Are We Still Alive? Why the Thirty- and Forty-Something Generation Has Retreated into Political Oblivion
October 2, 2014
Ten years ago or so, the current thirty- and fortysomethings would often have to ask the question, Is he (or she) really still alive? Sometimes this led to amusing blitz investigations. I remember how my friends and I checked whether Soviet crooner Eduard Hill was still alive while sitting on the far terrace of a restaurant where a wedding was being celebrated with a live performance of Hill’s songs. After listening for an hour, we hazarded the guess that only Hill himself could perform Hill’s entire repertoire. The Internet was slow back then, and we three liberal arts people stared spellbound for a long time at the tiny screen of a mobile telephone to ascertain that Hill was indeed alive. It was a good learning experience: when “Trololo” rang out, we were no longer asking the embarrassing question. But it didn’t prevent me, some time later, from saying with genuine surprise to a regular contributor to the literary journal Novy Mir, “Novy Mir still comes out?!” People continue to recall journalist Oleg Kashin’s reaction to a news item about writer Vladimir Voinovich: “What, he’s still alive?”
That was an elegiac sketch about bygone days. Nowadays, one wouldn’t ask whether poet Yunna Moritz were alive, whether theater director Yuri Lyubimov* were well, whether children’s writer Eduard Uspensky were still with us, and whether writer and Literary Gazette editor Yuri Polyakov still walked the face of the earth, not to mention Voinovich. Nowadays, it is easier to doubt in one’s own existence than ask the reasonable question about the relevance of the political commentary given by all these mentioned and unmentioned elders. But since thirty- and forty-somethings have retreated into political oblivion at present, we can ask (from the viewpoint of eternity as it were) why this is so.
The answer is obvious: there is nothing genuine in current Russian reality. Only antiques are “genuine” in our country. People in Kharkov topple a statue of Lenin—and then people in Russia discuss Lenin’s role in Russian history for a week. Russia annexes Crimea, and anyone capable of writing in this country spends the following six months compiling a chronicle of various annexations. We know what all the cultural greats of the stagnation era think about Ukraine. If one of them hasn’t spoken out yet, it just means he or she has already died.
However, the lack of genuineness in the realm of public opinion, just like this realm’s spectral existence itself, does not mean that nothing happens or is accomplished in Russia. On the contrary, things happen and are accomplished, and quite quickly. Exactly one week passed between the news that Arkady Rotenberg’s villas in Italy had been seized by the authorities there and the Russian cabinet’s positive appraisal of the bill for the so-called Rotenberg law. The government’s decision did not even need to be discussed or simply justified; it was sufficient to refer to the urgency. “What seemed to be not so urgent only four months ago, now, given the increased risk of miscarriages of justice, appears differently,” Vedomosti quoted a source on the Russian White House staff as saying.
As soon as the question arises as to where in the budget the money will come from to compensate seized villas and loss of profits, solutions are found just like that: abolish the “maternity capital” program, make cuts here, here, and there, raise this and that. Justifications do not matter: one can safely say that the maternity capital program “does not increase the number of children, but merely shifts the calendars of births” without giving a thought to the fact that pensions, basically, merely shift the “calendar of deaths,” but do not abolish them. We are faced with a situation in which what really happens is successfully accomplished without being enunciated, whereas enunciation revolves around an unreal past. But how is this reality possible? Why does Rotenberg manage to break into reality, while this is such a daunting task for the public? There should be solid foundations for this, no?
And there are. For all their seeming lack of principle, the current Russian authorities have one firm principle, a symbol of faith, one might even say. It consists in the fact that they never abandon their own kind. The principle has even graced a billboard: “It is important to use every opportunity to help concrete people.” “Concrete people” really means concrete people, and we even know how many of these concrete people there are in Russia.
List of founders of the Ozera dacha cooperative
The fundamental difference between Putin and the public, which is choking on the fumes of the past, does not consist in the fact that he holds all the power, while the public is disempowered. The real difference is that the authorities firmly believe in their principle of protecting their own, whereas the public believes in nothing. For the public, civil liberties, democratic elections of public officials, and the equality of all before the law are phrases that have repeatedly figured in history, rather than basic principles of social organization with which reality should be brought into line.
Principles, objectives, and ideals have their own reality, which in some sense is more solid than what we usually denote with the term “current events.” It is principles, objectives, and ideals that pull history into a line directed towards the future. When they are absent, time coils into a loop, and the only point of national history is to preserve Rotenberg’s wealth. No one would ever think to ask about him, “What, he’s still alive?”
* Editor’s Note. Renowned Russian theater director Yuri Lyubimov died a few days after this column was published.
“Helping Concrete People,” like Arkady Rotenberg
October 9, 2014
In late September, the newspapers wrote about the seizure of real estate owned by Russian businessman and Putin ally Arkady Rotenberg: the sanctions imposed by the US and EU had started to work. The real estate in question included an apartment and three villas in Sardinia, and a hotel in Rome. (Good Lord, why did he need three villas? the Net groaned in unison.)
The topic would have been good only for a half a day’s worth of jokes along the lines of “soon he’ll be darning stockings” if the next day the Net had not learned about the rapid resuscitation in the State Duma of a bill from last year guaranteeing compensation from the federal budget for Russian citizens and companies who fall victim to “unjust decisions by foreign courts.”
As Georgy Alburov wrote, “Now the budget will pay for Rotenberg’s villas twice—when they are purchased and when compensation for them is paid out.” And when the cabinet announced its unconditional approval of the draft law, and the Economic Development Ministry hinted it would be inexpedient to continue the “maternity capital” program, everyone got it. “All the maternity capital will be paid out to Rotenberg’s mother as a reward for having such a wonderful son,” wrote Anton Semakin. (In fact, she has two such sons.)
And it does not matter that the law would not help the Rotenbergs, because their properties are registered with foreign companies. What matters are the openness and shamelessness with which the bill has been submitted for consideration.
Nobody doubted the federal budget would compensate the Rotenbergs even without such a law being passed, and that if necessary, the compensation would even be shipped to them in white Kamaz trucks with masked license plates. Openly discussed, the law compensating people who do not have it all that bad at the expense of the poorest people has been a kind of watershed. Even morons have realized that now Russian citizens are required not just to silently tolerate rampant theft but to loudly voice their approval of it.
The most active among them have already begun to do this. In a column on the web site Pravoslavie.ru entitled “In Defense of Crooks and Thieves,” Dmitry Sokolov-Mitrich wrote, “You can award me second place in a moron contest, but I really do believe that an alliance of crooks, thieves, and our perpetually underrated technical intelligentsia is a force still capable of pulling Russia out of the hole in which we wound up twenty years ago. Yes, these people act slowly and clumsily, and they constantly try and exceed the bounds of legality, but act they do, and that is why I find them sympathetic.”
This is the voice, so to speak, of the new conscious Russian. Ivan Davydov has vividly described the methods of coercion that will be applied to everyone else.
“There is a crowd outside Christ the Punisher Cathedral, a flock of beggars. Or maybe they are not beggars. After all, you cannot tell nowadays who is a beggar, and who a victim of inhuman sanctions. There is a podium in front of the cathedral, and people are making the right speeches. […] And here is an old woman who really is a beggar. The poor thing is completely hunched over. She holds out her hand. ‘Dear, I am not asking for myself. Everything we collect today is for Little Arkady. That is what the capo from the cathedral said, you know, the one who confiscates our daily take. Today it’s all for darling Little Arkady. What a squeeze they’ve put on him over there! He is the one who is in real misery. We’ll muddle through, we will, but that little darling…’ The old woman is crying. I give her a ten-ruble coin.”
This only seems like a parody. The new Russian ideology, for which people searched in vain during the 1990s, has finally been found. Putin formulated it: “It is important to use every opportunity to help concrete people.” This phrase refers not only to Rotenberg; it is the indisputable principle of the new national mindset. Just as earlier everyone had to believe in communism’s inevitable triumph, now the entire politically trustworthy segment of the populace must sincerely believe in this principle’s inerrancy and omnipotence. True, the horizons of state ideology have narrowed markedly. But its totalizing nature remains the same.