The Future is History

I really know how to pick a book. While COVID19 has been ramping up, I’ve been at work finishing The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Fun!

I read it thinking that it’s important to study history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Honestly? Our government is such a disaster at the moment that I don’t feel any threads of commonality with what I just read and what is happening at the federal level.

There is no order. There is no structure. Our current leadership is a disaster on so many levels. For a while, I was grateful there was a complete absence of any managerial skills – more policies and projects that I oppose could be implemented if this was a competent administration.

But now we’re in a position where we can’t even be grateful for their incompetence. We are paying the highest price.

Anyways, TFIH an outstanding book, highly readable, and an absolutely fascinating portrait of a national identity. I have pulled out some passages and added some of my own narrative below. If you want to escape the current global pandemic and spend some time in another environment, observing others fight for their humanity… let’s dive on in!

Every totalitarian regime forms a type of human being on whom it relies for its stability. The shaping of the New Man is the regime’s explicit project, but its product is not so much a vessel for the regime’s ideology as it is a person best equipped to survive in a given society. The regime, in turn, comes to depend on this newly shaped type of person for its continued survival.

In TFIH, the Soviet person is an empty vessel without any strong convictions, aside from doing what they must to survive. The state told them what to think and what to be. They played along for as long as they had to, even though ultimately they were powerless to the whims of the state and those that represented it.

There was a game called “Work,” and one of the most-often-repeated Soviet jokes described it perfectly: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” There was a game called “Care,” in which “they”—the state—pretended to take care of the citizenry, which pretended to be grateful. What made this simple-sounding game instantly complicated was that it was not all pretense: the state indeed controlled the citizen’s fate, and the citizen could be said to owe his continued survival to the state. In this sense, the game of “Complicity” was similar: Homo Sovieticus pretended to participate in the affairs of the state, and this made him complicit in everything the state did…

Homo Sovieticus was not indoctrinated. In fact, Homo Sovieticus did not seem to hold particularly strong opinions of any sort. His inner world consisted of antinomies, his objective was survival, and his strategy was constant negotiation—the endless circulation of games of doublethink…

Homo Sovieticus was caught in an infinite spiral of lies: pretending to be, pretending to have, pretending to believe, and pretending not to.

Gessen cites a string of sociological surveys from the time that revealed how Russians felt about themselves and about others, from the transitional period of perestroika and in the 1990s. They weren’t feeling aggressive pre-perestroika (measured by “what should be done” with members of deviant groups), but they did feel humiliated when they saw the huge gap in living situation between themselves and western democracies, even as their own condition had materially improved. They observed and subsequently felt that others were better off and that, frankly, it sucked to be Russian.

Russians were distinctly tired of thinking of themselves, and their country, as inferior. So what did they see as the innate positive qualities of Russians? This open question elicited, on the basis of 2,957 surveys, three leading qualities: “open,” “simple,” and “patient.” The ideal Russian, it seemed, was a person without qualities. It was clear to Gudkov that this was the blank mirror of the hostile and violent regimes under which Russians had long lived…

If “open” and “simple” described the undifferentiated nature of a Russian, then “patient,” as Gudkov read the responses, referred to Russians’ tolerance for violence…

In contrast to the imaginary European, all of whose qualities described agency, the respondents saw themselves as subjects of a regime that ruled by force.

Ultimately, the post Soviet years were a vaccuum, a pause, in which Russians saw what was happening in the rest of the world and it looked significantly better than what was happening for them. They felt second class on the world stage. They didn’t like it… and then Putin emerged.

National identity is powerful. I underestimated it until I had my own personal reckoning in my 20s. My parents are foreigners and for a long time I felt like I was straddling two identities. It wasn’t until I felt like a stranger in my parents’ country that I understood – or perhaps decided – I was American. Something recalibrated inside of me and I felt a sharper commitment to the national project.

To borrow a concept from Yuval Noah Harari, nations are mass hallucinations. They’re not real in as much as we make them so.

What is it like to feel humiliated, trod upon, defeated, as a matter of national identity? What things would we support? What leadership would we want? How closely is our sense of self intertwined with the fate of a nation?

Well – if conditions conspire to make you feel this way, whether it is warranted or not, you choose somebody like our current Dear Leader.


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