This semester I am teaching a Dostoevsky course. Implausible plots, stumbling dialogues, everybody in love with everybody, romantic triangles overlap like mating frogs, passions mount, money changes hands and is thrown into the fire — the normal Dostoevsky stuff.
I don’t like Dostoevsky. Not my cup of tea, as Queen Elizabeth must have said when asked to attend Princess Di’s funeral. Yet one cannot deny Dostoevsky’s astounding intellectual richness. Whether you like him or not, he is one of the most thought-provoking authors. He has supplied the world with a number of powerful everlasting archetypes. One of them is the image of Russians as die-hard debaters, always obsessed with some sort of quest for truth or identity.
One of the punch lines in “The Brothers Karamazov” is, Russians “do nothing but talk about the eternal questions.” Since Dostoevsky’s time, one of these pervading eternal questions has been, “Is Russia East or West?”
First discussed by a handful of highbrows in literary salons of Moscow and St. Petersburg, this debate evolved into a national issue. Today everybody in Russia seems to have an opinion on the subject: Tabloids, academic publications, books of fiction and governmental memorandums all address this existential issue more readily than annoying, mundane things like economic reform and human rights.
A drunk on the subway can lecture you for half an hour, explaining why Russia should be regarded as part of Europe. A church-goer most likely will be talking to you not about spirituality but about “the special path” predestined for Mother Russia. An academic may be not familiar with stock markets and checks-and-balances, but he knows by heart all the pros and cons of arguments asserting Russia’s Asian identity.
I think now the age-old debate should be rerouted. No matter how the country used to look in the past, Russia is no longer European or Asiatic, or, for that matter, uniquely “Eurasian” (whatever this term may actually mean). Russia has become Latin American.
No, palm trees haven’t made it to Moscow and likely never will. But surely there is more to Latin America than tropical evergreens. Maybe the most distinctive characteristic of the region is its weird combination of democracy and arbitrariness, social stability and political turmoil, free press and secret police, destitution and wealth, strong economy and poor country, pompous facade and seedy backyard.
Europe and Asia are more single-minded. No one questions the political identity of, say, France (democracy) and China (dictatorship). Also, the nations of Eurasia seem to prefer straightforward dynamics: from totalitarianism to democracy (Germany), from poverty to wealth (South Korea) — and so on.
But how does one describe countries like Argentina or Brazil? For decades, there has been no clear indication of what these nations are up to. Periods of authoritarian rule are followed by free elections and then lapses back into mayhem and terror. Industry is growing but seems to have no direct impact on living standards. Advocates of human rights argue their case persistently and openly, but their efforts are inconsequential for the people living in slums. The free press unmasks tycoons but this does not prevent the latter from continuing with embezzlement. No matter what the current political situation is, the financial oligarchy is invariably in control. This is exactly how Russia looks now.
Like most Latin American countries, Russia has adopted a system of free elections, purported accountability of government, freedom of speech and other attributes of European civilization. However, Parliament, polls, the independent media and articulate public opinion form a handsome shell within which a selfish greedy mollusk — the oligarchy — lives.
Arguably, without such a shell the oligarchy would feel worse. When fully exposed, any mollusk looks frightful, even oysters, as can be seen if you examine them before you eat them. Such a regime would be hard to sell to the world. But when the ugliness is cleverly packaged, there is a good chance the world will accept the nation as a struggling democracy.
Occasionally, the mollusk may even grow a polished pearl to represent it in the international arena. Normally I would hesitate to apply the term “pearl” to Russian President Vladimir Putin but when one compares him to what has given birth to him — the military-industrial complex and shady moguls — it fits.
For the last 15 years or so, prophesies about Russia’s future have frequently been apocalyptic: civil war, fascism, unrestrained expansionism. So far, however, the alarmist warnings have proven false. No sane person may like what goes on in Russia, but so far there have been no signs that something terrible is going to happen there. But this is, again, a typically Latin American scenario. The media, controlled by the president’s opponents, is being harassed by the police — but within certain “respectable” limits. The war in Chechnya is continuing, but quietly. Human rights throughout Russia are being abused — but the Gulag isn’t back. Anti-Western propaganda and nationalism are being introduced, but Coca Cola ads are all over the place.
In the old days, under the Soviets, there was no ambiguity. The nation had just one party, the only valuable section in the newspapers was the weather forecast and street ads touted Marxist-Leninism. Even bars and restaurants had to be patriotic and served mainly vodka and chicken Kiev.
Now it is very different. Pluralism is here, as are the freedoms of choice and expression — even in bars. The totalitarian uniformity of vodka is gone and now one is free to indulge himself in exotic drinks like Manhattans, screwdrivers and, yes, margaritas and pina coladas.
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