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Modernization in the Age of Political Post-Modernism


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“Modernization sounds more old-fashioned and Soviet than other slogans in post-Soviet Russia,” writes Russian film director Andrei Nekrasov. “Like octogenarian Soviet leaders Medvedev pays no attention to the style that emphasizes Russia’s backwardness. Medvedev’s call falls into the category of those grand authoritarian invocations à la sovietique. The irony of it seems to be lost not only on the youthful Russian leader himself, but on many ultra-modern westerners, who quote Medvedev with wishful seriousness.”

Before the 19th century ended grand visions of the following 100 years were formed. Marx and Engels created an intellectual religion of social relations which was putting a spell on the world’s imagination, but there were also geniuses who made frightfully accurate predictions of how ideas and ideologies would materialize to become weapons of mass destruction.

Nietzsche and Dostoevsky drew charts of a passionate psyche, demonstrating how words could be meaningful in such an extraordinary way as to lead human beings into committing extraordinary crimes. Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao took the task of individual revolutionary terrorism, described by Albert Camus as philosophy by deed, to its apocalyptic conclusion. In 1991, the USSR, the last empire uniquely built on an ideology finally collapsed, China preserving communism only as a symbol of the continuity of the state’s unquestionable authority. Hitler’s Reich had also been an ideological empire of sorts, but it was short lived probably because national socialism was openly negative towards the majority of humanity.

Internationalist socialism of the Soviets sounded much more positive and survived much longer, being exposed as a great lie in the end. It is the end of the war of ideologies, of the world war of passionate meanings, and not just of the “cold war”, that made an American philosopher coin the verdict “the end of history”, as thoroughly mistaken as it was impressive. History did not end. Nor did the workings of passionate meanings. Today Islamism transforms the word into violent action, and variations of the left-wing ideology still inspire millions to rebel and support anti-capitalist populists. But something seems to have changed for ever in the European civilization.

My country, Russia, seems to have lost much of its relevance to mainstream world affairs with the collapse of the communist empire it lead. Yet, in my view, it is precisely this relative irrelevance that is a crucially important indicator of the political culture of the 21st century. There’s a problem of the dismal human rights record and the Russian state’s blatant disregard even for those freedoms that are enshrined in the Russian constitution.

And there’s a problem with the fact that the western political establishment today considers Russian leaders’ undemocratic behavior less of a problem than the conduct of their predecessors in the era of ideologies. None of that, however, is surprising. The obvious explanation is that for all intents and purposes Russia is a market economy now and is, despite all the risks associated with its corrupt and uncivilized ways, to be profited from.

But there’s something else too. For all the lying that went on in the totalitarian systems of 20th century, words and ideas meant a great deal. Russians used to say with grim narcissism that poetry was taken extremely seriously in their country: one did get shot for it. Totalitarian leaders individually were not only ruthless, but also cunning and cynical, yet the fanatical content of their ideologies was meaningful in its own way and limiting cynicism in society as a whole, if one can define cynicism as dumping beliefs and convictions (preferably not in public) as irrelevant to one’s own egotistical pursuits.

Soviet newspapers were virtually unreadable, because their language bore no resemblance to anything in the real lives of real people; but, in a curious way, it did not pretend to. What that language did was not really lying in any normal human sense; it was creating a wall of encrypted messages between the totalitarian state and the average human being. It took that task extremely seriously and anybody attacking the wall even only by banging their heads against it, by expressing their spontaneous humanity, would be punished.

But the citizen had something in return. The word, its meaning, was a stable, hard currency, secured by the whole of ideological culture. Not only citizens were accountable for what they had to say, the undemocratic state held itself responsible for the meaningfulness of its cryptograms. A certain work had to be put into deciphering the meaning, but even foreigners managed to do it, and trusted the regime to adequately report its moods and signal its intentions. Among the most strategic of those signals I recall were “Detente”, “Speeding-up” (“Uskorenie” in Russian), “Glasnost” and “Perestroika”.

Medvedev’s recent call for “Modernization” in Russia, on the face of it, falls into the category of those grand authoritarian invocations “à la sovietique”. The irony of it seems to be lost not only on the youthful Russian leader himself, but on many ultra-modern westerners, who quote Medvedev with wishful seriousness.

My first reaction to the modernization motto was to recall all the past announcements that we were already so modern that, already belonging to the G8 club, we were soon to become the world’s fifth-biggest economy, that Moscow had a chance to overtake London and New York as the world’s financial centre, the ruble to rival the dollar and the euro as a reserve currency and so on. True, that sort of talk, typical of Putin’s presidency ended abruptly in the autumn of 2008, with the advent of the economic crisis. So, perhaps the new president simply reassessed the situation and is putting his personal stamp on Russian politics by pointing to the need to do what we were more or less told by his prime minister had already been done.

The problem is that the same president has already produced all-encompassing programmatic mottos, such as the fight against “legal nihilism”. Indeed that was the centerpiece of his political call card, after he emerged president in, let’s be frank, a substandard election. Medvedev declared a war on corruption and Russian cities were filled with Soviet-style posters displaying a big fist smashing a bribe-taking character. We are not an iota closer to the rule of law today, or lower on corruption levels, two years after Medvedev’s awesome decrees.

But was Mr. Putin, a young, athletic and – above all – modern leader any less promising in that respect? Was it not he who, at the beginning of his presidency in 2000, pronounced “the dictatorship of law”, as his vision for Russia? The interpretation of that vision that got closest to reality in our country reads: “everything to a friend, law to an enemy”. A dictatorship of sorts.

While Medvedev is talking up his pet project of a high-tech research reservation in Skolkovo, more than 2000 Russian scientists address him in an open letter about the desperate state of science and desperately misguided investment policies in the field. While Medvedev claims the respectability of Nokia, which, through its CEO apparently announced its support for the “Russian Silicon Valley”, the minister responsible for creating it, Arkady Dvorkovich, grilled by reporters about the reasons for top class researchers to come to an industrial Moscow suburb, answers that excellent golf courses and gastronomy are planned in the area.

“Modernization” sounds more old-fashioned and Soviet than other slogans in post-Soviet Russia. Like octogenarian Soviet leaders Medvedev pays no attention to the style that emphasizes Russia’s backwardness. We are told to embark on a modernization in the “post-modern” world concerned with ecological and social issues well beyond the childish wish to be seen equipped with modern gadgets (even if one of them is called Russian Silicon Valley).

Until very recently Russians saw the amount of western-made cars on their roads as a sign of prosperity and modernity, while it was patently clear that the country of reluctant tax payers and corrupt officials is catastrophically incapable of organizing space for those cars to move around. A typically Russian solution to the problem was to virtually privatize the blue emergency lighting, so that anybody with enough money could get it and frighten others into giving way. When drivers with such privileges started killing people, the scam became a major inflammatory public issue. Now the rich are buying helicopters and building heliports to avoid the road paralysis. A modernization of sorts.

The real problem with the contemporary leaders of Russia, is that their words simply do not mean much. They certainly mean much less than the words of the Soviet leaders. For a high official to feel he has to be meaningful in his pronouncements there needs to be a system of accountability, the most proven one being free mass media. If you know that no TV channel will splice the footage of you promising something with the evidence that you have not kept your word, you feel much more relaxed promising all kinds of things.

Empty promises is something politicians often engage in the West too, but there’s an element of a high adrenalin gambling in it, whereas in Russia it’s but a comfortable routine. The authoritarian states of the past century also controlled the mass media but they had the codes and motives of ideologies which formed and infused their messages. That left some room for inner, often unconscious and unwanted, accountability, apart from naked pragmatism. Nikita Khrushchev, once Stalin’s brutal henchman, is said to have wept on his return from the visit to Sweden, admitting that real socialism had been achieved in the “capitalist” West, and not in the Soviet Russia. He did care about those things.

The “inner”, ideological accountability of an autocrat has nothing to do with the real good of the people. An autocrat who genuinely believes in something may spell more disaster than an unprincipled and corrupt one that can be persuaded or bribed. Individually, yes. But that should not prevent us from realizing that we, in Europe, have entered an era of political “post-modernism”, where meanings of old words are used in whimsical, ever-changing, “subjective” ways, by people motivated by nothing else but their day-to-day task of staying in power, which for them may even only mean having a good life.

This is certainly not the end of history for them, as the shrinking globalized world is still large enough for innumerable combinations of problems which the leaders of a marginalized ex-superpower can claim busying themselves with. It might be called the end of ideology. Or the onset of the era of total cynicism, which cannot be limited to one country. Russian post-communist cynicism has an equivalent, a mirror image in the West. It can be expressed in the following thesis: for all its problems, Russian cynics are better than Islamist believers, and we cannot afford to engage in the altercations with people who are too much like us, while we are at war with people who are so different.

But history which will not end before we die out from global warming (which, by the way, Russian society takes very little interest in) or something else, still has plenty of surprising twists in store for us. Ideology may be less dead than it looks, even in Europe. It may just be in a reversible state of lethargy and may wake up any time, oblivious of horrors it inspired in the past century.

For the Russian far right and an emerging political player, Russian ultra-conservative Christians, ideology is certainly far from dead. Those people are not determining Russian politics, not for now anyway, despite the scandalous conviction of art exhibition organizers in Moscow for “inciting religious hatred”, and no less scandalous recent court ruling in Saratov describing antisemitism as no danger for the Russian state.

Today, unprincipled cynicism that allows saying almost anything that audiences, or “our western partners”, would want to hear, thereby imitating good-natured nonchalance, if not total freedom, while cold-bloodedly and cold-heartedly doing absolutely anything in pursuit of power and material gain – such cynicism is the undemocratic ruler of Russia. But it may be, dialectically, paving the way to something even worse.

Andrei Nekrasov, 14 July 2010

This column first appeared in print in Finland’s leading daily, Helsingin Sanomat, on 18 July 2010.


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