I dreamt last night that I was sharing a taxi with Putin from Moscow to Sheremetyevo airport. He was being very friendly and I could tell he liked me. I felt like a coward and a moral cretin for not saying anything critical that would cause him to not like me, and at the same time I kept trying to convince myself that there were strong pragmatic reasons for maintaining good relations, at least for now, as this would enable me to eventually write more revealingly about him. I knew this was bullshit, however, and that I was really just a grovelling sycophantic underling who craved the approval of people in power. Then we got into a massive traffic jam, and I was so filled with self-hatred and dread that I woke up.
In real life I had shared a taxi from Moscow to Sheremetyevo, earlier that same day, with a kind, gentle, architect from Berlin. By 'architect' I mean one of those people from Berlin who talks about 'space' a lot and who participates in panels with philosophers. He has probably never built any buildings, but nor has he blown any up, which is why I am wondering why he got replaced by Putin in my dream.
We had been, earlier in the day, on a panel in front of a few hundred people and a number of angry journalists. We were a motley crew of philosophers and political activists, and to be perfectly honest my reason for accepting the invitation was somewhat disingenuous: it meant an opportunity to go back to Russia after what seems like a lifetime away.
Anyhow there were seething antagonistic dynamics between different parties in the room that I could not even begin to decipher. There was a guy on the panel who looked like a skateboarder but announced himself as a psychoanalyst. There were plenty of the sort of bearded, long-haired Russian men who could be either dissident leftists or ultranationalist Orthodox spiritualists. Many of the people in the room clearly had cults of personality attached to them, but I did not know who they were or in virtue of what the cults had congealed.
There was much talk, more than any westerner could possibly anticipate, of Ukraine, and of popular will, and revolution.
When it came time for questions a man in the audience stood up and said, "I am a doctor of philosophy. First of all, I would like to begin by asking you all to express solidarity with the protesters in Kiev. Long live the Ukrainian Revolution! Long live Maidan!" He held up his fist and yelled "Long live Maidan!" again, and then I and maybe a dozen other people did the same. (Why not? I thought. I too support Maidan.) Then there was an awkward silence, and the journalists were all glancing around to see who expressed solidarity and who kept silent. Would there be repercussions? I wondered.
And then the 'doctor of philosophy' said (to paraphrase): "All you so-called philosophers ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You haven't even mentioned morality once. And that's what philosophers need to be talking about: morality. Here we are in a world where all sorts of unnatural things are happening: capitalism, genetic engineering, same-sex marriage, drugs, and so on. How are we going to put a stop to these things if we don't start taking morality seriously?"
For some reason they decided to pass the microphone to me. My Russian skills, often inaccessible during this short visit, snapped to attention, and I said: "As far as I am concerned it is the sole duty of a philosopher to compare different systems of morality, to attempt to find their weaknesses and inconsistencies, but by no means to defend the one or the other." There was much muttering and nonplussedness.
What are the lessons I am drawing? For one thing, I return convinced more than ever that Russia is far more foreign than westerners are willing to recognize. On this visit I heard, on multiple occasions and from people of all political orientations, the expression of a contrast between 'us' and 'Europe'. In the Soviet period and much earlier, the eternal question was whether 'we' are European or Asian, whereas now there seems to be a resolute and unconflicted commitment to the role of a tertium quid. At the same time, Moscow is indeed clearly more 'Asiatic' than it was 20 years ago, as a result of migration patterns from Central Asia. Restaurant wait-staff, construction workers, and others closer to the bottom of the social ladder are, it seems, far more likely to be named Chingiz than Sergei. One is reminded of how much of the current territory of Russia --not the former USSR, but Russia-- was once covered by khanates.
But the lessons, the lessons. There is a place in the world where same-sex marriage can be plausibly lumped together with GMO's as a sign of a world gone wrong, and indeed as a sign of excessive American power. One disagrees, but still wishes to rub one's western liberal academic friends' faces in it a bit: try to fit this into your pat schemes, into your Facebook echo chambers of mutually assured agreement.
One of the most intense preoccupations of western social media over the past few months is the question how, in spite of the fact that Russia is so terribly homophobic, nonetheless Russian men, and particularly Putin, look so hopelessly gay. The country's leader goes horseback riding with his shirt off, and does so in defense of a purportedly rigorously heteronormative conception of masculinity. What on earth is going on here? It seems to me that there is something even far deeper than homophobia that marks the distance between Russia and the west in these matters, and that is a different relationship to irony, of which, I take it, the 'camp' so lucidly analyzed by Susan Sontag is but a subspecies. In the west it is impossible to simply be a man in the way Russians such as Putin take for granted, since the gestures or styles in which this would consist are continually being taken up by people who would like to subvert, invert, or at least question the process by which something so minor as gestures or styles could ever constitute something so fundamental as identity.
Putin is purportedly a hardbody (if by now tending toward gynecomastia, and really more thick than hard), but his authoritarianism is soft. For comparison, a fascinating list has been circulating of western bands prohibited by Soviet authorities in 1984. Number 1 is 'German-Polish Aggression', which is almost certainly made up. Number 2 is 'German-American Friendship', by which I assume they mean Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft or DAF, which really existed but had nothing to do with the Marshall Plan or geopolitics. Numbers 3-14 are Soviet 'Red Wave' bands (except for one Czech group), and it's not at all surprising to see them on a government blacklist. Then, suddenly, at 15 we get Blue Öyster Cult followed by a number of well-known western groups. The list is fairly clearly composed by clueless government agents, filled with misspellings and misgroupings, e.g., number 44: 'Blondi and Debbia Kharri'. 'Dzhutas Prist', 'Depesh Med', 'Kalche Klub', 'Tokan Khedz' (i.e., Talking Heads), follow no known transliteration scheme. Julio Iglesias comes in at 45, two spots ahead of Black Sabbath, which strongly suggests the numbers are not ordinal. This list is really a nice measure of how much has changed: 'soft' authoritarianism of the sort Putin has perfected doesn't waste time with stuff like this.
And then comes glasnost: I remember, in 1991, seeing a USSR state-run Melodiya vinyl recording of Pearl Jam, released not under the name Пэрл Джем, but rather Жемчужное Варенье, literally, "Pearl Jam," i.e., fruit spread that is made out of pearls. So even with the official policy of openness the state proved as clueless as ever.
Lenin's name is now fading in the marble atop his mausoleum on Red Square. The opening hours have been reduced to 10h-13h weekdays, and apparently for Russian citizens only [Вход для граждан]. Of all former leaders, Lenin seems the hardest to fit into current narratives of national identity. Stalin fits very well, without having to be mentioned by name. The precise species of dictatorship Putin is crafting is definitely not a revolutionary one, of the proletariat, and it's not an omnipresent heavy-handed one either. The propaganda is unrelenting, but as long as you are a powerless nobody you're free to express dissenting opinions as much as you like. I held my fist up in support of the Maidan protestors, one of whose leaders, evidently, Putin recently caused to be tortured. This happened in front of TV cameras. Why didn't more people hold their fists up? Again, I don't know.
I did get 'controlled' for eating an apple while waiting on the metro platform at Revolution Square (a transgression of which I'm guilty in multiple jurisdictions), but when the police saw my American passport they congratulated me for the glorious victory of the US hockey team earlier that day (which was the first I'd heard of it). Instinctively, though, here more than anywhere else I've been, one perceives the police and other officials warily, sensing that protection and service are the furthest thing from their minds. Life as a visible ethnic or sexual minority here would be a life of constant fear.
Nadia and Masha, formerly of Pussy Riot, are out of their Siberian labor camps now, making the rounds of the Colbert Report, Brooklyn, destinations they are surely being drilled to understand. The Guardian recently published an anonymous missive from remaining members of the Pussy Riot collective, disavowing these two for their association with the establishment, and in particular for speaking out in favor of mainstream prisoners' rights groups. One somewhat hopes to see next a super-hardcore faction denouncing these anonymous posers for publishing in the Guardian. I don't care what anyone says. Nadia Tolokonnikova is our era's Aleksandr Radishchev.
I have no patience for westerners who say it is not our place to criticize the Russian regime. I suppose it depends on what you mean by 'we'. I certainly don't see myself in that deployment of the first-person plural pronoun.
I had a friend who spent much of the 1980s in Soviet jails for the crime of circulating bootleg Beatles tapes. He fell off a building and died, drunk, during the 1991 Generals' Putch. His name was Vitaliy Dergachev. I'm on his side.
Western pseudo-left collusionism reached a fever pitch during the Olympics, which just happened to coincide with my recent return to Russia. The respected Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen, whom I heard speak in the 1990s and I admired very much, wrote recently in The Nation that we are all, essentially, being duped by a lazy western media that is prepared to say more or less anything to make Putin look bad. But if it is true, as Cohen insists, that coverage of Russia is even less subtle than in the Soviet days, this surely follows from the far more general fact of the media's overall decline in the past quarter century, and not from any deepening of the western media's Cold War parti pris.
Cohen maintains that we are naive for going along with the official western line that the Ukrainians 'yearn to be free' and that this automatically means geopolitical alliance with the EU rather than with Russia. He evokes ancestrality: the bloody argument that Rus' was once Kievan, and --therefore?-- that Kiev must remain, if not Russian, then at least Russia-oriented. But this entirely overlooks the fact that the Maidan protesters do not think of themselves as dupes of the CIA or of western propaganda. They are disgusted by corruption and behind-the-scenes manipulation, mostly guided by Russia, and they want to be free of it. What is even more important, this overlooks the fact that almost all dissident Russian progressives (and not just the category-defying fish-fowl who simultaneously oppose gay marriage and GMO's) are in strong solidarity with the Ukrainian protesters: not because they are западник suckers, not because they are pro-western, but because they want Ukraine to realize its right to autonomy and self-determination. As my friend Kirill Medvedev, a prominent figure in the Russian New Left, writes:
Извините, если что, но я совершенно серьезно думаю, что все прогрессивное человечество должно требовать сейчас двух вещей а)официально двуязычная, двуэтничная, мультикультурная Украина б)полное прекращение вмешательства России в дела этой страны.
Sorry, but I completely seriously think that all progressive humanity should now demand two things: (a) an officially bilingual, bi-ethnic, multicultural Ukraine; (b) the total cessation of interference on the part of Russia in the affairs of that country.
I'm on Kirill's side.
What now about the Olympics? I agree that much of the western snickering and bickering about Sochi has been petty and embarrassing. I have been many places in Eastern Europe where a sign requested that I throw my toilet paper into the waste-paper receptacle, and not, as one might expect, into the toilet. When you travel, you see new things, and you marvel at the variety of the world. When you see them circulating on Tumblr, they're easier to ridicule.
But let us make no mistake: Sochi was an ugly travesty, and it was made possible only by tremendous suffering. Forget about the repression of gays and lesbians, for a moment. In Moscow in the Winter of 2014, two sights are ubiquitous: the Olympic games on giant screens lining public thoroughfares; and migrant laborers from the Caucasus being treated like dirt. A racial hierarchy has emerged over the past two decades in the capital city, where Central Asians are now the tolerated, unthreatening, hard-working minority, while Caucasians occupy the very bottom rung of the social ladder, and are by definition targets of suspicion and exclusion.
Who are the Caucasians, and what is the historical cause of their place in the ethnic hierarchy of Russia? One thing you might notice is that Sochi is located in a region called 'Krasnodar'. It is surrounded by many other administrative divisions that end in -stan, suggesting a Tataro-Turkic influence, and many other divisions that bear some sort of local ethnonym: Ingushetia, Ossetia, etc. Why is Krasnodar not a -stan? Why is Krasnodar not called Adyghia? The answer has in part to do with the fact that it was Russified in the mid-19th century through a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Circassians were exterminated, or relocated to Turkey. There is still today an active political lobby, based in Turkey, pushing for greater recognition of the Circassian genocide, but its voice is of course muffled by the Olympic juggernaut. In the lead-up to the games, Russian security forces were blowing up family homes around the Krasnodar region, hoping to weed out terrorists who had threatened to make the olympic spectacle their own.
The Americans were worried they'd need to be evacuated in the event of a terrorist attack, but the event of a non-event is, on reflection, no less troubling: a flawless Olympics means, for Putin, the consolidation of symbolic power in a contested part of the Caucasus, power that has seemed perpetually out of reach since at least the early 19th century. The westerners go and have a good time, tell themselves Putin's not so bad after all even if they were made to shit in adjoining toilets at the Black Sea base camp. And brute power wins with the complicity of tacky pageant, and of a grovelling and sycophantic western left, whose best arguments for Putin never amount to anything more than a simple change of subject: Well, they say, it's no worse than what we do.