Russian culture is deeply individualistic. It has a very low level of trust. People can’t trust each other, they can’t trust their fellow human beings, and they can’t trust their leaders. It’s like Solzhenytsin’s famous formula: trust no one, fear no one, and demand nothing from no one.
“The population is deeply alienated from the leadership” (2/2)
Literary historian Andrei Zorin at a lecture in Moscow in 2019. © Skolkovo School of Management
Artem Efimov / 8.04.2022 In the second part of the interview, Andrei Zorin identifies three Russian myths that can direct this alienation outward.
[This interview published on 4/8/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.infosperber.ch/gesellschaft/kultur/die-bevoelkerung-ist-tief-entfremdet-von-der-fuehrung-2-2/,]
Andrei Zorin is a professor of Russian in the Department of Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford University. The interview was produced by the online journalistic magazine Meduza. It was conducted by Artem Efimov. Infosperber has translated it from English and published it in two parts.
Meduza was founded by journalist Galina Timchenko in Riga and is published in Russian and English. According to its own information, the medium is mainly financed by donations.
Report on Meduza in Radio SRF’s “Echo der Zeit” (March 29, 2022).
Interview with Timchenko in Der Spiegel (May 1, 2021).
This is the continuation of the interview with Andrei Zorin. The first part appeared on April 7, 2022.
Another quote from one of your public lectures: Russian political culture assumes the existence of a hostile outside world in which man cannot live, but only survive.
I have to say this, even though it is often seen as a paradox: Russian culture is deeply individualistic. It has a very low level of trust. People can’t trust each other, they can’t trust their fellow human beings, and they can’t trust their leaders. It’s like Solzhenytsin’s famous formula: trust no one, fear no one, and demand nothing from no one. This is a saying from prison, but it turns out that this wisdom from prison can apply to our whole reality. The world is dangerous and hostile, and it is difficult to live in.
So the mentality of the besieged fortress is an expression of this lack of trust, but in the geopolitical realm?
Yes, to a large extent. There is another problem: centuries of extreme alienation of the majority of the population from their leaders. At least since the reforms of Peter the Great, the elite has been separated from the ordinary people by a completely impenetrable barrier. Dostoevsky believed that he began to understand the Russian people when he was sentenced to hard labor. Tolstoy described Pierre Bezukhov in captivity alongside Platon Karatayev; he described Prince Andrew among the soldiers. Only in such extreme circumstances do the educated elite and the majority of the population begin to feel that they share a common fate.
The pre-revolutionary elite is destroyed or driven out of the country after 1917. Afterwards, however, it reproduces itself. As Yuri Slezkine has brilliantly shown in his recent book The House of Government, classical Russian literature becomes the template for this restoration. The Soviet elite begins to emulate the old aristocracy. At the end of the Soviet Union, the same level of hostility and alienation between the elite and the majority can be observed. The redirection of this hostility to the outside world is, among other things, a way to use internal social conflict for propaganda purposes.
This is still the case today. For a long time, we had megacities that prided themselves on being European and where everyday life was sometimes even more comfortable than in European cities. But on the other hand, we are a huge country, and this “European lifestyle” creates feelings of alienation and hostility among many residents, even in these cities. That’s why rhetoric like “now we’re all going to live in poverty” resonates with some people – at least for now.
I have a hypothesis that the ideology that is in the minds of the Russian ruling class and being disseminated in the state media originated in the 1970s. Although it is often attributed to Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin, or whomever, I believe it comes from a wild mixture of Soviet propaganda, samizdat, and all the craziness printed in the popular science press: Veles’ book, for example. That’s where all the conspiracies like the Dulles Plan came from.
You are right. The current aging generation of heads of state, as you can easily deduce from their birth years, developed their worldview during that time. Just as those who came of age in the 1960s set the tone for perestroika.
But I think it is important to note another generational aspect. The ideology of this period, which Gorbachev unsuccessfully called the era of stagnation, was created by people who grew up in the postwar period, in late Stalinism. This was a time when the revolutionary ideology of communist universalism was eventually supplanted by the idea of Russian national-imperial messianism. This process began in the 1930s, but was somewhat delayed by the war, but accelerated considerably thereafter. Hence the withdrawal from the world, the “struggle against cosmopolitanism,” and the idea of a vast conspiracy against Russia.
When the political and even more so the intellectual leaders of the 1970s came to power, they began to reproduce the models from their own youth in a weakened form, even if they added some new elements, such as the idealization of pre-revolutionary Russia, occult beliefs, the Book of Veles, and things like that.
And why was this change necessary?
People adopt their most important ideas when they are young. Both individuals and whole societies or countries are able to change ideological scales because they are conscious and need to be articulated. But the layer of semi-conscious ideas – cultural and political mythology – is very difficult to change. Transitions take place – myths are not innate to any human society and are not inherited genetically; they emerge, are sustained, and then die. But profound changes require either decades of cultural and social upheaval or monumental catastrophes. Therefore, a generation that spent its childhood and adolescence in a particular era and then becomes the political and cultural leadership of the next generation will reproduce under new conditions what it was once taught.
It is also the case that every turn to isolation in Russia, at least in the 20th century, follows a failed attempt at “Europeanization.” In 1917, it was an attempt to present itself to the world as the leader of the global revolution. The failure of this concept became clear in 1920 during the so-called Miracle on the Vistula. The defeat of the Red Army led to Stalin’s doctrine of socialism in one country. After World War II, the borders of the empire expanded dramatically, but the logic remained the same: up to the border post we are, behind it are the enemies.
So it’s not just about Putin’s personal resentments after all?
Ideology, official ideology, ideological struggle – these are all important things. But the most important thing about ideologies is how they are consumed. Why do some ideological constructs sell well, while others remain mere thought exercises? A crucial factor is the ideas a person has about the world, which are often difficult for them to think about. This is what I call political and cultural mythology.
Resentment arises from disappointment. I often quote Yeltsin’s last speech, in which he said goodbye to the people and announced that he had chosen a successor. This is an amazing paragraph: “We thought that with one jolt, with one blow, we could leap from the gray, stagnant, totalitarian past to a bright, rich, civilized future. I believed it myself. But a jolt did not work. In some respects, I proved too naive.”
Yeltsin was not naive. He was a smart, skillful politician. But behind this admission was a “transformation myth”: now we will free ourselves from the communist ideology that kept us in chains for 70 years and immediately join the unified stream of world civilization. Initially, this idea worked. There was a feeling that we had a real czar who would turn our previous suffering into victory.
When this did not happen, it seemed as if we had been tricked and the tsar was an impostor. What looked like a breakthrough turned out to be a defeat. A neo-imperial nostalgia arose: suddenly it seemed as if our lives had been fine before, and above all we had had a great country – everyone had feared us. We were in Soviet heaven, and we had been seduced by the serpent of the evil West. Now we needed another breakthrough and another true tsar.
Myths work especially well when they resonate with each other. The great transformation and the true tsar – these are two important mythologisms. But there is also a third myth that is no less important: the people’s body. The people as a whole form an organic entity – a collective identity with one soul and one body. The idea that Russia’s historical defeat consists in the dismemberment of this body is based on this idea.
If you read Russian folk tales, you will remember the bogatyr being cut into pieces and having dead water poured over it to put the pieces back together. Then living water is poured over him – and he gets up again. But he can’t get up if his hands and feet are cut off. First, his body must be fused back together.
This is an idea that official propaganda has brought into people’s consciousness over a long period of time, but no one has paid much attention to it. Why was the collapse of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe”? Because it was the dismemberment of the people’s body. And now we see the war – the dead water. First we have to collect everything, and then we pour living water on it – and it will rise again.
To what extent was this myth conveyed to people through propaganda?
That is the difference between ideology and mythology. A myth is very difficult to internalize consciously. But it is possible to impose certain ideological models – and that can work if you rely on a strong mythology.
In this case, I suspect that this myth was present in the minds of both the consumers and the producers of the ideology. But it had to be put into a form: what was cut off from us, what first had to be put back together, and so on.
And that’s where the standard narrative of Russian history, going back to Kiev, worked well: Kiev is the main thing we lost.
I wrote about Crimea and the Crimean myth [that Crimea is historically Russian] back in 1997, long before these events. Then, in 2014, I was amazed at the number of calls I began to receive. I thought this work was long forgotten – and suddenly everyone called me and asked for a comment. I was asked to talk about Potemkin and the conquest of Crimea.
I said to one of these clients, “I’m only going to talk about the 18th century, but there might be a lot of questions [from the audience after the talk]. And remember, I’m not going to make a fool of myself.” He thought long and hard, then said, “Let’s make a deal: You can say ‘a serious mistake,’ but don’t say ‘international banditry.'”
You tell me.
But Crimea, with all its Khersonese [ancient Greek colonies such as the Taurian Khersonesos near Sevastopol] and its religious-ancient associations – that’s still secondary. But now Kiev! Prince Vladimir [he Christianized the great empire of Kievan Rus founded by Scandinavians around 1000 ], the “mother of Russian cities”.
The authorities have tried before to solve the problem of “where the Russian land comes from”: the Izborsk club, Ladoga, Novgorod – historically, any of these explanations could work. Novgorod is really an important historical center. But the example of Novgorod shows that this concept quickly leads to a dead end. First of all, Novgorod was the calling of the Varangians, the beginning of the Rurik dynasty. They summoned strangers, “Come and rule over us.” This does not work well. And secondly, what is worse, this was the republic that was destroyed by Moscow – and with tremendous brutality. It proved impossible to incorporate Novgorod into a modern concept of the state. It was necessary to fall back on Kievan Rus.
Putin with his giant table and Zelensky in his green T-shirt – these are also conscious ideological decisions.
Yes, the meeting of the Russian Security Council that we all saw was another “scenario of power.” And what we see of Zelensky’s environment is a completely different story. But both are derived from certain myths. We have already talked about Russian historical and political mythology. Ukrainian mythology is completely different. It is not based on the figure of the “true tsar”, but on the idea of the military democracy of the Cossacks. You can listen to the Ukrainian national anthem:
Soul and body we will lay down for our freedom.
And show that we are brothers of the Cossack people
Against this background, there can be no discussion about the unity of the two peoples. When you have two political mythologies that are not only dissimilar but directly opposed, what is there to talk about?
Rather, I have the impression that the question no longer even arises. In recent months, history has resolved it in the bloodiest way, at a tremendous cost, but conclusively. In general, history has unlimited means to teach even the most careless students. But this is not much consolation for those who will pay or have already paid for these lessons with their lives.
This was the continuation of the interview with Andrei Zorin. The first part appeared on April 7, 2022.
“Russia wants to turn defeat into victory” (1/2).
Russian literature professor Andrei Zorin. © Pushkin House
Russia’s national myth sees the country in constant danger. Russian literary historian Andrei Zorin says so in an interview.
[This interview published on 4/7/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.infosperber.ch/gesellschaft/ethnien-religionen/russland-will-eine-niederlage-in-einen-sieg-verwandeln-1-2/.]
psi. Andrei Zorin is a professor of Russian at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford University. The interview was produced by the online journalistic magazine Meduza. It was conducted by Artem Efimov. Infosperber has translated it from English and publishes it in two parts. The second part appeared on April 8, 2022.
Meduza was founded by journalist Galina Timchenko in Riga and is published in Russian and English. According to its own information, the medium is financed mainly by donations.
Report on Meduza in Radio SRF’s “Echo der Zeit” (March 29, 2022), interview with Timchenko in Der Spiegel (May 1, 2021).
A few years ago you said in an interview that today’s young people have no sense that they are living in history. Will they feel differently now in light of current events?
I do think that we are dealing with a historical paradigm shift. On a global level, it started after September 11, 2001, but now it is much more evident.
It is clear that postmodernism, which was dominant in the second half of the 20th century, is disappearing. By this I mean that the existence of truth and clear moral guidelines is being denied, that everything is considered a game of thought and subject to deconstruction, and an appeal to etiquette looks like an act of oppression.
We have already observed this process for 20 years. Now, I think it will accelerate greatly and enter a completely new phase. But whether it will take us back to a historical understanding of reality or whether some kind of religious, mystical, apocalyptic or completely new feeling will prevail is hard to say.
It is frightening and tragic that Eastern Europe has once again turned out to be the place where these global transitions are taking place.
This question is probably naive, but I ask it anyway: did it all have to happen this way? Or did someone bring us here with their personal idiosyncrasies?
This is really a question for a philosopher, not a historian. In my opinion, there are always several possibilities and forks in the road in history. Events cannot occur unless they have deep reasons and causes. But there is also no absolute predestination in history. It can take this or that path, and the choice depends on the decisions of individuals or groups of people.
One cannot say in retrospect that something was inevitable. Things could have gone differently. There were thirty years in which this development could have been prevented. But perhaps precisely because it seemed so unlikely, nothing was done about it.
In retrospect, I realized that I had assessed the situation completely differently as a person and as an expert. Everything I had written suggested that this kind of war, while not inevitable, was very likely. At the same time, as a human being, I kept saying to myself, Oh, come on. You’re going to bomb Kiev? Please, this is impossible.
History was used to justify this war, including by Putin himself. What do you think of his view of history?
The fact that Putin or his entourage have a poor understanding of history is not even the problem. Who knows what any of them knows or doesn’t know. No one really knows what happened a thousand years ago. Much more dangerous is the belief that the solutions to today’s problems can be found in history.
In Latin America, during the time of military coups, there was a slogan: Send the soldiers back to the barracks! I would suggest a new slogan: Send the historians back to their department!
We have lived here! We are one people! This country belongs to this group and not to that one! It is hard to imagine anything more damaging than using these kinds of arguments to solve historical problems. The argument between the so-called primordialists and the constructivists about what constitutes a nation may seem entirely theoretical. But they have gotten new blood. Suddenly, these primordialist ideas, which date back to the 19th century and have long been discarded by science, are not just a theoretical fallacy – they are a justification for mass murder.
I’m going to throw some of your old quotes at you that sound different in the current circumstances. A few years ago you said in a public lecture that in Russian political culture the sign of a strong tsar is not only the ability to win a victory, but also the ability to turn a failure into a victory. Is the war we are experiencing now an attempt at such a transformation?
Yes, of course. Russian culture is characterized by a constant sense that the country is under threat, a mortal danger that will be overcome by dramatic change and breakthrough. In addition, as Vladimir Sharov – in my opinion, one of the greatest Russian writers of recent decades – put it, Russian leaders are classified in the popular consciousness not as legitimate or illegitimate, but as real or not real. A real tsar, a real chief, a real leader is someone who leads a country on the brink of ruin to triumph.
Take the wars that are canonized in the Russian state narrative:
Early 17th century: the Poles are in Moscow, and Minin and Pozharsky form a militia and drive them from there.
Early 18th century: the Great Northern War begins with a defeat at Narva, which leads Peter to reshape the whole country, and eventually leads to the [Russian victory at] Poltava.
Early 19th century: Napoleon occupies Moscow – after which the Russians take Paris. Hitler did not manage to take Moscow, but he came close. The first months of 1941 were disastrous – and then we were victorious.
Official Russian ideology and propaganda won the battle for the mainstream interpretation of the events between 1989 and 1991. They were presented not as Russia’s liberation from neo-Stalinist dictatorship, Soviet communism, and imperial legacy, but as the West’s victory in the Cold War. Worse, the victory was won in the worst possible way: by deception.
Ingrained in our public consciousness was the not-yet-fully-formulated notion that there was some kind of contract between Russia and the West: Russia would dissolve its empire, and in return the West would somehow absorb it.
Where it would be absorbed was never clear – perhaps into the “civilized world” or into the ranks of “normal countries.” And we would immediately start living “as in all civilized countries” – that was the idea. But we were tricked. We fulfilled our part of the agreement, but they did not. They tricked us. That was the defeat that had to be turned into a victory. That was an important pillar of the “authenticity” of the current political leadership, and that was not concealed, but emphasized over and over again. And that was the rhetoric that all outside observers, myself included, somehow missed.
There is another fundamental difference: there were no enemy troops in Moscow or anywhere near it. It requires some mental effort and imagination to compare the situation to a military defeat.
This is what I want to say: this was a victory of official interpretation over historical reality. The collapse of the USSR, of course, came from within – economic failure, military setbacks in Afghanistan, ethnic conflicts on the periphery, and a whole host of other factors led to the complete de-legitimization of the system. The West, on the other hand, hoped to the end that the USSR could be preserved. Political leaders there preferred to deal with a single nuclear power [rather than several] and feared the collapse of the Soviet Union; there is ample evidence of this.
But that is the point of this kind of reinterpretation: those in power needed to portray the collapse of the empire as a failure and humiliation at the hands of outside forces.