I was seven years old when a distant relative, the brother of my great-aunt’s husband, showed up at our dacha. He was stuck there for the whole summer. We called him Uncle Misha. He was decidedly unlike my parents and their acquaintances. Having him around caused me grief at the time, but now I am grateful to fate, because in the person of Uncle Misha, Russia (from whose sight my relatives had erratically shielded me) came into my life.
Like Russia, Uncle Misha was extremely stupid. The first thing he did was dig up a huge boulder sticking out of the ground in the garden, and spend a whole month chiseling an inscription on it. The inscription was long: “On April 22, 1870, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the world proletariat, was born.” Uncle Misha painted each embossed letter white.
Besides, he liked to drink, and that addiction laid waste to his dreams. The fact was that Uncle Misha wanted a bicycle most of all and saved up for one for a long time. When he had purchased a bike, Uncle Misha went to Solnechnoye to celebrate the occasion. He fell asleep at a beer stall, and the bike was immediately filched.
Like Russia, however, Uncle Misha had amazing skills. I remember how he picked a basketful of pine cones, took out our decorative, Nicholas I-era samovar, filled it with the cones, soldered the leaky spigot, stoked the pipe almost with his boot, and brewed some extremely tasteless tea.
Then he disappeared, and a couple of years later he died of cancer. It was all a long time ago, and I would have forgotten Uncle Misha, but now he has suddenly risen from the grave. I constantly see and hear (mostly at a safe distance, thank God) the people who surrounded me as a child. There are the old women crushing each other whilst queueing for sugar, officious Auntie Motyas with serious hairdos, exact replicas of my teachers and head teachers, the peasants wearing baggy-kneed trousers, the gopniks with herring eyes — they are the grandsons and granddaughters of the Soviet people who so spoiled my childhood. They have been cloned whole, already dressed and sporting mohair hats and berets from the get-go.
I spent a whole month this past winter in Petersburg and saw them at every turn. While I was it, I went to a Chris Marker retrospective that friends of mine put on. There were about twenty people in the large auditorium, and I knew almost all of them personally — five organizers, five foreigners, and ten university students.
After getting any eyeful of this, I was persuaded that it was impossible to improve this country. It keeps churning out people on the same old conveyor belt, but no cataclysm is capable of stopping it. And right now I’m even more convinced that this is the case.
If a Russian loves Russia, he’s a patriot. If a Ukrainian loves Ukraine, he’s a “Bandera nationalist.”
If pro-Russian slogans are bandied about in Russia, it’s normal. If pro-Ukrainian slogans are bandied about in Ukraine, it’s “Nazism.”
If the Russian president talks to the American president, he’s forging better relations between their two countries. If the Ukrainian president talks to the American president, they’re “hatching a plot” against Russia.
If a Russian national speaks Russian, it is par for the course. If a Ukrainian speaks Ukrainian, he is “persecuting” Russophones.
When you see footage from protest rallies in the Russian Federation, all that ring-around-the rosy, or watch broadcasts made by the Russian emigration in Tbilisi, you immediately recall one of Jünger’s journal entries in Strahlungen. Although, admittedly, some Russians, a few, have already caught sight of the abyss out of the corner of their eyes.
PARIS, 14 JUNE 1942
Went to Bagatelle in the afternoon. There Charmille told me that students had recently been arrested for wearing yellow stars with different mottoes, such as “idealist,” and then walking along the Champs-Ėlysées as a demonstration.
Such individuals do not yet realize that the time for discussion is past. They also attribute a sense of humor to their adversary. In so doing, they are like children who wave flags while swimming in shark-infested waters: they draw attention to themselves.
[Ernst Jünger, A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941–1945, trans. Thomas S. Hansen and Abby J. Hansen (Columbia University Press, 2019)]
We have to admit that our generation of Russian anti-authoritarian leftists drew the short straw when it comes to the people [narod]. I want to emphasize, though, that they are not the way they are “genetically.” They have been raised to be this way. Yes, there was a seed of imperial mindedness, but without soil and fertilizers, that godawful hogweed would not have grown.
– Brutal capitalism and maximum competition multiplied by the cult of success, causing universal brutalization and an inability to communicate.
– The survival tactic that follows from the first subprogram: identifying with the powerful aka blaming the victim. If you want to foster a nation of stern warriors, you foster a nation of toadies. Hence our servility and respect for ranks.
– A regime based on a twenty-year-long counter-terrorism operation.
“I need love and vodka,” says one young woman to another. Everyone is so joyful.
T-shirts sporting the Z symbol are sold in the pedestrian underpass near Gostiny Dvor. Near the the exit from Gribanal [Griboyedov Canal subway station], a woman sells willow branches [for Palm Sunday, which is this Sunday in the Russian Orthodox calendar], the Soviet flag flying above her. A jeep adorned with a huge [Russian] tricolor cruises near Kazan Cathedral. A car branded with the letter Z is parked in Bankovsky Lane.
I don’t know whether I will ever be able to love this city again. Or at least not feel sick. I walk around it looking for niches, corners, secret places where I can hide, pretend to be a shadow cast by the caryatids, so that I won’t be found, pried out, and forced to be part of universal vileness.
Source: Comrade JG, Facebook, 16 April 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader with the kind permission of the author, who wishes to remain anonymous.
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?”
“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.”
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
Russia is the world’s largest country in size and the ninth largest by population, but almost no one is interested in what actual Russians really think, least of all the Russian government, Russia’s leading pollsters, and the domestic and international media that dutifully cite the dubious results of their so-called opinion polls. Photo by the Russian Reader
Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.
What is there to be or do?
What’s become of me or you?
Are we kind or are we true?
Sitting two and two, boys, waiting for the end.
—William Empson, “Just a Smack at Auden”
Antifascists and antiracists often advocate the notion of “no platform,” meaning that no decent public institution, be it a university, a newspaper or a city council, should allow white supremacists, neo-Nazis, fascists, racists, and other ultra right-wingers to lecture on campus, publish their opinions in respectable periodicals or march down the streets shouting their vicious slogans.
I have begun to think the practice of “no platform” should be applied to the notorious troika of Russia’s top pollsters: Levada Center, VTsIOM, and FOM. The extremely valuable propaganda work they do for the Putin regime is often hilariously identified as “sociology” in Russian, but this is an insult to the real, tough-minded and rigorous sociologists doing actual research.
Although Levada Center was inexplicably tagged as a “foreign agent” in 2016, everyone who works there deserves a medal or two from the Kremlin, because the so-called pollsters at Levada have been working relentlessly over the years to prove a hypothesis dear to the hearts of a certain kind of Russian liberal or Russian conservative: that Russian society mainly consists of extremely stupid, servile proletarians who still love Stalin, long for a “strong hand” in the Kremlin, and enthusiastically support Vladimir Putin whatever he does and however he does it.
VTsIOM and FOM are up to much the same thing, the only difference being they serve the regime quite frankly and openly, unlike Levada Center, which pretends to engaged in a “scientific” mapping of Russian society on behalf of the opposition.
The problem is none of the polls any member of the troika publishes is worth the paper they are printed on, because, from a logical, discursive, and emotional viewpoint, they are flawed. To put it bluntly, they all ask the same unanswerable question: “Have you stopped beating your wife?”
The anthropologist Gregory Bateson called this dilemma a “double bind,” a situation in which no matter how you react, you are screwed, implicating yourself in something you had nothing to do with and might never have even contemplated doing your entire life. That is, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Meaning that the ethical burden is on the so-called pollsters. If they posed pointed, politicized questions to their respondent, such as whether they approve of Putin or think highly of the KGB or Stalin, as people brought up in a society that, historically, was first terrorized by the Romanov dynasty, then by the Bolsheviks, then, briefly, by the Nazis, and now, over the past eighteen years, by the Putinists, you can reasonably assume a very large percentage of them imagine there is a “right” answer to these questions and a “wrong” answer. Although there is no evidence people who give “wrong” answers to the questions in current Russian opinion polls suffer the consequences for their dissidence, it is better to be safe than sorry, especially when it is a complete stranger asking you these odd questions over the phone. Maybe he didn’t call you at random? Maybe his “poll” is a test of your loyalty?
Hence, all these polls are worthless as a measure of so-called Russian public opinion.
There is also what my friend the journalist Sergey Chernov once called the “TV-Levada-TV-Levada-TV (ad infinitum)” factor, meaning that the troika tend, unsurprisingly, to poll Russians about subjects that have just been subjected to a heavy propaganda barrage on the national TV channels. Thus, a good number of respondents have already been primed to respond to questions on these topics in a very specific way, thus generating a closed feedback loop that only benefits the regime, who wants its subjects passive but perpetually on message.
This brings us to the less obvious part of the nefarious work done by the troika in painting an utterly false portrait of Russian society at large, a society allegedly consisting mainly of rampant Putin supporters, racists, homophobes, Stalinists, and lovers of Cheka-NKVD-style rough justice: none of the fake polling they do would make a difference to anyone if the media, both domestic and international, were not there to report on their dubious “findings” every step of the way.
Although I have read, over the last five or six years, during which time what I have dubbed the “pollocracy” has gone completely wild, a decent number of articles by smarter people who are just as critical of the worth and reliability of the troika’s so-called public opinion polls as I am, using many of the same arguments I have just made, the media uncritically report the results of the troika’s latest polls as news events in themselves and indisputable evidence of what “Russians really think.”
To make matters worse, the overwhelming number of “Russia experts” see nothing fishy about the troika’s polls and cite their findings as fact in their lectures, scholarly articles, and white papers.
So, I have a modest proposal. If you accept the “anti-pollocratic” argument, as I have laid it out rather crudely here, you should refrain from giving a platform to the mighty troika of Russian pollsters and their demeaning, ultimately Russophobic, ultimately Putinist, incredibly skewed polls. You should not report them as news, because they are fake news. You should not cite them as facts, because they are anything but facts.
What they are is not very clever attempts to manipulate minds both inside and outside Russia. Putin is not wildly popular and thus handily wins free and fair elections. The elections are rigged up and down and sideways from the get-go in the most cynical ways possible, a real fact that has been documented and eyewitnessed several hundred thousand times by hundreds of thousands of Russians. But since the elections are rigged, and since Putin and his satraps can never be allowed to lose an election, it has to be “scientifically” proven he enjoys unwavering “broad support” amongst the unwashed masses.
This is where Russia’s troika of pollsters comes to the rescue. Their main function, funny as it might seem, is to periodically certify Putin’s runaway popularity through “scientific polls.”
All the rest is icing on the cake. As I have written, the pseudo-liberals at Levada Center have made it their pet project to prove to themselves and their pseudo-liberal admirers that the Russian people (russkii narod) are the most ignorant, dark, illiberal, and retrograde losers on the planet.
But the way they have gone about “discovering” this nonfact is as methodologically faulty as the way they have doggedly proven month after month, quarter after quarter, that Putin is astronomically beloved by “the people.” The only difference between Levada and their colleagues at VTsIOM and FOM is the significance they attach to the exact same, absolutely bogus results.
Thus anyone who cites these results as fact is doing a real disservice to the actual Russian people and the democratic cause in Russia.
If those are things you care about, you should no platform Russia’s troika of pollsters, juast as you would cast your local chapter of neo-Nazis or the North American Man-Boy Love Association into the outer darkness.
Because Russian opinion polls are as worthless, damaging, and flat out wrong as the above-named dangerous freaks. TRR