Afanasyev Yuri Russian historian

Agitated or Awakening?

5 February 2012, 21:36

I was stunned or, to be more precise, overwhelmed by the events that took place in Russia on December 4-24 – the unexpected and unprecedentedly emotional reaction of a large part of the Russian electorate to the “election”. There are a series of indicators that Russians are continuing to pursue the logic of inverse dynamics: the electorate and the government do not understand each other; the former rose in an unexpected and resolute protest, while the latter shows traditionally impenetrable stubbornness. Most importantly, strategic goals remain undefined. (In this case, by strategy I do not mean the protest slogan “Russia Without Putin” but ways to make Russia without Putin a reality and the country’s prospects after the current regime falls.) Inverse dynamics means that there are two mutually exclusive programs of creating social cultural unity that are present in Russian society at all times and are from time to time activated. Confrontations of opposing forces are aimed at the complete destruction of the “enemy” rather than dialogue and a search for a fundamentally new solution that is different from the interests and desires of each of these forces. Here are some examples of this inverse logic in solving binary opposition taken from our society through history: the Bolsheviks and tsarism, the USSR and Russia, Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

Today, the bone of contention is the recent “election” to the Duma. The government wants to avoid a repeat election at all costs, while protesters in the street are pressing for exactly that outcome. Overall, the authorities have an advantage: they have money, administrative leverage, opportunities and various ways to use violence and manipulation. The protesters have an online informational advantage, confidence in the correctness of their beliefs and the still glowing fire of outrage.

If the Putin government continues to resist and the Duma thus “elected” is not disbanded and if the presidential “election” in March 2012 is pushed through following the same scenario, the inverse logic of Russian dynamics is likely to be preserved, and the defining factor for Russia’s future will still be the fact that the non-evolutionary, bloody strategy of change has not materialized. If, however, the government makes real concessions to protesters, it cannot be ruled out that, given the current disposition of forces and the nature of mass consciousness, Russia will return to the traditional form of an ancient Russian pastime: a showdown and fierce fisticuffs.

The protests are also remarkable for the strong emotional charge of the 20- to 40-year-old “Decembrists.” They stood up, albeit not always consciously, against the current government, and their moving force is their awakened self-esteem.

When Putin rose to power, these people were about 10 to 20 years old. All of them experienced first-hand or learned through the experience of their parents the conditions of consensus – informal, unwritten and at the same time ubiquitous. It is the consensus that concerns the entire population of Russia and boils down to giving up freedoms in exchange for prosperity for some, relatively comfortable (compared to Soviet times) lives for others and mere survival for still others. In December 2011, streets and squares were filled largely with people from the second category whose protest can be summarized as “We’re sick of it! We won’t tolerate it any longer!” Through their resolute protest they expressed the sentiments of the entire nation, particularly those who are prospering and those who are teetering on the brink of survival. In this sense, everyone has become an inmate in the no-freedom prison, and this lack of freedom is dictated not simply by circumstances but by the matrix of our system. Let me emphasize that this concerns the entire nation in terms of motivation. But it does not pertain to the will to action — I believe that the distribution of forces will be totally different here. To Russians, who have a largely traditionalist, mythological consciousness, uncertainty is an absolutely unbearable and most frightening test. It discourages them, makes them hysterical and instils a feeling of looming chaos. In this condition, the Russian consciousness cannot remain alone, because it cannot even imagine itself in isolation. A Russian must join someone or become part of something. When he finds himself between two opposing forces, he intuitively tries to find a way out of the chaos and uncertainty by joining a “center of order.”

Russia's entire history consists of deep divisions, deadly confrontations and many millions of people dashing hither and yon in search of some “center of order.” The government has usually been this center in Rus' since time immemorial. Foreign countries, taken as a whole, also played this role. But unfortunately, when chaos sets in, this center is not immediately revealed, and the poor people do not know where to go. It has also happened that once a person becomes intimately close to a source of order, he suddenly feels that he is starting to lose it again. This tears the ground out from under his feet, and he is gripped by despair, fear and still more fear. This was most vividly seen in the second half of the 14th century and the early 17th century. (This latter period did not end even in 1612.)

The same periods were present in the 20th century and continue until now. However, something different has been going on since the end of the 1980s. The chaos of current events was compounded by the chaos in consciousness split between two different epochs. And again people dashed here and there, confused and wanting to join someone or become part of something. The entire Golden Age and the Silver Age of Russian culture rest on it and speak of it. They speak about the divided Russian spirit; a permanent civil war; lost, unnecessary and superfluous people; parents and children who do not understand each other and so on. Those who came out into the streets in December 2011 had a self-esteem which was awakened because of their active participation in the election in several different capacities: they were voters, observers, eyewitnesses and at the same time victims of falsification and became eyewitnesses to the lies disseminated through the mass media and official statements from the country’s leaders.

This experience gave them a realistic understanding of human unity and solidarity, which had already lost any practical meaning in a Russian’s life. It also taught them that they live with their newly acquired concepts in a country of the absurd. They knew that falsifications had to be considered by courts, but now they have learned that there is no court here. In their own experience, as they demand to be respected, they feel how people are forced to obey laws in a country without laws, the rule of law or the state as such. After the cynical statement by Putin and Dmitry Medvedev — “We agreed to switch offices four years ago” — the feeling of utter absurdity surged in everyone. It is impossible to draw a definitive conclusion about the December events until they can be put in perspective. But we cannot confidently and safely move ahead into the future all together merely on protest sentiments fuelled by elections and simply under the slogan “Russia Without Putin,” regardless of how just and noble the cause is. We need both a clearly defined goal of the protest movement and an idea about what will guarantee progress towards it at every stage.

Similar mass movements in February 1917 and January 1991 appeared to be perfectly democratic and were fuelled by resolute decisions to leave the past behind. They did not fizzle out. On the contrary, they brought results, but in both cases they turned out to be the exact opposite of what the protesters hoped for and demanded.

In the case of contemporary Russia, such movements are about replacing the foundation of its system of operation. In other words, Putin’s autocratic matrix of “capitalism for my own men” needs to be replaced with a system that opens access to resources and profitable business to all citizens, political parties and NGOs. Considering the differences in motivation, the protest movement can hardly continue as a party-political cause. However, without conceptual content and goals a street movement may turn into another Tahrir Square and cause any one of many reactions, for example, a strengthening of the existing regime and/or a bloody tragedy.

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