Friday, July 3, 2020

Putin’s Referendum Provides Fresh Example of Banality of Evil, Anthropologist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 1 – Russians voted for the Putin amendments less because of any fear that not doing so would have negative consequences for them than because of a sense that voting no would not have any consequences in a situation in which the public space is not something they control but must simply live within, Dmitry Dubrovsky says.

            The Higher School of Economics anthropologist says this is the latest example of the phenomenon of the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt described in her book about the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem more than half a century ago (

            Russia is not a totalitarian state and does not control people entirely by fear, Dubrovsky says. Instead, it is a certain kind of “’hybrid non-democracy,’” a place where some people truly support the regime, others oppose it, but most go along out of a sense that it is useless to resist the state’s demands, because they are the new norm and violating it can have real costs. 

            People will take risks when they believe it is required by their profession or when they believe that doing so will achieve something. Thus, doctors treat those who are dangerously infectious because that is required by their job; and that is what citizens do when they have a sense that their actions can achieve something.

            When citizens become convinced that there is no chance to achieve that, they not only go along with the demands of the state but more or less fully integrate what the state wants as the basis for their public behavior, the anthropologist says. As a result, for example, they may not steal in their private lives, but they come to tolerate theft in the public sphere.

            Over time, especially if there is targeted repression, people will be ever less inclined to take risks without hope of change and will go along. That is what Putin is counting on and so far with enormous success. And those who do accept his norms are surprised when anyone suggests that what they are doing is wrong, just as Eichmann was in Arendt’s telling.

            A major reason that this pattern is not widely understood is that most people expect their fellow citizens to be more rational and consistent than they in fact are. “An individual is a complex thing and he is not required to be consistent in everything.” Most can live in at least two worlds, a private one where two times two is four and in public one where it is five.

            That so many Russians today find themselves in this position, Dubrovsky argues, reflects not just the efforts of Putin but the continuing influence of the Soviet past.  Many Russians continue to live according to the paradigm that was imposed on them in the past, and as a result, they are quite prepared to accept its more recent return.

            What the country needs, the anthropologist says, is “decommunization, not in the sense of a struggle with red flags, although that too wouldn’t be a bad thing but rather in the sense of a long conversation” about what happened to people under that system. But even if that conversation occurred, one should not “demand too much from people.”

            “The individual with his small life in general is not required to be a hero, a fighter, or a revolutionary.” There are simply too few such people, and those who would like to see their numbers grow so far have not understood the situation well or developed messages that will cause others to join them, Dubrovsky says.

            That is clear from the behavior of Russians during this laughable constitutional referendum, the anthropologist concludes. “This is in fact an absolutely ritualistic action,” one individuals can’t affect however much they may be affected by results decided upon in advance by those in positions of power. 

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