Russia’s Suicide by Tyranny

Touring Moscow ten years ago, my friend and I found ourselves having to stifle a nearly indefensible laughing fit. We’d both come to realize that our guide wrapped up every historical anecdote about every structure she showed us with, “and … Read More

By / December 4, 2007

Touring Moscow ten years ago, my friend and I found ourselves having to stifle a nearly indefensible laughing fit. We’d both come to realize that our guide wrapped up every historical anecdote about every structure she showed us with, “and then everyone was killed. Next we move on to . . .” Of course this wouldn’t have been funny without her accent, and it wouldn’t have been funny if she’d said it once or twice, but it mostly wouldn’t have been funny without the unceremonious segue into the next sight’s morbid summary. Would it be fair to call this routine hop from horror to horror a Russian segue? Sunday, after Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party won enough Parliamentary seats to change the constitution, Putin said:

Russians will never allow for the development of the country along a destructive path, the way it happened in some countries in the post-Soviet space . . . and this sense of responsibility of citizens for their own country is, in my view, the most important index of the fact that our country is strengthening not only economically, not only socially, but also in terms of its domestic politics.

The word choice is arresting: “Russians will never allow for the development of the country . . .” While the elections were almost certainly crooked, one looks at the state of Russia, of Russian identity, and wonders if the not-so-former KGB man is right. Is Russia hopelessly defined by deadly extremes (enormity, cold, submission, starvation, revolution, extermination)? And is the progress of Russian history doomed to be a chain of horrors? Novelist Martin Amis would have us believe it is so. Twelve pages into his fierce novel House of Meetings, the book’s protagonist-narrator casually remembers to head-off a potential semantic misunderstanding:

Oh, and just to get this out of the way. It’s not the USSR I don’t like. What I don’t like is the northern Eurasian Plain. I don’t like the ‘directed democracy’, and I don’t like Soviet power, and I don’t like the tsars, and I don’t like the Mongol overlords, and I don’t like the theocratic dynasts of old Moscow and old Kiev. I don’t like the multi-ethnic, twelve-time-zone land empire. I don’t like the northern Eurasian Plain.

House of Meetings is written as a last testament from a crusty Russian émigré to the U.S. and addressed to his American stepdaughter. His indictment of a collective geography and an entire history establishes one of the narrator’s main themes. The Russian experience is total—stretching back in time, straddling a continent, and saturating a mass-psychology. “I worship generalizations,” he says. “And the more sweeping the better. I am ready to kill for sweeping generalizations.” One only need look at the recent headlines about Amis and his criticism of Islamism to realize that narrator and author are, in this case, of like mind. Amis’ narrator repeatedly cites Russia’s alarming demographic trends. Particularly, the fact that the rising death rate has overtaken the plunging birth rate. He calls this telling X the “Russian cross,” and says:

Yes, so far as the individual is concerned, Venus [his stepdaughter], it may very well be true that character is destiny. And the other way round. But on the larger scale character means nothing. On the larger scale, destiny is demographics; and demographics is a monster. When you look into it, when you look into the Russian case, you feel the stirrings of a massive force, a force not only blind but altogether insentient, like an earthquake or a tidal wave. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

It’s Russia in a death spiral. But Amis doesn’t quite believe “character means nothing.” House of Meetings' narrator is planning his suicide and proclaims, “Call me a literalist, but I am only doing what Russia is doing." In other words, the “Russian Cross” is the fulfillment of a long-held national death wish. If Putin has his way with Russia’s constitution, it may be a response to Russians’ constitution. Garry Kasparov, jailed for protesting this last election, wrote of his lock-up experience recently in The Wall Street Journal: “My other concern was food, since it was out of the question to consume anything provided by the staff. (Nor do I fly Aeroflot. "Paranoia" long ago became an obsolete concept among those in opposition to the Putin regime.)” What’s the flip-side of this atrophied paranoia? If you’ve ceased to doubt that you can be watched, intruded upon and violated at every turn might you not just as easily, depending on your disposition, lose your skepticism about an omnipotent savior? This is the at the heart of all religious belief, and I think the case can be made that thrall to Russian leadership has always been a religious matter. It was no less a figure than Mr. Glasnost himself, Mikhail Gorbachev, who came out in support for Putin’s party before Sunday’s election. Gorbachev said, “It is a fact that within Russia Putin is supported by up to 80 per cent of the population. For me that is a more persuasive argument as I live in Russia.” It is a persuasive argument, indeed. Next we move on to . . .


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