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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
3 September 2022: Gorbachev and imagination, plus texts and tunes
I am not usually at a loss for words, but this week was a week of loss — and I find most of my words to be inadequate. As a result, there will be fewer of them than usual.
The loss on the tip of most tongues this week, of course, was the death of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, and the first and last elected president of the same country. Not surprisingly, everyone had something to say. Somewhat jarringly, at least to me, almost none of it was kind. I am convinced that had Gorbachev died seven months earlier, the public response around the world would have been different. He died when he died, however, and so the response was what it was.
The loss I felt most keenly, though, was that of Manana Aslamazyan. I did not know her well — she served on the board of a program I helped run 18 years ago, and for a while we moved in similar Moscow circles — but I knew her well enough to be in her thrall. The fact that there was ever a thriving independent television scene in Russia is owed overwhelmingly to her efforts. She outlived that scene by more than a decade, but she remained radiant and wise and committed to the good fight. Gorbachev’s role in history was over — Manana’s was not.
What I’m thinking about
I’ll be honest: most of what other people have written about Gorbachev since his death has turned my stomach. I am not particularly sentimental about speaking ill of the dead, at least when the dead are figures of history. I am all for sober analysis. But condemning Gorbachev for having allowed the end of the USSR rather than for having sought it, or vilifying him for the trajectory Russian politics took decades after his departure — well, like I said, I am at a loss for adequate words to describe that kind of “analysis”.
That said, I’m not here to praise Gorbachev, or even to bury him. For my money, the best discussion of his legacy — by which I mean the most straightforward and honest discussion — belongs to the social anthropologist Jeremy Morris. Jeremy ably highlights all of the contradictions and incoherencies in Gorbachev’s reign, the cynicism and the naivety, the revolution and the reticence. Unlike Gorbachev’s more vociferous detractors, however, Jeremy sees the humanity in the story. Whatever else Gorbachev may have been, he was not a monster. Whatever else he was, he was not Vladimir Putin.
And that’s what I’ve been thinking about: Gorbachev was not Putin.
In talking to the Post, what I said, in a nutshell, was this: Whatever else Gorbachev did or did not do, whatever he did or did not intend, or did or did not understand, his clearest legacy was to give the Soviet people their future. Never before in Russian history, perhaps with the exception of a few periods of revolutionary uncertainty, had the country’s political leadership acknowledged the right of anyone but themselves to dictate the country’s future. And for decades of Soviet rule, there was ever only one possible future — a bright and shining one, which, of course, would never arrive.
The monopoly held — constitutionally guaranteed — by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was more than just a monopoly on “elected” office. It was a monopoly on the right to talk publicly about the future. Privately, of course, individual Soviet citizens could dream of other futures, but without the ability to come together with others and to materialize those futures — first as conversations, then as projects — such dreams could only ever be futile.
Rather than wait for futility to turn into frustration, and for frustration to culminate in revolution, Gorbachev handed to the Soviet people what should always have been theirs: the right to give voice to their own ambitions for their country’s future. Having done that, Gorbachev, in my own view, can hardly be blamed for where people’s ambitions took them, but that’s a subjective judgment. The objective truth is that everything that happened next — the flowering of both democracies and autocracies, the independence of nations and the wars between them, the novels written and banned, the lives lived and lost — all happened because Gorbachev made the decision to abdicate his control of 290 million imagined futures.
That, I’m convinced, is why Putin could not attend Gorbachev’s funeral.
As my colleague Gulnaz Sharafutdinova has shown in her excellent book, The Red Mirror, imbuing Russians with a sense of loss over the end of the Soviet Union has been critical to Putin’s political dominance. In that story, the loss is blamed on the West — on America in particular — and on leaders in Moscow too weak or naive or corrupt to stand up to them. In most of the Kremlin’s framing of Gorbachev’s passing, the emphasis has been on that latter quality: naivety. Sure, Gorbachev wanted peace and prosperity, the line goes, but he was wrong to trust the Americans.
But it doesn’t take much reflection for that story to fall apart. Take, for example, this report from Russia’s Channel 1 television — a state-owned channel not known for its editorial independence. Yes, the accusations of naivety are there, but once you tell the story of glasnost and perestroika, you’re left with a very different sense of loss: the loss of the future. Yes, it is hard for Russians to remember the end of the Soviet Union without thinking of hardship; indeed, any memory that elided hardship would be false. But it is also hard to avoid the sense that there was also a sense of empowerment: imperfect, impeded, but empowerment nonetheless. Something immeasurably more than what people had before, and something quite palpably less than what people have now.
What I’m reading
I missed it when it first came out a couple of weeks ago, but Nanna Heitmann and Keith Gessen’s long report in the New Yorker from Dagestan is nothing short of stunning. Stunning in the way that a good New Yorker article always is, but also stunning in the sense that it leaves you speechless and vibrating at an unfamiliar frequency.
The report is, on the surface, about the lives of families in Dagestan who have sent men to die in Ukraine — or to come back as good as dead. Dagestan is important in this context because the republic, on the Caspian Sea in Russia’s North Caucasus, is unusually heavily represented both in military recruitment and in casualties. That is not new, though, and that’s not where the article’s contribution lies. Nor is the contribution in the raw emotion it portrays, though that, too, is striking; we are only six months into this war, and already the scars are deep.
For me, at least, Heitmann and Gessen’s article is a remarkable portrait of the grinding poverty and hopelessness that have driven young Dagestani men to their deaths. Ukraine is not the first front that has seemed more alluring to many Dagestanis than life at home; Syria was another, with fighters from Dagestan found on all sides of the conflict there. This is not, then, a question of greater Russian patriotism, or of Islamist fervor. It is, as it so often is, a matter much more fundamentally human than that — a matter of what happens when class and race (or ethnicity) combine with poverty and corruption to create a destitution so pervasive that it erases the distinction between life and death.
The view from Dagestan puts the rest of Russian life into a somewhat different perspective, I suppose, but even so, this week’s report by the Russian investigative journalism team Proekt into the prosecution of journalist Ivan Safronov, is still shocking. It’s in Russian and not very well suited to Google Translate, but it’s worth the effort if you want to understand how Russia’s political regime empowers relatively low-level officials to do on a small scale what Putin does on a large scale: to deprive people of their future. Safronov is in jail — and will likely be in jail for a very long time — not because he was a threat or even in the way, but because an investigator wanted to build a career, and Safronov was just there.
What I’m listening to
I know I said that I was done with Durham music for a while, but that was before I knew that the Mountain Goats had dropped a new album. (And before you yell at me, John Darnielle may be from California, but he lives in Durham — deal with it.) It’s good. Maybe not This Year good, but still, I needed something loud and angsty to drive away the darkness this week, and it did the trick. Sink your ears into this: