Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sinyavsky on Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin

Andrei Sinyavsky became famous after being imprisoned by the Soviet regime for his independent scholarship. Exiled to the West, Sinyavsky resembled Solzhenitsyn in his principled opposition to Communist Russia. But when the U.S.S.R. finally collapsed, Sinyavsky's iconoclasm (like Solzhenitsyn's) naturally found expression in criticism of the new order of things. His Russian Intelligentsia is a determined attempt to remind the Russian Intelligentsia of its pre-revolutionary origins and historical mission. As he reminds his readers, in tsarist times, one almost needed to be expelled from university and censored by the political establishment to earn the honor of membership in the intelligentsia. Political opposition, coupled with a genuine love of the people, was what mattered most in tsarist Russia.

Cover of Boris Yeltsin''s Book

To say that the intelligentsia suffered mightily under Stalin is an understatement. Sinyavsky quotes enough early newspaper articles to demonstrate that almost every public intellectual or cultural producer discredited himself at one time or another during Stalin's long reign. The biggest names in Russian literature and poetry--Pasternak and Gorky included--went out of their way to demonized Stalin's opponents as somehow less than human.

To some extent, the Russian intelligentsia regained some of its credibility and dignity in the late Soviet era, when most serious intellectuals and artists ventured to privately distance themselves from the Communist state, if not to criticize that state openly. But Sinyavsky believes that this tradition was lost just as soon as the USSR collapsed. He believes that the whole critical posture was jettisoned with Yeltin's rise to power.

As Yeltsin combated foes on the left and right, Russian intellectuals urged him to forgo democratic forms and institute various forms of censorship and authoritarianism in order to maintain the gains of the anti-communist movement. The intelligentsia, as a class, gave up any pretence of sympathy for ordinary people, who suffered so many profound losses in the era of capitalist "shock therapy." Sinyavsky's ire isn't placated by the fact that many former dissidents feared a decisive return to overtly communist political forms. For him, Russians who voted communist were expressing legitimate concerns over their free-falling standard of living.

Was it acceptable to embrace Yeltsin and his pro-reformer minister, Gaidar, if this meant massive unemployment, the loss of savings, unprecedented crime, widespread graft and fraud, high abortion and suicide rates, and general uncertainty? What shocked Sinyavsky most was that the intelligentsia seemed to have abandoned its historical empathy and even guilt. According to the former dissident, even close friends now assured him that the people had seen worse and could survive. "Nobody has died yet," they said. For the most part, Russian intellectuals were satisfied that they were being left alone and were largely free from censorship for the first time in many decades.

Sinyavsky points out that the Russian people were now expressing a clear preference for socialism that was not a mere byproduct of fuzzy-headed nostalgia. Most people really had lived better under socialism than they were living in "Russian capitalism." They had jobs, pensions, security, and some confidence that the state had their best interests at heart. They no longer felt safe enough to go out at night. In some areas, seven times more people said they preferred the old regime to the new one. And all regions, apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg, registered public opinion majorities in favor of the old order.

Sinyavsky attributes the intelligentsia's reluctance to criticize Yeltsin to a Russian attachment to authoritarianism and even tsarism. No matter that Yeltsin had made serious mistakes in Chechnya, had fired on the duma, and allowed millions of workers to go without pay--he knew best how to defeat fascist and communist revivals. While Sinyavsky may not have given Yeltsin his due, the general outline of his complaints seems to be more relevant than ever in the age of Putin, who is after all, one more product of Yeltsin's own blemmished reign.

Wax Figures of Political Leaders

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