“Are We Still Alive?”: Olga Serebryanaya on Russia’s New Ideology

Are We Still Alive? Why the Thirty- and Forty-Something Generation Has Retreated into Political Oblivion
Olga Serebryanaya
October 2, 2014
Snob.ru

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.

ozero2

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
Olga Serebryanaya
October 9, 2014
online812.ru

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.

Zorkin: The Road (Back) to Serfdom?

valery-court-constitutional-chairman-862.siValery Zorkin

A little over a week ago, western media outlets made a big little fuss over an article by Russian Supreme Court chief justice Valery Zorkin, published on September 26 by Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper. They accused Zorkin of advocating a “return to serfdom.” Elena Holodny, writing in Business Insider, seems to have broken the story in the English-language press and thus set the tone for subsequent coverage:

He advocates for serfdom and says that it was the main “staple” holding Russia together in the 19th century. He justifies his argument by saying that serfdom is beneficial for the serfs.

In the article he writes (translated from the original Russian by Business Insider):

Even with all of its shortcomings, serfdom was exactly the main staple holding the inner unity of the nation. It was no accident that the peasants, according to historians, told their former masters after the reforms: ‘We were yours, and you — ours.’

[…]

The roughly translated term “staple” (in Russian “скрепа”) is significant. It’s an older word that has become popular in recent years after Putin used it in a news conference in 2012.

Prior to the conference, that word was basically never used in speech.

In the news conference, Putin said there was a “lack of a spiritual staples” among Russians — meaning there was no spiritual unity. And he subsequently indicated that Russia needed a “spiritual cleanse.”

“Putin essentially used the term ‘скрепа’ to mean the ‘spiritual staples that unite the Russian society.’ He was saying that we need a spiritual unity amongst the whole Russian society,” a Moscovite [sic] told Business Insider.

Following Putin’s news conference, Russian politicians and citizens have started using the word all over the place.

And Zorkin is following suit by using the Putin terminology to indicate that serfdom is the “spiritual staple that unites the [Russian] society.”

In the current climate of cheap hysteria and mental laziness, it is easier to make headlines, literally, saying a top Russian official wants his country to return to serfdom than to read his long, mostly dry-as-dust, pseudo-scholarly article and figure out what he was really trying to say. The payoff, in fact, comes in the final three paragraphs of Zorkin’s article, in which there is no mention, much less “praise,” of serfdom (the emphasis, below, is mine):

Opinion polls and many conflicts in our courts show that the broad masses of our people only suffer as a given the style and type of social, economic, political, and cultural life that the era after the revolution of 1991 brought to Russia. But internally they do not regard them as just and proper.

Moreover, polls show that the greatest degree of aversion pertains to legislative innovations that attack the moral and ethical sphere of social life. [This aversion] is registered primarily among religious people, regardless of denominational affiliation. It is especially pronounced among the older and middle generations. In contrast to the results of opinion polls taken a decade ago, however, it has also begun to manifest itself quite clearly among completely atheistic young people. The new legislative “tolerance” in family, gender, behavioral, and educational relations has been met with growing and increasingly widespread protest.

In connection with the above considerations and historical analogies, I want to reiterate a thesis that I have repeatedly voiced before. Any attempt to overcome “in a single leap” the gap between the law (and law enforcement) and mass perceptions of welfare and justice are fraught with social stress, shock, the growth of all kinds of alienation within society, and between society and the authorities, and, finally, social chaos. Which, as a rule, has to be extinguished by means of counter-reforms and repression.

Zorkin’s article is thus an apology not for serfdom as such. After all, before it was abolished, serfdom really had been the glue that held the Russian political economy together, just as slavery had been in the southern American states, and Zorkin goes to great lengths in his article to show that the nineteenth-century Russian elites, even the nominal conservatives among them, mostly agreed that serfdom was an evil that had to be “extinguished”—eventually and ever so gradually. The article is, rather, a defense of the current reactionary regime, which has increasingly used a combination of funhouse mirrors (“pollocracy,” the relentless manufacture and promotion of moral panics, wildly manipulative and frantically suspicious media coverage of political and social conflicts abroad, “weaponized absurdity”), outright crackdowns on prominent political dissidents, and targeted ultraviolence to persuade itself, the various Russian publics (whether liberal, leftist, conservative or indifferent), and western reporters, policymakers, and pundits that it is acting on behest of a “conservative” popular base dwelling in the heretofore unknown “Russian heartlands.” And even (by way of giving the talking classes more nonexistent fat to chew) that this newfound “traditionalism” has considerable appeal well beyond those heartlands, in the allegedly morally fatigued countries of the perpetually collapsing liberal West.

As a friend of mine wrote to me when we were discussing Zorkin’s article, “It is no longer enough to gang up on gays. We must also make women wear long skirts and headscarves. And forbid them from getting a higher education.” This new overwhelming necessity to de-modernize Russia, however, is not grounded in an actual conservative groundswell or the perennial aversion of the “broad Russian masses” to reform and (God forbid) revolution. Rather, it is meant to jam up brain cells so they cannot ponder (much less act against) sleights of hand like this:

Sanctioned [Russian oligarch] villa owners could be reimbursed with Russian pension savings: The government said in mid-September it was setting up a fund to support sanctioned companies, which would receive a cut of the 309 billion rubles ($7.8 billion) gleaned from redirecting part of the public’s pension savings to the budget this year, the RBC news agency said at the time.

Zorkin has not been the only top Russian official contemplating the lessons of Russian history in the past couple of weeks:

German Gref, head of Russia’s biggest lender Sberbank, on Friday castigated systemic inefficiencies in the Russian government that, he said, waste trillions of rubles and threaten to drag Russian society back into Soviet times.

“We have inconceivable social costs in the area of public administration,” Gref said in a speech to investors and top officials gathered at the VTB Russia Calling investment forum.

These costs increase government spending and render well-intended initiatives ineffectual, threatening Russia with a repeat of past mistakes, he said.

“[Soviet leaders] didn’t respect the laws of economic development. Even more, they didn’t know them, and in the end this caught up with them. It is very important for us to learn from our own history,” Gref said.

Actually, Gref’s speech was much more revolutionary (whatever you think of his neoliberal biases) than this mild account would suggest. If you listen to the whole thing (below, in Russian), you will realize it was a direct attack on the myth of Putin’s extreme competence as a manager of economic policy and the omniscient wizard behind Russian’s alleged newfound prosperity:

In this light, Zorkin’s article should not be seen as a literal call for a return to serfdom, but yet another warning (dolled up, as is often the case with pseudo-scholarship like his, as a “sober” reading of Russian history) that at least one important part of the ruling class is supremely ready and willing to deepen and expand the Duginist quasi-Talibanesque media spectacle of the past year, in which basically anyone at all (except the ruling class itself, of course) is blamed for Russia’s misfortunes or accused of plotting against it—the “Kiev junta,” “foreign agents” (i.e., local NGOs defending basic rights), NATO, Obama, singer Andrei Makarevich, “Ukrainian fascists,” western rock bands, Greenpeace activists, the EU, American students studying Russian at Petersburg universities, “extremist” journalists, you name it. The only solution offered for repelling these “assaults” is to intellectually and culturally medievalize the country that once, not so long ago, gave the world its first artificial satellite and sent the first man into space. But the real point of all this flailing is to prevent anyone from asking too forcefully why this incredibly wealthy country’s vast human and natural resources are siphoned away on frivolous mega projects like the Sochi Olympics and making a few members of a lakeside dacha cooperative fantastically wealthy.

In any case, serfdom’s alleged new best friend, like so many latter-day enemies of “innovative” gender relations and education for women, was singing a very different tune (almost the opposite one, in fact) only eight years ago. They do have ways of making a guy talk. And polling the life out of people whose heads they are otherwise stuffing with nonsense and who cannot be trusted to vote the “right” way.