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30 January, 2012

False Notes In the Music of Revolution

Russian intellectuals have again fallen out with each other

Noted Ekaterinburg-based theater director Nikolai Kolyada recently joined the people’s headquarters for Russian Prime Minister and presidential hopeful Vladimir Putin. Several months ago, he openly sided with Mikhail Prokhorov, but now he says he has changed his mind and has seen that there can be no better option for Russians than Putin. At the end of his statement he adds a fine twist: I am responsible for 70 people, an entire theatre, and cannot afford to not be friends with the authorities.

Two days later, mockers in Ekaterinburg pasted posters showing a kiss-smothered Putin all over the walls of Kolyada’s theatre, while LiveJournal and Facebook erupted with a torrent of sneers and jeers hurled at the renegade director by Moscow intellectuals. A few incensed hotheads tried to initiate a boycott against the popular artist. Now the theatre has the local police on watch around the clock to protect one intellectual from another.

Kolyada made an idiotic decision. There is no doubt about that regardless of what his motives may have been. Indeed, one feels a bit sorry for the nice director – he has become something of a social outcast now. But it is one thing to be convinced of a person’s stupidity and quite a different thing to believe that he must be immediately, publicly and painfully crucified for his poorly-functioning gray matter.

The poor Kolyada was a drop of blood smelled by a hunger predator. The two sides of the Russian intellectual and spiritual stratum, which only had reluctant spats with each other until that moment, rose to engage in a serious battle. The main motto of any revolution “He who is not with us, is against us” was first tested on the Ekaterinburg-based director when a majority denied him the right to be included among opinion leaders. Some voices that said, after Voltaire, “I hate your convictions but am willing to lay down my life for your right to express them” stood no chance of being heard.

The ink on the deprecating posters on Kolyada’s theatre was still fresh when something new happened: Putin invited a large group of journalists to the Kremlin to give them government awards. Most of the invitees considered it possible and necessary to come and accept the one-million-ruble awards. Now they are doing what they can to cleanse their names. One of the recipients, TV critic Irina Petrovskaya, posted a long explanation on her Facebook page, saying that she accepted the award from his teacher Ivan Zasursky rather than Putin and did not even approach the prime minister and that no one rose to their feet during the ceremony. In a word, she is justifying herself. Meanwhile, hundreds of careful eyes are watching the discussion. And the intellectuals are again divided: some are arguing that the journalists should have thrown the money into Putin’s face; others are convinced that it is, after all, taxpayers’ money and the prime minister is involved only indirectly; still others urge the winners to donate the money to orphanages.

As Russian intellectuals listen to “the music of revolution,” to quote from Blok, their nerves are on edge. The music increasingly betrays notes of a military march. Intelligentsia, whose function is in principle to be pronouncedly individual against the background of overall similarity, resorts to mimicry at turning points in history (as is the case now in Russia) and adopts countless habits that are normally characteristic of the crowd. And then the key distinctive feature of any transitional period – intolerance – compromises, like a virus, even seemingly mature and discerning minds. At pivotal junctures, intellectuals with a gift for public speaking come to the fore as society feels an increasing need to hear poignant statements about what pains everyone. And so it happens that the nice but mediocre writer Boris Akunin or the gifted but otherwise very wary TV presenter Leonid Parfenov become the pace-setters for transformation in society. Countless other people of similar professions join them in causing a good deal of revolutionary uproar. Their noisy verbosity creates a deceptive impression of the intelligentsia’s protest sentiments. But to be honest, the Russian intellectuals were and still are silent. A couple of exceptions, such as “Poet and Citizen” by Dmitry Bykov and Mikhail Efremov, who wittingly and sometimes boldly expose the government’s aggressive impotence, only prove the rule.

What other Russian intellectuals can be said to have consistently and publicly defended their right to protest? Shenderovich? He turned from a writer into a pure politician long ago. Shevchuk? He is not a member of the intelligentsia per se, he is a rock musician. Liya Akhedzhakova sometimes joins in with fiery speeches. Who else? I honestly don’t know.

No truly famous figures in culture were present at rallies on December 10 and 24. I asked the chief producers in Moscow theatres and noted directors – no one wants to argue with the authorities. Everyone has staff he is responsible for; everyone has his own business; everyone is fighting for buildings and financing; and everyone takes care of countless lives. On the one hand, they do not go public with it, but on the other, they do not protest against the government. They are simply smarter than Kolyada and are in no hurry to write about these things in their LiveJournal diaries or listen to “the music of revolution” from morning till night.

Finally, as I wrote the text, I tried very hard to not quote Lenin who infamously called intelligentsia the “sh…t of a nation.” And I didn't!


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