The writer of this article is an expert on modern European history who travels often to Russia. He requested anonymity due to concerns about being denied future visas as retribution for the criticism leveled here.
Quo vadis Russia?
If the Committee of Culture of the Russian Parliament has its way, this question would be punished by a fine ranging from 2,500 to 50,000 rubles. It contains what the committee has termed “an unnecessary usage of a foreign word.” Just as the Internet was running hot with indignation and mockery of this piece of legislation, the Trade Commission proposed to ban a variety of footwear including ballet slippers, runners, Ugg boots and – incredibly enough for Russia – high heels. This follows on the footsteps of the banning of a children’s play, which deals with the friendship of a young orphan and his pillow, because of ‘homosexual propaganda.’ Has Russia gone truly mad? For historians it all sounds terribly familiar. In the postwar period Stalin went on a similar anti-Western drive forbidding words such as baguette and telephone. This was soon followed by the scolding of authors Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko for melancholy and irreverence respectively. (Zoshchenko was also under fire for a children’s story.) Soviet scientists were accused of collaborating with the West and those seen as too indebted to Western scholarship were purged from the universities. Two years later the campaign took an even uglier turn, with the so-called anti-cosmopolitan campaign, which targeted Jewish intellectuals in particular. In 1952 this was ratcheted up again with the Doctors’ Plot, in which Jewish doctors were accused of having killed a number of leading Bolsheviks and even having made attempts on Stalin’s life. No official anti-Jewish pronouncement was made, but widespread violence against Soviet Jews in the wake of the announcement was tolerated. It has been suspected that a full-scale deportation of the Soviet Jewish population was only prevented by Stalin’s death in March 1953. Is this world of full-scale culture wars and persecution of perceived enemies where Russia is heading now?
It is eerie to see how many items on the Stalinist list have already been ticked. Apart from the aforementioned recent developments, professors with liberal agendas have been pushed out of their academic establishments for years. The recent firing of Andrei Zubov at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations was only the latest high profile case, receiving attention because of his open stance on the Crimean question. But academics and academic institutions have felt the pressure for many years. The European University in St. Petersburg found itself closed a few years back, allegedly because of fire regulations, just as one of its staff members was conducting research into the Russian elections. In terms of xenophobia, too, the Stalinist reality is not too distant. Despite its protestations against the ‘fascists’ in Kiev, the Russian government has long at least tolerated widespread anti-semitism and anti-migrant sentiment. Vigilante groups in big cities have been harassing workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia, seemingly with the acquiescence of the police. Homosexuals, who do not dare to speak their name anymore lest they fall under the new laws forbidding homosexual propaganda, also fear daily, and especially nightly, violence in public. The quest for Russian purity, self-sufficiency and non-bohemian morals dates back a long time. In 2007 Nashi, the youth organization that is linked to Vladimir Putin’s Party Edina, was reported to have collected g-strings in their summer camp for a ceremonial bonfire. Now many people, including some who are generally supportive of Putin’s drive for a new Russian nationalism, can only shake their heads laughing nervously. Yet it is precisely in this laughter that a chance for reversal resides. The Soviet Union really lost its grip when its citizens started to laugh about its policies en masse in the 1970s and 80s. As we know from then, this does not mean that the regime cannot inflict a lot of damage on individuals. But it was the moment when true support became unrecoverable. Putin too has come precariously close to this position. His bare-chested macho image has started to draw mockery rather than admiration in the last few years among the urban intelligentsia. For the moment he is a hero again. But ridicule might not be far away.