Beltane—and another week’s worth of daily news behind us. The formless mass of reports must once again lend itself to some kind of composition. This time, the focal area is defined by the contrast of two items. Their relation to one another is like that of ground and figure. One is the backdrop, against which the other’s significance becomes legible. It occurs to me that it would be impossible to understand Russian (heavily patriarchal and Orthodox) militarism without understanding also the powerful undertow of (significantly feminist) antifascist movement for peace.
The backdrop is supplied by Shura Burtin’s investigation of public opinion published this week in Russian by Meduza. Burtin and his anonymous collaborator visited different parts of urban and rural Russia, talking to random strangers about the war. The result is immensely subtle—because of the careful and unprejudiced interpretation given by Burtin to each of these interlocutors, often by bracketing—acknowledging and suspending—his own distaste for a given personage. The implications of his observations—which help us picture how people cope with being duped—are far-reaching, and more fine-grained than anything that can be gleaned in solo opinion writing. The form that Burtin has found for his findings is perfectly harmonious with his premise:
‘I cannot understand why people in Russia are silent!’ In the first weeks of the war, this cry could be heard in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian posts. ‘Do they really support this? Do they not care? We are being bombed—and they’re afraid of being fined for going to a protest? Maybe they don’t know what’s going on? Tell them!’
After Bucha and Kramatorsk, Ukrainians no longer seem to care about what Russians think. But I, too, could not fathom how most Russians could possibly support this. It all felt like some sinister dark, from which I wanted to turn and run.
For decades, everyone asked the question: How could the Germans in 1939 not understand—how could an entire nation of normal people give in to absolute madness? It occurred to me that we can answer that question at last.
My sociologist friend Alisa (name changed) and I started walking around Moscow and asking random people how they felt about the war in Ukraine. It seemed to us that, with this kind of madness going on, everyone must be thinking about it. Half of the people refused to talk. The other half could usually speak in some detail. Later I talked to people in Kaluga and Kostroma regions, too. All in all, we conducted more than fifty interviews. One cannot speak of any kind of representativeness here. We just wanted to feel something for ourselves. To enter that darkness—and to touch something human inside of it.
The result struck me as a triumph of sensibility, and, naturally, I wrote to inquire about translation rights. [On May 4, following the initial publication of this essay, I heard from Meduza’s Kevin Rothrock, who notified me that a translation had indeed been in the works, and was published on May 3 as ‘Feeling Around for Something Human’. Nevertheless, the short excerpts in this essay are in my own translation.] It is clear that Burtin has both felt and thought through his fifty-plus interviews, and he offers a selection of direct speech that bares the speakers’ mental processes so poignantly and provocatively as to constitute some of the finest psychoanalytic writing I have seen wander across a newspaper page. His comments are both delicate and transparently to-the-point, and where a label would say all that there is to say, he files his respondents’ remarks under a category. Contradiction is an important one:
‘I changed currency today, bought some dollars. It’s alright, everything will be fine, soon we’ll disconnect from the dollar system.’
‘The youth are steered towards all that—towards fascism, and that you cannot fight in a war.’
Did Russia attack Ukraine? ‘No. That is, yes, but we were not the first.’
‘We had no choice!’ How about a month ago, did you think there was no other way? ‘I didn’t think about it at all!’
‘Ukrainians are treated well among us.’ We have heard a lot of people say that they should be ‘punished’. ‘That’s right, they should be punished!’
A chapter on Feelings, subdivided by kind. Humiliation:
‘We, Russians, never lived well’, a beekeeper at a market in Kaluga said to me irritably. ‘All the periphery [the USSR’s republics] lived better in Soviet times. I never had a peaceful life! Chernobyl one day, Perestroika the next, all kind of bullshit. I am an independent person!’ He raised his voice with insistence. ‘I don’t care who rules the country. Communists, democrats, whatever! I will always earn my piece of bread! No one will ever influence my morals!’ The beekeeper was shouting, and it was clear that things were very different from what he was saying.
What are you feeling right now? ‘There is nothing to feel here! We have to finish what we started, triumphantly in our favor. There are no variants here. And there should not be.’
His desire for victory was clearly a direct response to the many years of humiliation. ‘Russia’s opinion has never been of interest to anyone,’ the beekeeper continued. ‘Disparagement all around. We are looking like world-class villains.’ I had heard this complaint many times. No one loves us. Some kind of a mixture of complexes, of inferiority and victimhood. I see that he and others would like to invent an external persecutor, so as to argue with him. What for? Perhaps, to feel in the right. Or simply to exist in someone else’s eyes.
‘I’m glad that my president at last had the courage to go ahead and do this! Enough, guys! You don’t want to respect us—you’re going to fear us!’
We’re bombing Kharkov so that the West would fear us? The beekeeper’s eyes show a frightened understanding. He is neither a fool nor a villain. ‘At a time when my country is at war, it’s undesirable to discuss the actions of my president! If Russians don’t agree with my president, my country will lose, and I do not want to permit that.’ I understand more or less what he is hoping for: we better win soon, and then—winners are not to be judged.
The figure that becomes discernible against this grim backdrop is a plurality of Russian people who oppose the war. Curiously, this plurality does not resemble anything like a ‘mass’—a formless collectivity placidly embracing opinions pre-fabricated by the propaganda. It seems to me natural that dissent would be less amenable to consolidation, since critical thought is inherently individual (though not necessarily individualist). I am, of course, thinking of artists and writers, people I am lucky to know personally or perhaps only see on social media—like the 76-year-old Yelena Osipova, recently honored by the city of Milan, partly no doubt for that inspired statement: Russia Wants to Be a Bird. Like the Instagram’s phenomenal Alisa Gorshenina from Nizhniy Tagil. But it is not just the intelligentsia. I do not believe in the elitism of Russian protest, or, as the federal propaganda would like to convince me, that the distinct variety of the Russian protest movement, and its capacity for formal imagination, must represent the fruits of an education that is essentially foreign. I am reminded of the unforgettable individuality of the disheveled and heartbroken 75-year-old Anatoly Sherstobitov, in his striped sailor’s shirt, whose disjointed but profoundly sane lament about the war found its heart in a symbol: ‘In the summer, the bees go flying from one flower to another, from one to another, and to another… Why can’t we live that way?’
What the current regime seeks to alienate as ‘foreign’ is the instinct of empathy that has no national origin or identity. Russia’s ‘foreign agent’ laws, at first concerned with organizations wholly or partially funded from abroad, has finally become an instrument of arbitrary persecution of individuals, which now threatens not only non-conformists at home, not only anyone receiving foreign money (like my voice pedagogue in Moscow, to whom I rushed my last payment before the sanctions came into effect), but also dual citizens, Russians permanently residing abroad—and even their relatives inside Russia. The point of targeting people on the basis of their social connections is to alienate, to stigmatize and to enable the mechanisms of persecution against something that would otherwise be the regime’s big problem: people of alert conscience, of instinctive empathy, and with a taste for the kind of life that bursts the confines of Orthodox autocracy.
This is quite obviously an extension of the ancient debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers—a debate that has always been a false one, in being premised on a false dichotomy framed as to alienate specific ideas, principally the one that concerns the value of a human life. As do all false dichotomies, this one insists that there are but two possibilities of development, only one of which is the ‘correct’ option that should therefore be cultivated as an ideological monoculture. With the state’s active involvement in alienating and suppressing the liberal alternative, the future may present us with a troubling pattern of cyclical purges.
The reason for this prediction is the principal impossibility of a political purge carried out once and for all. What happens in reality is that, once a regime is rid of its most troubling ‘foreign’ elements, it turns out, predictably, that the remaining society is not uniform but once again heterogeneous, containing an inconvenient spectrum of dispositions, some of them more loyal than others. This inaugurates a recurrent structure of persecution, since every cycle of scapegoating leaves the remaining society with a set of attitudes that could once again be arranged along a spectrum, from loyal to, well, less so. Admittedly, that difference is bound to shrink with every iteration, but the tragic result of this algorithm’s application in contemporary Russia would compound the social calamity we have already seen in the Soviet period.
The new legislation is designed to be a mechanism for purging public opinion of dissent. Its unintended effect will be that Russians as a collective entity contained within the country’s borders will become much easier to blame for what is in fact a national disaster of which they are victims. This will reinforce the propaganda cycle in which the West’s purported hostility towards Russia and the Russians will be converted, in a cyclical fashion, into further arguments for isolation and for military aggression masquerading as victimhood, absence of agency, self-preservation—conditions and mental states desperately familiar and comprehensible to the beleaguered and disenfranchised ‘ordinary Russian’ so effectively maligned by his rulers.
Alisa Gorshenina. ‘I Hear my Country Speak in All Its Tongues. Peace.’ By permission of the artist.