Ivan Ovsyannikov: Unity in a Vacuum

Kirov Square, Petrograd, October 28, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader
Kirov Square, Petrograd, October 28, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Unity in a Vacuum
Ivan Ovsyannikov
November 4, 2015

All holidays are rituals of unity, and it is hard to imagine society functioning without them. November 4, however, is a truly odd day, whose originators ask us to experience unity for its own sake. It reflects the emptiness of official ideology, which claims the role of a national idea.

National Unity Day (Den’ narodnogo edinstva) will never be a truly popular, grassroots holiday. Whatever our attitude to living holidays like International Women’s Day (March 8) or Victory Day (May 9), despite the vulgarity surrounding them and the distortions of their original meaning, they are still bound up with significant societal needs: honoring wives, mothers, and heroic forebears. The sense of unity experienced by millions of people at tables laden with champagne and Olivier salad is maybe illusory but it is not groundless. But who besides thuggish nationalists is capable of feeling the narcissistic pleasure of “unity” as such, especially since it is totally unclear what we are called on to rally around?

The search for a national idea in post-Soviet Russia has resembled the quest for the philosopher’s stone, and has been just as fruitless. According to the Russian Constitution, the sovereign power in the Russian state is “its multinational people,” who are usually designated by the semi-bureaucratic term rossiyane [citizens of Russia, as opposed to russkie, ethnic Russians]. And yet multiculturalism (the coexistence of different ethnic traditions within a single society) is considered a dirty word, and federalism has finally been shunted aside by the vision of Empire. Promotion of ethnic nationalism, “Russianness,” and its concomitant Russian Orthodoxy, the official “spiritual bond,” has led to the fact that Chechens, Dagestanis, and Buryats, for example, are often not regarded as “citizens of multinational Russia,” but as suspicious foreigners like the migrant workers from the once-fraternal former Soviet republics.

However, as it flirts with Russian ethnic nationalism, which has served it well in Ukraine, the regime at the same time fears its devastating consequences for empire. While reacting morbidly to the most innocent speeches about federalization, the Kremlin also prevents the holding of the so-called Russian Marches. The regime’s rhetoric contains an explosive ambiguity. On the one hand, the regime constantly tells us about the “Russian world,” thus stoking ethnic chauvinism. On the other, it talks about the country’s multinational people and the danger of nationalism.

When they invented a holiday to replace November 7 (Revolution Day), the Kremlin’s ideologues deliberately chose the vaguest phrasing possible: “national unity”  or “popular unity” [narodnoe edinstvo]. But what is “the people” [narod] today? The word is hardly equivalent to “nation” or “ethnic group.” In pre-Revolutionary Russia, the word denoted all the non-privileged classes, the “simple folk,” especially the peasants. The people was distinguished from educated society by its special (unique and authentic) way of thinking and living, as well as its perennial disempowerment and oppression. In other words, it was more a class and cultural notion than an ethnic or official legal concept.

Later, a new supranational identity, the Soviet people [sovetskii narod], was constructed. We can argue whether it was a reality or the stillborn offspring of communist propaganda. However, this concept cannot be denied its logical shapeliness. The Soviet people was the unity of working people, freed from the yoke of the past and headed towards a post-capitalist future. Unqiue, authentic tradition gave way to Soviet society’s social authenticity and uniqueness. It had overthrown tsarism and capitalism, successfully defended its independence in the fight against fascism, and was proud of its unprecedented historical mission.

In post-Soviet Russia, however, there are no longer any communal peasants or builders of communism. Russia has no monolithic ethnic foundation or alternative social project that it could show to the world and itself. All that can be said about our society it that it is post-Soviet. But there can be no “post-Soviet” people. The mutilated shards of the imperialist, Soviet, and westernized mindsets have generated a postmodernist mishmash that a disoriented and atomized populace gags on and vomits out. It is not the nation or the people but the unscrupulous regime, which has no other purpose than self-reproduction, that is only the glue binding this stagnant society, a society bereft of guideposts. The November 4 holiday is a vacuum into which the ruling class gazes, a void that will eventually swallow it.

 Translated by the Russian Reader

Pavel Pepperstein: Post-Socialism as Ecosocialism

Russian taiga

I was born in Moscow in 1966, at the height of the Soviet space program. We might regard that year as the zenith of Soviet power. Two years after I came into the world, Soviet tanks laid waste to the Prague Spring, and the Soviet project began to slowly verge towards decline. A few years later, Brezhnev would remark in one of his speeches that a new supranational community, the Soviet people, had taken shape. Brezhnev was almost right: this people really had formed in all the central regions of the USSR. But the ethnic hinterlands—the Caucasus, the Baltics, Western Ukraine, Moldova—remained. The stronger older nations destroyed the young Soviet nation by exploding it from within as soon as they could. Nevertheless, I can say for myself that I am part of that nation that died in infancy and of which Brezhnev spoke. I am a Soviet person and I wish to remain one until the end of my days. It suits me to be part of something that has disappeared.

The Soviet world as I knew and understood it arose after Stalin’s death. It was founded on two powerful forms of ignorance: ignorance of capitalism and ignorance of communism. There was something defective and sickly in this ignorance, but there was also something heavenly, a kind of apophatic wisdom. In the Soviet idiom, the combination of these two forms of ignorance was called “socialism.”* This was not an idiotic name. Socialism is curious because it is an economic form that denies its own economic essence. The largely paradoxical nature of Soviet socialism was reflected in such odd Brezhnev-era slogans as “The economy should be more economical.” To a certain degree, words played the role of money under Soviet socialism. As a whole, the Soviet Union was a triumph of language, a militant albeit complexly organized logocracy. It would be wrong to call this system ecological: “wordless” nature was polluted by the toxic wastes of word production. In those days, all of Soviet industry (especially the arms industry) was engaged in the gigantic, messy, and poisonous servicing of “Soviet words.”

Only the interim between Soviet socialism and capitalism was ecological. It was a time of crisis: the factories stood idle, and the air became cleaner. It is a pity, but those days (the nineties) came to an end, and now (under cover of patriotic speeches) our country is becoming a colony of international capitalism.** They try and persuade us this is success, but it is not true. We should (my dreams tell me, and I believe them) put our beautiful country to a different use, for example, by turning it into a colossal nature and culture reserve. (After all, our country, like Brazil, produces the most valuable thing on Earth: oxygen.) We should close the borders to foreigners (but let anyone leave as they like), carry out a program of deindustrialization, and limit the birth rate.

Source: Pavel Pepperstein, “A Critique of Dreams (Dreams and Capitalism).” In Viktor Mazin and Pavel Pepperstein, The Interpretation of Dreams (Moscow, 2005), pp. 697–700.

∗ We should verify whether the “sickliness” and “defectiveness” that was contained in post-Stalinist Soviet socialism was, in fact, its shortcoming. It is possible that it was a virtue wisely camouflaged as a “shortcoming.” However, either the oriental nature of this wisdom, of this ascetic camouflage, was gradually eroded during the course of the irreversible, “creeping” westernization of the entire Soviet society (this took place over the entire post-Stalinist period), or the people who instituted this camouflage themselves fell victim to this “effect of unsuccess,” which was originally conceived as a clever disguise, as a form of the sagacious ambiguity that marks the “dialectics of socialist survival.”

∗∗ This could be said with certainty after Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 2000. The Putin regime is analogous to the Latin American juntas. Clothing themselves in nationalist and statist rhetoric, the “organs” (which in Russia are a caste with the same relationship to central authority as the army in Latin American countries) are gradually repressing the final albeit paradoxical obstacle to colonization of our country: the criminal, “shadowy,” undisciplined, disobedient, “savage” national capitalism generated by the Yeltsin era. The paradox lies in the fact that such Jews as Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky, and Gusinsky—post-Soviet Russian financial adventurers—are the last flowering of the “Russian national spirit.” They are the last form of the alternative effect that the authorities must eradicate to bring Russia into the orbit of the “integrated world of today,” a world that it essentially joins as a new economic and political colony.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Reuters