La Russophobe‘s original translator offers the following from essay by Matvey Ganapolskiy (pictured) from the pages of Yezehednevniy Zhurnal on the emergence of a new “national idea” in post-communist Russia. Of course, one very familiar with Russian history might very well say this is merely the rediscovery of Russia’s original “national idea,” which explains the fact that Russia has made so little progress over the years.
April 11, 2007
The authorities in Russia are always putting forward ideas which, in their view, might help unify the country. The question, invariably, is to what extent the authorities believe these ideas themselves.
The central idea in the former USSR of happiness through equality collided with shortages of consumer goods which, like advancement in one’s career, were with few exceptions more accessible the higher one rose in the Party hierarchy. It was far from the case that everyone had the chance to buy toilet paper, pineapples or salami. Prosperity was achieved by following a simple saying: “Five minutes of shame, and you’re set for life.” You entered the Party, which did not set before you any realistic goals, but was inspired by the slogan, “Good fortune with us!” Then, following the rules of this strange game, you at last became a fully enfranchised citizen. The threat of shortages and the lure of growth in one’s career, both linked directly to membership in the Party, along with the closed borders, served as restraints against those who might deviate from the Party line. Non-Party members for all practical purposes had no rights.
Sometimes the ideologues of the Soviet Union tried to vary this picture of life, and threw out an appeal to the people. Such as, for example, the call to “Build the BAM!” [TN: The Baikal-Amur Main railroad, completed in 1984.] Television programs showed young people singing songs as they departed to work on BAM, and poets, sitting dachas outside Moscow, composed poems about these young people. On closer examination, the idea of the railroad turned out to be a massive lie – surrounding the railroad for thousands of kilometers was no infrastructure whatsoever. Settlements, where they existed at all, consisted only of the construction workers themselves, who settled in “komfortabilniy” train cars – they were shown on the television as well. The authorities understood that the economy of the country was in decline, that the garden cities along BAM would never be built, but they stubbornly kept laying down the tracks.
They were helped by two circumstances: First, all the Party leaders were already awaiting their pensions. And in a government dacha, with pineapples served on little saucers, even the most ridiculous undertaking seemed not quite so awful. Secondly, no one had ever inquired about past mistakes. And the unclear mumblings of the latest General Secretary about “certain mistakes” that were made by some Party congress long departed from the podium were taken as the inescapable but easy enough tribute paid in the course of a classical ritual. This was just an unwritten part of a social contract between the people and the authorities: the people laughed at the leaders, made up jokes about them, but in essence always participated in the Big Lie. Everyone went to the polls around 8:00 a.m. and voted, never looking at the ballots and not knowing the names of those they voted for. And now, a decade on, many of those who worked on the BAM have long ago died, while others have scattered to their home towns, some now living in the desperate poverty. But in the Russian mass consciousness BAM continues to be the project of the century, from which experience the current ideologues try to wring something useful in this age of the Internet and IPod.
The years of the shortages have passed, the Russian borders are now open and, it seems, the era of the Big Lie has slipped into the past forever. But actually, it has not. Unlimited possibilities have opened up not only for the people, but also, and foremost, for those in power. This is the possibility of privatizing the country.
It may be that Russia really is naturally a monarchy, since in both the recent and the current time the ruling elite have been seriously worried about the necessity of someday having to leave power. So the powers that be exert every effort to ensure that their dachas are not, any longer, in the Moscow suburbs, and that they will not be left with just pineapples. Of course, at stake is not just a bunch of goods in short supply, but the entire wealth of Russia, which the Kremlin rules undividedly, placing at risk along with the old-fashioned ideal of growth in one’s career, our very position as a free country. Having made an example of Khodorkovskiy to show what becomes of those don’t obey, the Kremlin was no doubt surprised by how quickly everyone fell in line by themselves. Poor Bill Gates and Warren Buffet! They still have no idea that the most effective business managers in the world work in the Kremlin, considering how they regularly get onto the boards of directors of the most powerful Russian companies. They must be geniuses, no? Of course not. The Kremlin’s favorites are placed in these companies as a reward, and to serve as the master’s eye. Everyone knows it and takes it as a given.
The Big Lie is once again in big demand. The President says that the government does not want to break up Yukos, already knowing exactly how he will break it up. He speaks of the importance of civil society, but destroys it himself. The Leader of Russia talks about the importance of friendship with the West, but the youth movement that obeys his every word hands out leaflets on the street from which one would infer that America is planning to attack Russia tomorrow. Putin announces that the people will choose the next president, but everyone knows perfectly well that the leader will be the one designated by Putin. He energetically demands that television give time to the opposition, but everyone knows exactly who is on the list of those banned from appearing there. People like, for example, the world chess champion Kasparov, or the radical Eduard Limonov.
Regarding the latter, an anecdote has surfaced: He gave an interview to a popular newspaper, for which the pro-Putin party condemned both the interviewer and publisher. This seems unbelievable, but it is true: the Party, forgetting about the Constitution, was upset that a person who does not like Putin – but who has nonetheless not been convicted of anything, stripped of his rights, or even placed under investigation – can be interviewed.
The most recent initiative is especially elegant: Everyone knows that success in one’s career can be expected only if one enters the “United Russia” party, but the Party has officially proposed the idea of promoting young people into career-track positions. This too is part of the Big Lie. Party officials say that they will promote any talented young person, but people get the clear signal: it is time to join exactly this organization, because exactly this organization will decide whether you have potential for a career. Naturally, as in the era of the Big Lie, none of this is condemned by the people. People in general do not take the actions of the authorities as being in violation of their rights, as an abrogation of the Constitution. For them this is just a signal of what rules they will be playing by today. And this Aesopian language is also part of the Big Lie.
In the end, it matters little by what motives the Kremlin rules, having made the Big Lie an integral part of their policies. What is important is that around the Big Lie they have constructed the entire contemporary life of Russia.
Putin officially does not lead “United Russia”, but everyone knows perfectly well that it is his Party. The country awaits parliamentary elections, but everyone already knows the results. The authorities speak of civil rights, but opposition rallies are ruthlessly suppressed. Big business is nominally independent, but everyone knows who really owns it. Kremlin bureaucrats talk about patriotism, but their children have never served in the army. They instead take top positions in leading banks and business enterprises. Evidently the grounds of the Kremlin emit something that will make you a successful businessman, and not only you but your children as well.
A furniture salesman was appointed the new Minister of Defense, and it was officially announced that he would undergo a crash course to acquaint himself with what an army is and how to lead one. Any normal person would find this amusing, but not a Russian – he understands it: Putin has faith in the new minister. He needs him for some purpose, and it is unimportant what job he has been given. Later he will be moved. But none of these facts are of any particular interest to Russians. The simple people do not think about such things. And the elite understand that The Lie has become an integral part of politics, and they play along according to the rules.
One of our old jokes used to go: No matter what Russian industry produces, in the end it always turns out a Kalashnikov rifle. It may be that modern Russian industry has learned to produce actual products. But the factory that produces the “national idea”, having sorted through the possibilities of “autocracy, orthodoxy, nationality” and the somewhat more modern “rescuing the people”, has realized that the first set is too archaic, and the second requires it to actually do something, and has instead returned to the reliable old Big Lie, the objective of which is simply gain control over one’s future. Hence, if one understands the “National Idea” to be something that permeates the whole society, unifies it, and defines its motives of conduct, then this is none other than the Big Lie. This is what the Russian uses to adjust his current behavior and construct his vision of the future.
It is hard for a person to see himself from outside himself. Russians laugh about the Big Lie as it exists in North Korea, reject the idea of wearing a lapel pin with a portrait of Kim Chong Il, and are astonished to learn that the beaches of that country are fenced off in barbed wire to keep the grateful people from fleeing their adoring leadership. But participating in the Big Lie does not require one to wear a lapel pin, and the barbed wire in one’s own mind is more effective than the stuff on the Korean beaches.
The main problem with Russia is not the breakup of the country, but the model of morality presented by the authorities. Russian history has almost always urged Russians to live by a lie. And the paternalistic society has readily agreed. But a society is proven healthy exactly by its willingness to oppose the Big Lie. Conformism has no place here. The Big Lie easily transitions into the Big Terror, which has happened in Russian history more than once. And President Putin, with his unlimited power, had the chance to chance to change this sad tradition. But instead he only enriched it. And nothing is likely to change in the next government either.