of history from which one doesn’t embrace.
It is this collective trauma of the Russian population that Mr. Putin consciously exploits today to stay in power at all costs. His political discourse, with all its rich allusions to the historical reigns of terror, is driven by mental sadism. It constitutes a form of collective abuse. How is this possible after Solzhenitsyn, one could think? But ironically, maybe it is precisely because of Solzhenitsyn, because we know so much about GULAG, that a verbal simulation of persecutions can be already as effective as persecutions themselves in terrorizing the country.
Do the Russians really believe the propaganda and support Putin? — They don’t. Under a reign of terror, propaganda is not a means of disinformation. It is a blueprint showing how to behave and what to believe in public. Information is always there, that is for those who want it, even if the official media are under the state’s control. Internet, public library, even a telephone call to Ukrainian relatives would easily set things right. But fear works wonders. In his speech about the annexation of Crimea (March 18, 2014), Mr. Putin signaled new mass persecutions by offering a new category of the enemy of the state for those who don’t support him: the “national traitor.” That the term comes from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where it was applied to the signers of the Treaty of Versailles and, by extension, for anybody in the way of Hitler’s vision of German grandeur, was noticed right away. Mr. Putin also characterized Russian dissent as a “fifth column,” or saboteurs, using another expression of fascist origin:
The expression “fifth column” belongs to the Francoist general Emilio Mola, who told a journalist during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 that four columns of his troops were heading towards Republican Madrid, while a fifth column within the city awaited his signal to start its own attack. In the broadest sense, a fifth column is a group of provocateurs, combatants, or panic-mongers, all ready to rebel against the lawful authorities. Such a concept would best be applied to the “polite green men” in Crimea or the Russian rioters sent to Eastern Ukraine. But instead it is used against pacifists who protest against violence. Thus calling for peace is equated with an armed provocation or even an uprising. (Mikhail Iampolski, “Totalitarian Speech: Putin’s “National Traitors”)
This new spin on the Stalinist phrase “enemy of the people” was calculated to send a chill. Once the Pavlovian bell rang “repressions,” a country that has suffered through a century of severe abuse froze in protective mimicry. For precisely this reason, Lev Schlossberg, representative in the regional assembly of Pskov, talking on March 27, attacked the very terms that Putin had put at the disposal of state officials. To understand what is at stake, here is an excerpt from his speech:
In the last weeks, for the first time in decades, the high officials have started talking again about “enemies of the people,” “enemies of Russia,” “fifth column,” and “traitors.” Another attempt at restoring a dictatorship at the beginning of the twenty-first century means that the state again becomes a machine for suppressing dissent. This fact in itself is very disquieting for society because any revival of the historical matrix of repressions against dissent shows that the Russian state is again ready to exterminate the part of the population which doesn’t agree with it. Our country has already once paid a very high price for attempts of this kind but it looks like there are people again who want to repeat it.
What is going on right now is an attack of the obscurantist madness of the state. Today, everybody choses for himself with whom to be, what to say, what to call for. Some underestimate such things, thinking: “I have harassed, libeled, lied. Then I can wash myself clean later, saying that I didn’t know anything.” You won’t wash yourself clean, gentlemen! History doesn’t clean such things off!
During a meeting on March 19, Mr. Turchak, the acting governor of Pskov region, who had talked about a “fifth column,” did not just repeat his own or somebody’s lies, rather he challenged not just me personally but all those people of the Pskov region who are able to think independently and be critical of what is going on, including any actions of the state, just because it is an inalienable right of any citizen… [Transcription and translation from Russian is mine.]
Schlossberg’s talk was powerful… I confess I have just googled him to check whether he is still alive…. It looks like he is. He promised to file a lawsuit against the acting governor for libeling the political dissent. During his speech the assembly was frozen in silence: No one moved to applaud, but no one booed either. There was a chill in the air… One could feel it even through the computer screen… People like Schlossberg in today’s Russia are not the norm but heroes; with him as a norm there would be no Putin.
To be sure, today’s public support of Mr. Putin’s assault on Ukraine is not the lazy, half-hearted opportunism of Brezhnev’s times. But the internalization of propaganda, the frenzy of patriotic screams, when it comes to voicing one’s position in public, only testify how high are the existential stakes. Adorno and Horkheimer once talked about the aggression that whips itself into a frenzy of victimhood — the paranoid projection of fascism (see the “The Elements of Anti-Semitism” section of Dialectic of Enlightenment). Today’s Russia has taken another dialectical curve in which fear makes victims mimic aggressors, bullying in order not to be bullied. The louder the ideological aggression displayed on TV, the quieter the streets, and the more “supporters” Putin seems to acquire.
“All is quiet in the streets of Moscow, even too quiet! And the trains arrive on time,” a colleague, who has just returned from Russia tells me, paraphrasing the common description of Italy under Mussolini. There was a huge public outcry on the Russian Facebook in March. For the first time Facebook justified in my eyes its existence by providing unfiltered information from the streets: a conversation in a taxicab, at a university, at a job interview… In response to the first shock of crackdown, optimists fantasized about a democratic peaceful future when this all will be over, pessimists were answering: “Not in our lifetime, not in our lifetime…” By now the Russian internet, too, has became eerily quiet and apolitical. — And yet, even with 20% of those who openly don’t support Putin, we are still much better off than Germans or Japanese in their day… That is, so far.
The category of “national traitor” would apply to me, too, as soon as I appear on the territory of Russia. Russians with ties to the West, with foreign citizenships and degrees, are better equipped to procure information from foreign sources, are more likely to adhere to democratic values, or to raise claims of civil and human rights. They are more likely to dissent or to support dissent. Those with double citizenship also are usually much better off. This offers a way to channel the economic resentment into the politics of fear, to fight political dissent with the hands of resentful co-citizens. Divide and conquer: the abuser’s classical strategy. The Stalinist machine for a long time ran on the oil of citizens’ mutual denunciations.
The threshold of what constitutes “treason” in Russia is low today: the commitment to the idea that Russians like any other nation deserve the dignity of democratic freedoms is enough. How proud I would be of this badge of honor, had I deserved it better… But I became a political emigrant overnight, without taking any risks… The other day I bumped into a colleague from the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies. When I told her that I’ve been declared a “national traitor,” she looked at me with an expression of awe and started laughing. “Con-gra-tu-la-tions!” she said. In fact, the Russian tragedy looks too much like farce, that is from the perspective of common sense.
The new law requires that all Russians with double citizenship register with the Federal Migration Service as potential “traitors” in order to be watched by authorities. Failure to register is a criminal offence. It would result in high penalties or sixteen days of corrective labor. One of the masterminds of the law, Andrei Lugovoy, who was proposing up to three years of prison time for violation of this law, is an ultra-nationalist member of the Duma, wanted in England on the charges of murder of the KGB whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko. He also went on record telling the Spanish newspaper El País in 2008 that “[i]f someone has caused the Russian state serious damage, they should be exterminated.” Of course, he doesn’t think of himself as damaging Russia…
The purpose of the double citizenship law is intimidation. To the Russians, any request of registration rings an alarm. Under Stalin, such requests preceded extermination campaigns, which were often operated by lists. The introduction of this law in early June immediately caused a new wave of emigration. My great-grandfather escaped an execution as a former White Army officer in Rostov-on-Don only because he, unlike his colleagues, refused to register with the new government. While all of his former brothers-in-arms were arrested and shot by the list in 1927, his prosecution was delayed. He went through a series of searches and interrogations at gunpoint, until one day in 1931 he had found another summons to the GPU on his desk at work. His gut feeling told him that this summons would be the last. He set down, wrote a letter of resignation, went straight to the train station and departed for Moscow. His family whom he called under way followed.
For a long time, we did not know why they didn’t search for him after his escape, until Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG clarified the issue: There were different types of search – regional, republican, national. He must have gone under the “regional” category, which meant that by leaving the jurisdiction one could survive. Since there were quotas for arrests, it did not really matter who exactly was arrested. His escape meant most likely that someone else was shot in his place. He was drafted in the Second World War as a mine engineer and died only in 1944. His death was an accident: He was thrown out of a truck by an explosion wave caused by a Russian mine. This time, it was his turn to be the only one of his unit to die. Even in the scenarios of mass murder, there is something like karma at work.
The planes of times and geography have shifted. What started as a state of corruption, ended up as a fascist state. The oligarchs who like Mikhail Khodorkovsky attempted to build a civil society, investing into opposition parties and social institutions, were robbed, jailed, exiled, if not killed. The capital of the loyal ones has been fused with the state power, and the state had been transformed into a rigid top-down hierarchy, with one-party rule, embodied by one dictator and accompanied by the erasure of democratic freedoms and initiatives.
In an anti-Putin demonstration in April, Andrei Zubov declared that those who lie to the public about the situation in Ukraine are doing the work of Satan, the master of lies. Putin is no Satan. Rather, an Eichmann writ large, an Eichmann with access to the power and wealth of a gigantic state. Until recently, there has been no ideology attached to the personal narcissism of power and greed. Only now, after the third (or fourth) term of dictatorship, when met with massive resistance, his government started groping for an ideology to fire up the mobs and to intimidate the educated class. Eurasianist ideologues and the Orthodox Church obliged.
Strange to think that it was Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance (1987), a colorful allegory of the Stalinist persecutions, that has culturally inaugurated Perestroika. The film ended with a sentence “Why should there be a street, if it doesn’t lead to a cathedral?” I was so touched that I still remember it now. When the Orthodox Church was suppressed, I was on its side. As teenagers we used to clandestinely sneak into the Elokhovsky Cathedral in Moscow. With candle lights flickering in the dark, the smell of incense and murmur of prayers, the space of the church was for me a space of mystery, opposition and transgression. I remember crying at the film footage of the destruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior by the Bolshevik mobs. It was built in celebration of the centennial of the victory over Napoleon in 1913 but did not last long.
The restoration of this Cathedral after the collapse of the Soviet regime was meant as an act of repentance. But who repented? Soon the restored church turned into an unholy symbol of corruption and oppression. It stands today for the selling out of Russian Orthodoxy that culminated in its most shameful failure – the persecution of a group of performance artists Pussy Riotfor a brief anti-Putin stunt in the Cathedral. Today, the few Orthodox priests who have spoken out for peace with Ukraine have been demoted from their positions, exiled to the provinces: Maybe cathedrals shouldn’t memorialize military victories after all, no matter how just those victories might be. The experience of the last thirty years made me think that we don’t need cathedrals at the end of the street. They might block the street, turning it into a dead end. Forms of transcendence, if there are any, should be of purely individual nature.
If there is a redemptive dimension to Russia today, it is a lesbian Jewish-Russian-American journalist and a group of girls in colorful balaclavas, women who put their lives at risk for taking on an adversary of quite unequal proportions. The history of the first decade of the twenty-first century has been written. The accusation of the regime that has betrayed our hopes has been pronounced.
Stuck in the Cold War paradigm, American liberals are mumbling something about understanding Putin: the fear of NATO, Kosovo, Bush, Iraq… Ironically, Mr. Putin’s hate for the West is hatred for the state of law, the liberal democracy and the progressives, who try to understand him while fighting desperately for the vestiges of civil and human rights over here. Putin himself would blend perfectly well into the American political landscape as a governor of Texas, or North Carolina. The divide over Ukraine today is of the same kind as that over the NSA scandal, as David Bromwich observed in TLS a year ago:
What was most strange – but predictable once you thought about it – was how far the reactions cut across political lines. This was not a test of Democrat against Republican, or welfare-state liberal versus big-business conservative. Rather it was an infallible marker of the anti-authoritarian instinct against the authoritarian. What was distressing and impossible to predict was the evidence of the way the last few years have worn deep channels of authoritarian acceptance in the mind of the liberal establishment.
This applies to Ukraine: The divide is over the basic instinct of justice. It runs not between East and West, not over the sea, or along national borders, but cuts right through Western societies at large. It is a divide between Americans and Americans, Germans and Germans, Russians and Russians… At a recent event about the elections in Ukraine I ran into a new colleague. She taught Ukrainian literature. I introduced myself and asked about her. “I’m from Ukraine but I’m an ethnic Russian from Donetsk,” she said. My heart dropped. I took a deep breath: “I don’t support Putin’s politics in Ukraine.” – She smiled at my schoolgirlish declaration. “Thank you,” she said. At that moment I knew: we can talk…
When Masha Gessen was asked in an interview what country she associates with freedom, I cringed anticipating what is going to come. “The United States,” she said, ironically falling back into the Cold War paradigm of those who try to understand Putin. Well, to be sure, the United States used to signify “freedom” to the Soviet-Russian dissidents of the Cold War: People listened to the jammed radio station “Voice of America,” read Walden, and moved to the woods… Those times are over. Today, we all are equally caught within one and the same increasingly authoritarian world. Russia is just an extreme of the same paradigm, where wealth and fist fuse to replace politics. The difference is not one of quality, freedom versus unfreedom, but one of the degree to which there are still spaces left for resistance.
Had the last American elections gone differently, the scale of American troubles might have gone up to the Russian degree. The parallels of recent years are already disturbing: Here the conveniently neglected intelligence about September 11 was used as a pretext to invade Iraq. There explosions of apartment buildings were set up by the KGB and blamed on the Chechens in order to spread domestic terror and to start the second war in Chechnya. Here the travesty of Bradley Manning trial, there the trial of Pussy Riot. Here the GCHQ raid of the Guardian office with destruction of the hard drives with NSA materials. There the FSB raid of the office and dismantling of the Media-Most. The NSA whistleblower Snowden hides in Russia, the KGB whistle blower Litvinenko hid in London, until poisoned; misinformation, control of media and internet are not the Russian invention…
Let us not stab, dear Masha, the back of American progressives in the same way, as they stab ours when they try to understand Putin. Let us fight our fights on our own terms without pointing to a righteous other over the ocean…
In this time of post-politics, when the ideological differences between left and right are blurred, language is inflated, and people with swastikas tattooed on their bodies are fighting the Right Sector in Ukraine, claiming that the Swastika is an old Slavic symbol, the only mark of orientation left is the Kantian categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.” And if this is too difficult, maybe basic practical kindness should be the test for what constitutes justified political action, if one is confused about where to stand…
In March I could hardly believe that the anti-Ukrainian propaganda could succeed in Russia. The crudity of this alienation, I thought, would become its doom: In response, I expected my countrymen only to laugh and unite in solidarity with Ukraine. But I was wrong. Instead, the abusive one-man government succeeded in forcing onto the country this act of ultimate self-mutilation – the betrayal of Ukraine …
Exhausted by the macabre spectacle of the last months, I lie down and close my eyes. As in times of mourning, scenes of friendship sealed by language roll backwards in my murky brain: I see myself reading to a friend from Goncharov’s Common Story in a café in Northampton — talking about Gogol’s and Nabokov’s doubles in the grass of Humboldthain – waiting together for news about the Kursk in Berlin – in Moscow’s Museum of Fine Arts I compare my foot with the foot of an antique statue to the amusement of my friends – a stroll in Donskoy Monastery – … All of a sudden, a door bursts open: loudly, with a confident step, Anna Stepanovna breaks into the classroom: “Brothers, friends, Slavs!” — Of course! Who cares that Russia has gone, and maybe for our lifetime, indeed, if there is another East Slavic nation that has rebelled and struggles for freedom. Shouldn’t the success of one family member be pride to all? It is Ukrainians who are going to harbor our culture and who give us hope that at least one of the East Slavic languages might become the language of civil and human rights…
I think of my ancestors from the region of Lviv, of another family line who went from Warsaw to Kiev. History loops. Today, a true commitment to Russia is possible only as the commitment to Ukraine. Concrete, pragmatic, hands-on. While the Ukrainian parliament discusses an accelerated procedure for granting citizenship to the Russian dissenters, I realize that it is to Ukraine that I should return, to teach and to learn. I open my eyes and stretch my hand. I take from the shelf Larry Wolff’s The Idea of Galicia and begin to read…