We’re all strangers here: Andrei Zavadski on fear, which binds and bounds Russian society today

We were off on a family visit to Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. My sister had dropped out at the last minute, so I had a spare ticket. It was a student ticket, not an adult one, so I gave it to the first student I met. There were any number of families with young people looking like students, so I went up to one. “Hello”, I said, “I have a spare concessionary ticket; you can have it for free.” The mother immediately frowned and grunted, “Don’t want it” – looking not even at me, but at her son, who was ready to take it.

I approached a second and third family – and got a similar response. The father of the fourth family I found nodded at his daughter, saying dryly, “You take it”. The girl took it without a word. Her look suggested it wasn’t even worth a “thank you”. It was no big deal – I wasn’t looking for gratitude. Yet the feeling that I wasn’t a respectable art lover, but some kind of drug pusher lurking in a doorway, wasn’t even dispelled by gazing at Vrubel’s Demon. Does our distrust of one another outweigh even our love of a freebie?

Much ink has been spilt about Russians’ crisis of trust over the last few years, but it’s in no way an exclusively Russian phenomenon. The American political scientists Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama both described a decrease in both these values not only in the USA but across the developed world.

Fear of this Other, be they a nosy neighbour, a collective Putin, a chance passer-by or a telephone that won’t stop ringing, is again universal in Russian life

British historian Geoffrey Hosking’s “Trust: A History” may have been published just two years ago, but back in 2002 the author already rightly noted (link in Russian) that “until recently we believed implicitly that if we worked on the upper floors of a skyscraper, no one would even think of flying a plane into it”. Quite apart from global terrorism, distrust in our international community is fuelled by the increasingly obvious defectiveness of our world economic system: migration flows from one part of the world to another; the revival of nationalism; the crisis of democracy and the shift of many countries towards authoritarianism. Therefore, Hosking believes that “our present crisis is a crisis of trust” (link in Russian).

The global context overlaps with specific factors in individual states, and Russia is no exception. Even then, it’s not just about local political realities. The rise in Russians’ distrust and even aggressiveness towards one another can’t be explained away by just the constant pressure of government propaganda, the widespread use of hate speech and political ostracism. The use of radically new methods of manipulating public opinion that underlies Russian television, which has been discussed by sociologist Lev Gudkov, has led to a huge fragmentation of society. But the most amazing part of it has been the lack of any real protest. How has this fragmentation come about? Perhaps because it has found fertile ground in which to grow – our fear of the Other.

The “Other” is, in the words of sociologist Boris Dubin (link in Russian), “an extremely important and extremely generalised image of anyone that you ever work or converse with, even if only in your head. If we go back to the roots of this concept, they are not only the neighbour whom the New Testament exhorts you to love as thyself, but they are included in it. The “other” is the Stranger; which can be the everybody or the nobody (not to mention even the ‘Divine’)”.

Russia’s afraid

Fear of this Other, be they a nosy neighbour, a collective Putin, a chance passer-by or a telephone that won’t stop ringing, is again universal in Russian life. The heated debates over a call by Konstantin Raikin (link in Russian), artistic director of Moscow’s Satyricon Theatre, for “artistic morality” and an end to censorship, and a response by film director and actor Andrey Zvyagintsev (link in Russian) also demanding artistic freedom, are clear evidence of this situation.

Literary specialist Irina Prokhorova, editor of the New Literary Review, recalled in an interview on the publication this year of a book entitled “The Museum of the 90’s: the Territory of Freedom”, how back in 2001 her journal published Mikhail Vaiskopf’s book “Stalin the Writer”, on the dictator’s literary style. The journal traditionally sent books to journalists for review, but suddenly one radio station refused to review the book because it was “on a political subject”, and its literary programme didn’t cover politics.

Prokhorova couldn’t immediately understand this “uncalled-for absurdity”, but then remembered that the day before, Vladimir Putin had in a speech referred to Stalin not by his last name, but more familiarly, as “Iosif Vissarionovich”. “And that was enough”, she said, “to revive the practice of self-censorship, particularly among young people”. Such incidents became increasingly frequent.

I first considered self-censorship as a sign of fear while editing a column on the website of Moscow’s MGIMO University, which specialises in International Relations. Many people see MGIMO as the mouthpiece of, if not the Russian government in general, at least of its ministry of foreign affairs. In some sense it is, of course. But I have never personally encountered any open censorship.

The fear built up during the Soviet years remained, half-forgotten, in Russians’ cultural memory. It has been easily revived in the last few years

One day I surprised myself by realising that I spent far too long imagining how “they” might react to anything I wrote. I was initially very taken aback by this, until it struck me that it was all down to fear – fear of losing my job, of bringing down the wrath of the big bosses on myself and my colleagues and of much more besides..

My second realisation was that that the university specialists I was writing about in my column had started to behave differently towards me. More and more often, if I asked them questions or commissioned articles from them on international issues, they would refuse, saying, “You know why, Andrey”. They, I now understand, were just as scared as I was – scared of something above us, beyond the confines of our petty realities. This change happened to us so quickly and naturally that it didn’t seem to require any serious changes in us.

Back to our yesterdays

And this was indeed the case. Without delving into the distant past (and fear has a long history in Russia), suffice it to say that its epitome was the Stalinist era. Maxim Trudolyubov, Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily, has described it as “one way of activating the [communist] idea – you kill some of the people and weld the rest together through fear”. The welding process appears to have worked – but not with one another, but around the “strong arm” of Stalin. This total, all-embracing fear effectively tore soviet society apart. Solidarity was replaced by suspicion, and your comrade became alien, a stranger, the terrifying Other.

Russia has also been overcome by a terror of gay people, although before they were targeted in a political campaign most Russians had never heard of the acronym “LGBT”

Speech consisted of official banalities and clichés, because people were too afraid to use their own words and perhaps come out with something impermissible (although no one knew what was and wasn’t permitted). There were denunciations of friends and colleagues – anything positive said about anyone might lead to accusations of treason. You would denounce the neighbours on your landing today, because tomorrow they might denounce you (although another widespread reason for millions of denunciations was simply to settle old scores or just improve your living conditions, and here again fear played a major role).

This was all our yesterdays – and possibly all our tomorrows. The fear built up during the Soviet years remained, half-forgotten, in Russians’ cultural memory. It has been easily revived in the last few years.

Now we are once again happily fearing, and hating, the Americans – though what evil did the USA ever do to Russians? The Soros Foundation alone poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Russian science – until our “patriots” forced it to leave our country. Some mythical “West” has become another phobia – how easily our MGIMO specialists have incorporated it as a mainstream concept in their work. Russia has also been overcome by a terror of gay people, although before they were targeted in a political campaign most Russians had never heard of the acronym “LGBT”.

We are scared to stand up for our rights over the management of our flats – there’s no point and we will only draw attention to ourselves. We don’t dare tell a hooligan off in the Metro – the other passengers might not back us up. And we are afraid to stop and answer an inquiry from a passer-by, because we are wary of any chance human contact.

We have also gone back to fearing everything unknown, inexplicable – everything Other. We are afraid and try to ignore it, but if that fails, we stigmatise it and declare it alien to us. Fear is, of course, a natural human emotion. But fear of everyone and everything, fear that smothers our curiosity, is hardly natural.

Finding our demons

The government and its propaganda machine are not the only culprits here. We ourselves are to blame for our lack of reflection on our past and the fear we have failed to come to terms with. As a result, we are afraid not because things are terrible (although sometimes they are) but out of sheer habit, because it’s part of us: part of our cultural code and memory. We don’t see any “neighbours” around us, only Others. Fear of the Other is the main glue, the main currency of our lauded “stability” today.

For Boris Dubin, the Other, whom he saw as as “the generalised partner who is extremely important to you and who you mentally involve in all your actions”, was, in the words of social philosopher Tatiana Weiser, “the companion, subject, refrain or desired reviewer of his reasoning”. Dubin, whose contribution to the subject of the Other in Russia was enormous, also insisted that this figure could not have existed in Russian culture, had it not been for the country’s tragic 20th Century.

Weiser notes that for Dubin, distance was a crucial factor: “the distance that not only divides and fences off, but also allows us to accentuate and single out the distinguishing marks of the Other as Other, as something apart from ‘Myself’”. As Dubin himself wrote, “People [in Russia] pass you very closely, as though you don’t exist or have no personal space, no privacy”. But if you have some personal space, you can still throw a bridge across that distance.

This is perhaps true, if only in the long term. But I think that for now, distance won’t solve the problem of fear and the loss of trust it has created. On the contrary, we need to get closer to one another. How we can do that is another question. Political scientist Viktor Sergeev, a former professor at MGIMO, writes about democracy as a negotiation process. So it is much more sensible to build democracy (trust, mutual understanding) through a process of talks (conversations, meetings).

It’s not easy to teach different people common values, but as soon as they start talking to one another they suddenly realise that they are not so different after all. And if we overcome the sense of otherness we can see how alike we are and what we have in common. We adopt the values of communication. It is no surprise to discover that people whose circle of acquaintance includes members of ethnic and sexual minorities are much more accepting of them. Only an idiot would hate what is familiar and easily understood. We evidently need to overcome this idea of the alien Other by learning about what we don’t understand and by institutionalising mutual communication.

The best time for this in the last 30 years was the 90s. For some people, this was a time of economic and geopolitical disaster and crime on the rampage; for others, a period of freedom, openness and unlimited opportunity. But it was undoubtedly a decade of encounters with the Other – the new, the puzzling, the unknown. That was when we should have learned to live with this Other.

But we blew our chance: we didn’t have time, we didn’t know how, we couldn’t convince our co-citizens,hungry and between jobs, of the importance of coming to terms with the past and overcoming their historical fear. The current swathe of media projects delving into the memory of that free decade and reassessing its official labelling as “reckless” is trying, among other things, to renew that process.

Whether this will bring results — help Russians get their heads round Stalinism and reflect on the very different (and better) 90s – is still unclear. But then, only an absence of fear of one another and of the Other can revive the mutual trust that is so essential, in the words of Geoffrey Hosking, for “people to be able to look the unknown in the eye, whether it be in the shape of another person or simply the future and what it may bring”. We can’t free ourselves from our present “stability” if we have no desire to look into the future.

Translated from Russian by Liz Barnes

OpenDemocracy Russia, 19 December, 2016 

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