Thursday, 1 May 2014

Springtime for Stalin

The Russian author Vladimir Sorokin [asbove in 1991], in a telling piece in the New York Review of Books, steps back from the debate over Ukraine to ask what the seizure of Crimea et al. will mean for Russia itself. Sorokin argues that Russia never really got a revolution at all, merely a collapse, which is not the same thing. Underneath the superficial changes, he asserts, is the old Homo sovieticus alive and well.

Yeltsin’s revolution ended up being “velvet”: it did not bury the Soviet past and did not pass judgment on its crimes, as was the case in Germany after World War II. All those Party functionaries who became instant “democrats” simply shoved the Soviet corpse into a corner and covered it with sawdust. “It will rot on its own!” they said.

Alas, it didn’t. In recent opinion polls, almost half of those surveyed consider Stalin to have been a “good leader.” In the new interpretation of history, Stalin is seen as an “effective manager,” and the purges are characterized as a rotation of cadres necessary for the modernization of the USSR. . . . The Soviet mentality turned out to be tenacious; it adapted to the wild capitalism of the 1990s and began to mutate in the post-Soviet state.

If Sorokin is correct, the average Russian’s enthusiasm for Putin’s seizure of Ukrainian territory is, at least in part, nostalgia for the old communist system emerging from the closet.

There is a lot of talk about the strength of fascists in the Ukraine, and reporters have found some in the Right Sector and plenty of dubious sorts now in the government itself. However, Ukraine has no monopoly on that nasty tendency. Sorokin, who wrote a deadly satire on the Russian secret police called Day of the Oprochnik, took note of new phrases cropping up in Putin’s lexicon.

In his speech about the accession of Crimea to Russia, President Putin mentioned a “fifth column” and “national traitors” who are supposedly preventing Russia from moving victoriously forward. As many have already remarked, the expression “national traitor” comes from Mein Kampf. These words, spoken by the head of state, caused a great deal of alarm in many Russian citizens. The intelligentsia went into shock. The Russian intelligentsia, it should be said, is now especially alarmed.

Sorokin says that unpredictability, always “Russia’s calling card,” now has grown to unprecedented levels. No one knows what is coming next, he says, including Putin himself. He sympathizes with the Ukrainians who faced bullets to rid themselves of a kleptocracy and only wishes his fellow Russians were capable of doing the same.

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