Opinion: On loving (and hating) Russia

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Leviathan

Recently at a conference in Tver on issues of Stalinist history, an historian friend of mine from Novosibirsk asked me “Do you really hate Russians?”

Although decent Russian intellectuals I met there insisted that they did not watch national television, or "zombyvision", it still wasn’t difficult to see where this question was coming from. I hurriedly answered that “we”, i.e., “the Lithuanians” respected the Russian people but hated Putin's regime. My colleague seemed to be pleased with the answer, as he himself wasn’t exactly a fan of the way things are in post-communist Russia. It did however make me think deeper about just how justified these spontaneous distinctions between Russia and the Russians, between the government and the society, are. Is it really so simplistic and clear-cut, classifying everyone into those who benefited under Putin and the rest, the hostages and innocent victims?

Vladimir Putin’s counter-revolution

A similar question has been addressed by filmmakers. Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan caused an uproar not only in the upper echelons of the government (the Russian minister of culture was angered at the way the state-financed film dared portray Russia in such a “shitty way”), but also among the “masses” that “did not, to be sure, see the film but justifiably condemned it nonetheless”. Although it won a number of prestigious awards at foreign film festivals, even an Oscar nomination this year, it seems unlikely to be given a wide release in its own country. It is probable that a dependable version its makers themselves made available in the Internet will be watched freely online.

Leviathan is without a doubt an epic film. Through the tragedy of one family and spreading the atmosphere that has come about in the country, the director exposes the unmasked face of the “nucleus of Putinism”, embodied in a mayor’s bloated and drunken snout that nearly explodes from its own power, righteousness and impunity. The reaction caused by this work of art and the impression it made wouldn’t nearly be as effective if it didn’t deal with the realities of today’s Russia. Although the film exasperates and hurts with its story of hopelessness and decay, it’s not only those who see it who are left discouraged and disappointed. It must nevertheless be endured so that the essence of the director’s idea that it carries is disseminated.

Rasa Čepaitienė
Foto: Asmeninio archyvo nuotr.

Zviagintsev has succeeded where the film “Tsar”, created by another brilliant Russian director Pavel Lungin tried but didn’t manage to, i.e. expose the essence and basis of Russian civilization itself. “Any power comes from God” stresses the Russian Orthodox bishop to the mayor several times and in doing so justifies (and encouraged) any of his crimes. From the onset however is seems that the inhuman machine of the state in the guise of God and the Church ruthlessly and with impunity crushes the lives of people. Not all is so hopeless. At the end of the film friends of the family shelter an orphan who is the teenage son of the main character which would show that the “Russian people are good and only their government is satanic”.

The metaphor of leviathan appears that several times in the film is an enormous skeleton of a whale, once a form that alive and mighty, swam proudly in the sea. It obviously has deep biblical roots and signifies a gigantic sea monster, in actual fact “the Enemy” - Satan. In this case it is a constant alternative to the power of the state which in 1651 formed the basis of Hobbes’ book Leviathan. He formulated the principle of governing where any government is better than a powerlessness that leads to a struggle of everyone with everyone. Subordinates cannot change the form of government as they do not have the permission from the sovereign. The subordinates cannot lawfully condemn the actions of the sovereign; whatever the sovereign does he cannot be punished by the subordinate. This is seen in the first part of the cult film ‘Brother’ (1997).

Here, Alexei Balabanov portrays the [re] establishment of this order in post-Soviet Russia. In this film however a weak hope still breaks through: the main character, Danila, although an ultranationalist killer, nevertheless in his own ways seeks justice, has hopes and dreams, loves his mother and brother. He loves music and enchants people with the creativity and colour of his bohemian world. In Zviagintsev’s Leviathan however, we see the fruits of an already decayed Putinite society where any roads to the dispensing of justice have been shut. All that remains is the support of interpersonal friendships and family ties. The former however are also weak and falling apart – there is a reason as to why in the film there is much in the way of themes of betrayal and mistrust.

This isn’t the first time that Zviagintsev has dealt with the question of government and authority. His 2003 film ‘The Return’ develops at a family level. It is not known from where and why a father, who left his family and hasn’t seen his two sons since they were babies, unexpectedly returns and hastily starts to make real men out of the boys. The attempts of the father, who hitherto hadn’t bothered about his sons, now after so many years to discipline them and to do what he says ignites violence and causes intense resistance that finally ends in tragedy. How do you respect someone who earned no love and respect and who uses his physical strength and superiority so that he can come down to “convince” and undermine? This is the drama that the sons go through. It’s a drama in that that not even the father who wants to - but cannot - teach how to love.

What’s significant is that the very word “authority” in Russian culture is first of all associated with the criminal world. In his latest work however Zviagintsev goes further. In Leviathan there is an authority and legitimacy of the government that, without manipulation, violence and suppression of the undisciplined, is supported by a “soft power” and has a far greater impact – the power of religion. Zviagintsev is probably the first to so openly and truthfully dare give it a name, something which shocked and riled members of the government. The church grew along with political power- Byzantinism or Tsarpapacy – an old feature of Russian civilization, now successfully revitalized by the Putin regime. This is the “power vertical”, from the bottom (the mayor of a town on the north coast) right up to the top supported by divine authority. Anybody who dares doubt it transgresses not only the social order but the Creator of the universe himself and of whom a person of government is a reflection and representative on Earth and faces merciless punishment. Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century ideologically and institutionally laid the foundation of the doctrine of autocracy and linked the divine and earthly power of government by turning it into an utmost and undisputed (quasi) sacred authority. And the secret police that he founded – the oprichina – would later be reincarnated as a repressive Soviet feature or post-Soviet special services.

If the atheist Soviet government’s final authoritative and transcendent example declared the “faultless” school of Marxist-Leninism a substitute for religion, reinforced by the promise of paradise on earth and a “bright tomorrow” for future generations, then the post-Soviet nomenclature which has got rid of burdensome social welfare obligations, is attempting to found its own truth by ruling with the maxim of Supreme Authority – any power comes from God. Today, Russia’s governing echelons have very much popularized “churchification” , i.e., a demonstrated immersion into the Orthodox Church. It’s simply a fashion or a sly cover. They are truly the believers (in the film incidentally, for the victims faith is lacking). They have founded a corrupt system ruled by neo-feudal new nobles and secret police. In the system they’re like fish in water (or in this case a whale in the sea) the stability of which that nothing threatens because any attempts to change it using judicial rulings or blackmail will get not only the crushing it asked for but also supreme condemnation. This then is the Tsar’s way – autocracy, orthodoxy and the people – are reborn and are flourishing. A full circle is turned.

Internal colonisation

What then about the Russian people? Cambridge professor of Slavonic Studies Alexander Etkind recently published a book about an internal Russian colonization that has manifested itself throughout the country’s history. “Internal” or self-colonization is a term used from the Mongol-Tartar period and from the 16th century. During the time of Ivan the Terrible Russia’s rulers, actively instituted a way their country’s resources and people were treated and which was equivalent to foreign colonisation. In his research on Russian colonization, Etkind finds many analogies with the Golden Horde. There is shert – the loyalty sworn by the elite of a conquered people to a patron; there’s the amanat (captives) and the yasak (tribute paid). Governments like this in actual fact colonise their own people turning them into “another” resource of the elites of economic prosperity and targets of social experiments for the emissaries of reform. They are also turned into a source of permanent fear of blind and brutal rebellion, or on the contrary, into a space where utopia is realised when in the 19th century narodniki intellectuals and later Bolsheviks turned their attention to the peasant communes.

Foto: AFP/Scanpix

The economic model of exploitation of a “single resource” in Western markets allows for the formation of a specific Russian social character. The heavy economic dependence of the Duchy of Novgorod and later of Moscow on fur exports from Siberia can be compared with Putin’s Russia’s dependence on oil and gas sales abroad. A specific system has always existed in the country where a small section of the society has benefited from this economic bartering and made decisions affecting the rest of the society which lived off loans and subsistence farming. Etkind’s statement that internal colonization in Russia would begin only when there were no more opportunities to export these resources due to their depletion or closure of foreign markets sometime after the Bolshevik coup deserves more attention. At that time, by attempting to take over territory and by seeking to “civilize” Russian and other nations’ elites, Russia systematically inundated the internal states and, in the case of the Bolsheviks, the “greater” masses.

The reforms of Peter I and Alexander II and especially Stalin’s industrialization are probably the most visible “emissaries”of internal colonization in Russia. At that time “a government person” (the Tsar’s provincial protégé, a Bolshevik) and “a cultural person” (intellectual) that were the tools of internal colonization. A “person of the people” was perceived by both as an object of conducted reforms and as raw material. Peter I can be considered the founder of such an authoritarian model of modernization because he brought back to life an archaic form of slave labour, itself a paradox seen in the construction of Saint Petersburg, the most European Russian city, and in his hopeless seeking to draw the society of his time to the standards of European culture. In this way the state colonized the nation it ruled including the Russians themselves.

This authoritarian or repressive modernization that separated a person’s freedom and social progress, the state and society is a model that was revived with the efforts of Lenin and Stalin. The latter by the way was as enraptured by Peter I as he was by Ivan the Terrible and his propagating of the idea of Moscow as the “Third Rome”. The creation of a great socio-economic infrastructure and overcoming the technological backwardness of the country was the aim of Stalin’s internal colonization. The main institutes of internal colonization in the USSR were a machinery of repression, the GULAG system and the collectivization of agriculture and industrialization that allowed for the revival of the slave and punitive labour practices which in a strange way they are consistent with the purpose of “catching up and overtaking” technologically and culturally more developed countries. You can half seriously say that as a Magadan should have been the capital of the colonial empire that was the USSR.

Were the failed reforms started by Boris Yeltsin an attempt at the usual internal colonization? Their swift discrediting however what were seen in the eyes of the people as a somewhat mechanical Western business and economic model moving over into an environment that was completely unprepared from a juridical, economic and finally mental point of view. In 1999 Yeltsin’s protégé and successor Vladimir Putin came to power and made a conscious turnaround from the road of democratization and returned to a combined model of conservative doctrine, traditional authoritarian despotism and “geological economism”. “Internal colonization” therefore in Russia doesn’t refer to a specific historic and socio-economic phenomenon only but also to a spiritual state of being characteristic of (post)-Soviet society. This makes it possible not only to grasp the “uniqueness of the Russian road” but also to explain the policy of the ruling establishment in Russia, taking into account the turn toward the renewal of the empire and expansionism.

But coming back to the original question as to whether or not we can separate the political regime and system which supports it the government, from the people. If we can’t, then even the highest power is still a captive of centuries of a molded and entrenched order in which the state is identified with a ruling person, irrespective of who he is (remember the recent “without Putin there is no Russia) and in the society there is only one person that is free – the leader. All the others remain functionaries, parasites or subordinates of Asiatic-type states yet they are not free citizens. It’s not for nothing that Leviathan begins with scenes where rights to private property are being dealt with. However, the right to private property is one of the founding institutes of Western, European civilization and unknown to Asiatic societies where it would exist obscured in some judicial terminology. It is unknown if another founding Western value exists here, that of the non-negotiable dignity of the human being. Can a slave really be dignified?

In December I went to Tver with some trepidation. However, the town and its people surprised me. Clean streets, well-maintained architecture, kind and helpful passersby, hardly angered at hearing a Baltic accent. The conference itself and conversations with my colleagues were a truly intellectual and spiritual feast. This time Russia showed its bright face which was so enchanting and attractive with its culture, art and traditions. As noted, the Russian mind cannot be understood. Spiritual and cruel, broad-minded and crass, aggressive and repentant. Russia can be feared, hated and loved. And it’s not least because of this that great artists do not fear bending before its wounds and cutting through its abscesses.

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Rasa Čepaitienė is cultural historian and professor at Vilnius University

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