06/01/2024, 10.11
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The Russians, the victims of themselves

by Stefano Caprio

A series of video-documentaries circulated by Maša Pevčik, one of Naval'nyj's best-known contributors, shift all the blame and responsibility for what is happening today onto the bandits and corrupt people who prevented the development of a free and democratic society in the 1990s. Putin propagandists and opposition publicists, older and the younger generations, all cloaked in guilt and resentment, speak to those years. 

In this delicate phase of the world war - from Ukraine to Palestine to the scenarios related to the upcoming elections in Europe, England, America, Georgia and around the world - Russians feel more and more like victims and ‘losers’, and a word that used to define the condition of the Russian population in the 1990s resonates more and more in public discussions, on social media and in semi-clandestine interviews from abroad: the poterpevšie, ‘those who lost’.

Back then it referred to the frustration of the losers of the Cold War, which had led to the end of the USSR and the deep economic crisis of the Gorbachev years. As Radio Svoboda columnist Sergei Medvedev recalls, ‘I first heard this word at the delicatessen, when a pensioner was complaining about the meagre salami ration he had been given, and the saleswoman resignedly told him: “Stop complaining like a potato peasant”, graciously giving him an extra slice, when salami was scarce even in Moscow, and in the provinces it was just a myth’.

The Russians feel defeated not because of the harshness of the Putin regime and the political repressions, not because of the stagnant course of the war in Ukraine and the sacrifice of the young men at the front, and not even because of the tax reform that will suck up avalanches of money to maintain the war industry.

The lament is still for that humiliation of more than thirty years ago, for the suffering ‘of the nineties’, the original sin that does not leave consciences in peace despite all the subsequent world upheavals.

All the blame goes back to that unhappy historical passage, and the trigger for the new wave of victimhood was given by a series of video-documentaries released from mid-April by Maša Pevčik, one of the best-known collaborators of the martyr Aleksej Naval'nyj, entitled Predateli, ‘Traitors’.

Filmed in the typical scandalistic style of the Navalnist movement of the ‘Anti-Corruption Fund’, the stories shift all the blame and responsibility for what is happening today onto the bandits and the corrupt who have prevented the development of a free and democratic society, eventually handing Russia over to the czar of oligarchs, the mafia godfather Vladimir Putin.

In recent days, the debate has been resoundingly revived by an interview conducted by one of the most followed video-bloggers, Jurij Dud, with one of the great protagonists of the Yeltsin period, the oilman Mikhail Khodorkovskij, who later became Putin's opponent and his victim in a prison camp for a decade, only to be amnestied at the end of 2013 and exiled abroad, where he represents one of the most followed voices of the liberal opposition.

He too has taken up Pevčik's accusatory tones, especially against politicians who organised the transition from Yeltsin to Putin, such as Anatoly Čubajs, the ‘great puppet master’ who, since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, has abandoned Russia and now lives in Israel, after having miraculously escaped the classic poisoning by the secret services.

The saying that the Russians are ‘not suffering for Kharkov, but for Čubajs’ has become widespread, in a month of terrible bombings in Ukraine between Černigov, Odessa and Kharkov with deaths and exterminations, while in Russia the choices of the oligarchs of thirty years ago are discussed.

In Kharkov, forensic doctors take DNA samples from children to try to recognise the bodies of their parents torn apart by Russian bombs, while the Russians pay lip service to the truth of the 1994 financial auctions, of the privatisation of Svyazinvest in 1997 that began the collapse of the financial pyramids, and of the roles of the ‘Yeltsin family’ who at the turn of the century were frolicking in the palace of Osennyj Bulvar in Moscow, only to leave power in Putin's hands in exchange for total immunity, which his daughters and heirs still enjoy in their gilded exile in London.

Pevčik's serial is actually the realisation of Naval'nyj's own ‘political testament’, which he expressed in the text released from the lager ‘My fear and hatred’ in August 2023, when he first lashed out at the politicians of the post-Soviet decade. Apart from the reasons and wrongs, it is astonishing to see the enormous interest with which all Russians, waking up from a state of total ataraxia and indifference to events at home and abroad, set out to ‘dissect the bones’ of those now distant years.

Both Putin propagandists and opposition publicists, boomers and zoomers, old-timers and youngsters, all wrapped up in the guilt and resentments that make them feel victims of every evil of times near and far, of the West and the East, of the Cold War and its predecessors, from the Napoleonic invasion to the medieval Tatar yoke, talk about the 1990s. Medvedev calls this attitude ‘the morality of slaves’, the vindictive hatred of the ‘humiliated and offended’ person, to borrow Dostoevsky's terms, of the person who feels powerless in the face of the ruin of personal and communal destiny, and tries to shift all blame onto the evil coming from all sides.

The man from Dostoevsky's ‘underground’, who lived in a basement in St Petersburg after a series of humiliations received from the authorities and local society, dreamed of destroying the ‘Crystal Palace’ in distant London, the seat of the Evil One on which he poured his claims for revenge.

It is the accursed question expressed by the father of 19th-century Russian revolutionaries, Aleksandr Herzen: kto vinovat?, ‘whose fault is it?’, addressed in sequence to the Tatars, the landowning boyars, the nemtsy (Germans or foreigners in general), the Jews, the Anglosaksy, the tsars and the Soviets, and now to the ‘savage nineties’ of the oligarchs.

The protagonists of that time are long dead like Yeltsin and Gajdar, or are scattered in exile like Khodorkovsky and Čubajs, yet the anger towards them not only does not die down, but is fuelled more and more, evidently unable to lash out at the caste currently in power to avoid unpleasant consequences.

It is a kind of ‘therapeutic hatred’, meaningless now and without consequences, but it allows one to channel frustration and reconcile oneself with an otherwise unbearable present, attributing an identity to those who feel excluded from world reality.

Retropolitics', after all, is a traditional Russian characteristic, which idealises the brief periods of openness by discussing them in the endless times of “stagnation”, as happened in Brezhnev's time after the few years of the “chrushevik thaw”, in the cellars where the samizdat dissidents gathered, or in the circles of exiled intellectuals who argued constantly, or shut themselves away in the hermitage of their disdainful solitude, like Solženitsyn in the Canadian chill of Vermont.

It is a cycle that has been repeating itself for centuries: before the Bolshevik revolution there was the ‘Silver Age’, an explosion of creativity between 1905 and 1917, after the victory over Napoleon there was the ‘Magnificent Decade’ between the 1830s and 1840s, with the great debate between Slavophiles and Westernists, and so going all the way back to the seventeenth-century schism between the reformers and the ‘Old Believers’, or the dispute between the pauperist and ‘statist’ monks at the end of the fifteenth century, to reaffirm a correspondence of the Russian soul with the atmospheric times, which provide for short springs and endless winters.

In these fleeting openings and windows to the outside world, Russia manages to swallow up the cultures, religions, scientific discoveries and social transformations of the peoples of Europe, Asia and other continents and then suddenly reject them, retaining only its own deformed and hysterical version, as can be resoundingly seen with the ‘religious renaissance’, the rediscovery of the faith that animated the people of the 1990s in a sincere search for spirituality and meaning, only to sink into the patriotic and militant Orthodoxy that blesses war and massacres, with a criminal arrogance that makes even the preaching of the medieval Crusades pale.

This drift also applies to politics and economics, morals and culture, schools and every institution of present-day Russian society. In recent days, a new magazine has even been published under the title Politruk, the ‘political leader’ (Političeskij Rukovoditel) of Soviet memory, a manual of military instruction in which alongside every officer and every soldier there must be an instructor and ‘political prompter’, who ‘by his inspired word and example of unreserved dedication to the service of the Fatherland may cement the spirit of the military collectives’, as the introduction by the deputy defence minister, General Viktor Goremykin, puts it.

Moreover, the Politruk had already been reintroduced in February by Putin himself in all state bodies with a ‘reserved’ decree, whereby each office must be matched by a ‘deputy director for political and social functions’, as was the case in Stalin's time. The aim is always to ‘strengthen patriotism and ensure an adequate and in-depth understanding of state policy’, extinguishing any vague desire to rediscover the Russia lost in the 1990s, and in the fog of past histories.


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See also
Wars, world order, synodality: Putin's friends and the 'just multipolarity'
07/10/2023 08:48
Israel, the Jews and the 'real Russians'
11/11/2023 19:54
Putin's programme to rewrite history
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Easter of Victory
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The de-colonisation of Russia
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