Putin and the slow drip of evil: Mallick
Who is Homo Sovieticus? What is to be done with this sad beaten creature? Did a century of communism — with an interlude of perestroika — and the slipping of Vladimir Putin into the Russian bloodstream make the species unkillable?
Very possibly. “Every totalitarian regime forms a type of human being on whom it relies for its stability,” writes the great Russian journalist Masha Gessen, quoting the late Russian social researcher Yuri Levada. The communist version was bred over generations “by rewarding obedience, conformity and subservience,” and maintained by class enmity.
In his Darwinian way, Homo Sovieticus was the person “best equipped to survive” under Joseph Stalin and the semi-Stalins who succeeded him. He’s a type. With the expiry of the Soviet Union in 1991, the type should have vanished. But so should have Nazis after Germany’s defeat in 1945. Look who’s back.
Putin biographer Masha Gessen has written a magisterial doom-laden companion to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Titled The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, her study of how Putin re-savaged his own people is a profound portrait of wrecked humanity.
She is not trying for snapshots of “regular people” with heartbreaking but typical stories, as journalists often do. She doesn’t want the Russian elephant’s arms and legs, she wants the whole “animal” as seen by people who faced it head-on, tried to fight it, and were crushed.
There is such courage on her pages.
I am often struck by the sheer unluckiness of the Russian people. Unlike Americans who threw away freedom with their own two hands, Russians were putty and paste. They endured serial punishments: tyranny, ecological destruction, gulags, wartime slaughter, intellectual and social isolation, oligarchy/plutocracy, serial economic collapse, war in Georgia, Chechnya and Ukraine, mass alcoholism, on and endlessly on.
Putin continued the torment, with a profitable little sideline in hacking and blackmail that is taking the U.S. down too. Even Putin couldn’t have fathomed Donald Trump’s emotional fragility. Trump is “fascinating,” Gessen has said, “because he’s so intense. Putin is not. Putin is basically the man of the slow drip.”
Tyrants need targets. Gays are as useful to Putin as Muslims are to Trump, as Jews were to the Soviets. He stokes hatred of them to unite the nation. After it became apparent that Putin plans to remove children from their LBGTQ parents, Gessen, a lesbian with three children, fled Russia in 2013.
But she has another problem. Will Putin let her live? Those who cross him reach their expiry date early, some by gunshot, some by poisoning. Putin is a madcap executioner, a bit of a Kim Jong Un in his respect for borders. Who’s to stop him?
In Russia, Putin oversees the media. His political candidates win overwhelmingly. There are no fixed rules, no Moscow buildings that can’t be torn down overnight without warning, no reliable traffic system, no faith that a “terror” bomb has not been planted by police forces, no trust that a death is indeed by natural causes.
Worse, there is no language to explain what happened to that brief glasnost, that gap between Communism and a fresh tyranny. The destruction of the social sciences in universities means Russians were never able to describe themselves to each other. They can’t explain why they think the way they do and how they were engineered into those thoughts.
Daily life cannot be put into words. History cannot be mapped accurately and used to teach. After Mikhail Gorbachev opened the archives in 1989, a young scholar profiled by Gessen discovered that Stalin personally signed execution orders for 44,000 people, “apparently because he enjoyed it.”
What is one to do with that knowledge? Fast-forward to 2017 when Putin is trying to rebuild the cult of Stalin. In 1989, a Levada survey in Russia asked for the names of the “greatest people who have ever lived.” Stalin didn’t make it into the top five. In 2008, he came third. Putin was at five.
In 1999, Russians were already nostalgic for the pre-1985 years of poverty, food shortages and suffocation. “What Russians wanted was certainty, a clear sense of who they were and what their country was,” Gessen writes ironically.
But beneath all this, she is asking a larger question: how do societies absorb trauma? Russia endured catastrophic war, revolution and chronic oppression, fatally combined with the slaughter of intellectuals.
She seems to suggest that they take on the habit of suffering, repeating the damage generation after each generation.
Russians long to be told what to do, and they have just the man to do that.