Yury Afanasiev: The end of Russia?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Prof.Yury Afanasiev is a prominent historian and democratic activist. He is the founder of the Russian State University for the Humanities and Honorary President of the Russian State University.]

I Russia's rulers behave like a government of occupation. So why do the people support them uncritically?

In recent months we have witnessed a series of actions from the Russian government that seem at first glance paradoxical. I will list some of the most important:

  • for the first time since the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Afghanistan, Russian armed forces began and ended a "real" (not "cold") war" outside Russia (in Georgia);
  • for the first time since the collapse of the USSR, strategic bombers and ships of the Russian armed forces and navy have been sent to Latin America.
  • the return to "cold war" rhetoric has reached the point where the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs used obscene expressions when talking with a foreign (British) colleague
  • Russian ships stationed in Sevastopol fought in the Black Sea against Georgia, in defiance of the Ukrainian president's ban on deploying them without informing Ukraine;
  • Prime Minister Putin played the atomic blackmail card against the Czech Republic and Poland, using that "special" KGB way of his, loaded and enigmatic.
  • with the blatant and increasing polarisation in the material wealth of the Russian population, the military budget has been increased by almost 30%;
  • the President of Russia welcomed the election of the new US President with a promise that he would station rockets in the Kaliningrad Oblast which would threaten America's European allies.

These things seem paradoxical. After all, we're living in a nuclear age.

None of these events fit into the contemporary picture. Yet they can all be explained unparadoxically. However, in my opinion, this explanation will be even gloomier and more alarming than the "apparent paradoxes", the reality which is, as it were, shrouded in mist.

Take a look at what is happening before our very eyes. Take a good, hard look at it - realistically, rationally, in its historical context. If you do that, you start thinking you've gone mad, or at least that you're well on the way to it.

If these thoughts seem altogether too terrifying or strange, if you're so confident of your mental state that you can dismiss them, then what you what you are feeling will be no less terrible. For you will be feeling the void enveloping you.

A government of occupation

It is not an absolute void, of course. Here and there, however rarely, you can still find people who see things more or less as you do. For me, they are like shining lights. I try to take a steer from them in the darkness.

But even then the feeling of emptiness remains. For it has more than one cause. The problem is not just the government. If this were the case, then the darkness could at least partly be dispelled by understanding - even the grimmest actions of the authorities can at least be understood. However, even once you've done that you can't dispel that feeling of emptiness, because you don't know what to do with your understanding.

If you think things through properly, if you interpret them rigorously, the government's behaviour can only really be explained as alienated from its people. It is a government of occupation, a "Golden Horde" that is illegitimate and criminal as well.

Even when you are quite sure, even when your ideas are well-founded and supported by the facts, where do you turn to with this understanding? Obvious, you would think: you turn not to the government, but to the people.

II Understanding the terrible enthusiasm of the masses

But turning to the people only makes the emptiness worse. For the emptiness is coming from there too, from those "masses" at whom the grim actions of the authorities are directed. Those "masses" are not just putting up with the actions of the authorities in silence. They have started supporting them enthusiastically, as they did in the 1930s.

What makes matters worse is that it has happened before, this enthusiastic response of the masses to being manipulated and ridden roughshod over: it happened before the First World War and immediately after it. Then, the people and the Bolsheviks were so close that it is still not clear who gave whom more support and who was directing whom. But we do more or less know what the result of this coming together was. We know that it was lasting and fatal for both sides - vis the year 1991.

At the same time, we also know that the Russian people has never regarded the state as "a friend", and the normal response to state coercion has always been cunning, wiles, and finding ways around the law. While appearing to toe the line and be submissive, the people have always kept a clenched fist in their pockets. These outward signs of submissiveness and obedience were regarded (and still are) as a predisposition for patient endurance, and this habit can, if we wish, be interpreted as the people's support for the government.

At the moment Putin and his president appear to enjoy universal support. As the slogan, doggedly and regrettably repeated in Russia goes: "The people and the government are one". What this means is that neither the government nor the people have a modern, rational understanding of what either one or the other. It is not just the government that is questionable in this respect, but the people too. They have not yet started playing an active role in their own history. They remain a mass, a crowd. It's only in the last 18-20 years that the amorphous, atomized Russian-Soviet mass has started to become structured. But alas, the result is not the development of a civil society, but of something more like criminal clans.

Some may find this concept upsetting. They'll be inclined to conclude that "with your ideas about the people, you're never going to get through to them". I understand this. That's why I say that we're facing the void here too.

Periodic uprisings

Over many centuries, our people have endured sufferings which, as Karamzin put it, "you have to be villainous to endure". Hence the cunning, wiles and dual morality. But at the end of the 18th century, Karamzin was not to know that for the Russian people the greatest sufferings and the most morally corrupting consequences were yet to come.

From time to time we rose up against intolerable sufferings and the government. Once a century, with Razin, Pugachev or Lenin we celebrated our "wild freedom". Then we put our clenched fist back in our pockets and returned to our customary brutish existence.

Some people regarded these uprisings, joyfully or cynically, as an awakening. But in their sufferings, reckless protests, and savage anger, our people remained and remain a mass. A crowd that is worthy of sympathy and quiet sorrow, a crowd that is sometimes terrifying and loathsome. This is why the only people who have been able to get through to them in their usual state of unconsciousness, their permanent readiness for rebellion have been Lenin and Stalin, then Yeltsin and Putin. Who knows,perhaps in the near future someone like Zhirinovsky and Limonov may be able to do so too?

III The intelligentsia, as unfree today as in the past

The feeling of emptiness only gets worse when you try and get to grips with the views held by our creative and other intelligentsia, when you try and make out its voice and civic position.

This permits of many variations, and here and there, rarely, a few shining lights. For me, for example, one of them today is the film director Alexei German. But they are like lights in the darkness, in the biblical sense: the light either breaks through the darkness, or the darkness swallows it. This is what has happened in our history, alas, and in our time. The emptiness became even worse after the murders of Dmitry Kholodov, LarisaYudina, Galina Starovoitova, Sergei Yushenkov, Anna Politkovskaya and Magomed Evloev, after Andrei Piontkovsky was charged with "extremism" and Mikhail Beketov was brutally beaten up.

The emptiness gets even worse if you try and listen to our contemporary intellectuals not so much as individuals, but collectively, as the distinct voice of a particular "ethnos", or ethnic group. In short, our intellectuals today (except for a handful of outstanding people) are on the side of the government, not of the wider population. In my view this is the main reason why the population are still merely "the population", and have not become a "people".

If anything, the feeling of emptiness emanating from our intelligentsia gets worse when you consider the tradition of the last hundred years or more. This is something which it is not done to discuss out loud or to write about it as something that really exists and is understood down to the last detail. Thus the very problem of "the tradition of the Russian intelligentsia", vanishes into the void, enveloped in darkness.

This is not accident. This too can be explained....

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