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Russia’s future — in its past

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Russian intellectual Igor Kon has died aged 82. Here we present one of his final essays, first published on our partner website, www.polit.ru. Reflecting on the woes of Russian history, Kon displays trademark wit and moral argument.
Igor Kon
4 May 2011

The title of this piece links to the nationalistic slogan of Alexander Dugin, which I have satirised elsewhere (in Russian). From the point of view of common logical positivism, however, it is сlearly a ridiculous notion Dugin advances: even on level ground, moving forward while looking back will make you trip and fall. Of course, only if you are actually going somewhere. For those who walk the same old paths round and round — like the Cat who follows a golden chain around an oak tree in Pushkin’s Ruslan and Liudmila — the future holds nothing new at all. 

It is not a new argument to say that Russia has had an unpredictable past, not least because its history has frequently been re-written to suit its changing masters (Ivan the Great personally redacted the Russian Chronicles, for example). What isn’t always said, however, is that within this same unpredictable history, you can also find a perfect reflection of the country’s future. If you discount fools and awful roads [Russia’s two gravest ills, according to Gogol], the are actually four constants throughout Russian history: A Glorious Past, Bad Neighbours, A Wise Leader and a Bright Future. Since everything flows and nothing changes, any and every old man can become a prophet. Why, indeed, shouldn’t I do a little moonlighting in the genre myself?  

Even before WWII, I was reading grown-up newspapers and trying to understand politics.  I can remember how, in 1940, we sent in our troops “at the request of” the Baltic nations; and how they simply demanded to be annexed afterwards. The wits among us described how the Balts had pleaded to us to “extend out an arm to help”, before extending out their own boots in return.  

In 1961, our Bright Future was brought even closer: Communism in 20 years! Of course, there were a few wisecracks about the promises to reach and overtake the US levels of meat and milk production: reaching was fine enough, so the jokes went, but overtaking risked letting the Americans see the full reality of our naked bottoms

Then we had a difficult war, but already by 1946, Comrade Stalin had managed to sketch out a wonderful future for us. Targets for cast iron and steel production had not only been reached, but surpassed: utopia was but an outstretched arm away. But cast iron and steel didn’t agree with the plan, going and losing their previous economic significance. In any case, there was North Korea to save from American-UN aggression, the Berlin workers who needed Western propaganda crushed out of them by tanks, and the Eastern Germans who needed a wall to save them from running away. In 1956, we had to save the Hungarians from Western intervention; in 1968 — it was the Czechs and Slovaks; and there was quite a bit of trouble with Poland in amongst it all. Of course, everyone was always so terribly grateful to us for our brave assistance. 

Then at Party Congress in 1961, our Bright Future was brought even closer: Communism in 20 years! True, a few wisecracks were uttered in regards to promises to reach and overtake the US levels of meat and milk production: reaching was fine enough, so the jokes went, but overtaking risked letting the Americans see the full reality of our naked bottoms. We all voted unanimously for the Party.  No one seemed to object when we moved on from Building Communism to Advanced Socialism: we were, after all, happy with our own version of reality. 

But then The Evil West struck again. Oh how expensive it was to ship our missiles to Cuba and back; to support revolutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America; and to write off the new regimes’ rotten debts. A multi-year battle with the Israeli military left us with nothing but new centres of international terrorism, which later began to operate against us. Then there was the time we offered our self-sacrificing international assistance to the people of Afghanistan. A truly voluntary endeavour: not a penny gained — indeed, nothing but losses! The Afghans adored us. It would have been perfect had the Americans not weighed in once again, unleashing a guerilla war which made us leave. 

Tons of money went on another Soviet battle for world peace: the campaign to prevent American missiles being positioned in Europe. We were so close to winning that historic peace-loving battle when - again - disaster struck. World prices for oil collapsed, we had no other source of income, and the American imperialists — aided and abetted by the fifth column of Gaidar and his associates — went about destroying our country with intent.  

We somehow survived the terrifying 1990s and the “piratisation” of the Russian economy. But thanks to the oil boom, we managed to “get up from our knees. We found a new National Leader; we returned to our spiritual roots; we remembered “Moscow as the third Rome”; we recalled the Tsarist slogan “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality”; we created a new moral-political union and national agreement. We recognised the achievements of Comrade Stalin. We unveiled a new 20-year plan, trumping all the other Soviet programmes, and with every penny counted and accounted for (no need for an “economic economy” here, my friend). Once again, our pockets began to clunk with arms, hydrocarbons and nanotechnologies, frightening not only our near, but our distant neighbours too. The deeply flawed European idea of human rights was set against the more traditional moral-religious values that have underpinned our country’s development from Ivan the Great through to Stalin. 

Honest and proper Russian traditions, no mistake. 

Luck, however, somehow evades us. The putrid, imperialistic West somehow still manages to hang on like grim death. The impudent Georgian aggression (wasn’t it us who gave them Abkhazia and Ossetia in the first place?), the Ukrainian revanchism (and why was it only us who saw fit to free Western Ukraine from Polish domination?), the British spies and poisoners... Despite the common family values and personal friendship between George Bush and our then president Vladimir Putin, the Americans also decided to annoy us by wrecking the domestic and international economy (which, despite the predictions of our experts, hit the Russian market too). 

Heeding the phrases “birds of a feather flock together” and “tell me with whom thou goest, and I'll tell thee what thou doest”, we decided to replace our old enemies with new and wondrous friends (no need to name them before twilight). We presented the world with new and exciting plans of comprehensive conservative renewal. 

We learned that the most important thing in life is belief in National Leader. 

We learned that the only thing that can separate us is death — his or ours, god grant him health! 

**** 

One day, God brought together the heads of the Great Powers for a debriefing. The American President (this was long before Bush Sr and Jr) began to talk at length about the difficulties he was facing, and eventually broke down in tears. The Lord put his arm around him and said “don’t worry, things will turn out fine in the end”. In came the British PM, and the scene was almost identical: “with God’s will, you will turn it around” was the Lord’s comforting response. Then our General Secretary stepped up and proudly listed the achievements of the country. The Lord listened, silent, before he himself broke down in tears. 

****

Our principle misfortune, you see, is lack of belief. Up until 1917, we believed in a Power Vertical that ranged from God, the Tsar and the Fatherland, right up to the nearest policeman. Today, we don’t know who to fear more: the bandit or the policeman; and who to sympathise with more: the State Prosecutor, lawyer, defendant or judge. Ruthless and comedic public showdowns (who could believe that such a combination was possible) involving the special services have discredited the FSB too. The philosophical quandry: do we believe someone (and something) or in someone (and in something)? is even less irresolvable than the more practical question — “to pay or to swindle”?

Maybe, instead, what is needed is not blind belief, but trust (feelings that are distinct and arguably contradictory). How you form trust in an atmosphere of global deceit and total corruption is another matter entirely. Even if a magician were to fly in on a helicopter and take all our ruling elite away to their far from imaginary Spanish castles, our lives would not change much. After the traditional and painful redistribution of power and property, we would find our new Deathless Kashchey (Ivan Tsarevich in maturity), who will revenge the irrational Khazars and guarantee yet another new wind to our flagging but glorious past  

Neither sociology or futurology is required to predict Russia’s future, because history never fails to serve up the same devastation time and time again. That said, perhaps if we were to learn to differentiate left and right; up and down; front and behind; perhaps if we stopped walking circles around the now rusted chains*, maybe then things could change. Maybe our past could become more certain, and our future — more variable. 

But against this past, we have our wonderful ancestors. Besides, who needs an unpredictable future; and what would our unborn children think? No, let it all be as it always was. 

Add your own smiley if you like. 

 

* the original gold chains that featured in Pushkin’s tale were, of course, taken away to the pawnbrokers in the 1920s, just as the oak tree was cut down, the cat was made into cutlets and the forest hobgoblin sent off to to the Solovki prison camps

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