10/15/2022, 08.49
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The 'gopnik' Putin and Russian Russophobia

by Stefano Caprio

The great Russian writer Viktor Erofeev likened the president - with his resentments and war manias - to 'a street thug' seeking to retake the world and vengence all the humiliations suffered. 'Russophobia' is one of the main motivations for Putin's war, but the problem is that it is not a sentiment peculiar to opponents, but a part of the 'Russian soul' itself

One of the most important living Russian writers, Viktor Erofeev, in an interview with Novaja Gazeta gave an enlightening definition of the Russian president and his war manias: "Putin is a gopnik [street thug], and he went to war because he was bored".

The term, which is impossible to translate accurately, was widely used in Soviet times, as a derivation of the acronym GOP which stood for 'City Association of Abandoned Children' (Gorodskoe Obščestvo Prizora), or another for 'City Hostel of the Proletariat' (Gorodskoe Obščežitie Proletariata), both referring to that part of the homeless population, mostly made up of children and adolescents, who roamed the streets of many cities, especially in the outermost republics of the empire, and who had to be somehow kept under control.

The gopniki also represented an informal counter-culture, refractory to ideological liturgies, on the fringes of society and with an extreme and violent propensity to seek material compensation and affirmation of their identity, rejecting official moral values. Often these were people from broken and unwelcoming families, who were also the fruit of a state policy that claimed to take educational tasks away from natural families, only to be unable to take all citizens seriously, leaving room for the privilege of the powerful according to party hierarchies.

In his novel The Adolescent, Dostoevsky had already described a dimension very much present in the consciousness of the Russians, the repressed desire to realise 'great ideas' and to throw all one's grudges in the face of the world.

Erofeev actually represents the opposite tradition to Dostoevsky's Slavophile tradition, the 'Westernist' line of Russians who do not believe in the specificity of Russian culture and soul, and lash out at their own countrymen, exposing their lack of ideal foundations and ethical consistency.

The 75-year-old Erofeev belongs to the latest generation of anti-Soviet dissident writers, and is one of the leaders of the 'postmodern' writers of the last thirty years, together with Vladimir Sorokin and Viktor Pelevin, the trio of 'enemies of the people' increasingly opposed in the Putin years.

A friend of Gorbačev and the politician Boris Nemtsov, who was killed ten years ago by Chechen killers of Putin-like obedience, Erofeev recounts that the latter had complained to him several times after he had been Yeltsyn's political dauphin, saying that he deeply regretted having allowed power to be handed over into the hands of a character like Putin, who 'represents the worst of the Soviet legacy'.

In fact, the former head of the KGB/FSB, called at the end of '99 to oppose the Chechen rebels (the war that anticipated the current one in Ukraine), had tried in the first decade of his reign to show himself moderately liberal, even in the centralisation of oligarchic power, trying to stabilise Russia in a state of relative prosperity, paying off debts and seeking agreements with the West and the world.

After 2008, when by then the country seemed to have reached the level of equilibrium sought, Putin's true face appeared more and more, that of the gopnik, of the deranged man who intends to 'take back the world' and take revenge for all the humiliations he has suffered.

Unfortunately, the plebiscitary consensus that has always surrounded him is not only the result of repression, propaganda and manipulation, albeit obvious: “Russia is an illegal state“, says Erofeev, “with fake parliaments, fake governments and fake judiciaries“.

Much of the population has inherited the resentment of the Soviet gopniki, the desire to 'make them pay' for the Americans and Europeans, first with the unbridled consumption of their material goods (the 'new Russians', unrestrained businessmen and tourists), and now with ruthless destruction and the grotesque claim to 'higher values', when everyone knows that immorality is the true way of life of the enriched and wealthy Russians, like Sorokin's opričniki [imperial guards].

Erofeev also calls Putin the 'tsar-patsan', using another term for immature and uncontrollable adolescents, which by extension applies to all Russians who have not learned to accept reality from their 'Soviet mother'.

Paradoxically, they have lost the best part of the communist utopia: the ideology, the grand illusion of leading the world to socialist revolution, the welfare state system, even the military power that challenged and imposed the Cold War balances.

Like little boys who grew up without ideals and reference points, Russians today support Putin's war en masse, regardless of indifference, resignation or dissidence, because they are moved by the destructive instinct of the 'so much the worse, so much the better' of impatient and bored subjects, a 'degraded slave psychology' according to the writer.

"For Putin, it is not important who he goes to war with, he does not fight against Ukraine, but only because he is mortally bored, and this defines his self-consciousness: 'look at the bleak expression on his face, he only comes alive when he picks up a gun, a little bit even when he rides a horse... he's looking for adrenaline, he doesn't need the Soviet Union or the empire, he takes it out on his neighbours because it's the only chance he has' - Erofeev explains - 'in January he had sent troops into Kazakhstan, but Comrade Xi forced him to back down immediately, so he took it out on those to his left'.

Erofeev's descriptions are sarcastic and paradoxical, as is all his literature, which brought him much annoyance both before and after the fall of the Wall.

In 1979, he was one of the founders of the alternative almanac 'Metropol', which was put on the index by the regime, and 20 years later, in 1999, he wrote an 'Encyclopaedia of the Russian Soul', which provoked indignant reactions and accusations of 'Russophobia', with judicial overtones and public burnings of the book.

In it, he lashed out, through the mouth of one of the novel's protagonists, against his own countrymen: 'Russians must be clubbed and shot, they must be flattened on the wall, otherwise they stop being Russians: Russians are a shameful nation'.

It is precisely 'Russophobia' that is one of the main motivations for Putin's war, but the problem is that it is not a feeling peculiar to the adversaries, but a part of the 'Russian soul' itself; not feeling good about oneself, not being able to bear being 'normal' like everyone else, the desire to self-destruct.

One cannot otherwise explain the haphazard bombing of the last few days on the centre of Kiev, 'the mother of all Russian cities', if not with the need to silence one's inner rage against one's own contradictions. Asked if he thinks Putin will use atomic weapons, Erofeev replies that 'he certainly will, especially if Ukraine continues to attack the newly annexed territories, but in reality he has been aiming for this outcome since the beginning of the war, with my friends we have been talking about it since March'.

The writer's friends are Russian, Polish and French intellectuals and journalists, who comment on his latest work on the 'Journey from Moscow to Berlin', which mimics the famous 'Journey from Petersburg to Moscow' by one of the few great liberal writers in Russian history, Aleksandr Radiščev, who in the late 18th century recounted the miserable condition of serfs in the Russian countryside.

Erofeev says that he would have liked to call the book 'Escape from the Morgue', because by now 'Russia is a corpse, from which cockroaches flee, it is only a wonder it has survived all this time'. In his opinion, there is no future for the post-Putin era, 'it would take a miracle to resurrect the dead, perhaps a new Peter the Great who founds a completely new state'.

Erofeev's gloomy predictions, fortunately, are not based on politico-military analysis, but on his 'Russophobic Occidentalism', which does not prevent him from stating that he 'wants to return to Russia soon, I still have many friends there, and I would not want to miss the miracle, if it ever happens'.

Many intellectuals, however, share his views on the moral paucity of the Putin class, with all the disasters it has caused, as do the members of the dissolved humanitarian association Memorial, just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, who through the mouth of one of its representatives, Oleg Orlov, speak of the 'mutation of Russia' that began with the Chechen war and has now been completed with the Ukrainian war: "it is not just a question of internal colonial wars in post-Soviet Russia, it is a mutation that has led to the current regime, which no longer has anything to do with the real Russia".

That Russia that is part of the universal soul, literature, music, art and the Orthodox religion itself, represented in turn by 'mutant' patriarchs and metropolitans, no longer exists today. All that remains is hope in the miracle of resurrection, praying not to die buried in Putin's morgue.


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