07/16/2022, 10.15
RUSSIAN WORLD
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Back to the USSR

by Stefano Caprio

More than war, prison camps and food, what has revived Moscow's past is the unbearable illusion of moral and religious superiority, one that seeks to celebrate the ability of Russians to unite in solidarity and support for the country's leaders, proclaiming the end of libertarian individualism that ruined the souls of depraved Westerners.

The long months of Putin's war are rapidly changing the perception of time, turning the clocks back by several decades. Russia cites the glories of Stalin and evokes the dreams of past centuries, but in fact it is going back to the greyest garb in its history, that of the Brezhnev era, the 20 years of stagnation (1964-1985) that seemed eternal but had not future.

As paradoxical as this may seem, the first inkling of immobility comes precisely from how the war unfolded, with all the tragedies and bloodletting that follow one another, the last being the completely senseless bombing of the city of Vinnytsia that killed scores of residents.

The much-trumpeted “special military operation” that began on 24 February with the invasion of Ukraine from all possible directions, including Belarus, seemed at first like an earthquake, almost a shift of the earth's axis, but five months later it appears more like a slipped boulder, similar to the ice block (serac) snapping off the glacier on Mount Marmolada, burying people and cities, but also dreams and hopes.

Putin’s apocalypse has not brought Russia any real advantage from a military and territorial point of view, except to show an area whose control Russia had been claimed for years and disputed for centuries, that of the Donbass and the coastal region, no man’s lands once ruled by the ancient Cossacks, which Khrushchev and Brezhnev swapped and reshuffled like the cards of a game without purpose.

The story looks like a new edition of a famous Russian novel, the Queen of Spades, by Aleksander Pushkin, the story of a frustrated officer who dreams of winning at cards, but when the crucial ace drops, it turns out to be a Queen of spades, with the mocking smile of the old woman who died because of the officer.

This kind of game is one of the keys to understand Russian literature, shedding light precisely on the foolishness of the great dreams of power and wealth, and war is the catastrophic game that the losers of history play.

Putin has revived the rhetoric and contradictions of the Cold War, the “struggle for peace” that led the USSR to base its own belligerence on high moral grounds, to stop American imperialism from taking over the whole world.

The nuclear threat was the “ace of the old woman” that could never appear on the gaming table, and revealed its deceptive face in the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan, the last of Brezhnev’s gambles that led to the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

Moscow's armies got bogged down in the Afghan mountains, attacked by mujahideen who took on the aura of freedom-loving heroes and won great strategic and military support from the West before morphing into the terrorists of the Islamic State

Today, Ukraine’s “neo-Nazis”, whom Europe has disdained for decades, are the new heroes of the armed and celebrated resistance, celebrated by the entire West; thanks to Putin they have finally made Ukraine a respected nation in all international arenas.

Even in Russian-occupied cities, from Kharkiv to Donetsk, new groups of partisans are forming in basements and ruined buildings to free Ukraine, even if life in the de-Nazified lands will be very hard for decades to come, provided the Russians are really able to control them in the coming months.

In short, there is no end in sight for this war, and it will paralyse Russia, blocking every movement and every idea. For Russians, this is one of the results of the war, the feeling of being stuck in a dead end behind a new Iron Curtain harder to breach than the Berlin Wall, forced to back the war, faced with Putin’s increasingly repressive measures. His “purges” go beyond opponents, like Alexei Navalny or the latest, Ilya Yashin, but try in fact to prevent the very act of thinking.

The latest laws are the closest to Brezhnev’s, trying to dig into people's minds to grasp every slightest discrepancy from official statements, imposing a single way of reading events, closing all access to information, inculcating the compulsory “truths” starting with history schoolbooks, taught by heart in the first grade and up.

The only thing not yet revived are psychiatric hospitals for those who think differently, but they may not be far behind. In the meantime, political opponents now turn into dissidents like in the Brezhnev era, and rediscover the principle Solzhenitsyn asserted in 1972 shortly before he was expelled from the USSR, that, is “not [to] live by lies”, resist the falsehoods of the regime even before asserting one’s own ideas.

This is why the new dissidents are not only sent to prison camps, but are preferably poisoned, a classic Soviet method of fighting alternative thinking. This was tried on Navalny, on politician and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, and on many other activists in Moscow and the provinces. Lest we forget, one of them was Timur Kuashev, a journalist who contributed to Moscow-based rights organisation Memorial, found dead from poisoning in Kabardino-Balkaria in 2014 a few kilometres from his home.

Since the start of the war, more than 16,000 people have been arrested, fined, imprisoned or deprived of many rights for simple remarks said among friends or explicit calls for peace. Now, a third misdemeanour means a one-way ticket to a prison camp.

For Russians today, this means a feeling of total helplessness and isolation. Even if they wanted like to express their opinion, they fear the consequences, as did their elders during the times of stagnation. In the first year after Brezhnev ended Khrushchev’s openings, about 20,000 people were arrested.

In addition to frustration with an inconclusive war, and depression over a newly totalitarian system, another trait of the return to the Soviet era in everyday life is the plunge into autarchy, the loss of all connection with the material achievements of the contemporary world.

Western sanctions have so far not greatly affected the course of the war, also because Putin is using to his advantage oil and gas, which the West cannot do without. Nevertheless, in Russia, everyday life is now taking on medieval quality, with shortages in transport, medicines and food, clothing and furniture.

Shopping malls have turned into huge, gloomy empty spaces, a reminder of the days of the old Gum department store in Red Square, with endless queues forming as soon as a sweater in a different colour appeared.

McDonald's restaurants are now called Vkusno & Tochka, "Tasty and that's it”, like the food of Soviet stalls of the past, where people had to eat without complaining. Crowds flock to the new patriotic fast-food restaurants to show pride and their contempt for the whole world, only to immediately throw to the ground mouldy burgers, while fries have virtually disappeared for lack of production and distribution.

More than the war, the prison camps and the food, what revives the past is the unbearable illusion of moral and religious superiority, celebrating Russians’ capacity to unite in solidarity and support for the country's leaders, proclaiming the end of libertarian individualism that has ruined the souls of depraved Westerners.

The task to promote this “party line” has fallen on the Orthodox Church and to the representatives of “patriotic” religions, especially Islam, as evinced by the solemn tones taken by patriarchs, metropolitans, archbishops and Tatar and Chechen muftis, like in Brezhnev’s times when the clergy was urged to bring together their older and more backward flock.

Patriarch Kirill increasingly looks like Soviet ideologue Mikhail Suslov, in a minor tone though, while Foreign Minister Lavrov is trying to emulate the legendary “Mister Nyet”, i.e. Andrei Gromyko, but with the effect of a sad parody.

Around the increasingly long-winded and isolated dictator, who comes out of his bunker only to sit at huge tables and voice crazy threats against the universe, there is a caste of anonymous bosses, some more hot-headed than others, minds clouded by alcohol, each of whom could become Putin’s successor with no one noticing, new versions of Andropov and Chernenko in the 1980s.

The whole world rightly supports and backs Ukraine in defence of freedom and autonomy of peoples, the very bases of civilisation. But who can save the Russians from themselves, and avoid the fading of a great people into the prison of its past?

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