Why Russia?

 Note to my readers:  as I start to move deeper into my subject matter, I ask for your help. 

I’ve been reading the scholarship on post-Soviet Russia for as long as post-Soviet Russia has existed.  I’m afraid that it has all started to blur together in my mind.   Whom am I forgetting to cite? What am I leaving out? What is too much of an oversimplification, even for an introduction to a book that I want to be valuable to specialists but readable by non-specialists? 

And if you are actually a non-specialist reading this blog (and, at this point, I believe in your existence about as much as I do in unicorns), what might require a bit more information or context?

 

A whole host of objections immediately arise:  don’t all cultures define themselves in terms of story?  Is Russia truly unique in its government officials’ concern for the country’s image? Is Russian culture being dismissed as “paranoid?”  And aren’t conspiracy theories popular throughout the world? 

My imaginary critics have a point—several of them, actually.  On the surface, nothing I have described is difficult to imagine in nearly any other country or culture, and the familiar clichés about the Russian tradition (its logocentrism, for instance) do not get us very far.  While there is definitely an argument to be made for conspiratorial thought’s deep Russian roots (as we will see in the next two chapters), conspiracy’s prominence in the past is not a reliable predictor for the present, let alone the future.  Instead, we should consider the difficult historical moment that extends from 1991 to the present day.  

Narrative bears a heavy burden of significance during times of turmoil and transition.  These are the moments when a country’s fate and identity appear to be up for grabs.  Even more important, these are the moments when narrative consumers, and even the narratives themselves, treat the nation, its culture, and its people with undeniable self-consciousness.  American readers who remember the 1960s and 1970s (even if those memories might be second-hand), should be familiar with the often tendentious stories whose claim to fame resides in their examination of American myth.  Take, for example, the familiar plot of the road trip.  A cross-country journey during this period was, more often than not, a quest to “find America” (a phrase that becomes ironic when translated into Russian—the equivalent of “reinventing the wheel”).[1]  Just a little over a decade later, traveling across the country loses its iconic significance.  The road trip of Anywhere But Here (1986 for Mona Simpson’s novel, 1999 for the film) or Thelma and Louise (1991) certainly means something, but it isn’t an ethnographic excursion into America’s heart of darkness.   Indeed, if we recall how post-Watergate television and cinema, with their self-critical examinations of malaise and crisis, gave way to a triumphalist mode under Reagan, we might find broad parallels with Russia’s cultural scene as it moves from the 1990s to the Putin years. [2] 

The decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union were notoriously difficult, marked by rising crime rates, plummeting living standards, terrorism and ethnic violence. But this was also an era that could not shake an identity crisis.  [3] The country in which the population had spent its entire lives was gone, and even the basic vocabulary for describing the successor states and their citizens was unfamiliar and unstable.   European empires, such as the one brought down by the Russian Revolution, were guided by God and destiny.  The Soviet Union was the fulfillment of the promise of human progress, an unprecedented social experiment aligned with the laws of history (a history which Francis Fukuyama was busily declaring officially defunct).[4]  The Russian Federation, like its fellow successor states, was something of a geopolitical accident, whose borders had been set according to the low stakes of internal cartography (hence the problem of Crimea, whose 1954 transfer from Russian Soviet FederativeSocialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was of little significance before 1991 ).  No longer the de facto leader of a union of ideologically defined republics, and even further from a now almost mythical imperial past, Russia faced both the promise and the threat of becoming what wishful liberals and exhausted, less partisan citizens called a “normal country.”

As a positive ideal, normalcy meant the ability of ordinary citizens to live, work, and possibly prosper without the roadblocks of ideology, bureaucracy, and corruption.  But normalcy (which, in any case, functioned as an abstraction invoked rather than a goal achieved) was a values crisis waiting to happen.  With no national dream, no articulation of a national mission, normalcy could all too easily resemble a senseless, animal existence of mere consumption. As an old communist tells Svetlana Alexievich in "Время Секонд хэнд" (Second Hand Time, her oral history of the 1990s), "Если станем как все, кому мы будем интересны?" ("If we become like everyone else, who's going to care about us?") Granted, such concerns were probably secondary for most Russian citizens struggling to make a living, but their discursive power was undeniable.  After a century of suffering and sacrifice, what was Russia for? 

 

Next:  Russia and Other Ideas

 

Notes

[1] By the time Garry Trudeau publishes his fourth Doonesbury collection (Call Me When You Find America) (1973), this cliché is available only for humor. 

[2] On Hollywood under Reagan, see Jeffords, Susan.  Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993

[3] For an extended study of the culture’s attempts at negotiating post-Soviet trauma, see Oushakine, Serguei.  The Patriotism of Despair. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009, particularly the Introduction and Chapter One. See also Shevchenko, Olga.  Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. 

[4] Fukuyama, Francis.  “The End of History.” The National Interest (Summer 1999); The End of History and the Last Man.  New York: Free Press, 1992. 3-18.