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.
Judging by virtual and real encounters in recent weeks, Russophonia has been doing its darnedest to descend into a war of all against all.
Thus, at the birthday party of an old family friend, a group of Russian physicians—people who run whole departments of hospitals and even whole hospitals—artlessly segued from running down the birthday boy’s grandson, who was seated only a table’s length away from them, and is one of the sweetest young men I have ever met, to making baldfaced statements such as “Putin is the guarantee of stability,” “There should be more than one currency in the world,” and outright nationalist assaults, prompted partly by the fact I had been introduced to the other guests not by name, but as a “citizen of country X.”
Meanwhile, on the other end of the Russophoniacal political spectrum, which looks a lot like the opposite end, only it is topsy-turvy and striped, a well-known Ukrainian provocateur decided to take a few swipes at me on Facebook by claiming I “defended” Russia.
What he really meant by this, I could not figure out for the life of me, but I gathered that the point of his mostly incoherent remarks was that, since I write about Russia and edit a website about Russia, I was thus inadvertently or even deliberately legitimizing the country.
The problem for professional Russophobes like him is that Russia exists and has existed for a long time. No one can wish it away, just as we cannot wish away climate change, rampant poverty or racism. But we can wish for a world without any of these things or a lot less of these things, and we can make that world a reality.
Russians can also wish for a more democratic, egalitarian Russia and make that a reality, too. If, like me, you are not in a position to engage directly in the country’s democratization by virtue of your nationality, you can at least help people in Russia campaigning for a freer, fairer country by writing about them and, more generally, by providing or seeking a clearer, more detailed picture of what has been going on in Russia, and what the causes of current events in Russia really are, refusing to accept the lazy non-explanations of Russophobes, Russophiles, crypto-Putinists, and bored academics alike.
My Ukrainian detractor was not having any of it, alas. My unwillingness to accept the falsehood that Russians are mostly bad to the bone was more proof I was soft on Russia.
The crux of our disagreement was that I refused to concede that there are inordinately large numbers of bad or stupid people in Russia, as compared with other countries. On the other hand, I do believe, on the basis of long years of in-country observation, conversations with thousands of Russians, and intense and extensive reading of the Russian press and the relevant literature, that Putin’s alleged popularity is an authoritarian construct, not an expression of the popular will.
This is an argument that needs to be made in full, which I have done in bits and bobs over the last few years, often by translating the work of Russian observers who have made similar claims. That is, it is, at least, a rational argument that has a good deal of evidence to support it.
I definitely do not believe in collective guilt, which my Ukrainian interlocutor seemed to think was as natural as the sun rising in the morning.
My detractor believed in lots of noxious things and decided he could dump them down my throat by way of debunking the ten-plus years of hard work I have put in covering Russia from an angle no one else covers it.
Several of my comrades and friends were party to this ridiculous conversation, but instead of defending me or at least pointing out the flaws in the Ukrainian provocateur’s completely blowsy argument, they just let him spit in my face repeatedly, although his only real object was to get my goat and disparage my work.
Here we arrive at an actual—not imaginary—problem in Russia these days: the lack of solidarity among people who should otherwise feel it and exercise it towards each other and, in its absence, the sickening phenomenon of people standing by idly and silently as out-and-out bullies—the police, Putin, NOD, “Cossacks,” Russian physicians, Ukrainian provocateurs, and so forth—beat up other people physically or verbally or both.
In the aftermath of solidarity’s triumph in the Yuri Dmitriev case, a groundswell has been seemingly gathering to support the nine young Penza and Petersburg antifascists abducted and tortured by the FSB, and then accused, absurdly, of being wannabe terrorists supposedly hellbent on causing mayhem during the March presidential election and upcoming World Football Cup.
If the groundswell really does exist, the credit for it should go to an incredibly tiny group of people who decided they had to make a lot of noise about the case at all costs. Most of these people are 100% Russians, whatever that means, and I have rarely been so inspired as I have been by this group of people, most of whom are also fairly young and predominantly female.
In fact, if you read this and its predecessor, Chtodelat News, you will find lots of stories, some of them going ten years back, chockablock with smart, courageous, team-oriented, democratic, egalitarian Russians.
Russia thus has every chance of becoming a democratic, egalitarian country in the foreseeable future. But the same could be said of the United States and a whole host of other countries—the vast majority of countries on earth, I would imagine—that either have strayed too far from the democratic path or never were quite on track in the first place.
Democracy is not an essential feature of some peoples and countries, while despotism is an essential feature of other peoples and countries. If you believe that canard, it will not be long before you are saying the Jews are entirely responsible for the mess we are in, the Palestinians are capable only of terrorism, the Americans are too blame for all the world’s problems (including problems they really did not have a hand in causing) or your own people (fill in the blank) are too corrupt, swinish, and stupid to govern themselves, so a dictator like Putin or Assad has to do the job for them. There is no alternative, in other words.
Democracy is something we do together. We either practice hard and try to make every note bend just right or we don’t practice at all or not often enough, in which case a cynical cacophonist like Putin or Trump gets to call the tune for us. Not because we are inherently racist or authoritarian, but mostly because we are too scared, indifferent, busy, self-absorbed, lazy and sorely tempted not to listen to our better natures and see the good in others.
But we are obviously not essentially good, either. We are the political animals who have the power to make and remake ourselves and our societies in ways that are better and worse. We also have to decide all the time what constitutes better and worse.
If you do not believe this, you do not believe in the power of politics and do not understand the “mystery” of human beings. Ultimately, you think that some humans or all humans are too wayward and disorganized to get their act together, and therefore should be policed.
I did not think up this distinction between politics and policing myself. A far wiser and thoughtful man than I am, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière did, but as the years go by, seemingly becoming nastier and darker, I see how his distinction does get to the heart of the matter.
This is simplifying the matter unforgivably, but you are either on the side of politics or the side of the police.
Politics is messy and usually not particularly satisfying, but it is the only way we have to approximate knowing all the things we have to know to make and enact good decisions that affect us all.
Policing, on the other hand, is easy as pie. Entire groups, classes, peoples, and groups are declared out of bounds and thus subject to police action. If you argue with the police about their inclusion of a particular group of people on its list of “not our kind of folks,” they will say what police always say on such occasions—”Oh, so you’re in cahoots with them?”—and rap you over the head with a truncheon.
In the years I have been editing websites and deliberately misusing social media for the same purposes, I have been rapped over the head with heavy verbal truncheons so many times I am now permanently punch drunk.
Most of the policing, unsurprisingly, has been meted out by Russophones, many of whom really do suffer from chauvinism of a kind that, at best, does not brook the possibility that a non-native Russophone could have anything worthwhile to say about Russian politics and society. The Ukrainian provocateur was from this school of opinion.
Since there are something like twenty people in the world—seriously!—who genuinely support what I do here, I guess I will keep doing it, but the other day’s round of kangaroo boxing left me seriously wary about people whom I had considered comrades. // TRR
Photo by the Russian Reader