Russians on Pussy Riot – it makes sense in a sick sort of way

August 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Two conversations with two different educated, professional western-Europe-residing Russians regarding the matter of the Pussy Riot went exactly the same way this morning:  both conversations were initiated by the Russians:  in both, the Russians were eager to make the same points:

1) coverage in Western Media is idiotic (these girls are artistic and intellectual zeroes)
2) coverage in Western Media is offensive/ humiliating (Russian courts acted within Russian law, it’s none of your business)
3) coverage in Western Media must be orchestrated by enemies of Russia (otherwise why would anyone care about this ridiculous business?) — another proof that there exists an international plot to harm Russia.

I had to wonder.  Were my interlocutors speaking from a script?  Were they told to go out and push the party-line?  That seemed unlikely; back in the 1980s one could be sure than every Russian legally residing in the West (i.e. with Soviet permission) was a KGB operative; and therefore that he spoke, at least occasionally, for the system.  But today?  Rather, it seemed, they were doing what all Russians do at all times:  jump to prickly defense of their country no matter what the criticism, justified or not.  You will never ever ever hear a Russian say what an American or a Britisher or a German or an Italian might say:  “I disagree with my government’s policy in this matter.”  Defending their country to death is every Russian’s duty, including defending her theoretically, in conversation.  You’d be forgiven to think it’s a rather troglodyte form of patriotism; the stainless-steel uniformity of the group think is nevertheless impressive.

In both conversations I tried to explain why no secret plot theory is required to explain the brouhaha in the Western Media.  Europe has a lot at stake in Russia, Russia still scares Europe, and Russia acting in old, authoritarian ways scares us especially.  Arguably, it would be better if similar brouhaha exploded in Western Media every time Putin locked up a journalist or closed down a radio station or disappeared a prominent critic; it is regrettable that a bunch of punk-rockers matter to us more; but then our own crooners matter to us more than our own politicians, so little surprise there.

All of this was in vain because at this point each of my interlocutors exploded in a long emotional tirade which seemed to me to switch the subjects:  Russian interests are under constant attack by the West, they announced furiously, from Serbia, to Georgia, to Central Asia, to Belarus; Russia must react; Russia reacts; the West counters with a media campaign.  You are trying to bury us!  We’re just trying to defend ourselves!

This was not only odd — I can’t remember the last time I met anyone in the west feeling so strongly about his country’s foreign policies — and here I was faced with two out of two; what is more:  neither the situation nor my argument seemed to call for such a violent outburst; but, more importantly than either of those facts, the rhetorical move seemed to me like a pretty acrobatic switcharoo: how does one go from the question of human rights in Russia (whether or not the girls deserved 2 years of Gulag) to the fact that Russian imperial interests abroad are under attack?

How are the two issues connected?  Or better:  how do they connect in the Russian head?  Perhaps, I thought at first, they were connected in the person of Putin:  Russians seem to see him as trying to protect Russian imperial interests (never mind that he does it badly:  no debate of that will ever take place, he is the only protector those interests will ever have, if he can help it, so, unable to have what they like, Russians must like what they have); for this reason Russians, proud of their empire, will support him.  If he is authoritarian and uses unparliamentary methods, well, that’s regrettable but he has their votes love.  This may seem odd to you and me:  after all, we are used to thinking about our country’s politics in terms of self-interest:  viewed in this light it is hard to see what self-interest my interlocutors had in the Russian Empire.  Do they personally own the Russian Federation vodka license for the Republic of Chechnya (and therefore must insist that it remain part of the Federation)?  Do they receive quarterly dividends from the Serbian power company and therefore have to insist it remain Russian-friendly?  Does each own a large goat farm in Kirgizstan which may be expropriated in case Russians were ever told to leave?

But then I realized that the Russian Empire is important to Russians in a different way:  if you cannot have the real things in life — the good life (as was the case for centuries) or personal liberty (as still is the case) — then you are forced to satisfy yourself with substitute pleasures: if you cannot go on a Caribbean cruise to please yourself and your girlfriend, Russian military victory in Georgia, such as it was, will have to make your day.  Though it does not touch you in person in any way (except that perhaps your taxes are used to finance it and perhaps your son is drafted to fight in it), with a little effort you can train yourself to enjoy it.  Think of it like a football fan:  yeah, dude, we won again.  Of course it is not “we” in any sensible sense of the word, but you get the point.

But then I remembered M. Custine (Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia, 1839) quoting Russian intellectuals who had spoken to him regarding the liberal revolutions in Europe ca. 1830:

“You, Europeans, are selfishly and unconcernedly pursuing your personal liberty and in the process weakening your system; while we, Russians, in a selfless and manly manner accept the horror of being a Russian subject so that our country may grow in strength.  You grow weaker, we grow stronger, and one day we will have our revenge on you.”

1) It appears that Russians have always believed — accepted as axiomatic — that there is a connection between externally strong Russia and internal slavery (it does not occur to them that several democracies with a pretty good human rights record are as capable of projecting their power abroad as Russia is; and that the connection between external power and internal slavery may have been manufactured by their oppressive regimes for their own self-interest);  and, what is more, 2) they are willing to accept personal slavery in the hope of Russia one day becoming the master of the universe.

So that she may then punish us, lazy Westerners, for enjoying now the freedoms Russians have denied themselves.

And you know?  It makes sense — in a sick sort of way.  I feel I can understand the Russian mind a little better now.


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