Friday, June 29, 2012

David Remnick's Russia

"Under Brezhnev, everyone thought that life would stay the same for a thousand years.  They couldn't imagine it being different."  Vladimir Voinovich.

"People cannot quite fathom why, in order to reach democracy, people must be killed in the streets." Aleksander Terekhov.

"We passed herds of goats, bell-clanging oxen, a pack of wild dogs.  We passed a holy man kicking a cat."  David Remnick.

I don't recall much about David Remnick's celebrated book about the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lenin's Tomb, but the strength of his book about Yeltsin's Russia, Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, makes me wonder if it isn't time to re-read that first book.  Remnick's rich and subtle description of the New Russia reminds one that Russia's story in any era--past, present, or future--is, or will be, endlessly fascinating.  Remnick's book demonstrates the bewildering complexity of Russia's transformation.  In the wake of 1991, Russians were left with no clear identity.  Millions of ethnic Russians lived outside of its national borders, and unprecedented numbers of those who remained were trying to flee abroad each year.  Russians had little to unite them;  the basic milestones of their past, from October 1917 to December 1991, were still being bitterly contested.  The capital and countryside seemed to have almost nothing in common.   Russian intellectual culture was being overwhelmed by vulgar popular culture.  Russians grappled with the meaning of capitalism, the legitimacy of popular culture, their place in the world, and the value of democracy.  Russians were hooked on television--but what that censored television was teaching them about how to live was difficult to say.  They were also deeply affected by the war in Chechnya, though the state-controlled press did its best to minimize the coverage most people saw.  It was an incredibly confusing time for everyone.  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Aftermath

One cannot truly understand the depth of Soviet immorality without examining its aftermath.  With all due respect to the millions of decent Russian citizens caught up in the chaos of the last two decades of "freedom," modern Russia is a moral vacuum filled with one hundred varieties of evil.  When Russia shed its command economy and one-party political system, David Satter argues in Darkness at Dawn that Russians adopted something nearly as bad:  capitalism in a lawless society.  In the absence of socialist ethics, as barren as these ethics had become by the early 1980s, Russians experienced unprecedented insecurity, moral relativism, governmental corruption, radical income inequality, chronic alcoholism, rampant emigration, and runaway crime.  According to Satter, Russian demographic problems are not merely the result of bad economic decision-making and so-called Shock Therapy;  rather, they are the symptom of deep moral apathy on the part of much of the Russian populace.

The apathy is understandable.  There are times and placed when there simply are no good actors.  It's possible to work in such a place, where one leader is as bad as the next, where narcissism and venality are the norm.  In such an environment, it's almost impossible to tell which decisions will lead to which moral outcomes.  Satter says Russian business is like that today.  In a country where almost all businessmen are forced to align themselves with former KGB officers or gang leaders, and where every business success depends on a combination of physical threat and outlandish bribery, what does it mean for a Russian citizen to act in an ethical way?  Ten years ago, and perhaps this is true even today, Russians had to choose between varieties of criminality.  In many ways, the choice was an aesthetic one as much as anything else.  What kind of evil does one prefer?  Does one want to work on behalf of petty thieves, governmental sharks, sophisticated business swindlers, or out-and-out thugs?

One can answer the question based on strategic considerations or aesthetic ones, but not necessarily on the basis of any rational moral analysis.  The irony of course is that anyone who is brave enough to directly challenge the status quo in Russia is most likely to be branded a criminal and thrown into jail on charges of corruption.  The citizen who challenges evil isn't merely going to loose the battle;  rather, he's likely to be made infamous as the living embodiment of the evil he or she set out to contest.  Slatter's Russia is a place of almost total lack of regard for ordinary human life.  The extreme example of this callousness is the government's willingness to kill its own citizens by planting bombs in crowded buildings and then blaming these bombs on Chechnyan terrorists, although the evidence for this remains circumstantial.

But the more banal forms of indifference to human life are everywhere manifest.  In the 1990s, people were regularly victimized by business leaders, gangsters, bureaucrats, and police officers.  You could die on the operating table if the town's electricity were shut off to pay for mafia energy middlemen; you could fall into scalding power if a construction company cut corners and ignored basic safety guidelines; you could be rubbed out for falling behind on your protection money to a local mobster;  and you could die of starvation or disease if state actors decided to invest local tax revenue in lucrative investments rather than pay basic wages for many months at a time.  There are times and places where morality is luxury.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Manufacturing Heroes

Although the Bolshevik Revolution was laced with heroism, the longevity of the Soviet experiment in corrupt, coercive government is a tribute to humankind's endless capacity for cowardice.  For decades, most Soviet citizens chose not to risk their jobs in defense of liberty, religious freedom, or any other abstract civil or human conceit.  In fact, most Soviet citizens even failed to protest when their neighbors, colleagues, or even family members were unfairly harassed or persecuted.  Famously, Molotov seems not to have uttered a word of defiance when his boss, Stalin, permitted Molotov's wife to be thrown into prison, even though Molotov remained one of Stalin's most important collaborators.

This is not to judge the Russian people:  the Soviet regime could brutally oppress its opponents even in its softer, more humane, twilight years; and even people in the West act in cravenly ways now and again.  As it turns out, even the relative security of democratic states fails to elicit bravery when it comes to speaking up in favor of the basic human dignity associated with reproductive rights, marriage equality, or the right to receive a reasonable standard of medical care even if one happens to be out of work.  In my own life, I'm amazed at how often I've failed to do the right thing, even when a dash of courage would have helped me in the long run.

Two days ago I got back from my first trip back to Montreal since I graduated from McGill University in the mid 1990s.  Strolling around the campus, I popped into the history department and recalled how torturous my time in Montreal had really been.  On the one hand, I was thrilled to be living in one of North America's greatest cities, and utterly enjoyed the city's storied diversity.  With its street festivals, bilingual identity, strident cosmopolitanism, original architecture, lively gay quarter, and scenic natural backdrop, I couldn't have been happier with my surroundings.  On the other hand, I knew deep down inside that, notwithstanding my academic program, I had no interest in becoming a professor of history.   How then did I find myself attending history lectures?  In a word, my own cowardice was at fault;  rather than remain true to my interest in international relations, or risk trying something entirely new, I fell back on the one thing I knew best--school, and history, my best subject in school, in particular.

Over time, my subconscious apparently rebelled at my decision to make the study of history a a full-time occupation.  I began having trouble writing my thesis,  started reading broadly in fields that had nothing to do with my chosen subject matter, got a little depressed, and eventually left graduate school altogether.  But the decision to leave graduate school took an appallingly long time, approximately four years.  I ascribe the delay now to cowardice, a failure to face up to the simple fact that I had made a mistake, and a similar failure to court uncertainty by starting over in a brand new venture rather than doubling down on a bad investment and applying to a doctoral program in Urbana, Illinois.

Living a life of cowardice is anything but easy.  You avoid short-run pain but only in order to experience a double dose of long-run pain.  Courage isn't my forte.  As readers might expect, I attribute my cowardice to my mother's abrupt departure from this world when I was a teenager.  I suspect that I was so overwhelmed by my mother's illness and death that I made the subconscious decision to go out of my way to avoid any other form of pain in the future, and that included even the short-run pain associated with brave decisions.
No doubt you, the reader, are skeptical.  How is it possible to blame the author's every flaw and blemish on a dead woman?  If the woman faced cancer bravely, why should the son be paralyzed by fear for decades afterward?  I submit that obsession, and especially the obsession of an aspiring artistic, needs no explanation.  It is what it is.  It's impervious to logic, impervious to scrutiny.

How did courage operate in the Soviet Union?  I call the reader's attention to one of the Soviet Union's most courageous citizens, Abram Tertz, who ignored the Party's official aesthetic ideology, socialist realism.  Abram Tertz was insanely brave.  He wrote brave  novels, defended his decision to do so when put on trial by the monstrous Soviet state, and went to jail for doing so.  The Soviet Union was a machine for manufacturing both cowards and heroes like Tertz.  While most Soviet citizens were given ample opportunity to grovel at the feet of bureaucrats and Party leaders, others were constantly being forced to consider a career in heroism.  In the Soviet Union, one either surrendered all moral autonomy, or choose to avoid all moral compromise.  Most folded, but Abram Tertz and others choose bravery.

In Putin's Russia, cowardice continues to thrive.  For instance, the press is almost wholly silenced.  Oligarchs compromise with Putin to avoid the fate of Khordorkovsky.  Politicians vote the way they are asked to vote.  On the other hand, Valery Panyushkin's new book of biographical sketches, entitled 12 Who Didn't Agree, shows that at least a handful of Russians prefer ostracism, business seizures, jail, police surveillance, exile, physical beatings, unemployment, and indeed the threat of extermination, to cowardice. Panyushkin's well-told tales--more literary than most modern literature--show that people get to courage in a variety of different ways:  some are innately obstreperous, some draw strength from friends and family, some experience a sense of invulnerability born of celebrity, and some turn dissident out of moral outrage or near-death experiences.  In the end, Panyushkins' book holds out the hope that everybody, no matter how intimidated by circumstance or personal history, can at least become conscious of an alternative between a life of cowardice and a life of courage.  Perhaps this is what led so many ordinary Russians to take to the streets in recent months.