Reasons not to be a Russophobe: Part Two

Blogger: 
Geneviève Piron

II

Betrayal of the Homeland

The occasion that brings us to Alexandrov is a small event with symbolic importance. I’m accompanying a writer friend who has brought documents for the archives of the Museum of the 101st Kilometer. During the ‘80s, Jil Silberstein—who is also a poet, a lover of Russian literature, and who worked for years with a celebrated publishing house in Lausanne—had been involved in defending the rights of the Soviet dissident Anatoly Marchenko, a man who was arrested more than six times and condemned to a maximum of ten years in the camps for his political activities. Despite the constant efforts of a Swiss committee supporting Marchenko, the activist died in prison as a result of the torture inflicted on him after he began a hunger strike in 1986. It is said that his death inspired the amnesty later given to political prisoners by Mikhail Gorbachev and paved the way for his policy of perestroika.

Marchenko was not simply another “political,” like all the rest. Early on, he wasn’t fighting for universal human rights, he was just a young and adventurous worker who, with a companion, had tried to leave the Soviet Union by crossing its border with Iran. He was arrested and condemned for “betrayal of the homeland”; at the time, all attempts to leave the country were considered as such. The new world Marchenko discovered when he confronted the Soviet carceral system opened his eyes. From the final years of the ‘60s on, he joined forces with the struggle of dissidents—as several letters exhibited here attest—and he experienced harsh and repeated punishments for his efforts. During a period between two of his sentences, he lived in Alexandrov, in a house he had built for himself.

A display case in the section dedicated to this activist, along with other personal effects, contains one of the most striking objects in the Museum of the 101st Kilometer: a manuscript written by Anatoly Marchenko, rolled up into the form of a tube. These papers were found in a pipe where their author had hurriedly hidden them—moments before he was arrested for the final time.

While contemplating this yellowed tube of paper, which seems to have come out of amphora where it was hidden in a prehistoric era, I recall a fragment of text from the dissident writer Yuri Druzhnikov:

“Oh, Russian earth,” Maxim murmured, as he unearthed pipes next to the coffin and refilled the hole with clods of earth. “What do you hold within your wounded body? Human bones and manuscripts . . .”

Populism and People

Today the Soviet era is very distant, and the memory of such objects was just a hair’s breadth from being lost to the shadows of history. From the ‘90s on, when the regime that had required residential permits was no more, a mass exodus left Alexandrov to settle in Moscow or elsewhere. During the middle of the first decade of the new millenium, the tireless efforts of Lev and his colleagues nonetheless received some minor recognition: Vladimir Putin granted the Museum funding that allowed them continue their inventory of documents, permitting them to establish lists of residents linked to the regime of the 101st kilometer. Today the city continues this transformation: the large geological research institute has closed, as did several other factories built at the beginning of the 2000s with foreign partnerships. Although this small center is still closely tied to the capital, the cries of stray dogs baying throughout the night seems to indicate that, here at least, economical renewal has yet to arrive.

During an earlier time, when stray dogs were also baying in a Moscow devasted by the economic crisis that immediately followed the fall of the Soviet Union, I saw thousands of starry-eyed people stream into the streets, joyously responding to the return of their freedoms. You heard what seemed to be almost unanimous expressions of unconditional love for the West, that emissary of dreams so long out of reach. And now I was prepared to get a taste of the opposite: bitterness fed by a painful economic transition that has polarized incomes in a shameful manner and destabilized living standards hard-won through years of Soviet effort. Such difficulties have only deepened at present as a result of Western sanctions. Hadn’t my friend from Moscow warned me that these days Russians consider our progressive values decadent, that they joke about “Gay-oo-ropa,” (a simple shift from the Russian word for the continent, pronounced “Eh-oo-ropa”)? So I expected to detect fetid forms of anti-Westernism and Greater Russia nationalism. Here in Alexandrov, the population is currently being replaced by a new influx of immigrants, in large part Muslims from the Central Asia, taking the place of the white and Russian locals. I spend a good deal of time on Facebook exchanging views with Russian and Ukrainian friends. Given what one sees from the window of social media and the press (both Western and Russian), this sort of city has all the ingredients needed for cultivating a particularly refined form of populism. 

But what is populism in Russia? In a period where strange webs of campaign finance seem to suggest complicity between hyper-nationalist French, Russian, and American politicians, this question needs to be defined more precisely. To be sure, “populism” has as many meanings as it has contexts, and this is all the more true in Russia. The first form of “Russian populism” is impossible to separate from the wave of revolutions during the nineteenth century, and it tends toward anarchism. From 1860 on, the slogan “Towards the people!” made believers of thousands of young people, especially students—where many were young women who left for the Russian countryside to bring education, relief, and liberation to a peasant class so long under the yoke of servitude and obscurantism. Originally a precursor and then overtaken by Marxism, Russian populism remains one of history’s great socialist movements, and is certainly one of its most romantic causes. The movement had both its moderate sympathizers and its extremists, the latter working to develop cell groups for propaganda in the countryside, and then turning toward terrorism. It was a mass movement of the intelligentsia, working to establish socialism wih peasant communal property.

Given this conspicuous history, today in referring to contemporary populism one doesn’t use narodnitchestvo/народничество (based on the Russian word for the people, “narod/народ”); instead, a transcription based on the Latin root, populism/популизм, is used. As a result, the word carries a foreign connotation. Vladimir Putin and his circle thus now use the term as a synonym for “demagogy” in order to denounce the efforts of their opponents (such as Alexandre Navalny, who is leading a anti-corruption campaign against the elites). Yet such shifts in the meaning applied to words don’t change all that much in the general public’s state of mind. What seems particularly striking from beyond the borders is undeniably the return of the Russian “national spirit” (the very thing the ideology of Nicholas I extolled, together with autocracy and orthodoxy, and which the “populists” of the left hoped to overthrow). The restoration of Soviet rituals is in part responsible for the return of nationalism: among them are celebrations of national history, privilege and praise given to some nationalities over others, and the language of national security and patriotism. Alexandrov—a city seeing its Russian elites leave and welcoming so many new emigrants—must know a great deal about such questions. Haven’t I read that in Alexandrov an entire criminal network has been organized by police officers, following one of the now classic “national security” traditions from the early post-Soviet years?


Geneviève Piron directs the Smith College Program in Geneva; she is the author of Léon Chestov, philosophe du déracinement (L'Age d'Homme, 2010) and L'utopie au quotidien: La vie ordinaire en URSS 1953-1985

Translated from French by Jim Hicks


You can find the third installment of "Reasons Not To Be a Russophobe" here.