What is it I find captivating about Russia? I’m not sure I could answer that. There’s so much, and my interest is partly defined by its own indefinability. One thing I can however put my finger on, somewhat laconically, is the lacuna of a mytho-ideological definition for modern Russian self-identity. a hundred years ago most of the world’s people were subjects of continental Empires- The Ottoman, The Manchu Qing, The British Raj, The Austro-Hungarian, and indeed the Tsar’s very own. These were mostly torn apart with the rise of nationalism around the First Word War. Russia, however, has been much more reluctant to disintegrate, surrendering a few of its western bits in the Great War and losing a few others in 1991, while remaining multi-ethnic and the world’s largest country.
What modernity– industrialization and the cult of reason meant for how people identify and group themselves has never been an open and shut case. The nation-state, until the recent rise of supra-national bodies like the EU, seemed a matter of consensus. Even the USSR, despite its ideal of ‘soviet man,’ charged a certain moustachioed Georgian with chairing a committee to define nationalities and scrawling borders around their general domicile. Perhaps not the brightest idea in retrospect. Besides the widespread appeal of the nation-state, there are of course very well known examples of contention over the nature of modernity. The world was long divided into first, second and third cohorts, or roughly capitalist, communist, and non-aligned, to make no mention of fascism.
Marxism-Leninism and Fascism are themselves hardly clear-cut concepts. They share parallels however, not only in being totalitarian, but in a sort of Oedipal relationship to their theoretical origins. Before Nazism there was the German conservative revolutionary movement. This was a group of thinkers who saw democracy and the bourgeoisie as decadent and corrupt, generally favouring a hierarchical, militaristic nationalism founded on linguistic, cultural and religious identity, in contrast to the nazis’ vulgar “blood and soil” dictum. Most of them disapproved of the Nazi’s antisemitism and those that tacitly initially supported the Nazis as a crude approximation of their ideals either turned away early on or were killed in the night of long knives for their critiques.
Meanwhile, before 1917 Marxism too was predominantly a German phenomenon. True believers including Lenin believed that a Socialist revolution could only take place in the most advanced industrialized capitalist economy with the largest and best organized labour movement, Germany. Lenin saw the Russian revolution as a holding strategy that could not succeed without an imminent German revolution. This took place prematurely in 1918 and was crushed by the Freikorps, proto-fascists. By the time he died Lenin had lost hope in a socialist Russia. The leaders of the democratic, more orthodox-marxist German labour movement did not take so long to clue in however. Rosa Luxembourg was murdered in the German Revolution, but not before predicting that Lenin’s ‘democratic centralism’ (totalitarianism by another name) would lead to an unwieldy bureaucracy which would collapse under it’s own weight. Her colleague Otto Rühle described Leninism as ‘state capitalism’ because the state rather than the workers had ownership and management of the means of production. Lenin responded by deriding these critics as ‘infantile leftists.’ Much like the conservative revolutionaries in the face of Nazism, the ‘infantile leftists, or orthodox Marxists who survived the German revolution were persecuted by the Bolsheviks as in the Spanish civil war, bought out by the Comintern, or faded into obscurity in the face of the formidable Soviet, US and German propaganda machines which insisted that the Bolsheviks defined the far left (and the Nazis the far right).
Abiding by this manufactured vision involves forgetting the beating heart of the pre-Great War labour movement in Germany and the various left opposition movements against the relatively and explicitly right-wing Marxism-Leninism (though I’d suggest the categories of left and right wing have long been meaningless). These include, for a start, the Kronstadt Rebellion, The Worker’s Opposition, and the demand in the Prague Spring and among Eastern-Bloc dissidents in general for ‘Socialism with a human face.’ On the right the amnesia is even more complete, the conservative revolutionaries are entirely forgotten and any suspected rightist is quickly labelled a fascist. Our political landscape is a bleak one-dimensional one, with brutal wackos on either end, buffeted by hard-liners, rapacious neo-liberal neo-conservatives on the right, profligate social democrats on the left, and an precariously narrow centre representing level-headed sanity. Rock the boat, and you invariably end in gulag or genocide. Even basic two dimensional expansions to this crude oversimplification like the online political compass are considered intriguingly innovative.
I’d argue that since the start of the financial crisis five years ago, Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ status quo, characterized by consumerism, excessive commodification, reliance on credit, alienation, short-termism, and myopically quantitative and reductionist scientistic worldview isn’t going from strength to strength. Others might say since the 1973 oil crisis rather than since 2008. Take the three largest English-speaking countries for example. Optimistic predictions of US growth are starting to look like optimistic predictions of the second coming. Optimistic predictions of UK growth have gone the way of the Empire and Canada has dropped out of the top ten from first place in the UN HDI. Americans no longer believe their children’s lives will be better than their own. Even the Chinese economic miracle has seen better days. Heck, even Sweden is rioting. Do you remember the 1990s? The West was the victorious free world, with iron-clad principles of freedom of expression, individual liberty, government accountability. The war on terror, which could easily be made redundant by abandoning overbearing foreign and military policy, spelt an end to most of that. Reward for the enterprising has also lost much of its promise with the consolidation of oligopoly and decreasing accessibility of education and professional jobs, even in law and business. The shining light of all things Liberal, the EU, is hardly going from strength to strength either.
The idea of progress is a modern dogma, but in the social and economic spheres (assuming they are separable spheres) progress isn’t exactly plain to see. So it is left to technology alone to dazzle us with promises of a brighter future. Educated Russians are generally pragmatically sympathetic toward this western dogma, the USSR was a nation of scientistic engineers and anyway it beats the daunting rigour of having to construct a brand new dogma. Their own country’s myriad severe problems conceal to them the seeds of discontent within our own and make the relative order and justice of the West seem a utopian ideal just out of reach across a phalanx of riot-armoured OMON or, perhaps, simply across a chasm of popular resignation.
It is however unwise to generalize about Russia. Besides it’s proverbial division between the westernists and slavophiles, there is little consensus within the opposition movement, now on mass trial in the ‘Bolotnaya Square case.’ Opposition demonstrations regularly feature ethno-nationalist brutes and out-of-touch bleeding-heart lefties marching together. Meanwhile there is an academic revival and post-Soviet adaptation of the German conservative revolution by the name of ‘Eurasianism,’ ostensibly part of a wider ‘fourth political theory,’ espoused by one Alexander Dugin and Alain de Benoist. This also has ties, dating back to the Soviet collapse, with National Bolshevism, a delicious bit of avant-garde political theatre devised by Eduard Limonov with the intention to shock. Limonov spent time in the 1970’s New York punk scene, and following in the steps of Otto Rühle, found the USA simply a system of control more nuanced than the USSR.
The West and Anglosphere particularly is committed to a narrative about modernity and about ourselves which I think is starting to break down. We seem to totally lack the imagination, vigour and audacity to create any viable alternatives which inspire and unite. This is an issue even in Occupy Wall Street or even the Arab Spring both of which are too wishy-washy and banal ideologically to actually achieve anything. Maybe the IT revolution, while offering practically unlimited information and communication alienates us from one another, as social media famously does, while offering a powerful tool of escapism. Besides this, systems of credit have offered us a false sense of economic prosperity and security, creating a complacence that prevents us from addressing our economic, social, and importantly ideological break down until precariously late in the game.
So, to return to where I started, one thing I like about Russia is that they are not so utterly committed to a narrative or ideology of modernity. The Soviet Union replaced traditional mythology, traditional narratives and ideology with their own only to collapse leaving both irretrievable. Sure, most educated Russians in my experience have adopted the bourgeois western worldview and wish they could hope their state would do likewise. I’d argue that if current trends continue, in the years to come they might be surprised to watch our societies come to mimic the trail-blazing political-economic example set here rather than visa versa. Oligopoly, gross inequality, and nothing more than a mocking veneer of democracy. Yes it’s grim, and this is the price paid for the ideological rudderlessness which so fascinates me. Russia has yet to fully disintegrate into nation-states, a process which would entail holocaust as it did in Germany, Turkey, and India. The new Eurasian Union of post-Soviet states might help preempt this. Besides, the concept of a ‘Soviet people’ has not entirely lost traction. Meanwhile the State is promoting religion with questionable results, ostensibly to fill the ethical gap left by Soviet ethics though likely out of more cynical motives. There is a broad mistrust of government and a small, fractured, persecuted though creative opposition. While a broad swath of society would like to see their turbulent society settle into a western-defined normal, they are more equipped than the west to see that normality fall to pieces as they have experience both with alternative narratives and with their cataclysmic collapse.
The song I’ve translated for this post is by Yanka Dyagileva, a singer-songwriter who had an interest in these matters, as did her colleagues and friends in the 1980s-90s Siberian punk scene. As with Soviet society in general the ideological orientation and worldview of this scene was diverse and ever-changing, going roughly from ‘socialism with a human face’ to National Bolshevism to avowed anti-totalitarianism. Thereby they arguably bridge the divide between the conservative revolution and orthodox democratic anti-Leninist socialism, maintaining all the while an opposition to the bourgeois framework of contemporary western and, in some respects increasingly, Russian society. Dyagileva is a respected though incredibly depressing songwriter and poet, though what else could a socially conscious artist of her particular times be? I’m tempted to make this a blog just of translations of her songs and those of her associates Alexander Bashlachyov, Egor Letov and Grazhdanskaya Oborona (Civil Defence), but I’ll restrain myself in the interest of variety. Without further ado here’s the song.
Янка Дягилева – По Колено
Yanka Dyagileva – Po Koleno
Yanka Dyagileva – On Our Knees
Мы по колено в ваших голосах,
My po koleno v vashikh golosakh,
We are up to our knees in your voices,
А вы по плечи в наших волосах.
A vy po plechi v nashikh volosakh.
And you are up to your shoulders in our tresses.
Они по локоть в тёмных животах,
Oni po lokot` v tyomnykh zhivotakh,
They are elbow deep in dark bellies,
А я по шею в гибельных местах.
A ya po sheyu v gibel`nykh mestakh.
And I am neck deep in perilous territory.
Мы под струёй крутого кипятка,
My pod struyoj krutovo kipyatka,
We are under a jet of searing water,
А вы под звук ударов молотка.
A vy pod zvuk udarov molotka.
And you are under the sound of a hammer’s batter.
Они в тени газетного листка,
Oni v teni gazetnovo listka,
They are in the shadow of a newspaper sheet,
А я в момент железного щелчка.
A ya v moment zheleznovo shhelchka.
And I am in the instant of an iron beat.
Мы под прицелом тысяч ваших фраз,
My pod pritselom tysyach vashikh fraz,
We are in the aim of thousands of your cries,
А вы за стенкой, рухнувшей на нас.
A vy za stenkoj rukhnuvshej na nas.
And you are behind the wall, falling upon us.
Они на куче рук, сердец и глаз,
Oni na kyche ruk, serdets i glaz,
They are on a heap of hands, hearts and eyes,
А я по горло в них, и в вас, и в нас.
A ya po gorlo v nikh, i v vas, i v nas.
And I am up to my throat in it, you, and us.