Svetlana Alexievich’s Dead Ends

DSCN2329Repeated endlessly by the Russophone liberal intelligentsia over the past three decades, claims that Russians are genetically programmed Stalinists and thus inevitably suspectible to Putin’s nonexistent charms and his neo-authoritarianism are false and pernicious cognitive dead ends that have done untold amounts of damage to the country’s grassroots democratic movements. Photo by the Russian Reader

With all due respect to the writer Svetlana Alexievich and her imaginary addressee, the late Anna Politkovskaya, Ms. Alexievich’s letter to Politkovskaya, published two days ago in the Washington Post, is the kind of reckless Russian liberal intelligentsia nonsense that saps people of the will to resist in the first place.

It also happens to be wildly wrong in the sweeping claims it makes, both objectively and subjectively.

“Now it is Putin who talks to them; he’s learned from our mistakes. But it’s not about Putin alone; he’s just saying what the people want to hear. I would say that there’s a little bit of Putin in every Russian. I’m talking about the collective Putin: We thought that it was the Soviet power that was the problem, but it was all about the people.

“The Soviet way of thinking lives on in our minds and our genes. How quickly has the Stalinist machine set to work again. With what skill and enthusiasm everyone is once again denouncing each other, catching spies, beating people up for being different . . . Stalin has risen! Throughout Russia they are building monuments to Stalin, putting up Stalin’s portraits, opening museums in Stalin’s memory.”

Really? Throughout Russia? I would imagine these portraits, monuments, and museums (?) number in the dozens, if that many.

Meanwhile, I have it on impeccable authority that Last Address and the hundreds of ordinary extraordinary Petersburgers who have joined them have erected nearly three hundred plaques commemorating the victims of Stalin’s Great Terror over the last few years.

In fact, there are are three such plaques at the entrance to my building. I see people stopping, looking at them, reading them, and taking snapshots of them all the time.

It is an insult to everyone who has been involved in Last Address and the other myriad acts of resistance great and small over the last twenty years, including, of course, Politkovskaya herself, to claim “there’s a little bit of Putin in every Russian.”

In fact, there are millions of Russians who do not have even a teensy bit of Putin in them, whatever that would mean. If you don’t believe me, take a few or several or ten dozen dips into this website and its predecessor over their eleven-year, nearly two thousand-post run.

You will not see and hear what Russia is “really like,” but experience a few or several or ten dozen ways in which Russia is definitely NOT “Putin’s Russia.” You will read and hear the words and the stories of rank-and-file Russians who, remarkably if you believe Ms. Alexievich’s boilerplate, music to certain western ears, are nothing like Putin at all.

When will any of the wiseguys who dictate our opinions about everything from “Putin’s Russia” to the latest Star Wars movies tell us about those other Russians and other Russias? {TRR}

Taxi

Elena Rykovtseva
Facebook
March 19, 2018

I was riding tonight in a taxi driven by someone with a surprising name: Nasimjon. I was watching Solovyov’s show on my telephone. His guests were voicing the warmest feelings of devotion to the winner of the race.
“He got so many votes not because he had the administrative resource behind him, but because people love and respect him,” said Andrei Maximov, presenter of the program Duty Officer for the Country.
My [sic] Nasimjon was silently listening to this splendor with me. At some point, moved by the emotions of the people speaking, he voiced his own.
“I was so scared today.”
“What was wrong?”
“I typed the question, ‘How much did Putin get in Moscow?’ into Yandex. The answer I got was eleven percent for him, and seventy-three percent for Grudinin. I was frightened.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Because the situation in the world is such that where would be without Putin? Look what’s going on around us: England and America again. Who else can deal with them?”
“Why do we need to deal with America?”
“They dream of ripping us to shreds. They kill everybody. They occupy everybody and kill them.”
“Who have they killed?”
“Iraq, Afghanistan. They organized the coup in Ukraine.”
“Did you hear that on TV?”
“No, my passengers told me. Plus, the Americans think everyone else is stupid.”
“Who told you that?”
“My Armenian friend. He’s lived in America for twenty years. He says that in the textbooks over there it’s written that Americans are smart, and everyone else is stupid. But Putin has made everyone fear us.”
“That’s a good thing?”
“It is.”
“Maybe it would be better if we were respected and liked?”
“It doesn’t work that way with the Americans. We have to make them fear us.”
“So, how did this thing with Putin end? You believed the figures were real?”
“Yes, I did, and that’s why I got scared. But then I turned on Business FM Radio, and it turned out it was the other way around, that Putin had seventy-three percent, and Grudinin, eleven percent. So now everything here is going to be fine.”
“What’s going to be fine?”
“Putin’s friends have already had their fill of stealing. If new guys had come to power, it would have started all over again.”
Ugh.

The author is a presenter on Radio Svoboda, the Russian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo of the cast of Taxi courtesy of Asian Image

P.S. “What the taxi driver told me” has long been a common genre in Russian social media, especially the Russophone segment of Facebook. In most such stories, whether true or fabricated, the taxi driver is a stand-in for (debased) popular wisdom, for the Russian folk (russkii narod), meaning “ordinary,” “rank-and-file” Russians, whom the Russian liberal intelligentsia have historically imagined as a benighted, homogeneous mass.

The twist in this particular variation on the yarn is that the taxi driver’s name, Nasimjon, indicates he is clearly not ethnically Russian, meaning he hales from the Caucasus or Central Asia, or he was born in Moscow, but his parents moved there from one or other of these regions.

Even with this “politically correct” update, the genre remains problematic. It is more a symptom of the liberal intelligentsia’s failure to account for its own role in generating and maintaining the successive tyrannies that have plagued Russia since the nineteenth century, when the intelligentsia per se could be said to have been born as a kind of social subclass or metaclass, than it is a window onto the world of the “common people.”

To put it less murkily, if you stop talking to “taxi drivers” and listen to what actual Russians of all shapes, sizes, colors, and classes have to say and find out how they have either adapted to the Putinist tyranny or resisted it, you are as likely to discover resistance and clear thinking among supposed members of the Russian folk, among the people whom liberal Russians contemptuously refer to as “philistines” (obyvateli), as you would among the self-identified liberal intelligentsia.

Over the last several years, this website has featured many such inspiring stories of grassroots, working-class and lower middle-class resistance to the current Russian despotism, including the saga of the country’s fiercely militant independent truckers and the tale of the so-called partisans of Suna, a group of pensioners in Karelia who camped out in their beloved local old-growth forest to protect it, its environment, and their own humble livelihoods from local officials and developers, who wanted to build a road through it and turn part of it into a sand quarry.

Of course, there have also been many tales of similarly fierce, thoughtful resistance by Russians who by virtue of their educations and professions could be classified as intelligentsia. It is just that the vast majority of such intelligenstia militants are too clear sighted to sink to the vulgar sociology and flagrant mythologeme that would blame uneducated, poor, downtrodden, disempowered, and mostly invisible Russians for the country’s problems and Putin’s long-lived and wholly engineered “popularity.” TRR