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Russia: two worlds, one fate

Contrary to all laws of human community,

Russia marches only in the direction

of its own enslavement and enslavement

of all neighboring nations.

 P. Chaadayev


This year I have been to Russia twice. The second time I spent there almost a month (June), and survived the experience with great difficulty. My impressions and appraisals of Russia are qualitatively different from those of “Western-eyed” people who have visited Moscow or St. Petersburg. Ordinary tourists speak with delight, for example, of how Moscow is starting to look like the civilized world with its Macdonald’s restaurants, Marriott and Hilton hotels. To them, looking like the West is a good thing. This perception is typical not only of visiting tourists from the West. It is likewise inherent to so-called scholars who specialize in Russia and write encouraging books about the process of democratization and market economy development in Russia. All these seminars at Oxford University and books devoted to Russia studies are not even close to capturing the essence of the reality in Russia. All ‘shortcomings’ are described-glossed over as transitional-period difficulties. These Western ‘scholars’ also usually avoid comparing today’s results to the preceding period’s level of economic and social development. When you confront them with the figures, they fall silent for a while, then recall the word “transition” and reply: no big deal, this is how it is in the transitional period; after that, everything will be OK.

However, it suffices to ask just one question: from what to what is the country making the transition? – to see their ‘science’ go all ‘adrift’. 100% of the time they answer: the transition is from totalitarian Communism to market economy and democracy. These learned Ph.D. holders somehow managed to convince themselves that in the USSR there was Communism, and that the Brezhnev regime was totalitarian. It does not even occur to them that market economy and democracy existed even under the slave system – in ancient Greece, in the Roman Republic. Those same market economy and democracy exist today in such impoverished countries as Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Why cannot they say simply: transition to a capitalist system (although Russia is already there)? They are leery of the word “capitalism”, for they live in this system and feel on the intuitive level that capitalism is a ‘dirty’ system in any form. This is precisely why Western societies themselves in the last fifty years have been introducing socialism actively, especially to their social policies (free education, socialized health care, pensions, etc.). These things are very much in evidence in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, not to mention Scandinavian countries.

There was a time when I thought that this level of knowledge about Russia is a consequence of ideological brainwashing. To a large degree, this is indeed true. However, when I started reading those same authors’ works about the West, I discovered that they analyze their own Western societies just as superficially. In other words, Western social science is not science; it is, rather, a collection of materials on some topic or other with no in-depth understanding of causes, problems or trends.  

I now return to Russia, of which I wrote many times before. On every visit there, I see new traits of the Russian capitalist way of life and mode of thinking which cannot leave me indifferent.

The main reason for this latest visit was a personal exhibition of my wife’s paintings at the Museum of the Orient (she paints under the alias Wang Liushi). However impressive this Museum’s history, here (as almost everywhere else, I am sure) form has long ago given the heave-ho to the essence of the matter, and the state has abandoned its cultural monuments to their own devices. Even though the exhibition itself went very well, as evidenced by the numerous entries in the guest book, my general impression is that Russian-style capitalism has inflicted irreparable damage on art in Russia and on all the people who serve it; it has twisted their essence and meaning. Commerce is the spirit of current cultural life in Russia, that country so proud of its spirituality.

My meetings with friends and acquaintances – holders of Candidate or Doctor of Science degrees – resulted in nothing but disappointment on both sides. They, too, have been touched by the surging religious obscurantism. No one reads ‘thick volumes’ any more; the ‘learned’ crowd is now even making fun of that fool Karl Marx who could not squeeze his findings into four pages (he had to write the three volumes of his Das Kapital), while Niels Bohr managed to do just that. That eccentric Hegel is simply a fool, for his writings are incomprehensible (he likewise failed to fit into the available volume of understanding). This talk was taking place in a research Institute where yet another weak dissertation was being defended. This all reminded me of old classic movies in which the crowd, nodding their heads as one, derides one who thinks differently. The brand-new Candidate of Science on this occasion produced 150 pages of text that subverts big-time science in the persons of its titans, and at the same time he swims in the company of those who cast the country down a precipice. This unity between small entities, like a complex of bacteria, destroys everything in its path. Religious Academicians of science (an oxymoron if ever there was one) discover nothing, while religious Candidates of science help shut down all this fraudulent cookery.

Generally speaking, those Russians who preserved the ability to evaluate the situation objectively (they are few, but they exist) are aware of the degradation of the science level in Russia (I will soon have to prove this claim with facts). The tragedy is this: the process has engulfed all aspects of Russia’s reality, including the education system. I wrote about this once already; here are just a few recent examples.

Right now (July-August) is the time of entrance examinations in Russia’s higher schools. In this connection, the press reports many cases of bribery and corruption among examiners, directors and rectors of colleges and universities. The prestigious (in past times) universities are the baptismal font and forge of today’s cadres in Russia: one sees total profanation of ‘admissions’, total profanation of ‘education’. The applicants are treated as nothing but wallets. I am personally acquainted with the rector of one of these prestigious feeding troughs – an individual whose width will soon match his height; he certainly does not look like a person who gets by on just his salary. The worn-out slogan “cadres decide everything” is absolutely correct in today’s Russia, where people who never should be let near university doors become students.

The Minister of Education boasts from time in the Russian press to time that the number of higher schools and students in them has increased sharply in recent years -that is, in comparison to the Soviet era. Of course, this number now includes all sorts of private institutions, as well as universities and academies that used to be called colleges or schools. Since I used to teach in one of these schools, I know the system well, and I know the worth this education: it is zilch. The education of evening and correspondence-course student has the same worth. In this connection, I recall a joke from the Soviet times: two birds were admitted to a Conservatory of Music; one graduated as a nightingale and the other as a sparrow. You see, the former was a daytime student, while the latter was an evening/correspondence student. The current education system produces precisely this kind of sparrows.

 And now, a few words on the subject of religion. I read Chaadayev’s letters a long time ago, and disliked them because the author saw the cause of Russia’s backwardness in the Orthodox Christian faith, and saw the solution in switching to Catholicism. I am repulsed in principle by any kind of religion, but only now I am starting to understand Chaadayev’s criticism of Orthodoxy (having read it all over again). Apparently, among all branches of Christianity Orthodoxy is number one in obscurantism. Its destructive might is felt throughout the expanse of Russia. Religion has by now sucked in not only the broad masses, not only the artistic-posing elite, not only the top brass of the Armed Forces who drag the ranks into this swamp behind them, not only the political elite - including its top dog - but now even scientists, including the President of the Russian Academy of Science. Seeing a crowd of serfs-sheep standing in line to kiss some ‘miracle-working’ icon, or a procession of tens of thousands of people to some ‘holy place’ in Kirov Region – it is FRIGHTENING. It is frightening to observe the red-faced, fat-bellied priests in churches sprinkle their flock with water or bless soldiers for the ‘righteous’ war in Chechnya. It is both funny and shocking to hear a friend of mine, a Candidate of Science (History), assert that scientists have proven already the existence of God, and that Darwinism has been refuted by some Mr. Foolkin or Moronov from Ufa. This comes from a man who benefits from all achievements of science (medicine, in particular); at the same time he seeks to refute science with references to some illiterate seers from the village of Ostolopovo (translates as Nitwitovo) or Perezhopino (Overassholino) (don’t laugh: these place names are real). One perfectly demented individual, a member of the New York Academy of Science, proclaims in full earnestness that science has proven this: prayers extend one’s life. I think that the editorial board’s mental level is on a par with this ‘academician’. The newspaper that offered its page to this fake ‘academician’ (the New York Academy of Science is a gang of Russian Jews who make money off Russian fools) did not bother to ask him: if this is indeed true, then why is it that in the Middle Ages, prior to the Renaissance age, the average lifespan was 25 years, even though everyone was praying tirelessly, while in the atheist USSR the average life expectancy grew from 30 years in 1913 to over 60 years by the early 1960s? It has been written so many times by now that religion is Russia’s deliverance! So why is it that the whole country’s prayers and the all-seeing vision of the clairvoyants failed to save the crew of the submarine Kursk? Why is it that the soldiers who were blessed to go to the slaughterhouse of Chechnya keep paying for military ‘science’ with their lives, shielding with their bodies their commanders’ additional stars? Why is it that prayers for good harvests, for protection against floods, fires and explosions result in the shrinkage of the life-spans and the population count of the country as a whole, rather than the other way round – whether people pray all together or each individually? There are thousands of examples to prove them wrong. The current regime is combating the consumption of fake vodka and other spirits that annually send about 40,000 people to the afterlife, but at the same time it gives encouragement to the spiritual rotgut of sorts that helps snuff out hundreds of thousands of people annually, or at least it helps shorten their lives, driving the average lifespan down to medieval levels. The interconnection is not accidental: the number of schools goes down while the number of churches goes up; enlightenment goes down, obscurantism goes up; as a result, the population count is dropping.

While capitalism threw Russia back to the early 20th century level, religion has driven it back to the pre-Peter I times, i.e. the early 17th century. This is particularly clearly felt in the provinces. The current regime, of course, only stands to benefit from this religious fervor. A religious population is easy to manipulate; it makes it fairly easy to carry out own ‘reforms’ and feed them any kind of bullshit from television screens. Only a brainwashed people can listen openmouthed to the President’s promises about increasing benefits for veterans a whopping 20 times (and this is just one item in the promise list). It does not occur to them to grab a calculator and calculate how much this increase will cost the treasury; to compare the amount to the total sum earmarked for benefits, etc.; to understand one simple thing: they (the veterans) will never receive that kind of money. This is only natural, since the current reform, same as the entire current system, serves the country’s ruling class, not the ‘working masses’ who still fail to realize that they are now living under capitalism - not socialism, not even of the lousy Brezhnev variety.  Back in his time, Lord Chamberlain called similar reforms in Britain “social imperialism”. Russians do not even understand that their current state is not simply capitalism of the Russian type, but precisely imperialism that devours its own people.

Generally speaking, Russians today have reacquired that old Russian trait: pass off white as black, and vice versa. They somehow manage to celebrate the triumph of ‘the Russian spirit’ in the lost Russian-Japanese war of 1904-1905. They see their defeat in the “Cold War” against the West as a victory for ‘democracy’, which destroyed the Soviet empire and half of Russia. Only today’s Russians are capable of increasing the number of generals in the course of lost wars - such as, for example, the current war in Chechnya. In that same lost war, the number of heroes also keeps growing. Chechen rebels killed President Kadyrov and wounded the Russian general who was precisely responsible for preventing such terrorist attacks. Instead of firing this general, they are about to give him – or perhaps they already have given – a major decoration. The connection is straightforward: the more bombs the rebels set off under the generals, the sooner these generals become heroes, and if they survive, they start working on careers in politics. Is such a thing possible any place other than Russia?

Russian soccer players suffer an utter fiasco in the finals of the European Championship tournament, yet their commentator claims that several of the players belong in the top rungs of Europe’s soccer elite, since, after all, they did beat the Greek side that went on to win it all.

Such irrationality has always been inherent to Russians, yet at the current stage, it has its own concrete causes. Religion, ‘science’ and irrationality – all of this reflects the helplessness of the populace before the face of the current system. It is not allowed to criticize anyone for his/her religion, same as for ultra-patriotism or for degradation in science. This is a consequence of the collapse of the USSR - a once-great superpower, the decline of the economy, the impoverishment of the majority of the population, the degradation of the people’s intellectual potential. The country is divided once again into classes, separated into two worlds: on the one hand  there is the handful of oligarchs with their servant personnel: the state, the stratum of scholars who are actually degree-carrying lackeys to the priesthood, plus the untalented show-business entertainers; on the other hand there is the mass of wretched, hounded people awaiting in horror the confiscation of the last remnants of their savings from the Socialist era. One more stratum has emerged recently: homeless children and people who live in dumps in the literal meaning of the word. The state of their minds is such that they are content with their existence, for they have all they need: food, clothing and freedom (!). Two worlds coexist: one cavorts in orgies, celebrates and makes merry in the grip of dollargasm; the other sheds tears, hungers, wants and prays, prays, prays… There is pseudo-life on top and pseudo-life on the bottom – a terrifying spectacle!

The tragic thing about all this is that few people understand the cause. Unless they do understand it, the country is doomed, and not just the poorest part of its population, but also the ‘shopping-ists’ whom great billboards invite to patronize supermarkets. The capitalist ‘market’ has one strange property: it destroys Russia and all Russians indiscriminately - physically or spiritually. In order to survive, Russia only has one answer available to it: destroy capitalism.

 Alex Battler