A Society of Singing Knickers

July 5, 2013
Komsomol demonstration.

[Last week, Interpreter contributor Sasha de Vogel admiringly replied to Peter Pomersantsev’s essay, “Cracks in the Kremlin Matrix,” about the system of “managed democracy” in Russia and how opponents of the Putin regime have struggled to combat it. Below, Peter has expanded on some of the key themes in his original piece as well as those raised by de Vogel in her response. — Ed.]

Russia is a society of simulacra: fake elections, fake parties, fake ideologies, fake enemies, fake media, fake history, fake politicians, fake degrees, fake driving licenses, fake courts, fake opposition. Even the girl bands are often fake, created by wealthy boyfriends to please their talentless mistresses, singing over a dubbing track and nicknamed “singing knickers” by Russians.

When any real opposition does appear it’s immediately attacked for actually being fake. A story, probably Kremlin-leaked, going around Moscow at the moment claims the opposition protests of 2011-2012 were actually provoked by the hardliners in the Kremlin to foster an enemy they could attack and initiate the recent mass arrests and clamp downs. Whether true or not it’s an excellent way to emotionally cripple the opposition: “You’re just a bunch of fools and pawns, every time you protest it only makes the other side stronger.” Who would bother protesting with that thought planted in their heads?

How did Russia get this way?

The common Russian era is usually associated with the ascendance of Putin to the presidency in 2000 and the arrest of Khodorkovsky in 2003. But the current habit of fake media and fake politics started in the mid 1990s, with oligarchical manipulation of television and the spinning of elections, the generation of fake candidates and pseudo-scandals and the creation of Putin himself via a fake war in Chechnya which became terribly real. Putin is the apotheosis, not the antithesis, of the 1990s.

But I would go back further — to the late Soviet period. Recently I’ve recently been working on a film script about growing up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and early 1980s. I have been interviewing dozens of successful Russians who matured in that period.

“Did you believe in communism?,” I ask them.

“Don’t be silly,” most answer.

“But you sang the songs? We’re good members of the Komsomol?”

“Of course we did, and we felt good when we sang them. And then straight after we would listen to Deep Purple and ‘the voices’: Radio Liberty, BBC.”

“So you were dissidents? You believed in finishing the USSR?”

“No. It’s not like that. You just speak several languages at the same time, all the time. There’s like several ‘you-s’”.

Most found this normal, this habit of not having any center, just a multitude of roles.  This condition has made for a generation of leaders who excel at simulation and mind-games, but who are incapable of building any meaningful institutions or ideologies. Seen from this perspective, the great drama of recent Russian history isn’t the difficulty of managing the “transition” between communism and capitalism, but that in the final decades of the USSR its elites (and not only) didn’t believe in communism and kept living the lie as if they were, and now only have the ability to create societies of performance and simulation rather than any meaning.

But despite its hollowed-out institutions Russia does hang together. As anyone who has lived in the country knows Russian cities are based on a duality: there are the big, angry avenues, designed more for tank parades than humans, full of frustration and ghastly traffic, dominated by baron-bureaucrats who are free to drive against the flow of traffic if they have the right number plates, cops trying to bully a bribe from any every passer-by. And then you turn off from the main avenues and you find the inside of apartment blocks are arranged around intimate courtyards. Green, brightly painted nurseries — where grandchildren play with toddlers — and a sense of almost village intimacy you would never find in the West. People greet each other (it’s considered rude not to) and largely trust each other (though the Soviet state did it’s best to destroy even these bonds by having neighbors inform on each other). The blooming Russian internet is the media parallel of its topographical courtyards: independent of the state and communitarian. And it is of course the internet which became the forum for articulating discontent with the state.

Functional Russia lives in such clusters of social courtyards, through informal contacts, family connections, micro-societies. And even as the state grows more malignant and dysfunctional we have seen a flourishing of private medical centers, schools, care homes, internet media for the new middle class which simply ignores the state. This other Russia is growing: it has to as a matter of day-to-day survival.

The protests were the first clash of the state against the courtyards. The question is: will there be more? Or will they both exist in parallel, in a strange symbiosis, opposed and yet feeding off each other?