Voices from Russia

Monday, 16 December 2013

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

00 Sergei Yolkin. Freedom is Nothing Left to Lose. 2013

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Sergei Yolkin



When Denis Diderot visited St Petersburg at Catherine the Great’s invitation, the great philosopher and founder of the Encyclopédiewhose writings made substantial contributions to the Enlightenment sometimes sounded like a selfish sophist. How could anyone have said, “I had the soul of a slave in France, where men thought they were free, and of a free man in Russia, where men were called slaves?” How could one feel free in the Russia of 1774, the vast majority of whose population was straightjacketed in serfdom?  Nevertheless, many Americans who’ve lived with Russians at home or abroad think that’s not absurd. My own years in Moscow, during Soviet rule when many restrictions on my notion of fundamental freedoms remained abhorrent, told me Diderot was on to something.

There are libraries full of books about the similarities of Russians and Americans… which is true in some ways, deriving from our still relatively rough-hewn nature after national childhoods in wide-open spaces where formality counted for little, but decidedly not in others, such as attitudes to work and to pleasure. Russians can work all other peoples I know, including Americans, under the table, as they easily do with drink, and, maybe, still combat, as during World War II, when motivated by a cause, ambition, or an ideal. However, getting a job done for its own sake motivates only a few, as opposed to doing it out of a personal vocation springing from flesh, blood, or fantasy. As for pleasure, my experience was that they enjoy it with considerably more abandon and less guilt than Americans, many of whom remain in the grip of one or another Puritan inhibition.

However, Diderot’s seemingly puzzling statement about freedom prompts scepticism. I’d have felt even more hesitant to add my two cents to all that’s out there if I hadn’t spent much of my working life in contact with Russians. Having done so, much of my answer lies in the yawning gap between how they live their private and public lives.  As people, many I know are a treat as they behave distinctly more as free spirits than Americans, who forever boast about their freedoms, but fear others seeing them as eccentric. As citizens, they’re invariably much less appealing, no doubt, because their government has usually been fairly-to-seriously miserable over the centuries, and the country’s civil society was and remains deplorably weak.

Starting with not needing to pretend you’ll soon be a success with them or in a good mood when it’s bad, their appeal as people… here, meaning the kind likely to read this newspaper… roughly, my counterparts with good (but not exceptional) education and social standing… is great even when their politics disappoint. Long ago, an Intourist guide told me her training included practise in smiling for Americans because, they instructed her, we’re uncomfortable without that reassurance that has something in common with advertising when there’s no reason for it. I value the Russian toleration for aberration even more. The country sometimes seem­s to me a giant preserve for oddballs… my category too… who seem to feel entirely at home. A recent description of the Russian psyche as managing to make its owners “broad, generous, reckless, narrow, mean, calculating… not in fits and starts, but all at once” seems to me on the mark.

As with the characters of Russian fiction, many seem emotionally uninhibited enough to hide little, from balmy generosity to gross vanity and grabbing. Tatyana Tolstaya, a distant relative of Lev Tolstoy, wrote in 2003, “Our country possesses certain peculiarities that verge on the fantastic. Russia has its own logic, which its most intelligent people have been unable to explain”. Of course, misfits are often unhappy but they can also be free in their way, a freedom of which few Americans are aware any more than of their own conformism. Most were convinced that Russians were robots during the Cold War, those with whom I kept company seemed to be connected to the legendary and real Russian disorder that gave the country a certain consistency, even if not order itself. Americans driven to “make it” know little about the profusion of nonchalant and impetuous conduct… of impulse, whim, caprice, extravagance, obsession, unpredictability, insouciance, impracticality, surrender to urges, willingness to lose, willingness to expose self-doubt and vulnerability… and few would envy it if they did know.

Whether or not the Russian instinct to seize the moment developed because there were sadly few moments to seize, it’s powerful. In Comrade, a play performed in New York by Vladivostok’s Maksim Gorky State Drama Theatre, the son of a very rich American living in Paris in the 1930s kept complaining about how boring everyone else is compared to Russians. Lamenting his bad luck for not having been born in Russia, he tells his sister they must make the other guests at an upcoming New Year’s party think they’re also “gay and mad and charming”. He confessed to the butler, “We’re congenitally dull”. The butler, a Russian prince who fled after the revolution, for whom New Year’s is occasion for lament rather than celebration, replied, “The trouble is, we’re congenitally savage”. The butler’s wife, a former grand duchess who’s now a maid, added, “Sentimental, but barbarian. Everything’s so sad, isn’t it. Even happiness”. Comrade’s half-caricaturist reflections about the Russian character rang bells for me, and so did an admirer of the huge bestseller in Russia by veteran journalist Nikolai Zlobin about the American character, America… What a Life!. The Zlobin admirer said, “He says it’s boring. It’s all okay, but it’s boring”.

25 April 2013

George Feifer

Russia Behind the Headlines



Is Liberalism the Right Path for Russia? Prilepin: Why Russia’s Liberals are Getting it Wrong… Gubin: Why I’m a Liberal

00 Igor Demkovsky. The Russian Bear. 16.12.13

The Russian Bear

Igor Demkovsky



Editor’s Note:

The author uses “Liberal” in its European iteration, that is, deregulation, hyper-free markets, and “small government”. In short, it’s a ringing condemnation of Anglosphere “conservatism”, which is nothing but neoliberalism of the most rancid and fundamentalist sort (they’re cultural Wahhabis of the first order). However, most “conservatives” are so ignorant (if not stupid) that they don’t know that. People don’t call the Republicans the “Stupid Party” for nought…

This was a two-parter in the original; ergo, I gave you both sides of the discussion. I don’t agree with the second poster at all,  but that’s the view that they espouse. Mainly, Russians reject Liberalism, seeing it as nothing but money-grubbing Mammon worship in its worst form. I do tend to agree with that POV. Secondly, I found the second poster’s ad hominem attack on the first poster out-of-place and quite LOW. That’s why I hate Liberalism… both “conservatism” and “liberalism”.  To hide their lack of substance, they focus on extraneous fluff. A real person should espouse Conservatism (like Bismarck and Stolypin) or Socialism (like Debs and Lenin)… they’re ideologies fit for adults. “Liberalism”, whether one calls it “libertarianism“, “progressivism“, “liberalism”, or “conservatism” (all are flowers of the same noxious Liberal root) is pabulum fit only for mewling toddlers. The choice is yours. I’ve chosen the Left, for socialism, what about you?



From the start of the 1990s, Russia broadly built an enlightened liberal society. The country integrated as a partner into global political, financial, and banking systems, and was no longer a centre of power lined up against the rest of human civilisation. Today, Russians are indisputably availed of fundamental liberal freedoms; anyone with the requisite resources can move freely around the country and abroad, there are hundreds of sufficiently independent media, and with five minutes of internet research, Russians can dig up a ton of dirt on any state official. Residents and guests of the Russian Federation are able to open any business within the bounds of the law and freely dispose of revenues earned here, including send them out of the country, if it’s strictly for personal use. People can get access to any literature and music, and there’s an independent film scene and even freer theatre. Droves of private clinics sprang into existence along with private schools and universities, and hundreds of other firms and institutions now offer all manner of private services…  competition is there before your eyes.

Upon close inspection, no one could seriously try to argue that Russia as a liberal country differs substantially in any way from others that chose the liberal course of development, such as Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Poland, Turkey, the Ukraine, and Czechia. Moreover, enlightened Russian liberals prefer to orient themselves toward such countries as Switzerland, although it isn’t so clear what we share in national, historical, or geographical terms to allow us to inherit from the successes of this genuinely comfortable country. If we’re talking about models of liberal reforms, isn’t it more feasible to cite such countries as Greece, Italy, or Spain, with their looming economic collapse and mass of intractable social problems?

True, we have a high level of corruption. However, there are many more typically-liberal countries that also have serious corruption problems. True, we have political prisoners, including some of my own associates with anti-liberal views. Yet, surely, no one believes that participants of anti-government actions in other liberal countries would immediately find a place in parliament and not, for example, in gaol. True, we have specific problems with the media, and there are cases where journalists had to resign because of their reporting. However, in the liberal world there are also taboo subjects, and even journalists who sit in real brick-and-mortar gaols for failing to observe these taboos.

A liberal entourage surrounds our President and almost all of those close to him could hypothetically be a participant in anti-government demonstrations, in the sense that they also espouse liberal values. Russia has yet to divide its parliament into Republicans and Democrats, who bounce power back and forth between themselves after forging a mutual nonaggression pact. The day won’t be long in coming, but I, for one, don’t want it to come to this. I don’t want to live in your liberalism. All of us, liberals and anti-liberals, need honest courts and ramps for the disabled, a functioning electoral system and a normal police force, social protection and decent medical care. Nevertheless, who said that these are evidence of liberalism?

Liberals genuinely convince themselves of some peculiar things… that a country that lives off oil and gas (exploited incidentally as a result of the deeply illiberal policies of the Russian state), does, in fact, owe this existence to the untiring work of liberals and we should be duly grateful; that all the good things in the world (freedom, chewing gum, wine, elections, good novels, ice cream, flowers, miniskirts) are liberal, and all the bad things (war, prison, emigration, jingoistic films) are anti-liberal. It’d never occur to them that war, absence of disabled ramps, jingoistic films, and prejudice on the grounds of nationality almost always take root in liberal countries, whilst, meanwhile, China busily builds up a significant auto industry, and Cuba stages gay parades and shoots raunchy movies. Freedom isn’t a synonym for liberalism. All too often, we see that freedom is the antonym of liberalism. Economic independence is even less a synonym for liberalism. Moreover, ultimately, state independence isn’t a synonym of liberalism either.

24 November 2013

Zakhar Prilepin


There’s absolutely no gain in being a liberal in modern Russia. People derogatorily call liberals in Russia “liberasts” (liberal + pederast). To the layman whiling their hours in front of the TV (and television in Russia is much more a propaganda tool than a source of information), liberals are undoubtedly freaks, most likely homosexuals and agents of the West. Another disadvantage of being a liberal in modern Russia is that you have no right to represent the interests of your own people. Survival is the people’s main interest under an autocracy; the people believe it isn’t a good idea to antagonise the authorities, who (as the people are sincerely convinced) feed them.

When I tell people in Russia that liberalism gives mankind credit for being able to change for the better without external coercion, that the pursuit of freedom is intrinsic to humans, I get suspicious looks. When I say that free men are perfectly able of feeding themselves, people look at me with open hatred, saying, “We know what kind of freedom you mean, it’s that freedom [brought by Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachyov, which led to [the USSR] getting destroyed and plundered. We don’t want any more of that!” To many Russians, freedom implies rampant crime, disintegration, and decay. Order, however, means submission to the authorities and the restriction of personal liberties for the sake of the state’s grandeur… even though this means the omnipotence of the tsar, who we now happen to know as the president.

As historian and Slavist Richard Pipes appositely put it, Russians invariably choose order over freedom, without realising that this is the wrong choice. In other words, today, Russians hate liberals whilst knowing almost nothing about liberalism. Most of my students at Moscow State University, where I teach a course on radio journalism, don’t know who Pipes is. They’ve also never heard of Noam Chomsky, whose paper Government in the Future, written half-a-century ago, gives a detailed description of several government models, including the liberal one. My current students are generally less educated than my friends were in my university days. Perhaps, this was how education-thirsty Soviet society nurtured and matured the liberal idea, which demanded an end to censorship and the authorisation of private entrepreneurship; this idea eventually destroyed the USSR. However, today, a convinced conservative in Russia is usually ignorant and takes myths for facts. This is one more reason why am a liberal… it’s too boring to side with those who don’t want to know anything.

There is also a third reason… I don’t believe that, in this day and age, one can base moral behaviour exclusively on intuition and emotions. If you rush in to help a person injured in a road crash, but have no medical knowledge, you may actually kill them. Civilisation is becoming more complicated, and survival increasingly depends on knowledge. Whom would you prefer to operate on you… a sincere surgeon or one with proper qualifications? Perhaps, this increasing complexity, matched by acceleration of technical progress, motivates many to embrace conservatism, even if myths completely obscure that road (for example, people hold on to the idea of “historic family traditions”, although they have no idea of the social history of family). People escape into “natural simplicity“, a “Golden Age“, the “childhood of humanity”, although any anthropologist would tell you how unsavoury that childhood was. This grasping at contrived “foundations” would be just as sweet as the next eccentricity, but there are ideological seducers who know how to turn the fears of the confused into formulas for salvation.

In Russia, as a rule, such formulas involve the destruction of enemies. An enemy is a geographic or religious alien, or someone who feels differently than yourself, or someone who lives a different life… in short, a liberal. Liberals are responsible for all our woes, so tally ho! One such sincere seducer is Zakhar Prilepin, a gifted writer (his sincerity accounts for much of his giftedness). Having had his share of adversity (he used to be a member of the banned National Bolshevik Party, got arrested, and experienced police brutality), Prilepin started to sing praises to ordinary people who are led through life by fate, those who are always right on the mere strength of being in the majority, of being just like everyone else, of being Russian, and having Russian roots. Deep down, Prilepin’s short stories and novellas are sincere (to the point of physiological sincerity) in praising the modern Russian chav. Sometimes, even intellectuals give in to this exalted admiration of the animal grace of young people not spoilt by education, culture, or reflection. However, it’s important to differentiate between the aesthetic pleasure at the sight of a peasant earning a crust by the sweat of his brow and the temptation to put that same peasant at the centre of the universe, whilst labelling all the rest as enemies. Something of the kind happened in Cambodia under Pol Pot. That’s the ultimate reason I’m a liberal, even though it doesn’t pay.

24 November 2013

Dmitri Gubin

Russia Behind the Headlines


16 December 2013. A Thought from Mikhail Kalashnikov… “Keep it Simple, Stupid!”

00 Mikhail Kalashnikov. Russian,Soviet inventor 01. 16.12.13


Here’s a quote from Mikhail Kalashnikov, the famous Russian arms designer:

When a young man, I read the following somewhere:

God Almighty said, “All that’s too complex is unnecessary; we need things that are simple”.

Therefore, that became my lifelong dictum… I’ve created simple and reliable weapons to defend the borders of my motherland.

Ask any real serving grunt out there… “What kind of weapons would you trust to preserve your life when the shit hits the fan?” All the ass-in-the-grass old salts would say, “Give me those Russian weapons. They’re a breeze to maintain, they never jam, and they never fuck up in the clutch“. Russia knows a thing or two… it knows that the simpler a weapon is, the more rugged it is and the more easier it is to use. Russian weapons designers craft their products so that half-drunken retarded chimpanzees can use them. American designers (and German designers in World War II) build in all kinds of fancy frou-frou that makes their products harder to operate and MUCH harder to maintain. When it works, it clears the field… when it works. The Panther tank spent more time in the shop than it did in the field. The T34 lived for months in the mud and ticked like a Swiss watch. To put the cherry on the sundae, Russian weapons are far less expensive than their American counterparts are (although a good part of that is due to the rampant world-champion-class corruption in the US Congress and amongst corporate executives). Hand an American soldier an AK or RPG, and he’ll smile (he just might live to see tomorrow). Hand them an M16 or a LAW, well, they won’t frown if the cameras are on (they’re known to crap out at the worst possible times). If they can get their hands on Russian ordnance, they’re in heaven… as for American-made rubbish… the less said, the better.


AK Whiz Kalashnikov in Serious Condition

00 Mikhail Kalashnikov. Russian,Soviet inventor. 16.12.13


On Monday, a spokesman for the Udmurt Republic Health Ministry, Kalashnikov’s home region, said that Mikhail Kalashnikov, the 94-year-old inventor of the world’s most popular firearm, the AK-47, remains in hospital in serious condition, saying, “His condition is serious, but stable. We’re carrying out all necessary treatment and diagnostic procedures”. In June, the famed weapons designer underwent an operation in Moscow to have a pacemaker fitted. He left hospital in early September. About six weeks, later Kalashnikov entered hospital in Izhevsk, the Udmurt Republic’s capital. In the latest update on 4 December, the Health Ministry said that his condition was stable and that he was undergoing health checks and convalescence procedures.

16 December 2013




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