03/02/2024, 18.40
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Russia and the World of the deluded

by Stefano Caprio

Medvedev would like to send the Zhduny to Siberian concentration camps for re-education. In Russia, attacks on "traitors" are not only attempts to instil terror in the population, which has long been accustomed to passive consent, but are also calls to "come forward", out of the restless need to identify the internal enemy, whoever they may be because, without enemies, power has no identity.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's recent remarks have had a certain effect in Russia, uttered as he usually does with the exasperated emphasis of an unstable character who likes to consume liquid stimulants. Using a term widely used in Russia today, he said: “We must send the Zhduny of the new regions to Siberian concentration camps for re-education.”

Zhduny comes from the verb zhdat, "to wait", and Medvedev's threat is addressed to "those who wait" without further explanations, the deluded of every category.

This includes the residents of the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine waiting for liberation from the invaders, or the relokanty who hope to go home, or the women who anxiously await the return of fathers and husbands mobilised for the war, or even those who dream of starting a new round of protests after the unbelievable murder and the much-disputed funeral of Alexei Navalny, the many deluded of Russia, Ukraine, and other countries around the world, who are waiting for nothing more than going back to a peaceful life.

As the editors of the Signal column on the Meduza website note, the term became popular in Russia thanks to a sculpture by Dutch artist Margriet van Breevort, Homunculus loxodontus, that appeared in 2016, created for the Leiden University Medical Centre, to represent the emotions of people in the waiting room of the doctor's office.

Throughout Eastern Europe, the image has gone viral as a meme on the Internet, morphed into various paintings, photographs, videos, and other visual media, called in Russian precisely zhdun, or pochekun in Ukrainian nd pachakun in Belarusian, always with the sense of the quivering and illusory expectation of a positive outcome from one's suffering.

Russian Zhduny, according to various interpretations, are like the "wives of the Decembrists", the rebels that Tsar Nicholas I shipped to Siberia after the attempted insurrection of December (dekabr) 1825, which began the most repressive period in the history of imperial Russia, and therefore like all those who, from the Soviet era to Putin's regime, wait for the end of their prison term, desperately corresponding with their persecuted loved ones.

Images of the Zhduny are displayed in parliament, post offices, metro stations in Moscow and St Petersburg and other cities, considered ironic, not too offensive, symbols of patience to be born in the face of life's hardships. Medvedev's words give them a far more sinister meaning.

Now the deluded are seen as dissidents, or more generally as all those who are "reluctant to cooperate with” the special military and "moral" operations, to preserve traditional values.

Starting in the spring of 2021 the Ukrainians became the main Zhduny, watching Russian troops mass on their borders, hoping that it was just an act of intimidation. Since February 2022 they had to learn to put up with a frustrating wait as the main part of their lives.

Cracking down on dissent thus becomes repressing passiveness, a condition common to most Russians, i.e. “ostrich politics” (politika štraussa), submitting to the will of those in power, like in the dark tunnel of an endless night, where the dawn of a new day never appears.

The threat of condemnation of the deluded also resonates in the proclamations in Russia’s pre-election propaganda, as noted by the chairwoman of the Election Committee Ella Pamfilova, who highlighted the dangers that stem from žduščaja oppozitsija, the "opposition-in-waiting", which is only waiting for the right moment to "discredit the 2024 presidential elections", perhaps using "specious arguments" like Navalny’s elimination, to avoid a risky exchange of prisoners.

The speaker of the Moscow Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, called Zhduny and traitors those who "eat from the trough of the state", taking advantage of various subsidies without lifting a finger in support of the country’s war and political needs. In his view, they should be stripped of their Russian citizenship (better than Medvedev's Siberia plan anyway).

Lawmaker Andrei Gurulev had instead proposed to eliminate them physically, "killing them somehow", a reference to the 20 per cent of Russians who, according to surveys, do not trust President Vladimir Putin.

In whatever version, the Zhduny are the new "fifth column". In Soviet times, anyone who did not actively participate in building the communist paradise was a suspect, and now the same is true in Putin's Russian World.

As the communist party propagandists claimed at the time, some people today “seek to weaken the country, make it weak and dependent on foreign countries", attacking its territorial integrity and perhaps trying to dismember and disintegrate it.

The fear that “collaborators with the enemy are among us” is the reason for the laws against "foreign agents" and against discrediting the armed forces; likewise, charges of extremism are levelled at people who pray privately in the homes of Pentecostals or Jehovah's Witnesses, or even high treason and "Nazi propaganda" – all accusations that lead to long sentences and decades in concentration camps, or succumbing to mysterious strokes.

While Navalny's body was returned to his mother, satisfying at least one of the illusions of his supporters, there are more and more unexpected deaths in Russian concentration camps, no matter the reason for their conviction, buried like dogs behind walls.

In the past two years, in many parts of occupied Ukraine, Ukrainians have taken part in partisan actions, "waiting" for the Ukrainian counteroffensive that eventually failed.

In a narrower sense, these are Medvedev's Zhduny, trapped by Russia’s latest offensives in the Donbass, like the residents of Avdiivka who were immediately granted Russian citizenship, “with all the rights and duties connected with it.

The disappointing phase of the war, after the second anniversary of the invasion, touches everyone, Ukrainians and Russians, Westerners and Easterners, waiting for an end that cannot be seen.

For the founder of the ultra-patriotic Tsargrad TV channel, Konstantin Malofeev, the deluded are "those who try to inculcate in us the idea that we are all tired, that it is not worth to continue fighting", although it is not clear who or what exactly he is referring to.

The “exterminator” Gurulev insists that “the Zhduny are those said to be disgruntled, binge-eating beings, educated by Western culture to lustfully hate everything that is truly Russian.”

This view is shared by Putin blogger Yuri Turkul, for whom "the only thing that matters for these people is money, better if there is more and more; they don't give a damn about their ancestors, their country, and its history. They only love Western countries.”

There is a common thread in all these statements. It is hard to figure out how many Zhduny there actually are in Russia, how to assess the “lack of patriotism”, and what needs to be actually done to eliminate this danger. Threats are uttered with no one able to get rid of the underground “enemy”, an aspect of the soul rather than a group of activists or secret fighters.

In Russia, attacking “traitors” is not simply about instiling terror in the population, which has long been accustomed to passive consent, but in a certain sense, it is a call to "come forward", for the restless need to identify an internal enemy, whoever they may be. Without enemies, power has no identity, a political and religious "orthodoxy" defined only thanks to the "differently thinking".

Navalny’s disappearance has created a new problem for the Kremlin: Who is the real enemy to fight? This is why the passive and deluded have come under attack, those who do not express themselves and do not take a stand, a group that today appears to be the vast majority not only among Russians, but also in almost all countries in the world.

Elections are no longer judged by the number of votes one gets, but by the turnout. Tsar Putin needs 80 per cent, as long as the turnout is as big; otherwise, a large part of the people is thought to be inclined towards treason.

In Russia as in any other country, participating in political life and society in general is stimulated by a factor that dictatorships cannot bear: the expectation of change.

The unity of a people does not stem from love for the sovereign, but from the common quest for a better world, even when it seems impossible, or precisely because everything seems impossible. Indeed, Russia’s history, with its frequent falls and rebirths, testifies to this irrepressible expectation of a new world.

In history, the most famous Zhduny were Mary and John under the cross of Christ, together with Mary Magdalene and the Apostles who went to the tomb, or the disciples of Emmaus, the greatest deluded ones in the Gospel: “But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”


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