A recent article in one of Russia’s liberal newspapers described the tragedy of Putinism as the President’s fear for the worst when it comes to change, and an expectation of the worst when it comes to people.
I thought about this for a while and had to agree. But then I thought about Russia and Russians. Here is a country with a seemingly endless supply of stoicism. A country that revolted only once in its history and even then, it was only a small group of utterly unrepresentative intellectual fanatics (with a command of marketing uncannily savvy enough to think of calling themselves the Bolsheviks, or the Majority).
No amount of suffering, it seems, is too great for Russians to endure: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, serfdom, the pogroms and poverty of late tsarism, the Red Terror, the White Terror, the Great Terror, World War II, the Gulags, the rationing, the shelling of the White House, privatization mass pauperisation, the mafia, the “sale of the century,” Chechnya, and now Putinism. Surely any other people would have long said, “basta!”. But not Russians.
I’m going out on a limb here but my suspicion is that the core belief underpinning our famous stoicism (masochism?) is actually a deep rooted pessimism — that things could always be – and may very easily become — much worse. That might sound crazy, but unfortunately seems to be a position constantly reinforced by Russian history.
Think the Civil War was bad? Well, here’s Stalin! Don’t like Gorbachev? Just wait till you see Yeltsin! And after the latest “improvements” undertaken over the last 12 years, it’s hard to blame Russians for their aversion to change.
And what about the corollary – expecting the worst of people? Unfortunately, that also seems to be a pretty deeply rooted Russian trait. Anyone ever seen a Russian smile at a passerby on the street? In fact, random kindness or even friendliness from a stranger is invariably met with suspicion, fear or, at best, condescension — because “only a fool smiles for no reason.” That’s one reason why Russians tend to think Americans are all driveling idiots — because they smile all the time, like “ne-normalnie.”
A typical Russian retort to allegations of such fabled chilliness is that “unsubstantiated” or “unprovoked” displays of positivity are somehow “false” or “fake” – traits frequently associated with Western modes of public interaction. I’ll smile if I have something to smile about, Russians might say. Or, I’ll be friendly to you if you’re my friend, instead of wasting it on strangers. Indeed, one of the things many Russians who end up in America find hardest to navigate is the practice of calling seemingly mere acquaintances friends. It is a source of great pride and even cultural superiority to many Russians that while (or even, because) they ration out friendliness, kindness and smiles only to the most deserving recipients; when it is given, it is intense and selfless to an almost harmful degree. Fundamentally, however, the idea that we only smile when there’s something to smile about, and are only nice to people we know as meriting kindness, reflects a very pessimistic set of assumptions. The default mode is one of dour guardedness; the default approach to others is circumspection. Unworthy of smiles until proven otherwise. Guilty until proven innocent.
In his approach to change, to dissenters and outsiders (intellectual, cultural or territorial), is Putin merely channeling this fundamental cultural trope? Could it be that one reason why he remains more or less liked when his party and his entire government are nearly universally despised is that most Russians see in him “one of us”? It is a feeling Gorbachev – the optimist, the believer in people’s better angels, the man who smiled not just at strangers, but at Reagan! – never managed to achieve.
None of this is to say that Russians deserve our horrible president because we are horrible people; only that maybe we are reluctant to punish Putin’s worst traits because we recognize them as our own. Deep down, we know that Putin’s a son of a bitch, but at least he’s our son of a bitch.