Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Russians Suffering Trauma of Having Lost a Sense of a Collective Future, Levinson Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 26 – Under Gorbachev, Russians lost their belief that the bright future the communists promised would ever be achieved and focused increasingly on their personal lives rather than those of the country, Aleksey Levinson says. Under Putin, they have further lost any sense that the future can be different than the present, exactly the attitude his regime wants.

            In a lengthy article for NG-Stsenarii, the head of socio-cultural research at the Levada Center says that this condition has left Russians in a traumatic state, one unlikely to be overcome anytime soon but that will likely pass away when an entirely new generation replaces the older ones (

            Over the last 30 years, Levinson writes, “Russians have shown by their answers to surveys that they do not think about the future and in essence refuse to think about it” at least when it concerns more than the personal trajectories of themselves and their immediate families. As to larger groups, few are thinking about them at all.

            “They are not thinking about it because they do not want to but they do not want to because they cannot,” he continues. “This means that in the language of social psychology there is a trauma,” an injury that has been driven so deeply into the subconsciousness of people that they cannot address it openly.

            Russians have lost the idea of a positive collective future twice. The first was with the demise of the idea of a communist future. “The future disappeared and, in its place, appeared a hole” that was only partially filled.

            To understand how that happened, Levinson says, “it is useful to remember that Soviet power was not overthrown by the rising of an angry people. It was not overthrown by anti-communists and anti-Soviets. And even the cursed West was not involved.” In fact, the West “couldn’t believe its eyes” when communism collapsed.

            As expected, “the new power proclaimed a new goal for the future. This was the idea of the construction of a free society on democratic foundations and with market relations. The disappearance of the communist prospect was replaced by the prospect of a market-democratic society.”

            In short, it appeared, one future replaced another. “The democrats believed that the combination of political and economic freedom would mean the automatic entrance into Russia of those social forces which for a long time and successfully have worked in societies with developed democracies.”

            And because they believed this, they failed to notice that those who occupied key positions in the Russian government and economy formed a very different vision of the future and the present than they or society at large had. Those at the top of the government and the economy wanted the indeterminate situation to last so they could act as they liked and enrich themselves as much as possible. They didn’t want to continue to move toward a free society.

            These people, Levinson stresses, “didn’t want ‘to go back to the USSR,’ but they also did not want to move toward a mature democracy and a developed market economy.” Neither served their interest and so they pushed for the present to last as long as possible. As a result, the idea of a future goal was pushed aside.

            This was made possible, Levinson concedes, because he and many others believed that “the preservation of democracy in Russia consisted in the preservation of the power of ‘the democrats’ and not in the preservation of the principles” of such a system. Fearful of a communist return, they backed “democrats” who behaved in undemocratic ways.

            As a result, those in power found it easier and easier to put off any moves to a real democratic and market economy future and retain the current transitional and indeterminate system which has brought them so many benefits. That explains the Yeltsin transition to Putin and why so many, disappointed in Yeltsin, initially were so impressed with his successor.

            “In the first Putin years, talk about the inclusion in the community of European countries and even about Russia’s membership in NATO continued by inertia.” And similarly, by inertia, people continued to talk about the building of a democratic society. But that was subverted by redefining it as more of the same – in Surkov’s notions about “’sovereign democracy.’”

            According to Levinson, “’the party of the status quo’ became the ruling party and acquired its own ideology.” The Kremlin decided to declare that “we are conservatives” who do not want any change. Russians want what they have and, in contrast to earlier periods, “do not require a future.”

            This was sometimes described as a contract between the regime and the population in which the regime promised enrichment and society agreed not to interfere with the state. “The idea was popular but, in my view,” Levinson says, “it is incorrect.” Neither side was really party to any such contract.

            “The new post-Soviet powers freed themselves” from the paternalistic responsibilities of the Soviet one by continuing to talk about liberalism in the economy, but they returned to the rhetoric of paternalism and reinforced that revival by promoting the idea that Russians could “repeat” their victory in World War II.

            Between the mid-1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, reforms were largely frozen, but then the powers that be “began the demolishing of these institutes,” something that was paralleled by the second destruction of the future as far as Russians were concerned. They simply had any future taken from them by the propaganda of the regime.

            Levada Center head Lev Gudkov has spoken of this as “the abortion of the future,” but Levinson says he prefers to use the term trauma because “people have not noticed the absence of a future,” even though “this trauma influences on other areas of consciousness.”

            The future as a set of goals has disappeared for most Russians because they have accepted the vision of the regime that any future different from the present would be disastrous, a major war abroad or a civil war at home. And thus they do not feel they can hope for anything better than what they have now.

            Russians can talk about the short-term future when things are more or less likely to be what they are now, but they simply refuse to talk about 30 or 50 years out, when the current ruling group will have died and been replaced by something else. They are clearly afraid to think about that prospect.

            Fortunately, Levinson concludes, there are indications that younger Russians are beginning to break out of that traumatic loss of a future. After all, they will still be alive 30 to 50 years hence and thus have good reason to think about what conditions will be like even if their elders will then be beyond caring.


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