#2 - JRL 2009-199 - JRL Home

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October 28, 2009
Please Do Something
We Live in a Strange Epoch, At the Same Time Remarkably Similar to the Late Stagnation Period and Drastically Different to It, and This Is both Good and Bad
Comment by Alexander Arkhangelsky

Today’s Russia is not the late Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. But the suspicion with which Russians regard social institutions, the passivity with which they greet the lack of development, and the short-term thinking that characterizes both political and private life, all recall the era of stagnation. And the most confusing question in this situation is, where to direct one’s children?

First, let’s address the similarities. Just like back then, the system appears to be working, although there is no development taking place whatsoever. Just like back then, there is no trust in the social institutions. Just like back then, it is clear to everyone that this can’t go on forever, and yet somehow it goes on and on, and there is no end in sight. Just like back then, all of the people’s private ambitions are implemented on one side, while all of their social actions are performed on the other. In principle (and without intentional duplicity), the majority of citizens root for the familiar and patriotic powers, for a strong, powerful, and dominating state, against all kinds of enemies, imperialistic conspiracies and ungrateful neighbors. While in everyday life, everyone lives in isolation, relying only on themselves and advising their children: sweethearts, stay away from the empire with its interests, stay closer to your own trough. Although, you could snag something from the empire...but otherwise, stay away.

This year, the Ministry of Science and Education gave an order to cut back on state scholarships for university students majoring in law, economics, and the humanities, and add more scholarships for engineering and technical majors. This was based on the correct assumption that the country doesn’t need this many lawyers. It needs an engineering caste: if that doesn’t appear, there will be no industry. We all understand that the talk of an innovation-based economy is wonderful, but is utterly out of line with the present historical moment. Our consumption is innovation-based: everyone is covered in gadgets, using Western high technologies in their own low-tech daily lives. And our production is pre-industrial. Before we can break through to innovations, we first have to conduct another industrialization. And this cannot be done without engineers.

But even the wonderful chance to break into the best engineering and technical establishments in the college towns of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and to attend for free at that, did not cause the young generation to turn in the industry’s direction. On average, the competition for admissions amounted to barely one person per place. While demand for over-abundant specialties has grown.

What does this mean? It means that during family reunions, having proudly discussed the victories of Russia’s national teams, approved the party’s and the government’s policy of establishing order in the Ukraine, Georgia, and other menacing reserves of American influence, the mommies and daddies have told their children: why don’t you go into something where you will rely solely on yourself, on your own talents and connections? And then you can start taking care of arranging your personal life. Industry is too dependent on the state, which has long ceased to make long term investments, without which there isn’t and can be no industry. If you’ve been given an oil rig that gets taken away three years later, you’ve had time to pump some real money. But if you’ve been given a factory that gets taken away after three years, you’re bankrupt. Nobody is going to develop production; people will just continue using up the existing resources until they run out. So why would such manufacturing need any engineers? This is a short-term state, kids. A large empire with small lungs.

By ignoring elections or voting for the symbols of stable stagnation, the nation is choosing something else for its children during the plebiscites in the kitchens and the family reunions--an individual existence outside the framework of the state. Or practical involvement with the state that comes down to knowing how to milk the imperial eagle.

Now, a little bit about the good things. Thank God the state is not ubiquitously involved in private life. There is no isolation of the rulers from the outside world, which lowers the risk of an Afghanistan-like scenario. When politicians are concerned with their foreign bank accounts and getting their offspring educated at Western universities, they lose the ability to pull triggers with no second thoughts. It is possible to get a good education by winning some grants. They won’t be ours -- but so what? It is possible to move across the globe, if you know how to make money. There is the Internet, there is freedom of speech, even if only outside the media resource. There is immediate access to any open information sources. There are no queues. There is no Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev and the whole of the Politburo. There are books. The special storages are sealed off. Think all you want.

But the thing is, we don’t want to. And that’s what makes the status quo worse than the times of stagnation. Back then there was a buildup of irritated energy of resistance--not just toward the irksome government, but also toward your own twisted fate. The energy of a breakthrough: anywhere, just to escape from here. The energy of a naive, at times unenlightened, ignorant social-historical thought. But it was still an energy. Today, we’re not just seeing fatigue and disillusionment. But four-wheel-drive indifference. Again, not just in regard to the authorities - that’s not a calamity. But also in regard to your own life in history and to your own future, not just the long-term one, but the nearest one as well. Well! Come what may. It will all work out somehow.

Only our children make us temporarily release the valves in our consciousness and give it some thought: where should we direct our kids to? But you can’t comprehend the whole distortion of historical space with a partially uncorked consciousness. You can’t answer a simple question: ok, so they will build their lives separately from the government. But who is going to control the state? Who will set the frameworks of social life for the sake of our children's self-realization, and how? How can you combine decrepit social institutes with hope for a new experience?

The present-day power elite has done enough for us to force ourselves into such an amorphous state. But no elite could have done anything if it weren’t for our willingness to sleep through our watch and our reckless indifference toward the twists and turns of our own fate. The critics of the President Dmitry Medvedev’s “Go, Russia!” article exude irony when it gets compared to the speeches of the early Mikhail Gorbachev. But if there is irony here, it works both ways. “Would you just look at those calls for changes!” “Would you just look at that willingness to change!”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote: the clock on the tower of communism has struck. How do we survive underneath its debris? Today’s society has no towers and no clocks, there is nobody to strike anything. But you can suffocate in the dust much faster than you would be crushed by the mushy slabs back then.

So all there is left to do is quote the popular singer Alla Pugacheva, who used her deep-chested voice to describe both the time of stagnation and perestroika, as well as the early Russia and the Russia-post: “Either be or don’t be, but please do something, please do something.”

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