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624 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1993
"...He was a vain man of small intelligence, a womanizer, and a drunk. I'm not sure it is possible to describe just how hard it is to acquire a reputation as a drunk in Russia..."
“I am sure if Nadezhda Mandelstam … would be ruthlessly critical of the inequities and absurdities of politics in post-totalitarian Russia. She would warn of the problem of expecting an injured and isolated people to make a rapid transfer to a way of life that no longer promises cradle-to-grave paternalism. She would, despite her own love of Agatha Christie novels, warn against the new tide of junk culture—the sudden infatuation with Mexican soap operas and American sneakers.”
“For all of us, this is the saddest thing. We know nothing of ourselves. We have had in here in our building a Jewish boy, with a Jewish face and appearance. A funny little boy. Another boy came from Central Asia. And there was a fight between the two boys. One mother asked the Jewish boy why he was fighting the Central Asian. The little Jewish boy said, “Because he is not Russian!” The poor child didn’t even understand that he was not Russian either”
One afternoon, we rode around in Guly’s tiny Moskvich “looking for constituents.” … The roads were generally miserable, but suddenly we found ourselves on a strip as fine as a German autobahn. Guly laughed and said, “You want to know why the road is so smooth? This is the road from Party headquarters downtown to where all the Party big shots had their dachas. They wanted a good road for themselves, and that’s all there was to it. Presto! It was built! As for the rest of us …”
The sixth-century historian Agathias recalled “charlatans and self-appointed prophets roaming the streets” after an earthquake in Byzantium. “Society,” he wrote, “never fails to throw up a bewildering variety of such persons in times of misfortune.” In the last years of the czarist regime, Rasputin, an illiterate Siberian, convinced the Romanovs of his magical powers. The royal family was sure Rasputin was curing the heir to the throne of his hemophilia.
“With the Russian people,” he said, “Christianity is superficial. They are largely pagan. They observe rituals without understanding the essence. Under the political situation today, mysticism increases, and with such a low cultural level it acquires outrageous forms.”
The historian Yuri Afanasyev, a deputy now in the Russian parliament, told me he thought the Russian scene was one of dangerous flux. “The old system will never regain its shape, but all kinds of possibilities exist for the future of Russia,” he said. “We could look like South Korea, or, say, Latin America with a taint of Sicily. It is a far from sure thing that we will resemble the developed Western democracies. The pull of the state sector, the authoritarian tug, is still a very dangerous thing. Fascism, in the form of national socialism, is a major threat. And it is finding supporters not only in the lunatic fringe, but in the alleged center. The Russian consciousness has always been flawed by a yearning for expansion and a fear of contraction. Unfortunately the history of Russia is the history of growth. This is a powerful image in the Russian soul, the idea of breadth as wealth, the more the better. But the truth is that such expansion has always depleted Russian power and wealth. Berdyaev was right when he said that Russia was always crippled by its expanse.”
Many influential liberals in politics, such as Yeltsin’s former adviser Galina Staravoitova, feel that Russia’s economic failure and wounded self-esteem are so profound and combustible that the rise of a charismatic authoritarian movement in Russia cannot be ruled out. “One cannot exclude the possibility of a fascist period in Russia,” Staravoitova said on the radio station Echo of Moscow. “We can see too many parallels between Russia’s current situation and that of Germany after the Versailles Treaty. A great nation is humiliated, and many of its nationals live outside the country’s borders. The disintegration of an empire has taken place at a time when many people still have an imperialist mentality.… All this is happening at a time of economic crisis.”
And so they staked their lives on a new Russia and tried to understand the pathology of the old. “Igor would quote Paul Tillich, who said there are two great fears: the fear of death and the fear of vastness, senselessness,” Seriozha said. “Death and suffering are the same for all, but senselessness means different things in different cultures. Europe chose the undeniability of death as a principle, refusing to construct anything everlasting, so life ends with the end of life and is senseless. Previous old cultures and modern Oriental cultures chose another explanation. One possibility is to create something that lasts forever, a form of eternity. So we are together and there is no death. When some cells in an organism die in one organ, the organism still lives on, because it is social and not individual. The problem of death is solved. The idea that the ego has borders that are the same as the borders of the self is a new idea; it began with Descartes’s idea ‘I think, therefore I am.’ If you ask a representative of old Roman culture or European medieval culture, ‘Does human life coincide with the life of one man?’ he’d say no.
“This was the case with Russian culture. And in Russia, this medieval mind-set has lasted until very recently. The serfs in Europe were liberated in the mid-fifteenth century, but it happened in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. The idea of community was more important; that way the physical unit lasted eternally. The idea that the individual was of absolute value appeared in Russia only in the nineteenth century via Western influences, but it was stunted because there was no civic society. This is why human rights was never an issue. The principle was set out very clearly by Metropolitan Illarion in the eleventh century in his ‘Sermon on Law and Grace,’ in which he makes clear that grace is higher than law; you see the same thing today in our great nationalists like Prokhanov—their version of grace is higher than the law. The law is somehow inhuman, abstract. The attempts to revise this principle were defeated. The Russian Revolution was a reaction of absolute simplification. Russia found its simplistic and fanatic response and conquered its support. What we are living through now is a breakthrough. We are leaving the Middle Ages.”