Thursday, August 21, 2014
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Russia's Culture of Contempt

Once again, everyone wants to know, where is Russia heading? The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the possible bankruptcy of his company Yukos, Russia's biggest company, have incited cries that President Putin is returning the country to the bad old days of dictatorship. But in assessing where Russia is heading, political and economic analysis are of little help. It is Russia's social culture that is determining the country's fate.

Russia's political system, indeed, is not what prevents the country from moving forward, and it never has been. Whether Russians live under monarchy, communism, Yeltsin's cowboy market economy or Putin's supposed dictatorship of law, the result is always the same - the system despises its citizens, eliciting an equal and opposite reaction of derision and distrust.

Russian capitalism hates the consumer as much as Russian communism did. Russia's people, whether they are waiters or waiting for service, are convinced that they will be ripped off and treated rudely, and so steel themselves with indifference.

Neither the system nor the people are to blame for this state of affairs. It arises partly from the fact that Russia is an "imitation" culture. Russia's first rulers were Nordic princes in the 860's, men invited to bring order to the country - even then, or so it seems, Russians didn't trust themselves to rule themselves effectively.

Sometimes, Russian imitation produces works of genius. After all, Pushkin and Gogol originally grew out of German and French models, although their sheer originality left the mimicry far behind. But Russia is simply not as good at copying practical things like laws and economic models as it is at transforming cultural impulses into works of art with a Russian soul. Its practical borrowings are invariably stillborn, mostly because of the country's ingrained culture of contempt.

Consider Moscow, a highly seasoned imitator (though nowhere in the league of St. Petersburg, that baroque Italianate city on the Neva, as an urban mimic). Moscow nowadays has all the trappings of high-end capitalism: Prada, Fouchon, Rolls Royce. Its Café des Artistes is as wonderful a French bistro as you will find. But something is missing in the usual Russian way - proper utensils. Ask a waiter for a steak knife and you will draw a look that suggests you've asked for a sword.

Some restaurants greet their customers with a guard who brusquely asks what they want, as if they came to buy stamps, not to have dinner. Of course, the guards know that their job is to ensure that everyone is safe and comfortable, but the Gulag-type notion of what a guard does is too embedded to be removed. Their real job is to be "against" - and this time, it is the customers they are to be against.

The very existence of other people breeds suspicion in Russian guards, and who is to say that they are completely wrong? After all, contract killings and random shootings in restaurants are common affairs, and the idea of excessive protection from everyone goes back to Soviet days, when social contempt was cloaked in the guise of public safety.

Small wonder, then, that Russians always cut corners, jump over fences, and never follow a path designated for walking - these paths were built not to make life easier for people, but to control them. Indeed, fences and barriers in Russia are usually built where there should be a footpath.

But perhaps the authorities are right to want to keep us in line. Anyone who has ever flown into Russia will know this scene: the moment the captain requests the passengers to remain seated until the plane comes to a complete stop, all the Russians on board will respond by immediately standing up and piling into the aisles as if it's their last chance to get out. They know in their bones that the system is out to get them, even if the system is represented by a commercial airliner from a foreign country.

The simplest things are complicated, and then destroyed, by this culture of suspicion and contempt. I once went for lunch to a Swedish-style buffet in Moscow. The choice of food was great, a sort of post-modern typical Russian kasha: sushi, salad, borsht, meat, and cabbage. But customers received only a small saucer for this feast, and the principle of the smorgasbord - all you can eat - was jettisoned. You were allowed to use the buffet only once.

Customers - who know what a smorgasbord is - understandably try to stuff as much food as they can onto the tiny saucer, sushi on top of roast beef. If you dare to ask for a bigger plate or an extra helping, the waitress gives you that withering Soviet look - you want too much. Soviet socialism thought its citizens unworthy of any form of service altogether; Russian capitalism doubts that you can control your appetites, so it wants to control them for you. In the end, there is very little difference.

And so Russia goes on, undertaking revolutionary changes and not changing at all. Incurable suspicion, mutual fear, ubiquitous contempt - confirmed everyday in large and small ways - are our immutable social condition.

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