(*And Chekhov and Dostoyevsky.) The case for (re)reading Russia’s greatest literary classics.
Twenty years ago, 15 new states emerged from the wreck of the Soviet Union, uneven shards from a broken monolith. One story turned into 15. Most Soviet watchers have been struggling to keep up ever since. How to tell these multiple stories?
In retrospect, it is evident that Western commentators failed to predict or explain what has happened to these countries: their lurches from one crisis to another, weird hybrid political systems, unstable stability.
Commentators have long tried to project models from the rest of the world (“transition to a market economy,” “evolution of a party system”) onto countries that have very different histories and cultural assumptions from the West and often from each other. I have read about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “ethnocentric patriotism,” his “delegative democracy trap,” and his building of a “neo-patrimonial state” — all very intelligent stuff. What I take away from such jargon is a nicely constructed model or two (for both Putin and the political scientists), but not the insights I seek into a living society.
So here is a not entirely frivolous suggestion: How about skipping the political science textbooks when it comes to trying to understand the former Soviet Union and instead opening up the pages of Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky?
This is not just a thought experiment; the works these authors wrote in the 19th and early 20th centuries turn out to be surprisingly applicable to today’s politics in a broad swath of the former Soviet space, whether it’s the unexpected fragility of Putin’s authoritarian rule in Russia or the perpetually failed efforts to modernize next-door Ukraine. There’s a reason: Most of the former Soviet countries emerged from two centuries of Russian-dominated autocracy, an autocracy that just happened to have produced some of the greatest literature the world has ever seen. Some have argued that the one helped produce the other, that the rigors of tsarist-era censorship, the aridity of public service, and the educated classes’ hunger for intellectual nourishment all helped stimulate great writing. Pushkin and Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky were more than just cultural commentators — they were public celebrities and the key moral and intellectual voices of their age. They were idolized because they described the predicament readers found themselves in — and still do.
brb going to the bookstore.
From a lonely rusted tower in a forest north of Moscow, a mysterious shortwave radio station transmitted day and night. For at least the decade leading up to 1992, it broadcast almost nothing but beeps; after that, it switched to buzzes, generally between 21 and 34 per minute, each lasting roughly a second—a nasally foghorn blaring through a crackly ether. The signal was said to emanate from the grounds of a voyenni gorodok (mini military city) near the village of Povarovo, and very rarely, perhaps once every few weeks, the monotony was broken by a male voice reciting brief sequences of numbers and words, often strings of Russian names: “Anna, Nikolai, Ivan, Tatyana, Roman.” But the balance of the airtime was filled by a steady, almost maddening, series of inexplicable tones.
The amplitude and pitch of the buzzing sometimes shifted, and the intervals between tones would fluctuate. Every hour, on the hour, the station would buzz twice, quickly. None of the upheavals that had enveloped Russia in the last decade of the cold war and the first two decades of the post-cold-war era—Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika, the end of the Afghan war, the Soviet implosion, the end of price controls, Boris Yeltsin, the bombing of parliament, the first Chechen war, the oligarchs, the financial crisis, the second Chechen war, the rise of Putinism—had ever kept UVB-76, as the station’s call sign ran, from its inscrutable purpose. During that time, its broadcast came to transfix a small cadre of shortwave radio enthusiasts, who tuned in and documented nearly every signal it transmitted. Although the Buzzer (as they nicknamed it) had always been an unknown quantity, it was also a reassuring constant, droning on with a dark, metronome-like regularity.
She cut her journalistic teeth with the BBC as a 22-year-old fixer, helping television crews film in and around Kosovo during the 1999 NATO bombing war against Serbia.
Now 33, Jeta Xharra has continued the punchy public interest journalism she says she learned from the likes of Jeremy Paxman, the British broadcaster known as host of the television news program “Newsnight.”
In 1999, exposing wrongdoing seemed like an ideal common to most if not all Kosovo Albanians, united as they were by their fight against the authoritarian rule of Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.
Now, Ms. Xharra finds there is scant protection for her kind of journalism, as she rakes over the mix of corruption, organized crime and weak governance that is her nascent country today.
In the spring of 2009, Ms. Xharra received death threats, openly published in the pro-government daily Infopress. No prosecutors would take up her case, Ms. Xharra said, because they, too, feared reprisals.
Only this past August, more than two years later, did prosecutors from the European Union’s Rule of Law mission in Kosovo, or Eulex, file criminal charges over the threats. Ms. Xharra said they could not make any other charges stick against the person who had threatened her.
The case illustrates the enormous challenge of trying to establish equality before the law in Kosovo. Ms. Xharra blames the international community, which plays a large role. While international officials insist that they are doing everything they can to bring fair government to Kosovo, she asserts that “the internationals” don’t care what the Kosovo government does, as long as they do not disturb the semblance of stability by antagonizing the Serb minority.
“The message is: the government can do whatever they want with the local population, including stealing public funds and intimidating media critics and political opponents,” Ms. Xharra said in an interview.
A couple of years ago, when I asked a friend of mine whether he thought that the economic crisis would have a dramatic effect on life in Bulgaria, he cynically replied: “I don’t think anything will change. Bulgarians live in misery, and after the economic crisis hits them they will continue to live in misery.”
There is some truth in this view, but not the full truth. Part of this misery is what Western governments term, with a more sophisticated word, “austerity”. Austerity, when compared to European consumers’ pre-2008 expectations, is exactly that - misery. However, Bulgarian austerity is something more complex. It predates the economic crisis, and it is not only widespread, but it is also deep and systemic. Social services in Bulgaria are poor. They hardly work. Social spending is low. Schools and orphanages rely heavily on private donations for their routine operations. It seems that the government has realised that it is simply not capable of running a welfare state. Not capable financially, not capable administratively. So, it doesn’t.
Bulgaria is not a social state. Arguments for socialism were deeply hypocritical even in the early 80s, at the height of so-called “developed socialist society”. Bulgaria is, rather, a socially cruel state. But people have other ways to compensate for the state’s cruelty and incompetence. Bulgarians own their homes. Renting is rare; mortgages are rare too. Living with parents, who are always ready to take you back on the living-room sofa and feed you, is common. Grandparents in the country grow enough tomatoes, potatoes and onions on their small plot for the whole family. People’s endurance is very elastic.
Very interesting (and accurate, IMHO) opinion piece on how the EU economic crisis is affecting Bulgaria.