Once again, LR’s professional translator opens a window in the Russian media, this time focusing on the much-discussed concept of the so-called “Russian National Idea.”
Imitation as National Idea
What is the deal with this mishmash of politicians and government ideologists stubbornly searching for a national idea for Russia? The choices include a purely Russian path, a clerical government, a consumer culture, a lawful government, a market economy under a harsh authority, a harsh authority with a state-run economy, and God knows what else. Meanwhile, the national idea has actually been existing all along, and moreover triumphing in the minds and affairs of Russians. This idea is the imitation of whatever is in style or one especially likes at the moment.
The Kyivan kings in the tenth to eleventh centuries forcibly implanted Christianity throughout what was then called Rus, dealing harshly with the pagans. Although, what could be more inimical to Christianity than coercing faith through the use of force? Peter I imitated the western Enlightenment in the Russian Empire, at the same time eliminating anyone who expressed their disapproval. Nikolai II imitated a constitutional monarchy, but, openly despising liberal ideas, did not give much leeway to Russian parliamentarianism, and thereby brought the country to a revolutionary boil. Under the Communists, the Russian taste for imitation lost its quality, but they more than made up for it in quantity, making it the primary characteristic of all social and government institutions – as it always is in a totalitarian system.
After the collapse of Communism and a brief period of more or less freedom to find one’s own way, the itch to imitate once again made itself felt. We had to become a great power, and so we now strive to create the attributes of a great country: a powerful army, effective governmental control, a thriving economy, and expansive foreign policy. Even if all of this is only for appearance, we still need to look the part, even if we cannot actually be it. Our ancient strategic bombers proudly plow through the skies along foreign borders, hoping to create the impression of Russian military might. Government control is built in the form of “verticals of power” in the naive hope of achieving effectiveness through strict orders and harsh subservience. Economic success is shortsightedly based on the export of raw materials and subordination of business to government. Assertiveness in foreign affairs is achieved by stubbornly opposing any proposals from our western partners, while dangerously flirting with despotic regimes.
The sickness of imitation is contagious and transient. One after another the institutions of society and government become imitative and inauthentic. The courts cease to adjudicate, issuing sentences and verdicts based on orders from on high or specified sums paid to the judge. Law enforcement officials occupy themselves not so much with fighting crime as enriching themselves through misuse of their official position, taking bribes, and providing cover for organized crime groups. Parliament has ceased to be a place for discussion and instead obediently rubber-stamps laws proposed by the executive branch and president. Plurality is allowed only to those parties that suit the executive. At elections, voters are given the opportunity to choose only from among those who have shown their loyalty to the current political course.
Outwardly, we have everything – courts, police, parliament, political parties and regular elections – but it’s all phony. Imitation is our national idea. This and “Potemkin villages”, built for the visit of Catherine II to Crimea; and the Tsar Bell, which has never been rung; and the Tsar Cannon, which has been fired all of once. This and “open” trials of “enemies of the people” in 1937; and the news nowadays on the central television stations. An imitation of news.
Imitation attracts not only the authorities, but also the opposition. It’s not even worth mentioning the parties that were created from the outset only to imitate an opposition, that’s beside the point. But how can Yabloko and SPS even participate in parliamentary elections, when their leaders, both privately and publicly, say the current election system and Law on Political Parties has turned elections into a farce? Participating in the farce, they too merely imitate democratic elections.
Two leaders of the youth wing of Yabloko, protesting against unjust elections, recently imitated self-immolation, dressed in fire-proof clothing and with friends standing by with fire extinguishers and ambulances. It’s possible that it never occurred to them that this looked like a parody of the Czech Jan Pallach, the Lithuanian Romas Kalanta or the Crimean Tartar Musa Mamut, who immolated themselves for real and died in the course of their personal struggle with the Communist regime.
And how many times have they imitated “to the death” hunger strikes, halted at the first sign of exhaustion or loss of health! How many human rights workers only imitate human rights work by participating in expert and public panels for ministries and presidential commissions? Imitation – this is our national idea, uniting both the authorities and the opposition.
True, to be sure, not all the opposition. There are some who are uncompromising. But the majority consider them marginal, “outside the system” idealists, and twirl their fingers around their temples when talking about them. Thus have we always related to those who have not shared the great Russian national idea. At the same time, these people have not needed their own special national idea. They live or sacrifice their lives for the sake of a common human ideal of freedom.
No matter who you ask, “When was life better, under socialism or now?” – everyone starts by talking about prices, salaries, full or empty shelves, pensions. And maybe one in ten will recall something about freedom. That’s because in the common conception “better” means more full, not more free.
And so we’ll continue to live in the world of imitation, amid the false and phony, full of hopes and disappointments, until the idea of freedom becomes our national idea.
Aleksandr Prodrabinek was a Soviet dissident in the 1970s & 1980s, during which time he served two terms in Siberia for his human rights work. Since 1987 he has edited of number of human rights-oriented journals, and is currently a correspondent for Novaya Gazeta.