Yuriy Afanasyev, a historian and political figure, discourses on how much longer Russia will last “in immorality”; whether one can find happiness in struggle; what the U.S. president wanted to bring us; and why he was treated to a stogie.
(Afanasyev) It seems to me that Obama came with very important message. Before us he had already expounded this message to Europe in Prague, to the Muslim world at Cairo University, and now to the Orthodox world in Moscow, in Russia. Why did Russia not hear the message from America? It seems to me that the answer to this question exposes the internal essence of Russia as a social structure, a kind of system in the contemporary world. This is important because any system, even a mechanical system, that is incapable of perceiving calls and signals coming from within, from it itself, or from the outside, is in danger.
(Correspondent) Is the engine overheating?
(Afanasyev) Yes, ultimately an explosion may take place, and the system will expire. But Russia is systematically not reacting to this type of a call. For example, Pikalevo. Everyone knows what happened: one of the city-forming factories stopped work. The workers tried to close a highway in order to attract attention. The Prime Minister goes there and…chews out Deripaska. Thus Putin tries to smooth over the situation by hand without perceiving the signals coming from Pikalevo as a problem of all of Russia’s one-industry cities. And if there are almost 500 of such cities with 50,000 to 500,000 persons each, then essentially they are Russia. But the signal coming from Pikalevo was perceived as local.
Another example. The Cherkizovskiy Market. Because of one decision, more than a 100,000 persons were deprived of the right to work or the right to rent or capital or property. But what kind of a market is this? It is contraband, corruption, and criminality existing for years under the protection of so-called law-enforcement bodies. It turns out that the law-enforcement bodies are, in fact, criminal groupings that have fettered and covered all of Russia. It is another signal, almost an SOS, but it is not being heard. Institutions in Russia that are called customs, procurator’s offices, border troops, and police have law-enforcement functions, but, it seems, carry out criminal functions. Can a nation continue to exist that is in their power? Can any system –mechanical, organic, or social — that is incapable of perceiving calls, signals and impulses from outside or inside be considered viable?
One can cite as many examples such as the Cherkizovskiy Market or Pikalevo as one wants. There was a case in which the OMON (Special-Purpose Police Detachment) beat up an entire city — Blagoveshchensk in Baskiria. Can one even imagine punishing an entire city in the modern world? And Russia? It doesn’t see and it doesn’t hear. And this is the trouble, moreover, what trouble! Are there any more outrageous examples then, let’s say, the permanent war in which Russia finds itself? I have not only Chechnya in mind — a war can be a cold one, or an economic one or an information one. Russia as the fighting side is a constant value, and those with whom it fights can be variables. Chechnya, Ukraine, Belarus; there was Georgia, moreover in various situations.
(Correspondent) And in the intervals there was Estonia.
(Afanasyev) In the intervals there were Estonia and the Baltic countries as a whole.
(Correspondent) And the main enemy is always looming.
(Afanasyev) Russia is in a state of permanent war. But it does not perceive this as a disaster. But in principle one cannot live in the modern world while constantly fighting. When pressure is the dominant form of establishing relations, existence is fraught with danger.
Obama, the President of the United States, went around to the important places of the world with a message about his understanding of the modern world structure and the means to live in peace. The theme of the message from America is that it is no longer possible to live as the world has lived before. Changes are needed, not of a clean-up nature, but deep, fundamental. It was on this note that America elected Obama president. America voted for change. The world has changed. We should change. More than that, we should try to keep ahead of the changes. This concerns the economy, finance, and social relations. Obama talked about this. In all of his speeches that he made here, he said that it was time to end the Cold War mentality. He gave an example several times: the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War ended, and everyone hoped that life would proceed in a new way. But it is not happening. There is no symbol for the division of the world into two systems, but the fact that it is divided remains. An attitude of suspicion, distrust, and confrontation continues to exist between America and Russia.
Obama repeated several times that America does claim to be showing anyone the way. He said: We know the values that need to be upheld, but we do not intend to foist these values on anyone. Bush had the precept of promoting democracy throughout the entire world. Obama emphasizes that America will not promote democracy or force any way of life or government structure. This is a new tone. And it should be heard. Why did we not hear?
(Correspondent) Yuriy Nikolayevich, Obama does not consider the United States to be his personal estate. But our leaders consider Russia to be theirs. Therefore, our prime minister was offended at Obama’s words that he was standing with one foot in the past.
(Afanasyev) Putin took this as a personal reproach.He did not see behind it what the entire world is claiming. Russia is out of kilter, and it did not assume that pose today.
(Correspondent) Your quotation has been sounded here for 400 years.
(Afanasyev) Better say 500; perhaps even longer. The essence of the answer to the question “Why does Russia not hear signals addressed to it?” is in this — because it cannot, does not want to, and is incapable of hearing. That is the thing. A type of culture that is specific,unique, and intrinsic to Russia and perhaps only to Russia is interfering.
It is a state of being stuck between two poles — good on the one, evil on the other. All people, societies, and countries find themselves between them. An empire and a people. Government and the population. And finally, black and white. Or we and they. They choose a direction and move.
The poles on which the world is oriented are traditionalism on the one hand and liberalism on the other. Russia is suspended between. Moreover, the world, looking for its own position between the poles, is seeking the means to eliminate the contractions and antagonisms between black and white, between good and evil. And it finds a new meaning which did not exist before. But Russia, since it has not found a new meaning, continues to try to give out the old as new by decorating it a little or calling it something new.
What is traditionalism? The shortest definition is a means of self-reproduction based on preserving invariables. Why did Russia not hear Obama? Because its essence is a constant attempt at self-reproducing itself, not allowing anything new; our spirit is in destroying the new. Leaving everything as it is.
We lived, let’s say, in accordance with the Yalta system. Before that it was with the Versailles system: we knocked together blocs and organized confrontation. We were with these, against those. How was this regulated? By war. There was World War I (we did not have a good time); we organized the Second World War; then we bet on a third, the Cold War. We put everything on it. And now Obama says with a shout, we mustn’t do this; we need to do something new! But how will Russia hear him? It is the very same sphere in which the new takes form, in which the two concepts confront, and in the course of the confrontation a completely different, third concept forms, under which the first and second are overcome. But we have no such sphere, no such knowledge, mental, psychological, and social habits. And we especially have no political habits. Experience has not been acquired — it was not needed in Soviet nor in tsarist times. As Berdyayev said, Russia has no middle culture. All Russian classical literature talks about this. Everything is about the fact that a person, a society has formed, an environment in which it is impossible to live, and all of this dangerously conflicts with the rest of the world.
When I say “Why did Russia not hear Obama?”, I am emphasizing this type of culture. All of Putin’s policy is based on exactly this: Russia is not ripe for democracy; if there is no authoritarian power, it will suddenly wallow in chaos. Our rulers philosophically base their presence in power on this. Although those in power call themselves reformers, they associate with tradition. Obama: let’s move to the new and think how to achieve new quality in accordance with the challenges of the times. The answer to himi s drinking tea, a samovar with a stogie, caviar with marmalade, and the red Russian shirt of the person who gives all this. That is your answer. What could be more traditional?! The samovar could have been given without the stogie, and it is clear that this is Russian. No, we had the stogie. We need to overplay it, carry it to the absurd…
(Correspondent) Do you think that this is a conscious movement?
(Afanasyev) Absolutely from my point of view. He comes enthusiastically with the words “we cannot live this way anymore, let’s try something new”, and we say to him: we will do the same. We will resist. And Georgia is even worse than a stogie; we told the world: we lived and will livet he way we want. And so that no one has any doubts, we stamp out with airplanes and missiles in every way we can.
We started out the discussion with a system that does not react to external or internal signals, even if such signals sound like an SOS; this system is not viable. Is Russia dying? It seems to me that this is not only the most rational and realistic view of what is going on, but I would say the most optimistic view. To see what is happening as it is is the first condition after which correct decisions will follow. If looking at the obvious, it is not seen or is not perceived, then the harm will be irreversible. If those in power along with the greater part of the population unite toward the pole of tradition, then a powerful reactionary force will form.
Why does this occur? Our Russian history has developed in such a way that the population that has been treated with contempt century after century, day after day, has developed the capability to adapt. This is an ability to live without values, without rules, and without morality.
(Correspondent) Or to turn on the switch to a self-destruct system, when it becomes indifferent to what follows
(Afanasyev) It is a tragedy that the population has been taught to be satisfied with the minimum: you throw something together to eat, a roof over your head, and that is all! You don’t need any values, any extra things, you don’t need democracy, parliaments, a free press, elections –and it is still not known what all this will lead to. And Putin’s power, the pure water of traditionalism, is staked on this. He believes that Russia’s population truly needs order, authoritarianism, compulsion, and — what else the 21st century has given — imitation democracy. Enough with this population and imitation.
(Correspondent) Did I understand you right, that you gave an answer to the question, has Russia reached the point of no return?
(Afanasyev) It passed this point a long time ago. I am convinced that Russia is dying as a type of civilization. The question is when will it happen. It could be a rather long time. Perhaps there will be no cataclysm. It is simply that a quiet dying is going on every day. I do not have demographic figures in mind, although almost a million decrease every year, but moral problems. People live worse than animals among each other. Aggressiveness has penetrated the family and not only affects man and wife, but even small children. People see no future.
About the point of no return: one should say that continuing is possible, but not for this Russia, but for a renewed one that has changed the paradigm. Every Russian needs to stop being the Russian that lives today. For a start, we need to achieve the understanding of at least that part of the people who count themselves among the thinking class so that they start to speak purposefully with alarm and concern that that Russia cannot be dragged into the future. If we drag it into the future in unchanged form, then it will be even worse for Russia and for the world.
Novaya Gazeta, 24 July 2009
Interview with Yuriy Afanasyev by Lyudmila Rybina and Sergey Asriyants
* Yuriy Afanasyev, founder and former President of the Russian State Humanitarian University, is a well-known historian and former liberal member of the Congress of People’s Deputies, the national Parliament. He is also one of the founding members of Memorial, being a co-chairman of it along with Andrei Sakharov.