Everything Is Relevant (2)

Autocracy is among the scariest phenomena imagination can accommodate. Scary may not quite be the word. Autocracy is among the most taboo phenomena imagination can accommodate?

There’s an awful lot of sociological research and political science research into the notion of authoritarian disposition, the general conclusion of which is that many people (most, all) at some point or another value security and comfort over freedom and change. The idea that one has little freedom or can be stomped upon by a gas-masked, machine-gun-clad agent of the state is utterly horrifying and universally unacceptable. While evidence suggests that plenty of people will tolerate such a risk, provided that risk is borne disproportionately by others and serves to stabilize the social landscape, admitting as much is out of the question. 

Masha Gessen’s recent National Book Award-winning The Future is History follows a number of Soviet citizens from the early 1980s, immediately before Mikhail Gorbachev’s “perestroika,” on through the chaotic 1990s. She attempts to trace the resilient acceptance of totalitarianism among Russians through a period that Western commentators regarded as unambiguously democratic. She does this by way of tracking those citizens’ lives. The grandchild of a politburo member illustrates the life of the extreme elite before the collapse and after. A young woman and her boyfriend who engage in politics and find themselves on radically different ends of the spectrum demonstrate the tendency toward radicalization among newly enthusiastic (and later woefully disappointed) democrats. Two academics attempting to study and research in a country that has forbidden those pursuits illustrates the enormous cultural cost of the Soviet destruction of knowledge and academia. The academics, a sociologist and a psychoanalyst, demonstrate a fascinating and terrifying pattern in long-repressed societies.

She writes of the sociologist:

“The biggest problem was that none of Levada’s sociologists had ever done anything like this before. They had faithfully attended the seminar for twenty years. They had read their Western sociologists. Some of them, like Gudkov, had been lucky enough to work with some data in their official jobs, but none of them had ever done a survey, a poll, or any kind of field research. [...] How do you bring up a topic that has never before been discussed? How do you elicit the opinions of people who have not been entitled to hold opinions? How do you have conversations for which there is no language?”

… and of the psychoanalyst:

“She observed masters at work, and she realized that she could not work half that well – not because the instructors were innately so much more talented or intelligent but because they stood on the shoulders of their predecessors, who stood on the shoulders of their predecessors, who stood on the shoulders of giants. Arutyunyan, on the other hand, stood on emptiness, and she herself felt empty. Her ideas were archaic at best, naive at worst. What she felt was that burning, destructive jealousy: this mastery, this fluidity, this depth should have been hers.”

Gessen is describing the consequences of a virulent ideology that often included frighteningly violent anti-intellectual impulses. Terror of all sorts – anti-semitic, political, ethnic, class-oriented, random – was Stalin’s enduring legacy but he, more than his Bolshevik predecessors and rigid successors, was known for his hostility to intellectuals, academics, and anything that might inject nuance into his ruthless worldview. He obliterated what little intellectual, academic, and cultural achievement survived the final years of Tsarist censorship and Lenin’s Red Terror. The Party, under Kruschev’s direction, renounced much of Stalin’s legacy, but renouncing isn’t the same as rebuilding and there was little left to build on. Either way, Kruschev was no Stalin, but the repression remained and his Communists had little interest in encouraging free thought or creativity except in tightly controlled environments and directed toward very particular needs (military strategists, for example).

Soviet Russia is a unique case study in what happens when a cultural tradition dies almost entirely. Repression is all too common as are anti-intellectualism, purges, and mass terror. But other examples of industrial mass terror have been (comparatively) brief and explosive. Even Hitler’s Germany with its burning of books, purging of intellectuals, and extreme violence was short in comparison to Stalin’s regime. Stalin was a major force in Bolshevik violence more than a decade before Hitler seized power and remained in power for nearly a decade after Hitler’s suicide.

People often do the work of destroying history and knowledge voluntarily. The enormous campaigns to forget the Civil War in any meaningful sense seem a relevant example. That destruction could never be so total without the weight of state and impact of violent terror. But it can be remarkably insidious and corrosive, particularly when focused in one area. When I think of autocracy and authoritarianism, I often think of something like this. How often do people with a perceived abundance of freedom make decisions similar to those made for them in its absence?

It’s a remote and arduous path that leads me there from the depths of a long book about the collapse and recalcification of Russian totalitarianism, but I get there often and by many paths. Soviet Russia enforced its anti-intellectualism at the point of a hundred thousand guns, but we vote ours into office with pluralities. George Orwell described a mandated “hate week” in his Oceania, but we reward right-wing politicians for increasingly bloodthirsty rhetoric with more votes rather than less. My wife watches Handmaid’s Tale. The examples are horrific and extreme, but we choose to criminalize sexual behavior and corrode the agency of women.

Autocracy is taboo. We often only think we’re scared of it, but we make a world for ourselves that is only different as a matter of degree. There’s no scary revelation here. Social freedom and the franchise are goods in their own right and terror is a reprehensible means that corrupts any end. But when our choices made freely mirror those imposed upon others, perhaps we should consider using our freedom better.