Saturday, April 30, 2016

Maria Stepanova - The haunted house: contemporary Russia between past and past

Twenty-five years after the USSR's collapse, writes Maria Stepanova, history has turned into a kind of minefield, a realm of constant, traumatic revision. As a result, Russia is living in a schizoid present where the urgent need for a new language is far from being met.

 .. last but not least, an unexpectedly judgmental feature, which I regard as extraordinarily important in this context. It is lying. When there are no verified facts and no experts who can assess what is going on, the door opens to negating reality as such. This means that truth and lies, good and evil, black and white no longer seem to exist. They become infinitely interchangeable, blurred in what is essentially an artistic pursuit. 

(NB: The socially complicit disappearance of truth described admirably by Stepanova in this essay is a precise marker of modern nihilism. When reality and objectivity are reduced to aesthetic functions and pure whim, we are at a loss to speak intelligibly about anything significant in the world around us. 'All that is solid melts into air' - DS)

It has often been noted that one of the key invariables of pro-Putin rhetoric and the official media can be summed up by the adage "we are all tarred with the same brush". The point is not to whitewash or justify one's own actions but rather to point out that everyone does the same. "We are no better that the others but we are no worse either."

In this sense the very issue of ethics as such, of the legitimacy of the Russian regime's actions, becomes a moot point. Perceiving reality merely as a fiction enables us to disregard ethical judgement and the existence of truth, and worry only about the momentary impact and immediate persuasiveness of the immediate utterance. Tomorrow's truth easily supplants the truth of today and the truth of the day after tomorrow replaces that of tomorrow. Today we say there are no Russian troops in Crimea and three months later we describe in detail the exact way the military operation was carried out and who exactly was involved in it. And these two statements in their completely primeval innocence co-exist in the same information space, without negating or changing anything.

What matters is that all these truths and untruths use yesterday's language. And that, I would say, is the main problem Russian society faces today on every level. Putin's regime and the opposition both face the same problem, as does – with particular urgency – the intellectual community..

Many observers have been puzzled and fascinated by the strange metamorphoses Russia and the country's social consciousness have undergone over the past fifteen years. What has happened over the past three or four years in particular has been impossible to ignore. These changes have to be viewed within the wider, global context in which they have occurred. However, that doesn't make what is happening in Russia less grotesque nor does it make the regression that has marked every aspect of Russia's cultural and social life – from medicine and education, through human rights to the press that no longer fulfils its role, turning increasingly into a propaganda mouthpiece – any less spectacular. Nevertheless, the global context has to be taken into account.

The debate about the end of history started quite a while ago. There is, however, some difference between "the end of history" as originally understood by Alexander Kojève – who sees the ideal state as a machine that satisfies its citizens in so many different ways as to render history as a movement or progression unnecessary – and the situation we are experiencing at present, when every possible idea concerning the future arouses fear, tension and concern.

It is a rather alarming sign that the culture of modernity in which we live has been marked by a fear and distrust of the future. For one of the fundamental ideas of modernity has been a sustained effort to change our lives, gradually arriving at something "new", in the sense of "better". In fact, for the past two centuries, progress has been a key word. Lately, however, the idea of creating something new not as a tool, but as a point of reference, something that is worth aiming for, has been disappearing from our horizon.

Since sometime in the late 1980s, the history of mankind has for the first time in a long while stopped being understood as a history of progress. Until then the future was seen, metaphorically speaking, in terms of the vision of the Strugatsky brothers, that is, a future in which wonderful, advanced people live in a society that is virtually perfect, solving technical problems and correcting the mistakes of parallel universes. But at some point, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and fall of the Berlin Wall, the only imaginable version of the future that remained was a dystopian one, which had to be avoided at all cost. It would be interesting to discover the exact point at which utopian thinking turned dystopian, when history started to accelerate. So what happened in popular culture at this time? 

For a relatively short period, the future was still seen through rose-coloured glasses, as a consumerist paradise in which the idea of progress was linked exclusively to changes in the technical aspects of life, with the future seen as a "technically improved" present. A striking example of this trend in popular culture is the Back to the Future trilogy, which paints an identical picture of the present, the past and the future, except that the future boasts useful inventions such as flying sneakers. From the late 1990s onwards, many Hollywood films presented a dystopian future where only a few survive. It is a future from which one wants to flee.

What is it that terrifies us about the prospect of history, of being caught in history? The twentieth century has demonstrated all too clearly where progress leads. And given that there is no prospect of improvement and that things can only get worse, a standstill or stasis becomes the desired state of affairs. And that makes the current situation seem acceptable.

In this way a substitution takes place by means of signing a covert social contract – we are prepared to consider our imperfect state acceptable as long as things don't get worse. The first example that comes to mind is the covert deal Vladimir Putin made with Russian society in the early noughties. Although the conditions of this deal weren't made explicit until later, they were acknowledged quite early, in 2002 and 2003, that is, at a time when it would have been sensible to protest. Yet mass protests didn't materialize for another decade. In exchange for private freedom society gave the government a virtually unlimited freedom to act. So, in effect, the future was, rather misguidedly, exchanged for the present. This consensus continued until the events of late 2011.

The acceptance of the present, and the fear that what is to come can only be worse still, are quite universal but there is something specific about their Russian manifestation: I would suggest that in addition to the fear of the future, which is quite widespread, Russia is living in a schizoid present… 
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