Der Bier-Flip-Streik

bier-flip ingredients.jpg

Since I have been told, in no uncertain terms, by dozens of people smarter and better than me, and in hundreds of ways and shapes, that my views and opinions are wrong, unwelcome and a threat to solidarity among progressives worldwide, from now until further notice* I will limit myself to translating and posting cocktail recipes from a cookbook entitled Kochen, published in 1988 by Verlag für die Frau in Leipzig.

I have always argued that solidarity is a two-way street. I was wrong. There are people and groups in this world whose views and opinions are better than the views and opinions of other people. If you want to be liked and accepted, you need to understand this and support the correct views and opinions, not have views and opinions of our own. What you should never ever do, under any circumstances, is to criticize or otherwise comment on the views and opinions of our spiritual, moral and political betters.

My first recipe is a doozy known as the Beer Flip.

To make it you will need the following ingredients:

  • 100 grams of sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Zest of 1 lemon peel
  • 2 bottles of beer
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 packet of vanilla sugar
  • Salt
  • 2 shots of cut brandy

Boil two cups of water, half of the sugar, the cinnamon stick, and the lemon zest for a few minutes. Pour in the beer and simmer. Beat the eggs, vanilla sugar, the rest of the sugar, and a pinch of salt until foamy. Gradually pour the beer through a sieve and stir in the cut brandy. This drink is served hot or cold.

Source: Kochen (Leipzig: Verlag für die Frau, 1988), p. 310. Photo courtesy of kochbar.de

* The Beer Flip Strike will end when someone makes a donation of any amount (see the left-hand side of this page for details) to this website or when three people show me proof, in the comments to this post, that they have shared a post (any post) from this website either on their own websites or their social media pages in the past week. 

UPDATE (October 1, 2019). It would have been nice, perhaps, to take a break from being the bad cop who brings tidings of Russia that neither the so-called right or the so-called left can bear (the strike was prompted by fresh attacks on me from both sides), but as he has done on two other occasions, a friend of the blog, RB, promptly made a donation of $100 yesterday. It is hard to say how much this means to me.

Donating money, however, is not the only way to support this website. It also means a lot to me when you share what I post here with your friends. That way I know that people are reading the Russian Reader. This has been my only mission since I started the blog twelve years ago: sharing news and views of the other Russias and other Russians with people in other parts of the world who would otherwise not be able to hear these voices. // TRR

Beglov, Big Love

Rotunda
August 31, 2019

It is eight days before the Petersburg gubernatorial election.

On Palace Square, there is a free concert by local rock group Splean, with the city footing the bill.

The winners of the creative contest Bolshaya Lyubov are also to be announced at the event.

If you reflect a bit on the elusive play of words and meanings in the contest’s name, you should easily be able to translate it into English as “Big Love.”

The contest winners are congratulated in person onstage by (drum roll, please) Alexander Beglov.

Several times, he says that all of us really love our city.

The gubernatorial candidate ushers a war veteran and singer Alexander Rosenbaum on stage.

Rosenbaum and Beglov sing “The City on the Wild and Free Neva.”

Palace Square is packed to capacity.

“The City on the Wild and Free Neva,” as performed and recorded by Valery Belyanin

Video footage courtesy of Rotunda. Translated by the Russian Reader. This is the 1,500th entry on this website. To learn how you can support my work, read this.

It Was a Joke

rostovpapaRussians do not swallow the regime’s propaganda hook, line and sinker, argues Ivan Mikirtumov, but use it to guide their public behavior. Photo by the Russian Reader

Why the Russian President Made Fun of Russian Propaganda
Ivan Mikirtumov
Vedomosti
October 22, 2018

Speaking at the Valdai Discussion Club on October 18, Vladimir Putin told his audience the punchline of what would later emerge as a “funny” joke about nuclear war.

“As martyrs, we will go to heaven, and they will simply croak, because they won’t even have time to repent,” said Putin.

Judging by the overall reaction, the joke has been a success.

The genre of the humorous anecdote, including the political anecdote, was typical of the Soviet period, that is, of a communist dictatorship in the midst of the Cold War. Unlike texts and drawings, anecdotes were an oral genre and, therefore, were relatively harmless to disseminate. The technical difficulties of proving someone had told a joke made it a less than reliable tool for snitching on other people. This sometimes had to do with the content. If you wanted to inform on someone who had told you a joke about Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, the KGB, the Politburo, etc., then likely as not you would have had to quote in writing what you had heard or, at any rate, admit you knew the joke. Under certain circumstances, however, this knowledge could be used against you.

In post-Stalinist times, people were rarely punished for telling jokes. Jokes were widespread in Soviet culture, achieving exceptional heights of wit and observation. Jokes could be used to track public opinion, since they reflected society’s critical self-consciousness. Jokes were a form of feedback, but by virtue of its unique incompetence the Soviet regime ignored them, too.

Everything dangerous, hostile, evil, harmful, stupid, and meaningless is made into a figure of fun when it fails and falls through. People do not laugh at things that are huge and horrible until they are rendered pitiful, proven weak, and shown to be a sham. Stalin gave people little occasion to laugh, because he rarely failed, but the leaders of the late-Soviet period and the entire Soviet system were perfect targets for jokes and other species of ridicule. It is said Brezhnev was smart enough to laugh at jokes about himself, but it was not something he did publicly.

Putin told his audience the punchline of a joke whose opening line we can imagine as an oral exam question at the General Staff Academy, a question asked by the examiner in a room adorned with framed photographs of the commander-in-chief and the Russian Orthodox patriarch.

“Tell me, how will the outcome of a nuclear war differ for Russians and people in western countries?

Why is it that Putin’s answer to this imaginary question might seem funny? What was he ridiculing?

Mentioning heaven, martyrdom, and repentance in a military context in Russia, a country in which cynicism has reigned supreme, is tantamount to a direct attack on official religiosity, as instilled by the regime, a religiosity that has become dreadfully tiresome to everyone. The notion Russians will go to heaven wholesale, whether they believe in God or not, whether they are religious believers of any denomination at all, and whether they are vicious or virtuous, is tantamount to a scathing parody of religious beliefs.

Nuclear war is the business of the military. It thus transpires souls are saved and people canonized as martyrs at the behest of the Russian army’s top brass. With Putin in charge of it, heaven promises to be something like an army barracks, so the entire satire on martyrdom and salvation was performed as a “humorous shtick” of the sort favored by Russia’s siloviki.

What do generals have to say about the soul’s salvation? They say what they are supposed to say, as they gaze at the patriarch’s framed photograph on the wall.

Recently, General Zolotov and the two heroic Russian tourists who took a trip to Salisbury this past March found themselves in the limelight nearly at the same time. We can easily imagine these men holding forth on heaven, martyrdom, and repentance. Putin’s joke was clearly a sendup of the symbiosis between state-imposed religiosity and militarism, a crucial concept in current Russian agitprop.

It is short step from a joke like this to jokes about Orthodox secret policemen, monarchist communists, sovereign democracy, the Kiev “junta,” the US State Department’s vials and cookies, and ritual murders, performed by Jews, of course, on Orthodox babies (and the tsar’s entire family in the bargain), and so on. During the years of Putin’s rule, a whole Mont Blanc of drivel has sprung up, and whole hosts of freaks have come out of the woodwork. It is simply amazing there are still so few jokes about Putin and Putinism in circulation, but now, I imagine, things will kick off, since the main character in these jokes has taken the bull by the horns.

This does not mean, of course, that, by artfully telling his joke, Putin meant to take the piss out of himself and his regime. We are dealing here with the long-familiar militarist bravado summed up by the saying “Broads will give birth to new soldiers,” with the teenage frivolity typical of the siloviki, a frivolity they enjoy acting out.

“We’ll wipe the floor with them,” as they would say.

If, however, Putin was publicly ridiculing the concept behind current state propaganda, we are confronted with a bad joke, a bad joke told to the selfsame ordinary Russians who are targets of the propaganda so ridiculed, while the guy who made the cute joke is the same guy who presides over production of this propaganda and benefits from it.

The rules of the genre have been violated, for now it is the audience, the public that has been ridiculed. Clearly, Russia’s ruling elite despises the people it attempts to manipulate, and the propagandists sometimes laugh themselves silly backstage after they have concocted a particularly nimble con.

I don’t think Russians are gulled by the Kremlin’s propaganda. Rather, they register the messages transmitted to them by the regime as signals telling them what to say and do in certain circumstances. This lovely consensus is destroyed when the concept underpinning the propaganda has been publicly turned into a laughingstock, because people who have been pretending in recent years that they take it seriously find themselves in an awkward situation. They have lost face, having themselves been made ludicrous.

How, then, do they answer the question as to why they played along with the regime in its efforts to gull them? The only plausible explanation for this behavior is shameful thoughtlessness, fear, and impotence, things to which no one wants to admit.

Ivan Mikirtumov is a visiting lecturer at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader

Zeitgeist Checklist

taste real mexicoA Williamsburg-inspired eatery in snowy central Petersburg, 5 February 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

It’s remarkable how the MH17 final report and Ukrainian political prisoner and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike have exacerbated two sad trends among Russia’s left/liberal/creative/academic intelligentsia.

The first trend involves intelligenty out-Putining Putin and his regime’s put-on anti-Americanism by ramping up the number of social media posts and hasbarical hate-a-grams about the US, its sinister machinations, and its signal failings.

This is part of the same operetta in which the nefarious NATO is a greater threat to world peace than a country that reserves the right to invade its closest neighbor and join in crushing a democratic, grassroots rebellion in a faraway country whose people have never harmed Russia in any shape or form.

But it’s no fun talking, much less doing anything, about that at all, because it would require real collective effort. So, depending on your political tastes, it’s much easier, as a Russophone, to hate on NATO or Hamas.

Some Russians go for the trifecta, hating on both “terrorist” organizations, while also indulging in the most satisfying infantile pleasure on our planet today: Islamophobia. You know, Europe has been overrun by Islamic terrorists and that whole tired spiel, which gives such a sense of purpose to otherwise wildly ignorant people who have betrayed their own country and countrymen so many ways over the last 25 or 30 years it should make all our heads spin.

The other trend, which has also kicked into high gear again, is going hipster as hard as you can. There are any number of “projects,” “creative clusters,” eating and drinking establishments, festivals, semi-secret dance parties, and god knows what else in “the capitals” to make the younger crowd and even some of the middle-aged set forget they live in a country ruled by a ultra-reactionary kleptocratic clique that can have any of them abducted for any reason whatsoever at a moment’s notice and charged with “involvement in a terrorist community” or some such nonsense and ruin their lives forever.

That’s no fun to think about it, either, and it’s altogether scary to do something about it, so why not pretend you live in Williamsburg while you can?

The day before yesterday, I translated and posted an essay, by Maria Kuvshinova, about Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike and the non/reaction to this brave call to action on the part of Russia’s creative so-called intelligentsia. At some point, I thought the essay might be a bit off the mark, but on second thought, despite its obvious quirks, I decided Ms. Kuvshinova had sized up the Russian zeitgeist perfectly.

Post-Soviet infantilism is total. It affects the so-called intelligentsia no less than the so-called ordinary folk. Infantilism means being unable to empathize, being unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even if that person is President Putin, a man with a quite distinct sense of ethics, a man who has been studied backwards and forwards for twenty years. Apparently, the message sent to the creative communities through the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov was not registered. If you want to be a dissident, start down the hard road of doing jail time for misdemeanor charges, facing insuperable difficulties in renting performance and exhibition spaces, becoming an outsider, and experiencing despair. If you want a big theater in downtown Moscow, play by the rules. Like your average late-Soviet philistine, Putin regarded the creative intelligentsia with respect at the outset of his presidential career. (See, for example, footage from his visit to Mosfilm Studios in 2003.) However, a few years later, he was convinced the creative intelligentsia was a rampantly conformist social group who would never move even a millimeter out of its comfort zone and would make one concession after another. A lack of self-respect always generates disrespect in counterparts. // TRR

Maria Kuvshinova: What Sentsov Could Die For

What Sentsov Could Die For
Maria Kuvshinova
Colta.Ru
May 25, 2018

Detailed_pictureOleg Sentsov. Photo by Sergei Pivovarov. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Colta.Ru 

On May 14, 2018, Oleg Sentsov went on an indefinite hunger strike in a penal colony located north of the Arctic Circle. His only demand is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. According to Memorial’s list, there are twenty-four such prisoners.

In August 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to twenty years for organizing a terrorist community and planning terrorist attacks. The second defendant in the case, Alexander Kolchenko, was sentenced to ten years in prison. Mediazona has published transcripts of the hearings in their trial. Around three hundred people have read them over the last three years. The transcripts make it plain the only evidence of the alleged terrorist organization’s existence was the testimony of Alexei Chirniy, who was not personally acquainted with Sentsov. It is police footage of Chirniy’s arrest while he was carrying a rucksack containing a fake explosive device that propagandists often pass off as police footage of Sentsov’s arrest.

Before his arrest, Sentsov was an Automaidan activist. In the spring of 2014, he organized peaceful protests against Crimea’s annexation by Russia.

“Yesterday’s ‘suicide bomber auto rally’ took place in Simferopol yesterday, but in quite abridged form,” Sentsov wrote on Facebook on March 12, 2014. “Only eight cars, six reporters with cameras, and twenty-five activists/passengers assembled at the starting point. I would have liked to have seen more. Unfortunately, most of the armchair revolutionaries who were invited were afraid to go. The traffic cops and regular police also showed up at the starting line, insisting we not leave for our own safety. We told them our protest was peaceful. We had no plans of breaking the rules, so we suggested they escort us to keep the peace for everyone’s sake.”

The second defendant, Kolchenko, admitted involvement in the arson of an office that was listed in the case file as belonging to the United Russia Party, but which in April 2014 was an office of Ukraine’s Party of Regions. The arson took place at night. It was meant to cause physical damage while avoiding injuring anyone.

The Russian authorities tried to prove both Sentsov and Kolchenko were linked with Right Sector, a charge that was unsubstantiated in Sentsov’s case and absurd in the latter case due to Kolchenko’s well-known leftist and anarchist convictions. Gennady Afanasyev, the second witness on whose testimony the charges against the two men were based, claimed he had been tortured and coerced into testifying against them.

Sentsov and Kolchenko’s show trial, like the show trials in the Bolotnaya Square Case, were supposed to show that only a handful of terrorists opposed the referendum on Crimea’s annexation and thus intimidate people who planned to resist assimilation. The Russian authorities wanted to stage a quick, one-off event to intimidate and crack down on anti-Russian forces. But two circumstances prevented the repressive apparatus from working smoothly. The first was that the defendants did not make a deal with prosecutors and refused to acknowledge the trial’s legitimacy. The second was that Automaidan activist Oleg Sentsov unexpectedly turned out to be a filmmaker, provoking a series of public reactions ranging from protests by the European Film Academy to questions about whether cultural producers would be capable of blowing up cultural landmarks. Segments of the Russian film community reacted to the situation with cold irritation. According to them, Sentsov was a Ukrainian filmmaker, not a Russian filmmaker, and he was not a major filmmaker. The owner of a computer club in Simferopol, his semi-amateur debut film, Gamer, had been screened at the festivals in Rotterdam and Khanty-Mansiysk, while release of his second picture, Rhino, had been postponed due to Euromaidan.

The Ukrainian intelligentsia have equated Sentsov with other political prisoners of the empire, such as the poet Vasyl Stus, who spent most of his life in Soviet prisons and died in Perm-36 in the autumn of 1985, a week after he had gone on yet another hunger strike. The Ukrainian authorities see Sentsov, a Crimean who was made a Russian national against his will and is thus not eligible for prisoner exchanges, as inconvenient, since he smashes the stereotype of the treacherous peninsula, a part of Ukraine bereft of righteous patriots. Sentsov’s death on the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup would be a vexing, extremely annoying nuisance to the Russian authorities.

Sentsov is an annoyance to nearly everyone, but he is a particular annoyance to those people who, while part of the Russian establishment, have openly defended him, although they have tried with all their might to avoid noticing what an inconvenient figure he has been. Although he was not a terrorist when he was arrested, he has become a terrorist of sorts in prison, because his trial and his hunger strike have been a slowly ticking time bomb planted under the entire four-year-long post-Crimean consensus, during which some have been on cloud nine, others have put down stakes, and still others have kept their mouths shut. Yet everyone reports on the success of their new endeavors on Facebook while ignoring wars abroad and torture on the home front. Sentsov represents a rebellion against hybrid reality and utter compromise, a world in which Google Maps tells you Crimea is Russian and Ukrainian depending on your preferences. To what count does “bloodlessly” annexed Crimea belong, if, four years later, a man is willing to die to say he does not recognize the annexation?

The success of Gamer on the film festival circuit, which made Sentsov part of the international film world, and his current address in a prison north of the Arctic Circle beg three questions. What is culture? Who produces culture? What stances do cultural producers take when they produce culture? There are several possible answers. Culture is a tool for reflection, a means for individuals and societies to achieve self-awareness and define themselves. It is not necessarily a matter of high culture. In this case, we could also be talking about pop music, fashion, and rap. (See, for example, the recent documentary film Fonko, which shows how spontaneous music making has gradually been transformed into a political force in post-colonial Africa.) On the contrary, culture can be a means of spending leisure time for people with sufficient income, short work days, and long weekends.

Obviously, the culture produced in Russia today under the patronage of Vladimir Medinsky’s Culture Ministry is not the first type of culture, with the exception of documentary theater and documentary cinema, but the founders of Theater.Doc have both recently died, while Artdocfest has finally been forced to relocate to Riga. The compromised, censored “cultural production” in which all the arts have been engaged has no way of addressing any of the questions currently facing Russia and the world, from shifts in how we view gender and the family (for which you can be charged with the misdemeanor of “promoting homosexualism”) to the relationship between the capitals and regions (for which you can charged with the felony of “calling for separatism”). Crimea is an enormous blank spot in Russian culture. Donbass and the rest of Ukraine, with which Russia still enjoyed vast and all-pervasive ties only five years ago, are blank spots. But cultural producers have to keep on making culture, and it is easier to say no one is interested in painful subjects and shoot a film about the complicated family life of a doctor with a drinking problem and a teetotalling nurse.

When we speak of the second type of culture—culture as leisure—we primarily have in mind Moscow, which is brimming over with premieres, lectures, and exhibitions, and, to a much lesser extent, Russia’s other major cities. So, in a country whose population is approaching 150 million people, there is a single international film festival staged by a local team for its hometown, Pacific Meridian in Vladivostok. All the rest are produced by Moscow’s itinerant three-ring circus on the paternalist model to the delight of enlightened regional governors. It matters not a whit that one of them ordered a brutal assault on a journalist, nor that another was in cahoots with the companies responsible for safety at the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, where 75 people perished in 2009. What matters is that the festival movement should go on. There is no room in this model for local cultural progress. There can be no free discussion generated by works of art when everyone is engaged in total self-censorship. After I went to Festival 86 in Slavutych, whose curators have been conceptually reassessing the post-Soviet individual and the post-Soviet space, I found it painful to think about Russian film festivals. This sort of focused conceptualization is impossible in Russia. It is of no interest to anyone.

There are two more possible answers to the question of what culture is. Culture is propaganda. Or, finally, culture is only the marquee on a commercial enterprise profiting at the taxpayer’s expense. It is not a big choice, and the kicker is that by agreeing today to be involved in churning out propaganda, milking taxpayers, supplying optional leisure time activities, producing censored works, and colonizing one’s own countrymen for the sake of money, status, and membership in a professional community, the people involved in these processes automatically stop making sense. It is naïve to think the audience has not noticed this forfeiture. It is no wonder the public has an increasingly hostile reaction to cultural producers and their work.

No one has the guts to exit this vicious circle even in protest at the slow suicide of a colleague convicted on trumped-up charges, because it would not be “practical.” The events of recent months and years, however, should have transported us beyond dread, since everyone without exception is now threatened with being sent down, the innocent and the guilty alike.

Post-Soviet infantilism is total. It affects the so-called intelligentsia no less than the so-called ordinary folk. Infantilism means being unable to empathize, being unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even if that person is President Putin, a man with a quite distinct sense of ethics, a man who has been studied backwards and forwards for twenty years. Apparently, the message sent to the creative communities through the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov was not registered. If you want to be a dissident, start down the hard road of doing jail time for misdemeanor charges, facing insuperable difficulties in renting performance and exhibition spaces, becoming an outsider, and experiencing despair. If you want a big theater in downtown Moscow, play by the rules. Like your average late-Soviet philistine, Putin regarded the creative intelligentsia with respect at the outset of his presidential career. (See, for example, footage from his visit to Mosfilm Studios in 2003.) However, a few years later, he was convinced the creative intelligentsia was a rampantly conformist social group who would never move even a millimeter out of its comfort zone and would make one concession after another. A lack of self-respect always generates disrespect in counterparts.

By signing open letters while remaining inside the system and not backing their words with any actions whatsoever, the cultural figures currently protesting the arrests of colleagues are viewed by the authorities as part of the prison’s gen pop, while people who live outside Moscow see them as accomplices in looting and genocide. No one takes seriously the words of people who lack agency. Agency is acquired only by taking action, including voluntarily turning down benefits for the sake of loftier goals. The acquisition of agency is practical, because it is the only thing that compels other people to pay heed to someone’s words. I will say it again: the acquisition of agency is always practical. At very least, it generates different stances from which to negotiate.

Sentsov has made the choice between sixteen years of slow decay in a penal colony and defiant suicide in order to draw attention not to his own plight, but to the plight of other political prisoners. Regardless of his hunger strike’s outcome, he has generated a new scale for measuring human and professional dignity. It is an personal matter whether we apply the scale or not, but now it is impossible to ignore.

Thanks to Valery Dymshits for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Valery Dymshits: After the Fight

DSCN4942Poster: “March 18, 2018. Russian Presidential Election. Russian Central Election Commission.” || Graffiti: “This is not an election.” Dixie grocery store, Central District, Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

Valery Dymshits
Facebook
March 20, 2018

After the Fight

I wrote so often about the election or, rather, the non-election, that it is time to sum up.

I admit I had hoped for a qualitative decrease in turnout, but it is true we did not manage to achieve this.

Of course, the feverish ideas (I heard them voiced more than once, alas) that if it were not for the boycott, the “forces of good” either would have returned a mystical 10% of the vote tally (whatever for?) or made it into the second round (yes, yes, I read such claims with my own eyes) have nothing to do with reality. The fact the turnout was a few percentage points less, and Putin got a few percentage points more, makes no difference at all to anyone.

Nevertheless, I continue to regard the boycott as the right choice. Here is the reason for my stubbornness.

It is self-evident the election—not the day of March 18, but the process—was god knows what, only it was not an election.

Accordingly, the feeling of disgust kept many people from voting. Disgust is a worthy emotion. But that is not my point here.

In so-called normal countries, candidates and parties fight over half a percentage point, and a threepercent difference is deemed a crushing victory or crushing defeat. In our archaic autocracy, the regime and the populace communicate with each other in a language of symbols. As soon as it transpired the Kremlin was planning to fight for a 70% turnout and 70% of the total vote tally, I immediately realized the Kremlin wanted fifty percent of all possible voters, plus or minus one percent, to come out and vote for Putin and—voilà!—a 65% turnout and a 75% share of votes cast is exactly 50% of all potential voters. Meaning the Kremlin’s statement was purely symbolic and qualitative. Qualitative, symbolic collective action was, likewise, the only possible counterargument. It largely did not come off, but there were no other gestures of resistance except the boycott. The attempt to talk back to the regime quantitatively—for example, Yabloko’s responding to the argument “we have half of all voters” with the rejoinder “but we have 10% of everyone who voted” (i.e., “you have 50%, but we have a whole 5%”)—was ridiculous. Now, if it had been possible to counter the claim “we are robustly supported by half of the populace” with the countargument “ha-ha, you have the support of no more than a third of the populace,” but, alas, it proved impossible.

It is clear the numerous violations, committed here and there by zealots who were not thinking straight, generated a certain stench on election day, but I don’t imagine they had a serious impact on the outcome. It was the outcome that sincerely floored me.

The issue of voter turnout, so hysterically raised by the regime, had nothing to do with a fear of Navalny and the boycott, but with the fact that in the absence of real suspense and real rivals, Russians would be reluctant to go out and vote for Putin, who would be elected anyway. After Navalny was not allowed to run, it was impossible to generate any suspense, so the regime combined the carrot and the stick. Russians were driven and dragged to polling stations by the gazillions.

I would like to make a slight digression. First of all, you can make people who are subordinate and dependent—state employees and employees of state corporations—vote by forcing them or threatening them. The state’s share in the economy has been growing continuously: in 2005, the state controlled 35% of the Russian economy, while it now controls around 70%. That means the numbers of dependent Russians have also been growing.

The Kremlin felt it was vital to drag lazy Russians to the polls whatever the cost. As for voting as they should, they would do that all on their lonesome. The Kremlin knew they would do it, but I didn’t. I thought more or less that people would feel their weekend had been ruined. They had been forced to go somewhere and then forced to report back to their superiors. How swinish! So these people would do something spiteful: vote for Grudinin, vote for Sobchak, vote for Yavlinsky, vote for a four-letter word.

No, since they were dragged all the way to the polling stations anyway, enticed with carrots and prodded with sticks, they voted for Putin.

This is an important albeit gloomy outcome. It means the regime relies on a not terribly active but quite considerable majority. It means the regime can do whatever it likes with whomever it likes, and will be able to do so for a long time to come.  Previously, it could do a lot of things, but not everything. Now, however, it can do anything. Strictly speaking, things have been this way for several years, but now it has been proven in a large-scale, expensive experiment. It is like in the Arabian tales: destroy a city, build a palace, jail a director, close a university, etc., just for the heck of it, just for the fun of it. This does not mean the regime will immediately start throwing its bulks around in all directions, but it can. A clear awareness of this circumstance should make us feel bleak.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Russian Socialist Movement: What Does the Presidential Election Show Us?

“March 2018. Russian Presidential Election: We Elect a President, We Choose a Future!” || “March 2018. Russian Presidential Election: Nice Scenery, Bad Play!” Photo courtesy of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD)

Russian Socialist Movement (RSD)
Facebook
March 19, 2018

What Has the “Election” Shown Us?

It has shown us that the system for mobilizing dependent Russians (employees, servicemen, etc.) by management at all levels still functions, and that the managers in question (governors, factory directors, and heads of state-sector institutions) are still loyal to the regime. Putin’s personal power rests on the vulnerability of workers, who in Russia have been deprived of the right to strike. It also rests on the loyalty of the bureaucratic caste and corrupted business world, apathy and conformism, and control of the media.

In managed democracy’s topsy-turvy world, voter turnout and Putin’s total share of the vote are indices of political indifference, while boycotting the spectacle is a manifestation of civic activism. Elections in Russia have finally transmogrified into something like an oath of allegiance to the so-called national leader, which has nothing to do with a democratic expression of the popular will.

Undoubtedly, along with the administrative resource, the conservatism of a generation traumatized by the chaotic 1990s, the post-Crimea syndrome, and the careful casting of Putin’s opponents played their role. The Kremlin did its all to divide the forces of protest. Strawberry king Pavel Grudinin served as a scarecrow for voters who did not want a return to the Soviet Union, while Ksenia Sobchak exacerbated the fears of pro-Soviet conservatives vis-à-vis Yeltsinite liberals.

Supporters of the boycott were targeted for assaults and crackdowns. Despite the fact the Voters Strike did not produce a drop in the turnout (too many powerful forces were put into play for that to happen), non-participation in ersatz democracy was the only viable stance, the best option among a host of bad choices. Serving as polling station monitors on election day, we saw what props up both “voluntary” and forced voting. We are glad we did not support this well-rehearsed stunt with our own votes. Russia faces another six years of disempowerment, poverty, lies, and wars—but not in our name.

Only those people who were hoping for a miracle could be disappointed today. Grudinin, whose fans predicted he would make it into the second round, returned worse results than Gennady Zyuganov did in 2012. Some analysts expected that the candidate of the patriotic leftist camp would steal votes from Putin’s conservative electorate, but that did not happen. Nor did Grudinin convince chronic non-voters to go to the polls, since he did not offer them anything new.

Presidential elections, obviously, are not a focal point of politics and an opportunity for change. They are a mode of manipulating public opinion meant to leave everything the way it was.

We need a new politics that undermines the power structures making it possible to manipulate the populace in the interests of the elite. We need a politics that takes on the power of management over employees, the power of the patriarchy over women and young people, and the power of the bureaucracy over local self-government. Since electoral politics has essentially been banned, the democratic leftist movement must rely on nonconformist communities opposed to Putinism in the workplace, education and culture, city and district councils, the media, and the streets.

Only in this way, not as the result of yet more heavy-handed maneuvering by the regime or the opposition to fill the ever more obvious void of popular democratic (i.e., leftist) politics, can a force emerge that is a real alternative to the system. We are going to keep working on shaping that force.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Ekaterina Schulman

Ekaterina Schulman. Photo courtesy of Andrei Stekachov and The Village

Political Scientist Ekaterina Schulman on Why You Should Vote
Anya Chesova and Natasha Fedorenko
The Village
September 16, 2016

This Sunday, September 18, the country will vote for a new State Duma, the seventh since the fall of the Soviet Union. The peculiarity of this vote is that it will take place under a mixed electoral system for the first time since 2003. 225 MPs will be elected to five-year tears from party lists, while the other 225 MPs will be elected from single-mandate districts. Several days before the elections, The Village met with Ekaterina Schulman, a political scientist and senior lecturer at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). We talked with her about why you should vote if United Russia is going to win in any case, as well as about the changes in store for the Russian political system in the coming years.


The Upcoming Elections

The Village: On Sunday, the country will hold the first elections to the State Duma since 2011. The social climate in the city and the country as a whole has changed completely since that time. Protests erupted in 2011, and the people who protested on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue believed they could impact the political situation. Nowadays, few people have held on to such hopes. What should we expect from the upcoming elections? And why should we bother with them?

Ekaterina Schulman: Everything happening now with the State Duma election is a consequence of the 2011–2012 protests, including changes in the laws, the introduction of the mixed system, the return of single-mandate MPs, the lowering of the threshold for parties to be seated in the Duma from seven to five percent, and the increased number of parties on the ballot. These are the political reforms outlined by then-president Dmitry Medvedev as a response to the events of December 2011. Later, we got a new head of state, but it was already impossible to take back these promises. The entire political reality we observe now has grown to one degree or another out of the 2011–2012 protest campaign, whether as rejection, reaction or consequence. It is the most important thing to happen in the Russian political arena in recent years.

The statements made by Vyacheslav Volodin, the president’s deputy chief of staff, on the need to hold honest elections, Vladimir Churov’s replacement by Ella Pamfilova as head of the Central Electoral Commission, the departure of someone more important than Churov from the CEC, deputy chair Leonid Ivlev, and the vigorous sacking of chairs of regional electoral commissions are all consequences of the protests. If they had not taken place, nothing would have changed. We would still have the same proportional voting system, the same seven-percent threshold, the same old Churov or Churov 2.0. Continue reading ““We Have a Surrogate Democracy”: An Interview with Ekaterina Schulman”

The Russian State of Mind in Stormy Weather

A State of Mind in Windy Weather
Galina Mursaliyeva
October 1, 2014
Novaya Gazeta

A conversation with psychologists about hatred, aggression, the Russian mentality, cognitive breakdown, the loss of social sensitivity, and society’s lack of self-confidence

The side mirror showed that the cars in the next lane were a safe distance from me. I switched on my turn signal and merged. I realized right away the mirror had deceived me. My car was almost a millimeter away from the front bumper of a black jeep: I had rudely cut off this “stealth” car. It was clear in a situation like this that no one would try and figure out whether this had been done purposely or accidentally. I was ready, or so I thought, for anything. I knew the other driver might deliberately overtake me and brake abruptly right in front of me. And yet, I wasn’t expecting what happened next. When the person in the car I had cut off drove his jeep in front of me for the second time, I deftly avoided a collision by moving into the far left lane, meaning he simply had no way to pursue me. But he found a way: he drove down the oncoming lane and once again put his jeep in front of me. This time I turned on the emergency lights and stopped. He walked up to my car.

“Well?”

“Well what? Yes, I made a mistake. Yes, I could have caused an accident. But do you realize that after this you did something that could have got us killed?”

“So what? Maybe I would have kicked the bucket, but I would have taken you down with me.”

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There was not a shadow of doubt in his eyes, whitened with anger: one could “kick the bucket” for the sake of punishing one’s offender.

It is not that I recall this incident often, but that I have never forgotten it. Because I saw in a highly condensed form what has been happening with people everywhere—on roads, in supermarkets, on social networks.

“She was the godmother of my son, who is now twenty years old. I was very fond of her, and we were very close, but now that she supports all these Makareviches, I am forced to unfriend her. She has turned into a reptile,” writes a woman on a social network.

Those who call themselves liberals are no better. There is a new photo of a famous person who has more or less spoken out in favor of “Crimea is ours” posted several times a day on Facebook. People batter and pelt the photo with words like stones. “Another one has caved in.” “Creep.” “He used to be my favorite actor. Burn in hell.”

There is an amazing trait that unites everyone these days—their means of expressing hatred. “Fascists,” “traitors”: that is what everyone calls each other. And the verbs are also the same: everyone has “sold out,” either to the Americans or Putin.

You have to kill someone and eat them to take their power. Well, or poison yourself.

Dmitry Leontiev (head of the International Laboratory of Positive Psychology of Motivation and Personality at the Higher School of Economics, doctor of psychology, professor in the psychology department at Moscow State University, and Viktor Frankl Prize winner): It reminds me of an essay by Hegel, published two hundred years ago, “Who Thinks Abstractly?” He gives an example: you go to the market, and a market woman tries to sell you apples. You try them and say, No, I won’t buy them; they’re a bit sour. The market woman says something like the following to you. It is my apples that are sour? You are sour yourself, and you have a sour mug. And who the hell are you to give my apples a bum rap? I remember your parents: they were layabouts! So she begins to generalize: you were only talking about the taste of the apples, but in response she—

Attacks you personally?

Leontiev: The personal attack is only a detail. But here everything is brought into play, the broadest contexts. Hegel calls this generalization “abstract thinking.” According to him, it is the market woman, rather than the philosopher or scientist, who thinks the most abstractly, because she cannot focus on anything specific and generalizes everything. From my point of view, this is what is happening in our society. The great philosopher Merab Mamardashvili, who for me is quite comparable with Hegel, said, “The devil plays with us when we do not think precisely.”

And the devil is playing with us now: we have stopped thinking precisely. Say, neither the Ukrainians themselves nor we understand clearly what is really happening in Ukraine. But the huge number of people who never for a moment doubt they know exactly not only what is happening now but also what will happen next horrifies me. The number of clairvoyants and seers has gone off the scales. And the farther they are from the scene of events, the more accurately they know everything.

What is the cause of this epidemic?

Leontiev: It is a symptom of cognitive breakdown. Criticalness—the ability to filter incoming information, separate fact from fiction, and soberly assess the limits of one’s own knowledge—is considered one of the main mechanisms of the mature mind. Now it would appear that all the natural filters have come undone. The mind ceases to function: it just swallows readymade packaged texts and spits them back out. As soon as you try in a debate to clarify or specify something, your opponent, like Hegel’s market woman, responds by expanding the topic of the conversation to infinity, entwining anything whatsoever into it. This is the most important method of the usually unconscious manipulation now being used: lumping everything together. The topic of the conversation becomes fuzzy, and a lot of details irrelevant to it are entwined in the conversation.

The meaning of the word “opinion” has been devalued in our country. Any nonsense that occurs to someone is labeled an opinion. This assumption that all opinions are equal is a product of so-called postmodernism. Earlier, when experts were asked for their opinions, it was assumed they were the products of intellectual work in the fields in which the experts were professionally employed. It is then that real discussion can unfold, and we can find someone who can be trusted.”

Nowadays, on the contrary, there is often no trace of analytical and intellectual work in what are commonly referred to as opinions. A person gets some “kind of, like” bit of information from somewhere in left field. These “opinions” are not rooted: they can easily switch to their direct opposites. So I am very skeptical about the figure of eighty-five percent of the population who, according to pollsters, now support everything the Russian president does in Ukraine. This is largely a weather phenomenon. The wind has inflated this degree of support, but when it blows in the other direction, it will fall below zero.

You mean the majority of Russians have a heightened psychological “meteodependency” on the political climate? On the stance of the authorities?

Leontiev: What is the “Russian mentality”? Everything said about the peculiarities of the Russian psychology wholly conforms to the psychology of a normal child. This includes a rich mental and emotional life, but a spontaneous one. Hence the inability to control oneself, to keep promises. Small children can be quite cruel: they do not know what pain is, and do not value life. Our country has had a prolonged childhood; we have not succeeded in growing up. Life, both one’s own and that of others, has a low value.

Many things are caused by the inability to link cause and effect. There is no sense of time, of the dynamics of change: Russia is worried about territories, about not giving an inch. We have virtually no social institutions. The State Duma is like a kindergarten during naptime, when the minder has left the room. Everyone is bawling about his or her own thing.

Maybe it is time to replace the concept of “state of mind” with the concept of an “instinctual state”?”

Leontiev: I would rather speak about a state of mind in windy weather. Thinking is energy consuming, and people who have failed to grow up find it easier to throw words around. The fundamentals of humanity’s survival are simple and sound. They unite rather than divide people, despite all their differences. For example, it is good when people live, and bad when they die and kill, even under the most plausible pretexts. But we have a divided society, and in this situation it is important not to contribute to the polarization. It is a virus that has infected the country

Olga Makhovskaya (fellow at the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Ph.D. in psychology, and writer): I would say that what is happening today is a reflection of the country’s biggest fault: we have frittered away our values. When they answer any question—whether to fight or not fight with Ukraine or the whole world, whether they are for or against Putin—people are guided by their fears rather than values. And I can say that there, at Maidan, even before the war the protest was not as encapsulated as it is in our country. Encapsulation is when everything happens in cliques: I go to a protest rally with my friends, but as for everyone else, I do not really know or understand how they live. When there is no overall consolidation, you are among a circle of friends but in a society of strangers. It is extremely difficult to get past the bouncers at the door. In Ukraine, there is definitely not this stark opposition between the intelligentsia and people of the land, for example. There, the latter are in fact the most respected, because the land will always feed you, whatever the regime. And these are grounds for personal dignity. They have greater reserves of values there than we do. There is a Russian proverb that says money cannot buy you love. But there is no comprehension that money cannot buy you anything valuable at all—neither freedom, life, talent nor friendship. It is these things that have failed in Russia today.

I think it is not just a matter of events in Ukraine. This segment of people who think alike, a whopping eighty-five percent, is also encapsulated. A person who is willing to kill someone else and himself in the process is not trying to clarify your stances on these issues. He is just ready to kill.

Makhovskaya: From my point of view, the figure of eighty-five percent is rather an indicator of society’s extreme lack of self-confidence than of public opinion. When a survey on happiness, for example, is conducted, and the vast majority says it is insanely happy, politicians see this as a lovely figure. But any psychologist will tell you that such uniformity indicates a state of helplessness. This is a society of old people and little children—of old people, who suffer from diminished intellect and have no future, and of children, who because of their age cannot be independent.

What is happening in our country today—the intolerance and hatred—is directly linked to the state of being in an axiological and normative vacuum. The social psychologist Durkheim called this condition “anomie.” It happens when old institutions, functions, and norms have been destroyed, and new ones have not yet formed. The main conditions for the emergence of a new set of values are the consolidation of society and an optimistic view of the future. But in Russia, values are promoted that divide people and narrow their horizons: money, power, and pleasure. Transient values camouflage the lack of eternal values—“Thou shalt not kill,” for example—of the old conservative attitudes to work, education, patience, love, and mercy.

Perhaps the Soviet legacy could also be making itself felt in this case. At school, we were made to memorize Nekrasov’s lines “The heart grown weary of hating / Will never learn to love.” But no one told us about the saying of Confucius: “If you hate, it means you have been defeated.”

Makhovskaya: What we remember in childhood is quite important, because we pass it on to our own children as a cultural code. If you cannot love because you cannot hate, it means you must hate: it is a terrible thing, of course, to send this message to schoolchildren. But nowadays there are no less alarming signals, first and foremost, the loss of sensitivity among most citizens. Social sensitivity is a sympathetic attitude to the problems of groups of people to which the individual himself or herself does not belong. Television has “scorched” its viewers by constantly raising the sensitivity threshold.

Why does everyone call each other fascists nowadays? What is the cause of this?

Makhovskaya: It is similar to the children’s game of good guys and fascists [i.e., something like the Anglophone games cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers]. Psychologists believe that the unbearable fear of death is overcome in such children’s games. Given the depth of the trauma caused by World War Two, a trauma passed from generation to generation in Russia, the power of post-traumatic stress syndrome and the relief a small victorious war gives to “inflamed” consciousness are understandable. Despite the fact we won World War Two, psychologically we have been left unappeased, inconsolable, and uncertain that it will never happen again. On the contrary, we have always been reminded that the enemy never slumbers, that we have to be prepared. We live with the convulsive readiness to attack or flee. Sooner or later, individuals cannot contain themselves and enter into conflict; an insignificant occasion can serve as the trigger. The abusive fascist phraseology comes from this same source.

There is another factor that affects how events are perceived—group favoritism. Members of one’s own group are perceived as better, more educated, smarter, prettier, and broader-shouldered.

I will illustrate what you are talking about with a quotation from writer Zakhar Prilepin: “[U]krainian POWs and Russian POWs differ even physiognomically. The Russians are whiter; their eyes are more bewildered and kinder. [The Ukrainians] are darker. They do not look you in the eye; there is something hunted and angry about them at the same time. Almost all of them are shorter than me.”

Makhovskaya: It is a classic example. When we at the Institute of Psychology of the Russian Academy of Sciences studied how Soviet viewers perceived Americans during the first spacebridges with the US, we discovered that a couple weeks after the programs people could not recall either the faces of the “enemies” or what they had said. But as they tried to recall what they had seen, they confidently insisted the Americans were “reptiles.” They recalled the “good guys” in detail, with a tendency to add height, texture, and beauty: the people who had gone out to do battle with the ugly dwarfs from the US were simply cartoonish epic heroes.

Sadly, the level of our psychological culture is such that we do not cope with these cognitive distortions. Even more frightening is that this is the level of the politicians and their servants who induce hatred and broadcast negative stereotypes to the whole country.

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Editor’s Note. I usually do not have much truck with psychologistic explanations of political and social phenomenon, especially when it comes to Russia, where even before the onset of Putinism 3.0, the popular, public and academic discourses, both liberal and nationalist, were lousy with all-encompassing exegeses of Russian society’s ills (or virtues) based on a supposedly unique, perennial or horribly mutated (as a result of Stalinism, serfdom or perestroika—take your pick) mindset or mentality shared by most Russians or certain classes in Russia. The article translated above certainly possesses many of this approach’s defects, but in its own clumsy way it gives some insights into the zeitgeist in the country right now, details usually ignored or dismissed by, say, local leftist commentators, eager to inscribe everything going on into a more palatable, boilerplate “anti-capitalist” narrative. Whether we like it or not, the sheer hysteria of recent months and its effects on people’s sense of their possibilities, responsibilities, and limitations becomes a factor in political and public life every bit as material and potent as the Putin oligarchy’s need to bolster its financial fortunes or generate new venues for state-sponsored highway robbery.

Photo courtesy of The Daily Mail

Oleg Aronson: Time of the Strikebreakers

Time of the Strikebreakers
Oleg Aronson
Index on Censorship (Russian Edition) 26 (2007)

It is difficult to write about Putin’s Russia, something one does reluctantly. One hesitates to use the word Putin because by this act alone you intrude into the political arena, where your least utterance cannot remain mere hot air but can also turn on you and make you regret what you have said. Such regret does not arise because you were wrong or unfair or because you were misinterpreted, but because your words are always addressed not to those who listen, but rather to those who eavesdrop. Some might be inclined to detect paranoia in this last phrase, to interpret it in the light of conspiracy theory, the “rise of the secret services” or something of the sort. I have in mind something else, however: the specific shift in Russian political sensibility that has taken place before our eyes. An oversupply of mutually repetitive utterances has now been stockpiled, and their lack of content underwrites their existence in the mediaverse. It is simply impossible to listen to them any longer, just as listening itself has become a chore.

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It is not so much the political situation (in which power, capital, and the mass media are concentrated in one and the same hands) that I would like to discuss, as it is the “nonpolitical” situation. When we examine the zone of the nonpolitical, the lifeworld of the ordinary man, however, politics is, all the same, one of the conditions that shape it. Politics has long since ceased being something in which people take part; instead, it has become something that shapes people. It has ceased being a clash of parties, social groups, views, and convictions; it has ceased being a concern only of the state and its institutions. Politics courses through our bodies—bodies that vote, work, watch TV, sit in cafés, smoke cigarettes, sleep, die, etc. Politics has long ago become biopolitics. This is not news. It is always the time you live in that is the news.

It is this that makes us speak out today: this strange time that we did not anticipate and in which we find ourselves now. One struggles to find a precise description of this time or even an imprecise description, one that would nevertheless capture the current conjuncture. In our case, defining even a few of the situation’s peculiarities means giving a chance to the absolutely mute, feeble forces of the nonpolitical. It means revealing the possibility of another politics—not a politics devised by political scientists and political operatives, but one that grows out of the life of society itself. In our time, it is extremely hard to imagine such a thing. For a start, however, it would be good to describe this strange time in some way. When does it begin? In what sense is it strange?

We would be mistaken in thinking the time of this new political sensibility begins with the rise to power of the new politicians. Their rise is a symptom, rather. Many still remember (although the mass media have done everything they can to make us forget) Gorbachev’s perestroika and the first years of the Yeltsin administration. It was a romantic period when the experience of democracy became part of our lives. And it was because this experience was new that the very idea of democracy itself was perceived romantically. Ours was an anarchic democracy, one without the institutions on which democracy depends. In this sense, it was a popular democracy, independently of the fact that a significant part of the population might not have supported it. In turn, the spontaneity and popular character of democracy in the late eighties and early nineties might not have manifested themselves had revolt not become a vital necessity in Soviet times, especially during the Brezhnev years.

I consciously use the word revolt here, rather than “resistance” or “social change,” because the latter was the bailiwick only of society’s politically active members. Revolt, on the contrary, is always nonpolitical in nature: it springs from life itself, not from its political realities. Revolt is born of hunger and fear, of humiliation and injustice that exceed the individual and thus become social phenomena. Revolt is a resistance of bodies that marks the limits of biopolitics.

At the end of the Soviet era, the word democracy was the symbol of this revolt. We began building democracy then, and its shortcomings, aporias, and weak points were revealed. This is all more or less obvious to critics of the western model of democracy. Institutionalized democracy, of course, is a rather refined control mechanism premised on the clear equation of the ordinary man with the socially active individual. Your identity as an individual has everything to do with your having a “point of view,” the “right to vote,” the “franchise.” The main thing, though, is that you are endowed with power albeit paltry and imaginary power. This reduction of politics to the individual is the constant in democracy’s rhetoric and its ruse. Even our current political elite has not rejected this rhetoric, although the word democracy has ubiquitously become a term of abuse, and invectives against the western social order, commonplace. Here, of course, we discover a certain resemblance between our time and the Soviet period, when there was also a constitution, a system of elections, courts and lawyers, and the notorious of “grassroots criticism.” Then as well, however, there was a general albeit unspoken understanding that this entire system was fictitious and deceitful, and this was a source of the perestroika era’s consensus on revolt.

The situation today is different. First, it is “democracy” and “democrats” that have been officially blamed for all the woes of the Yeltsin years. Second and more important, this puppet democracy has acquired a service class that far outnumbers the standing political bureaucracy. This is mainly a new generation of people, most often young people, who do not remember even the early post-perestroika years, much less Soviet times.

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It would be unfair, however, to limit this segment of society only to “new” people, most of whom are successful or hope to be successful. As opposed to many members of the older generation whose service to the current political authorities is wholly cynical and who have happily forgotten what they said a decade ago and what they believed in (perhaps sincerely) two decades ago, the “new” people have already been formed as political bodies per se. If we can understand what makes them tick we will go some way towards shedding light on the situation.

Television regularly treats us to political talk show hosts (Vladimir Solovyov and Maxim Shevchenko, for example) who have at the ready an amazingly cynical set phrase when anyone mentions the absence of free speech in Russia and the state’s control of the mass media: “You are saying this on national television.” We are constantly confronted by the fact that critical views on the current state of affairs are voiced by figures (Novodvorskaya, Zhirinovsky, Borovoi, Nemtsov, et al.) who have long ago become TV clowns. If new faces turn up by accident among this pack, then the hosts, feigning surprise that our democracy gives even such “nutcases” the chance to speak out, will find the right (prescripted) words to demonstrate to the home audience just how marginal their stance is.

Russia’s imitation “democracy” is in no way a social system with all its attendant shortcomings. It has long since been turned into a reliable instrument of the political hacks. It would not be worth mentioning it at all if not for the fact that our “democracy” incarnates the ambivalence that characterizes the current situation in general. Just like Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov, democracy is to blame for everything but it cannot be sent packing. It is “effective” after its own fashion, that is. It has to go on living because it is guilty and thus will continue indefinitely to swell the ranks of its detractors, the ranks of the current order’s zealous defenders.

Thus, a certain young writer, Anastasia Chekhovskaya, gives a rapturous account in Izvestia of her meeting with Putin. She relates how glad she is that the state has commissioned her to educate the populace, to teach them “good feelings.” Then, without batting an eye, she calls these same people lumpen who have been mutated by mass culture and almost openly declares that it is “young people” like her who are the new elite.

Or take our contemporary artists. Their state commissions have not come through yet, but they are already looking for the right people to serve.

And then there are other “young people,” the members of the Nashi (Ours) movement. Dressed in identical team jackets (it is clear who footed that bill), they are bused in an organized fashion to pro-Putin rallies.

Here they are on Pushkin Square, guarded by the police. They are singing songs and yelling patriotic slogans right at the moment when, on the other side of Tverskaya, the OMON is beating the March of the Dissenters with billy clubs.

Here are some other “young people.” They attend the Marches of the Dissenters not because they are dissenters but because they are provocateurs.

Finally, there are the Live Journal users. They are not members of any party, and they do not go to demonstrations. They are, however, incredibly active when it comes to voicing their support for practically any government campaign. They curse Georgians and Estonians and pensioners who refuse to sell off their garden plots in the countryside outside of Moscow.

These are not simply examples of “grassroots political activism.” There is nowhere from which such activism could emerge: the time is not disposed towards it. This is a new social space that has taken shape precisely in the last several years: we might describe it as an open call for a place in the sun. Only there is no search committee and no list of qualifications for the jobseekers. It is probably not even a job competition but a show in which only the most cynical end up in power or on the tube. All the other applicants master the art of “natural cynicism” (the ability not to see pain, humiliation or the trampling of liberty), expecting a summons to serve in the most miserable “bureaucratic” (in the broadest sense of the word) postings, where these mid-level satraps will employ their skills with the right amount of zeal.

A graduate of the school of political perceptivity, the new-model individual has been hatched in record time. This is the type of people Gleb Pavlovsky has dubbed “the victors.” They are instantly recognizable: they are the ones who talk about the “horrors of Yeltsin-era democracy,” who criticize the Dissenters for their lack of a “positive” program, who rejoice over the country’s growing budget and the size of the Stabilization Fund, who condemn businessmen who cheat on their taxes, who calculate how much doctors, teachers, and pensioners do not get as a result (while of course forgetting that tax revenues go to the state, which despite its enormous budget does not pay the needy anything). We could go on. While it would be wrong to say that all these folks are well off, they are already “others.” Even if their grip on power and money is still slight, power and money figure virtually in their way of thinking, in their sensibility. The state needs such people. They are the new (dependent) “power” elite. A semi-powerful elite whose power extends to the moment when they are reminded who made them what they are and how. Semi-victors.

But what is to be done with the losers? What is to be done with those whom we still call ordinary people? With people who keep their counsel and watch TV? (Whether they condemn or support Putin while doing so is unimportant.) With those who, with the best will in the world and even in their wildest fantasies, are unable to appreciate the Stabilization Fund’s significance? With those who protest when driven to their wit’s end, only to be told that they do not have permits to demonstrate and that the principles of democracy dictate that they should pursue their rights only through the courts?

The watershed that has happened today cannot be reduced to a divide between rich and poor. The media find it convenient to represent the state of affairs in this way, thus directing the energy of protest against the oligarchs. In today’s Russia, the demarcation line runs between “victors” and “losers.” It is not a line, even, but an abyss. Leaping from one camp to another is no simple matter. Strange as it may seem, it is much easier to become a “victor” (a lot is done to smooth the road to victory). It is much harder to side with the “losers,” to share with the injured their experience of humiliation.

No one needs the losers. They are not simply forgotten: systematically, for years on end, they have been the victims of real genocide. Everything points to the fact that it is not only the Anastasia Chekhovskayas of the world but also the central authorities themselves who are waiting for entire segments of the population to become extinct naturally. The lumpen will be the first to go. Then the pensioners. Then the people who for some odd reason continue to give them medical treatment. Then the people who continue to work in small towns and villages for a pauper’s wage. (In this sense, apparently, they expose their “passive” natures.) Then the people who remember something. Those who do not want to join the jubilant ranks of the victors will be the last to go.

Politics in Putin’s Russia is almost wholly constructed around the principle of exclusion. If you are not loyal to state power, then sooner or later you will end up a loser. Ordinary work that is even minimally connected to politics has taken on a completely different character. Whereas it was once possible to speak of “convictions” or “temporary alliances,” nowadays the line between cooperation and strikebreaking has become precariously thin and is disappearing by the day.

During Soviet times, people joined the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) because it was a condition for enrolling in university. They joined the Communist Party only because it was, once again, concomitant with professional advancement. Everyone understood the ambiguity of the situation: during the Brezhnev years, the number of sincere communists could have been counted on the fingers of one hand. Moreover, although there were frightfully few dissidents and human rights activists in those days, an enormous number of people (the majority, perhaps) were, if not exactly nonconformist, then “in disagreement” with the regime. Perestroika showed that such “dissenters” were numerous even within the country’s communist leadership.

rogelio-3

Nowadays, there is no obligation to join the party, but one has to be a “consenter”: to be statist in one’s thinking; or, to be more precise, to have a body malleable to the state’s line. Otherwise, you are excluded, even if you are just a human being, not a dissident. Exclusion has become the principle of state policy. This exclusion is both economic and political. One has to be in the business of servicing the authorities or the natural resources extraction industries; if you are not, you will be forgotten. When the excluded are remembered, it is via the latest talk show (most often, during an election campaign), which usually leads to nothing. One has to go to the polls and vote for one of the party lists, any of which has long consisted of nothing but “victors” who are barely distinguishable from one another. If you are apolitical or a “protester,” then nowadays you do not exist: the minimal turnout threshold has been abolished, and so has the “against all” option on the ballot. Thus, the legal space for protest has been disappearing. So when you head to the polls to engage in the most democratic of democratic acts, you unwillingly become obedient to the general line and even a bit of a strikebreaker.

Isn’t this word too harsh? I don’t think so. You might ask: Where is the “strike,” the protest, the political movement (finally) that this great mass of people is, suddenly, breaking? Do you really think it is only the comments of television talking heads and the provocateurs planted in the crowd of protestors that lead me to such conclusions? After all, the former will foam at the mouth as they prove to you that they really are voicing their own beliefs, while the latter will claim they are merely engaged in run-of-the-mill “effective” politics. It is true: there is something awkward about the word, but in its harshness, it is quite accurate. There really is, as it were, nothing much to break (all protest actions are local and turn out few protestors), while the self-image of these people is just the opposite—that of positive builders. If we ask what it is they are building, however, then it will be clear what it is they are breaking.

Each and every one of them is building a “strong state.” They are volunteers. In the best (and extremely rare) case, they are sincere enthusiasts, but in principle, they are calculating pragmatists. The rationale of the strong state requires a triumph of victors over the vanquished on both the foreign and the domestic fronts. While it is easy to find foreign enemies (and even easier to find weak foreign enemies), on the home front the hunt for “enemies of the people” (aka enemies of the state) has already begun. And it is the people who protest—pensioners, the impoverished intelligentsia, part of the student body—who turn out be the enemies. It is of little importance who is “left-wing” and who is “right-wing” because their protest is not mere protest. It is a revolt, albeit for the time being a rather mild revolt. Although it is nonpolitical in character, it is occasioned by the political situation.

Revolt is a lawless thing. So-called democratic rights—the right to vote, the right of assembly and peaceful protest, the right to strike, the right to have one’s grievances redressed in the courts—are intended to limit the possibilities of revolt. They are mechanisms for regulating social discontent. That is why it is so hard to reject “democracy.” At the end of the day, it is an advantageous form of governance for states, especially those inextricably bound up with big capital. Tyrannies have the habit of crushing revolts, while democracies create mechanisms for controlling them. Any revolt can instantly be interpreted in political terms and used by politicians of all stripes for their own purposes.

The Kasyanovs and Khakamadas will always try and set up their soapboxes in the midst of a politically formless protest. Nor it is an accident that members of the absolutely servile Public Chamber appear amongst the outraged residents of the Moscow suburb of Butovo, rather than somewhere in the sticks, where the violence directed against its citizens by the state is no milder.

Aside from protest, however, revolt has another aspect: the stoppage of work. Not just any specific kind of work, but the work of the state itself. Hence, those who relate negatively to all forms of revolt are either bureaucrats or strikebreakers. The former are fond of repeating ad infinitum that protestors should use only legal means to exercise their rights. They are hostage to the notion that democracy is a form of the state. In practice, this transforms democracy into a means of manipulation. The latter group (and nowadays the numbers of such people are growing) consists of bodies. They are bodies that have become elements in the state machine (a “powerful” and “successful” machine), whose smooth functioning requires the elimination of all obstacles. The main obstacle is the class of unwanted, superfluous people. It is telling that the bodies servicing the state system constantly regale us with the rhetoric of “positiveness” and “hard effort.” While we are working, they are protesting. We draft new legislation, but all they do is hold demos. We are building the state up, but they are trying to tear it down.

In fact, revolts have become an important factor in our attempt to make sense of the present situation. From a political point of view, they do not exist. There are only random excesses committed by marginalized groups, and these excesses are described in a purely negative key. There is, however, a principally positive element in revolts that is not visible to political analysts. This positive element has to do with the fact that any revolt falsifies politics. To put it another way, life itself uses revolt to falsify politics, to point out the falsity of its claims.

It is no longer different species of politics at odds in this case, but different ethics. The first ethic is the corporate ethic, which has lately become ubiquitous—the ethic of doing what needs to be done, of usefulness and reliability. The second ethic is the ethic of community. It means standing with those people whose tastes, views, and ideals you cannot share, with people who are sometimes completely different from you. But you stand with them only because you are willing to join them in a community based on the experience of injustice, which everyone knows to one degree or another. Not recorded on any scrolls, the community ethic is the continually repressed source that nourishes the idea of democracy. It cannot be eliminated completely, although politics has developed a multitude of instruments for making us forget it. Once you do forget, however, you shall forever be deaf to the violence that is perpetrated right outside your door—sometimes by your own hand.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Updated on August 30, 2019. Images courtesy of Jane the Virgin and Ororo