Absolute beginners in the art of pragmatism

Drawing by Dmitry Divin

Writing about national character traits is always a tricky matter, but still more so in the case of Russia. In such a vast country you can find dozens of illustrations for any generalization you choose to make.

Speak about the “willing serfdom lasting for ages” (the most usual negative stereotype about Russia) and you will have volumes of examples at your disposal. But try to remember the world’s greatest fighters against serfdom and immediately a whole bunch of Russian names will pop up in your memory. This is one of the reasons why I won’t even discuss the primitive cultural stereotypes, such as “Russians are all drunkards” or “Russians are lazy.”

Such stereotypes are untrue – not only about Russians. Take Poles, once the primary targets of negative jokes in the Eastern bloc, who in the past 20 years built the most dynamic economy in Central Europe, outpacing the presumably more diligent East Germans.

Let’s take the stickiest points – respect for law and democratic procedures, and moral or immoral attitudes towards oneself and other people. Why do Russians care so little about elections? Why do they have so little confidence in courts and try to avoid court proceedings at all costs? The simple answers – because elections are not totally transparent and court independence is still under question – are not enough.

In our history we have had periods when there was adequate trial by jury and decent elections. But even in the early 1990s, when elections were the best in Russia’s history and you could found your own political party in several days, most of my friends did not go to vote.

I keep asking myself, “ Why?” Could it be that they did not care at all? No. Most of them proved themselves to be remarkably caring parents, faithful friends, responsible professionals. What makes Russians suspicious of elections is our tendency to reach for the absolute – including absolute freedom. I remember a friend of mine who lost interest in presidential elections because he was 20 and only those over 35 years of age were eligible for the presidency. An old woman once told me: “What is the use of elections if they don’t make people better and happier?”

This kind of attitude may appear hopeless to the Western mind. In this context, one could cite the French, saying: “A person’s vices are a continuation of that same person’s virtues.” The modern Western world views a person primarily as a voter and a consumer – hence the almost religious reverence in which elections and the market economy are held. Russians are interested in a man in his entirety. Bud’ chelovekom is a typically Russian saying which can be roughly translated as “be human,” but which, in fact, means a lot more: be interesting, be humane, be free.

It is notable that no judge or lawyer has become a moral authority in Russia (Lenin being a lawyer only by education). But there have been at least four fiction writers who became such authorities in their lifetimes: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn. The reason is probably that a writer views a human being as a person and not as a subject of law.

Do I mean that every modern Russian strives for the absolute? Of course not. However, this traditional type of Russian truth-seeker still abides. Insufficient attention paid to it on TV, in the theatre and cinema leaves a feeling of spiritual void in many people – hence, all the talk about the “spiritless” nature of modern Russian society.

This striving for the absolute is most visible in Russian revolutionaries, including modern day dissidents. Vladimir Bukovsky, a former Soviet dissident who emigrated to the UK in the Seventies, made a typical Russian move recently in trying to have Mikhail Gorbachev arrested during his recent visit to London for a gala devoted to his 80th birthday. For a pragmatic Western mind, Gorbachev’s achievements outweigh the brutal military interventions in Baku, Riga and Vilnius. For Bukovsky, anything short of ideal deserves arrest and not a birthday gala.

This “merciless logic of the Russian mind” (a 19th-century expression) makes no indulgence for the West either. This is what Bukovsky wrote about Great Britain in his book Notes of a Russian Traveller: “One of my main discoveries here was the monstrous Western bureaucracy and unbelievable submission to which it is treated on the part of the local population... The local officials are not afraid of complaints, since they are more independent of their superiors than the Russian ones. The pettier an official, the greater his power over you here.”

Bukovsky’s predecessor, Russia’s 19th-century political émigré Alexander Herzen, complained of “an inner policeman” lurking inside every Westerner, rendering him or her even less free than a Russian with an actual officer stood beside him.

Bukovsky’s book is full of examples of his fight against this Western bureaucracy (writing letters to the US Secretary of State in support of Russian émigrés who were denied American visas, etc.) A somewhat idealistic, but very Russian attitude.

There are many Bukovskys still living in Russia; the Western press makes heroes out of some of them. In many cases, it is right. Where it is wrong is the view that the modern West itself lives up to Bukovsky’s ideals. It doesn’t. So, is it fair to hold Russia up to these ideals?

Being masters of compromise themselves, people in the West should allow some compromise for Russians, too, and stop holding us to a different standard, albeit one invented by our own idealists.


Dmitry Babich is a political analyst for RIA Novosti .

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