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Friday, April 11, 2008

Piontovsky on Russian Hubris

Andrei Piontovsky, writing in Insight Magazine:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” declared Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, to the British people after the fall of France to Nazi Germany at the beginning of World War II. Perhaps those words floated through the mind of Putin’s speech writer as he was burnishing the following passage in President’s Putin’s speech: “Throughout history, Russia and her citizens have accomplished, and today are still accomplishing, a truly historic task. Maintaining the governance of a vast territory, preserving a unique commonwealth of peoples while occupying a major place in world affairs, calls not only for enormous toil. It calls also for enormous sacrifices and privations on the part of our people. Such has been Russia’s thousand-year history. Such is the way in which it has retained its place as a mighty nation. We do not have the right to forget this.”

This so enthused many of the professional champions of Russia’s greatness; they heard it as the fateful sounding of the nationalist trumpet, a secret signal to the supporters he would propel “our Revolution, a conservative, nationalistic revolution” which would lead to “a renaissance of the Fatherland’s worldwide imperial greatness.”

If, at that most testing moment of their history, Churchill promised his people blood, toil, tears and sweat throughout the years of war with Germany, then Putin promises the Russian people “enormous sacrifices and privations” for the rest of time, from a millennium in the past until a millennium into the future. Worse than that, according to this absurd philosophy of historical masochism, the whole of Russian history is sinking down into some eternal, closed vicious circle. The people accomplish great tasks and bear enormous sacrifices and privations in order to maintain the governance of Russian territory—which in turn demands new tasks, sacrifices and privations. Space devours time: such is the new vision of the four-dimensional space-time continuum. Putin is today’s Einstein.

This fairy tale about the God-bearing Russian people, whose entire destiny is to accomplish great tasks and endure enormous sacrifices and deprivations, is far from original. It is the age-old refrain that the Russian elite have used in addressing the Russian people: “Folks, get on with accomplishing those historic tasks, enduring enormous sacrifices and privations. We are busy leading a great nation and governing a vast territory.”

It has always been such a joy to discourse on Russia’s special mission—not forgetting her unique sense of community and spirituality. It was a joy in the days of 19th-century estates and in the Central Committee’s 20th-century sanatoria; and it remains a joy in today’s palaces of Chekist billionaires who rule Russia and own it at the same time.

The elite’s view of the people they govern as God-bearing riff-raff, as colonial natives, raw material for national stunts of one kind and another, led us equally to the catastrophe of 1917 and to the catastrophe of 1991. It will lead us to a third if our elite, bloated and reckless as never before, does not abandon its centuries-old enthusiasm for sacrifice and privations inflicted on a people whose mission is the accomplishment of great tasks.

Some allocation of resources seems now to have been exhausted, however, and a major historical collapse is imminent. Twelve years ago we lost half our territory, largely because of a seventy-year obsession with great tasks, sacrifices and privations that no longer attracted or deceived anybody. It seems likely that over the next ten to fifteen years we shall lose the Far East and Siberia to a creeping Chinese demographic expansion which no amount of great achievements will halt. Indeed, the reverse will occur. Precisely because of the sacrifices and privations imposed upon them, people are migrating away from those territories, or simply dying prematurely. Russia’s women have ceased to re-stock the population.

There is only one way to hold on to Russia’s territories in our time, and that is by creating decent, comfortable living conditions there for as many Russian people as possible. Let us hope that the passage in Putin’s message about great tasks and sacrifices is just an unfortunate rhetorical device by an unknown speech writer who recalled Churchill’s speech at the wrong moment. If, however, this is a deliberate political statement by the President and his young appointee, then it will be their destiny to preside over the final stage of the further degeneration of the Russian state.

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