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.

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