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Philosophy in Russia

“What is to be Done?”

Anna Arutunyan on the lack of agency in contemporary Russia.

One late night in Moscow, just as the prospects for the three-liter carton of wine the three of us had been sharing started to look dismal and the talk turned mystical, our guest, an intellectual quasi-journalist of the Christopher Hitchens variety, decided to explain the real reasons why he was just a hair’s end away from adopting Orthodox Christianity.

“Orthodox Christianity is ultimately Eastern fatalism,” he said. “It completely negates this world. The town priest is a drunkard? Po khui (Fuck it). You beat your wife silly last night then woke up drunk under the fence? Po khui. Just embezzled all the village funds on whoring? Again? Po khui. Doesn’t matter. It’s all in the mystic ritual. As long as you do that, you’ll be fine.”

My protests about how this had proved disastrous for Russia and how religion was supposed to make a better person out of you were feeble. He waved them off as “Protestant rubbish.” Full of Nikolai Berdyaev’s existentialism, he wanted a religion that would justify his imperfect little soul; he was tired of feeling like a scoundrel and wanted the unconditional love of a detached, mystical deity, not the Personal Jesus of corn-belt Bible-thumpers. And he didn’t want to make any effort to be a better person, because he knew that he couldn’t be the kind of person that he believed he should be.

If contemporary Western thought preaches intellectual relativism and materialistic absolutism, then Russia’s current quest for a national identity still revolves around intellectual absolutism and materialistic fatalism. Know what? Let’s call that materialistic nihilism. (So what if I’m not a professional philosopher? At least I’m Russian.)

This is a problem. I’m not the first person by far to allege that Russians have a hard time understanding concepts like ‘property’ and ‘privacy.’ While it is well known that Russians don’t have a word for ‘privacy,’ they do have a word for property. But what use is property, which is what managing the material world all comes down to, if you can’t use it? Besides avoiding verbs of possession (Russians like to snicker about foreigners translating “I have a dog” into Russian: we say “to me there is a dog, wife, car, house,” otherwise it sounds, well, cute), the language currently used in the mass media just up and does away with agency. Forget about passive tense – in many sentences there isn’t even a subject. “It was decided,” “It was made,” “It was developed,” and my personal favorite, “It was broken.” We neither know who broke the darned thing nor care: if we did, then we would run the risk of answering our favorite question – “what is to be done?” (No agency there, either.) But you see, if we did that, then the only thing Russians know how to do well wouldn’t be in demand anymore.

Face it: the best thing that Russian culture has produced is books. There’s a word for what we do, and it involves the excrement of a male cow. (It’s also the title of a best-selling book of philosophy in America right now, by Harry Frankfurt).

So when we ask why so many things just fail to work in Russia, from roads to oil companies to government agencies, what we are dealing with is really a culture that has latched onto the immaterial at the expense of the material – indeed, Russian thought, from Patriarch Nikon to Lenin, has denied the material by placing theory on the altar. Even Buddhism had more respect for the material world, by calling it ‘maya,’ or illusion. We Russians just don’t care. It might as well not exist, if it doesn’t correspond to our ‘second reality.’

Screwed up on privatization reforms? No problem. As long as you’re still committed to the idea of a liberal free market.

And this is where what I call intellectual absolutism comes in. Speaking of privatization: in 1991, economist Yegor Gaidar theorized that if they allowed businesses to name their own prices after years of the government doing it for them, they could expect 300 percent inflation. Yeltsin’s government could deal with that, right? Wrong. Because in practice the inflation was more like 3,000 percent. No matter: now, 15 years after the market reforms ultimately failed, the fiercely loyal liberal camp will disown you as a renegade if you all but make a peep. This worship of theory is nothing new. The early communists were just as stubborn. And that’s another reason why Russians like post-modernism so much: it’s so exquisitely alien for a people who still believe in absolute truths. There’s no room for self irony, or any irony, for that matter, when you’re still convinced that an abstract, intellectual truth is still out there, somewhere.

Right now, with Putin’s Kremlin particularly eager to finance a quest for a national identity, has never been a better time to be a Russian intellectual. Hence, all sorts of ‘projects’, think tanks, websites, conferences, and, most importantly, live journal blogs, with liberals and nationalists alike peddling their verbal unicycles to restore the Motherland’s Glory. But don’t be too surprised if that civil society that looked so good on paper all comes down to the next village drinking binge in practice. As our inner Russian intellectual says, po khui. It’s all in the ritual.

© Anna Arutunyan 2006

Anna Arutunyan is a columnist for the Moscow News, and author of the novel Boolean Frost. She studied journalism at New York University.

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