Opinion Ukraine invasion

We Russians are orphans of history

While Putin wages wars, Russians seem not to care. Where does this Russian indifference come from? The answer lies in the need to survive, during Soviet times and after, says Russian author Sergey Lebedev.

Published on 28 February 2022 at 11:49

According to a thesis that has become an article of faith for the liberal Russian opposition, there are two Russias: the first, the official Russia, Russia the state, a kind of phantom; the second, the real, deep-rooted Russia that lives on in secret and by no means shares the authoritarian inclinations of the Putin regime.

The name of the opposition party – Drugaja Rossija (The Other Russia) – alludes to this idea, as does the popular protest slogan, “Wy nas dashe ne predstawljaete”, whose double meaning (“You don’t know us at all/You don’t represent us at all”) also targets the fraud in the State Duma elections. Sociologists like to use this same theory to challenge polls confirming Putin's high popularity or the growing approval of Stalin as a historical figure: people answer what they think is safest without actually thinking it.

Collapsed like a house of cards

This thesis of the two Russias is rooted in the collapse of the USSR in 1991. One moment a colossus was solid, secure; the next, it collapsed as though made of papier mâché. It was a very different people that emerged from the rubble, one that was by no means as devoted to the “cause of Party and government” as the Soviet media had once portrayed them. The army refused to open fire on its own people, the powerful KGB was paralysed, the all-mighty Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapsed like a house of cards. All these things really were different, and it only remained to acknowledge the fact and set the clocks to a new historical era.

This image of a peaceful revolution, almost totally free of bloodshed and violence, the natural result of historical forces, became emblematic for the majority of Russian intellectuals. Paradoxically, it justified their behaviour in the late Soviet era: adaptation rather than resistance to state power; political disenchantment, self-preservation, collaboration.

And it was indeed the case that there was no resistance movement to compare with Poland’s Solidarność or the underground anti-Soviet movements in Ukraine or Lithuania. No one formulated an alternative political agenda, yet freedom came all the same. Not because anyone had destroyed the prison, but because it had simply collapsed under its own weight.

If the current Russian government falls, then the 1991 scenario will repeat itself: people will turn away from their former identity, and the old political structures will collapse

It is more or less in this form that most of the Russian opposition envisages the moment of transition from Russia under Putin to Russia after Putin. If we ask why Russian society barely raises an eyebrow at electoral fraud, economic crimes or the illegal annexation of Crimea, the answer we get is this: The people are disheartened. But as soon as there is a thaw … On the basis of historical experience we are supposed to believe that “Putin’s majority” is an optical illusion. And that if the current Russian government falls, then the 1991 scenario will repeat itself: people will turn away from their former identity, and the old political structures will collapse. 

What they forget in all this is how quickly authoritarian structures and the practices of domination regenerated themselves in Russia after 1991. In 1993 Boris Yeltsin ordered tanks to shell the “red” parliament, in 1994 he launched a war in Chechnya and steered Russia back onto the path of imperial violence. And the people just accepted it.

The pandemic as yardstick

It seems to me that the deplorable peculiarities of the political order in post-Soviet Russia are rooted in the systemic deficits in its social morality. The “degree of morality” is difficult to measure in an authoritarian society, but the extreme situation created by the Corona crisis has, like the developer bath in photography, made many things clearly visible. 

The pandemic has had a paradoxical effect: state authorities and liberal public have unexpectedly found themselves in the same camp, as supporters of the protective measures up against a majority who have either denied or downplayed the danger of the virus and sabotaged the hygiene measures. 

The anti-vaxxers and mask-refusers do not lend themselves to easy categorisation: they can be anyone, male or female, young or old, rich or poor. The authorities capitulate out of necessity and pretend that everything is as it should be. In this way an extraordinary solida…

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