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Russian cynicism: symptom of a stagnant society

Cynicism, originally a philosophy in ancient Greece, is now the prevailing mood in Putinist Russia, and, Lev Gudkov believes, a uniquely destructive force.

 

‘Cynicism’ may be defined as a remark or action deliberately designed to devalue the Other – a marked refusal to acknowledge moral values held by people who move in the same circles as the cynic him- or herself. It differs from Nihilism in its conscious rejection of values, its conscious belittlement of any manifestation of the ideal, the exalted, the moral, etc. Nihilism is simply the denial of the moral value of a given action or stance, whereas cynicism deliberately ascribes values to someone in order to discredit them, without necessarily discrediting the values themselves.

The cynic knows the difference between good and evil, and knowingly uses the one to disqualify the Other. So, ideological antagonism, a polemical aversion to other people’s values and opinions, or other such grounds for a refusal to acknowledge them, are not examples of cynical behaviour. What is cynical is a rejection of things that are important to others, in the full awareness of the importance that they hold for these others and their sensitivity towards them. The provocative potential of cynicism only works when a cynical gesture or remark strikes at the inviolate, fundamental principles and perceptions that make up the other person’s system of coordinates, undermining his or her personal or social identity. A cynical act is futile if it only affects a person’s private circumstances or beliefs; it has to touch the most sensitive areas of their moral values. Semantically, a degrading attitude or act strips its object or objects of their dignity and higher human qualities while appealing to their ‘sense of reality’, to an ‘actual state of affairs’, to ‘the naked truth’: that is, it strips them of their ideals and brings them ‘down to earth’. They then end up coming across as inept ‘out of touch’ ‘moralists’, impractical dreamers, idealists and so on.

Value systems that have traditionally represented the moral core of a stable society and state are starting to be seen as ‘on their way out’ – empty hypocritical assertions imposed or supported by the conservative ruling classes to legitimise their own supremacy.

Social control within a group, or conformism within a given milieu, usually prevents individual cynical behaviour by treating it as tactless, indelicate or a breach of social conventions, and the cynic may be subjected to mild censure. In the public sphere attitudes to cynicism are more tolerant, and it may become the subject of an esoteric aesthetic game of boundary pushing, while a flair for it becomes the mark of a sophisticated intelligence in the same league as an original turn of thought, a lively wit or personal independence of spirit. However, when cynicism acquires a public face its function changes: it becomes a weapon of social conflict, a destroyer of your opponents’ values and at the same time an act of self-assertion, a demonstration of the cynic’s claims to be superior to the objects of his or her cynicism. 

The cynicism of Ancient Greece, exemplifed by Diogenes The cynicism of Ancient Greece, exemplifed by Diogenes  
The spread of cynicism, or a change in its focus, should be seen by the researcher as a sign of diversity in the value systems of different communities or social groups. At the same time, the value systems that have traditionally represented the moral core of a stable society and state, the perception of what distinguishes human society from chaos, are starting to be seen as declining in value and significance, as ‘on their way out’ – empty hypocritical assertions imposed or supported by the conservative ruling classes to legitimise their own supremacy.

Cynicism indicates the erosion of traditional value systems, the destruction of former beliefs and norms, the beginnings of deep socio-cultural changes in society, of a conflict between different values. But it is not in itself an element of new institutional relationships and can’t be regarded as a sign of their emergence. It doesn’t create change, and here it differs from innovatory breakthroughs, discoveries or inventions, or from the appearance of new ideas, meanings and moral concepts that determine the future direction of the social and cultural process. At best, cynicism can debunk conventional wisdoms or opportunistic popular opinions.

A short history of Cynicism

In the history of thought there have been several exceptional situations that sparked a culture of cynicism. In the first place, of course, we have the Cynicism of ancient Greece,  outstandingly exemplified by Diogenes, the radical follower of Antisthenes, who taught practical philosophy as a counterweight to Plato and his philosophy of theoretical knowledge. The Cynics (the name comes from the Greek for ‘dog’) preached the idea of self-sufficiency as personal independence, and a rejection of artificial social conventions, established moral values, family, state and other institutions. Diogenes’ provocative preachings and lifestyle (he slept in a tub and went barefoot all year round) have gone down in history as a model of ostentatious disregard for conventional values and behaviour. The Cynics had an enormous influence on the later Stoic school of philosophy and on classical satirists and moralists. Their ideas reached the height of their popularity in the late Hellenistic period in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, when democracy was on the decline in Greece’s city-states and they themselves were losing their independence.

The ancient Greek Cynics preached the idea of self-sufficiency as personal independence, and a rejection of artificial social conventions, established moral values, family, state and other institutions.

Another historical example of Cynicism are the precepts expressed by Machiavelli, one of the first proponents of political pragmatism. Renaissance hedonism and a new sense of life, dangerous intellectual and practical experiments in subjectivity and a rejection of traditional morality were both characteristic of the lifestyle of many titans of that age and elements in the formation of a new urban culture, the prototype of our modern cities.

These were nonetheless comparatively rare and isolated occurrances. Cynicism only became an established phenomenon around Europe towards the end of the 18th century, at the same time as ideas about a New Age, History, Culture and Civilisation that marked the fall of the Ancien Régime in France. The European Enlightenment, rationalism, French materialism and libertarianism and similar cultural and social movements accompanied the development of modern society and its institutions. The emergence of such concepts as national and civil emancipation, representative democracy, government based on the rule of law, universal suffrage and egalitarianism weakened the concept of rule based on the division of people into unequal ‘estates’. The processes of this transformation were accompanied by various acts and symbolic manifestations of Cynicism (Baudelaire’s ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’, the aesthetics of Decadence, Nietzsche’s pronouncement that ‘God is Dead’ and the end of Culture) that gradually waned and became ever more trivial and banal.

An understanding of the advance of modernity is unthinkable without an analysis of cynicism as an element of the erosion of traditional morality, religion, customs and political ideologies. In an open and consumption-driven society, money becomes the general motor of social and individual relations, even the most complex and intimate ones. It becomes the way to measure social position, human dignity, intelligence. Here we start to see ourselves as living in a whole new era: the triumph of capitalism, the realisation that money is the measure of everything, a property of the atmosphere of cities with their impersonality, anonymity, formalism, illusion of accessibility, massive scale and loss of human kindness. There is a whole branch of literature devoted to these new phenomena, the most interesting example being the German pioneering sociologist Georg Simmel’s ‘The Philosophy of Money’, published in 1907, where he analysed the way in which material and meaningful values and ideals are destroyed by the unifying and levelling formal rationality of monetary relations.

In Russia, close and sensitive observers such as Saltykov-Shchedrin  registered similar tectonic shifts after the Reforms of 1861 that abolished serfdom in Russia. In his ‘Physiological Sketches’ Shchedrin charted both the long and painful process of degradation among the middle-ranking landowner class after the reforms, and the destruction of the way of life of the privileged classes and the fragility of their ethical principles. His ‘Death of the Man of Culture’ was triggered by the rise of the cynics, a new class of person whom he described as ‘something along bourgeois lines, a new cultural class of innkeepers, rentiers, railway magnates, bankers, embezzlers and other parasites’.

Later, at the very end of the 19th century, the arrival in Russia of Modernism and modernity was regarded by conservatively-minded Russians more as decadence than as the dawning of a ‘Silver Age’, as it is usually known. This name was given it by those who were excited mainly by the actual process of introducing the new concepts and the broadening of metaphysical horizons; the new age was more often discussed in terms of degeneration and disintegration, of imminent catastrophe. The dramatic events of the following decades produced generations of cynics, who each in their turn became the victims of the next wave of cynicism.

Cynicism and Russia today

We began to research the subject of public ethics at the end of the 1980s, a time of social transformation and crisis. We used public opinion polls, and over the years they have given us a mass of evidence for Russians’ loss of faith in the solidity of established moral values. Many millions of people feel helpless in the face of the growing cynicism of politicians - the best example of this is perhaps the most clever, colourful and talented politician in Russia today (and perhaps also the most unprincipled), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose thought processes and soapbox oratory tricks are copied, though not well, by practically everybody. And this cynicism has infected whole swathes of society in return. Our polls today reflect a mass cynicism in the public’s social consciousness and thinking. People believe that everyone in public life, whether members of the government, politicians, oligarchs, NGOs or even church people, acts from the lowest possible motives.   

Cynicism today is a reaction to the abortive nature of Russia's modernisation process, says Gudkov. Photo: CC Russavia, 2012 Cynicism today is a reaction to the abortive nature of Russia's modernisation process, says Gudkov. Photo: CC Russavia, 2012 
Today’s political and public cynicism is however very different from the historical examples mentioned above, which were triggered by changes in social conditions. What we see now is, on the contrary, mainly a reaction to the failure of attempts at democratic political and social reform, the abortive nature of Russia’s modernisation process. There are several reasons for the emergence of this mass cynicism.  The first, most obvious, one is public disillusionment with the reform process and the consequent transformation of expectations, or illusions, into aggression towards those who were trusted to carry it out – democrats, liberals, politicians who had promised to meet much higher aspirations and ethical perceptions about humans and their rights than those in Soviet times. The high level of anger and animosity expressed in our polls is a sign of people’s frustration and feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, translated into a vindictive debunking of people they previously looked up to as leaders and authorities, indeed a rejection of these very concepts. Traces remain of these former aspirations in an idealisation of  ‘normal countries’ and realisation that Russia will never be one of these.

Our polls today reflect a mass cynicism in Russians’ social consciousness and thinking. People believe that everyone in public life, whether members of the government, politicians, oligarchs, NGOs or even church people, acts from the lowest possible motives.

This type of resentment is not unique to Russia; it’s a common factor in an unsuccessful transition. But this is just the most obvious explanation for the Russians’ growing cynicism. For a deeper understanding we need to analyse the specific anthropology of the ‘Homo Sovieticus’ that evolved in the Soviet period, a person adapted to a repressive state and who has learned to live with this at the cost of lower aspirations, ethical doublethink and opportunism, and an ability to display ostentatious loyalty to the regime.

Among the diverse forms of Russian cynicism two varieties stand out – the cynicism of the rulers and the cynicism of the ruled, representing different reactions to the inertia that exists in the institutions of force and coercion – the courts, the political and municipal police, the public prosecutor’s office, investigative agencies and so on, none of which have changed much since Soviet times. Then, the regime’s violence, its microscopic social control and coercion of its citizens was ostensibly justified by the need for total mobilisation required for building a ‘new society’ and a bright future, and the need to be on a constant war footing, a permanent state of emergency. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union this system of coercion lost all justification. The naked despotism of an authoritarian regime implied a refusal to recognise the value of both individuals and the public in general as anything more than a resource to be exploited by the regime.

Cynicism was built into the very structure of Putinist power, assembled vertically, from the top down, with the people at the top appointing underlings who would be accommodating and loyal administrators, rather than competent and professionally qualified specialists. This process is based on negative selection principles, where the most unprincipled, ‘flexible’ and adaptable kinds of people are admitted to the corridors of power. These fortunate functionaries, at whatever level, enjoy not only various bonuses and privileges, but also the psychological comfort due to someone who has asserted himself by disqualifying Another. However, the institutional consequence of such a power structure is a constant loss of quality in the political system, the Parliamentary corpus and government as a whole. Every election brings a more mediocre bunch of MPs, who have lost any responsibility to the electorate. Their social capital is based purely on their lobbying power, their connections with the people at the top.

Cynicism was built into the very structure of Putinist power, assembled vertically, with the people at the top appointing underlings who would be accommodating and loyal administrators, rather than competent and professionally qualified specialists.

The public consequences of this selection system are Russia’s daily corruption scandals. The system chooses shoddy human material, panders to the lowest of human instincts and readiness to humiliate others, and in time that leads to its own self-destruction. The very legitimacy of this absolutist regime rests on the systematic putting-down of others. But if government is based on humiliation, coercion and shows of strength, the result is a serious breakdown in values – ethical, religious and civil. The consequences of this kind of power structure today bring about a systematically repetitive devaluation of normal ethical values (understanding ethics as the limits of violence, the everyday boundary of despotism). Only the regime itself and the groups of oligarchs close to it can see a complete value system in such a view of reality.

The danger of cynicism for the future

When the public is deprived of autonomy and independence, social differentiation is suppressed, and social life becomes more primitive. Another problem with governmental cynicism is that the products of cynical thinking and cynical consciousness are so toxic that eventually people lose the ability to react to the disintegration of the political system and society as a whole, condemned to ‘endure’ arbitrary authoritarian rule, sinks into a state of apathy. And this mass cynicism becomes over time a factor in the suppression of any development and the preservation of the status quo – in other words, a symptom and characteristic of an inert, stagnant society.

The selective nature of the judicial system encourages Russians’ alienation from politics, their civic and political passivity and their fatalism – the famous ‘Russian sufferance’. And at the same time it is an excuse for their own disregard for the law.

The most obvious example of this is the Russian public’s attitude to their country’s judicial system. Judicial cynicism – doublethink – is systemic and ubiquitous, since it arises from contradictions and discrepancies between what the law says and how it is implemented, the fact that the principles embodied in the Constitution of the Russian Federation are ignored in practice. So Russians see the courts as a punitive-repressive institution designed to defend the regime from its citizens, with an inevitable devaluation among these same citizens of the law and all idea of justice and right and wrong. The selective nature of the Russian judicial system encourages people’s alienation from politics, their civic and political passivity and their fatalism – the famous ‘Russian sufferance’.  And at the same time it is an excuse for their own disregard for the law.

All this means that social order in general is seen as something unfair, on the one hand, and on the other, as something cruel and coercive. And this leads to mass cynicism and amorality, and a conviction that force is an inevitable fact of life, the reality is that a code of violence is becoming the dominant factor in social relations, taking the most diverse social forms and leading to universally repressive relations between people.

An authoritarian regime, supported by an unconstitutional political power structure and a corrupt bureaucracy, is sterilising the complex forms of social interaction that have continually arisen in post-Soviet Russia as a result of the appearance of private property and a market economy alongside cutting edge technology and new means of communication. In the long term, the effect of post-Soviet cynicism will be to subvert and suppress the authority of today’s power elites themselves, making them sterile, unproductive and impotent. As a result, the very notion of the future and the ability to choose and change; to introduce new ideas or points of reference for development, or goals for civil activism – all these will disappear, and their place will be filled with imitation values, beliefs, ideologies etc. And that will complete the disintegration of both the post-Soviet system of culture, literature and art and of those who create it.            

About the author

Lev Gudkov is a Russian sociologist, director of the analytical Levada Center and editor-in-chief of the journal The Russian Public Opinion Herald. He is the author of numerous books and articles on sociology and inter-ethnic relations in Russia.


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