Five notes stemming from the collapse of the Soviet Union
1. In June 2012 my son and I spent ten days in Moscow and visiting Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate about one hundred miles to the south. On the last night of our trip, Ludmila, the woman with whom we were staying, made dinner, and, as usual, Jonah, my son, slipped away after eating to go in our room and listen to his iTunes and communicate with his friends in the West via Google+. In the kitchen, Ludmila and I talked in Russian while she washed the dishes. I had just read an article about a piece of Russian history that never ceases to be discussed: the killing of the Tsar and his family by the Bolsheviks. Ludmila commented that this had been horrible, and I agreed. However, I said, if I had been one of the Bolsheviks I would have done the same thing. The existence of the Tsar and his family was a flame keeping alive the hopes of reactionaries and members of the upper classes more generally, and thereby fanning the flames of the civil war then raging. And it was hardly as if the Tsar’s forces and those of his predecessors had not killed many of their opponents, to say nothing of the millions of Russian killed in the First World War—killed while trying to defend, being forced to defend, the Tsar’s kingdom. Ludmila then said that the fact was that человечество—humanity—was horrible and that it was hard not to think that the world would be a better, more peaceful place without the human race.
2. I had first visited Moscow in 1969, and in the aftermath of perestroika, my son, his mother and I had gone many times to St. Petersburg, lived there for months at a time. But it had been seven years since we’d been back, nine years since we’d been in Moscow. And, as people had warned me in advance, the Moscow region was now extraordinarily similar to the United States we knew: awash in automobiles, cellphones, consumerism. A prevalence of washing machines and perhaps dietary changes (less pork) had taken away the particular smell I associated with Russia. The elaborate, annoying, bureaucratic, absurd visa procedures remained, but now the US government had adopted similar procedures. Among the differences I was left to remark on were the summer dresses of young middle-class Moscow women, which dresses seemed, in their simple way, to render their wearers more attractive than the not-all-that-different clothing of similar young women in Western Europe and New York. If any evidence remained of the famous Russian soul, it was in Tolstoy’s tomb, a grass-covered rectangular mound about six feet long at the edge of the woods.
A feeling to 2012 Moscow caused me to recall Camus’ description of Oran, Algeria, at the beginning of La Peste (The Plague).
Of course nothing is more natural these days than to see people working from day until night and then choosing to lose—playing games or in a cafe, chatting—the rest of their waking hours. But there are cities and countries where people have, from time to time, an intimation that there might be something else [to existence]. . . . Oran, by contrast, seems a city without intimations; in other words, it is a completely modern city.
3. Ludmila’s comment about человечество was the most original, traditionally Russian and un-modern moment of my son and my ten days in Moscow, and it might be said that it was largely because of my appreciation of such comments, of the alternative perspective they continued to offer me, that I had spent years of my life trying to learn Russian and braving the visa bureaucracy so that I might spend time in the country. Among the differences I had been introduced to along the way—and first in a trip to Stalingrad when I was 14 years old—was the perspective of a people who over many centuries had been invaded by any number of avaricious, pitiless hordes (Napoleon’s army, two waves of the German army and Western capitalism being only the latest of them). Enslaved, tortured, worked to death by their own leaders as well, Russians feel viscerally the lack of geographical and institutional or cultural barriers to protect them from future disaster.
It was in this context that I interpreted Ludmila’s comment. In the United States we take new cars and electronic devices and the attractiveness of young women, and of young men, as positive signs, as signs of economic and physical health, and thus of health tout court. But for Ludmila this was not enough. In such superficial acquisitions and appearances there was nothing on which one might pin hopes for a future notably different from the past. By contrast, the Soviet communists, for all their shortcomings, had championed a humanitarian ideal: of putting community before self-interest, of sharing rather than exploiting. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
In intellectual circles a distinction is made between “negative rights” (a.k.a., civil and political rights, things like freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from slavery, the right to a fair trial, laws enshrining and protecting private property) and “positive rights” (a.k.a., economic, social and cultural rights, things like freedom from hunger and cold; government-supplied education, health care, pensions, police protection, maternity leave). From this perspective, one of the major intended or unintended consequences of the West’s winning the Cold War is that it has come to be accepted worldwide that negative rights are fundamental to a healthy, sustainable state, and that positive rights are a luxury which rich states might or might not choose to provide to the working class (in which may be found, along with many others, house cleaners, waiters, store clerks, teachers and professors, accountants, doctors and lawyers).
4. One might decide that an alternative, the Soviet approach, was not given a sufficient test. One might decide that this approach was discredited and dismissed not so much on account of its shortcomings as by external enemies or on account of the financing on which the experiment depended: the value in global, capitalist markets of Russia’s vast natural resources. Or one might decide that the Soviet experiment had proved a failure. But in either case, what after the collapse of the Soviet Union is left? SUVs, washing machines, iTunes, pretty summer dresses? Do we retain any intimations that—in addition to our products and our periodic political, financial and enviromental castastrophes—there might be something else?
Our fellow citizens [in Oran] work long hours, but always to get more money. Business is what interests them above all; making money is what they believe they were made to do. Of course they also enjoy simple pleasures—coupling up, going to the movies, bathing in the Mediterranean. But, judiciously, they reserve such pleasures for Saturday evenings and Sundays, trying, the rest of the week, to earn a lot of money.
Washing dishes in the kitchen of her fourth floor apartment in one of Moscow’s kilometers upon kilometers of housing projects, Ludmila said that now everyone—человечество—is just waiting for the next catastrophe. World war, government upheaval, environmental disaster. New York under water as a result of global warming—that was one of the possibilities she mentioned. And if we have lost our faith in humanity, she said (or I understood her as saying), if we have lost the hope that human beings might be able to work together for their own mutual benefit, and aspire to something larger than a car, something more nourishing than the latest gadgets and fashions—then what faith, what hope do we have? And how, this was her question, can people live without hope?
5. I have long had in mind to write something about LBJ’s great “Great Society” speech, given at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on May 22, 1964. I take this speech, like the Civil Rights Movement, the space race and some of our more humane occupational safety and health regulations, to be a product of the existence of the Soviet Union, of the pressure that competition with the Soviet Union put on the United States and its citizens to strive to reach higher goals. “The purpose of protecting the life of our nation and preserving the liberty of our citizens is to pursue the happiness of our people. Our success in that pursuit is the test of our success as a nation,” LBJ said.
The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization. . . . The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning. The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what is adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.
Tears might come to one’s eyes. LBJ’s next half century is now almost over. And where are our dreams?