Sergei Golubitskiy, Ph.D. : How To Save Russians From Their Own Fate

The West is distressed. The West tries to persuade Russia to stop deviating from the path of civilization. The West rebukes (although mildly — by means of toothless sanctions), stressed in its vain hopes to make Russia feel ashamed. To no avail. Russia does not hear. It is filled with self-esteem and is celebrating its notorious «rising-from-the-knees» feast with unprecedented popular support of its duce.

Why? Why is it so, for Christ’s sake? What is wrong with Russia’s ability to hear plain and simple words? Well, nothing is wrong with the words — it is the language used that is at fault. The West speaks a language Russia doesn’t understand. It is that simple.

Much of modern Western discourse on Crimea concerns two major domains — that of law and that of ethics.

The West says: «You cannot break international law because it is the foundation of the world we have all built together after the abysmal experience of World War Two.»

The West says: «What Russia does is immoral because it is not right to annex territories, not good to offend the weak.»

The problem is that the average Russian does not understand either of these two discourses because his perception of the world lies far away.

Let’s take the criticism based on law. The modern law in Western society is a combination of the legal systems adopted from the Greco-Roman world with a long history of good manners, decorum and etiquette, which are all forms of self-regulation voluntarily accepted by this society. Consequently the legal restrictions of social life are regarded as important promoters of the comfortable coexistence of numerous social strata, classes and groups which otherwise would destroy each other.

Nothing even close to this exists in the Russian perception of the world. Russian society simply hasn’t yet evolved the ability to assess legal restrictions as a safeguard for individual freedoms. In Russia the formal aspects of social life, including law, are regarded as a manifestation of violence and oppression on the part of the state. The law for the average Russian does not represent a road to freedom but quite the opposite — a coercion and a suppression of his individual will.

This perception of social structures and forms as manifestations of violence forces Russian society to organize itself according to principles of violence. And this violence permeates that society from top to bottom:
• The so-called dedovshchína in the army (brutalization by more senior conscripts serving their last year of compulsory military service);
• Voluntary adoption by civil society of the prison camp’s three-level hierarchy (guards — inmates — self-appointed assistants) : it is not accidental that in the «roaring Nineties» such a high number of the population enrolled in criminal gangs (even today one of the most popular trades among Russians is employment in the countless private security companies);
• The state system has happily and promptly gotten rid of superficial democracy, awkwardly imposed on Russia in the Yeltsin era, and switched back to Putin’s notorious but organic vertikál (strict subordination based not on law but on administrative hierarchy).

Obviously in such a society the main imposer of restrictive forms is the state. In this sense, the Russian state fully meets the expectations of its population: in recent years the Russian Parliament, the Duma, hasn’t adopted a single permissive law, competing instead in the invention of newer and newer fields for prohibition (among the Duma’s latest motions are plans to ban premarital sex as well as all movies originating from those countries participating in sanctions against Russia).

However, there is an interesting twist to the social self-organization of Russians: the voluntary acceptance of this model of rule based on violence does not automatically imply acceptance of all specific manifestations of the state’s violence. Let’s look at the attitude of average Russians towards the law.

An old Russian proverb says: «The law is like an axle: you can turn it whichever way you please if you give it plenty of grease.» It may sound strange but this proverb is the most accurate way of depicting how these things work in Russia today, just as they did one, two, three hundred years ago. The harsher the law the more vehemently it is circumvented. Circumvented by means of bribes, of course.

We should realize that in such a model there can be no place for a concept of law perceived as a formal amenity meant to improve the life of citizens, that is, make it more comfortable, rational and pleasant. As a result when the West appeals to legal aspects concerning the annexation of Crimea and points out the breach of international laws, the average Russian just doesn’t understand how the abolition of formal restrictions (=law) could lead to anything but freedom. This is exactly how the annexation of Crimea is viewed in Russia — as liberation!

In a society organically deprived of adequate understanding of the meaning and importance of formal aspects of life, there is inevitably present some means of sublimation. The average Russian replaces the state law with his own code called ponyáteeya.

Originally ponyáteeya was a collection of deeds, words and behavioural attitudes considered by criminal groups to be right, appropriate, and just. At the same time ponyáteeya guaranteed a certain degree of safety to those who adopted them as rules for social interaction.

Initially ponyáteeya were used to regulate everyday life in prison camps, and as such can be regarded as primitive forms of pseudo ethical self-organization. The unsurmountable wall raised between the Russian state and its civil society has gradually led the latter to adopt ponyáteeya as substitutes for a formal legal and ethical system.

Since the law is regarded in Russia as a manifestation of the state’s violence, ponyáteeya instead are valued as fruits of the people’s freedom. This perception underlies the reactions of the average Russian today. The same reality obstructs any dialogue with the West as long as this dialogue uses a vernacular alien to Russians.

Curiously enough Western society has long been introduced to the system of ponyáteeya, but mistakenly taken it as a figure of artistic speech rather than a direct reflection of the Russian way of life. This knowledge came to the West with the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, which are permeated with ideas of «not living by lies» and «living by conscience». The West however never realized that these ideas were not a utopian dream, but a living reality reflecting ethical deviations of society from the formal legal and ethical system.

Since ponyáteeya are not part of formal law and ethics, they are a priori hostile to any state which is regarded as a vehicle for suppression of the people’s will and freedom. As a consequence, a society based on ponyáteeya is naturally inclined toward Bakunin’s vólnitsa, a social anarchy which looks very abnormal in the eyes of modern westerners.

Nonetheless this legal and ethical deformity is what the West needs to face, as it governs what is happening in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Here a mostly Russian population, as soon as it felt the weakness of the Ukrainian state, has willingly demolished existing social institutions and replaced them with a wild anarchy. The military support coming from Russia has taken the situation to the utmost point of absurdity, where seemingly normal people eagerly destroy their own social security and wellbeing in the name of some topsy-turvy notions of justice and conscience.

For Western society it is crucial to understand that the ponyáteeya determining the words and deeds of average Russians have nothing to do with ethics and morality in the customary sense of these words. The ethical system of modern Western society is rooted in the Platoniс eidos, singular manifestations of universal notions, which in terms of morality are embodied in unconditional statements such as «killing is bad», «helping the weak is good», «stealing is bad», etc.

In Russian ponyáteeya there is no place for abstract, unconditional morality, as ponyáteeya are directly derived from an archaic tribal dichotomy of «Us» and «Them». As I pointed out earlier, ponyáteeya were borrowed by civil society from the criminal milieu which recognizes only «our guys» (in Russian slang — patsaný) and «strangers» (lóhy). Consequently, the entire ethical code is built upon a simple rule: whatever is good for patsaný is moral, and whatever is bad for lóhy is good for patsaný, and thus is moral too.

If something harms our patsaný, we must stand up and fight it. If because of this fight lóhy suffer, that is their problem. Consequently, there can be no remorse, no regret, let alone a doubt that such ethics might be defective.
In accordance with this patsaný Weltanschauung, the annexation of Crimea can in no way be regarded as unethical or immoral. On the contrary, the average Russian considers this annexation highly plausible: in his eyes it restores justice. Why? Because most of the Crimean population are ethnic Russians (our patsaný!) who do not want to live in the «perverted gay-tolerant» European Union together with the «fascists from Kiev», and want instead to return to the Soviet Union, version 2, which Putin is building today!

Since the will of «our guys» is placed above the abstract ethics of «strangers», the Russians have not only annexed Ukrainian territory but also justified it «morally». Do Crimean patsaný feel happy with patsaný from the Russian mainland? They do. Well, that is it. Nothing else matters. This is «moral», anything else is «immoral». And if all these «gayropeans», «american pindosy», «fascist ukrs» and other «strangers» are somehow unhappy, then that is their own problem.

Well, that is the reality, unfortunately. The question is how to face it and how to fight it. The shortest response is — change vernacular! This is the only way to return the situation back to where it was. Return not to the point before the annexation of Crimea, but to before that tragic moment in history when Russia lost a normal ethical system and replaced it with ponyáteeya.

The strategical goal of Western society should not be to punish Russia, strangling it with sanctions or pursuing revenge for its unreasonable behavior. Such a policy is impractical in the long term and will only push Russia towards increased resistance and resentment of outside pressure. Ultimately the goal is to bring the Russian state and society back to normality.

That normality is to be found not in politics or economics but in ethics and morality. And the archenemy here is the code of ponyáteeya. The key to success in the fight against ponyáteeya lies in notions pertinent to Russian ethics itself. Any reference to «breaking of international laws» and «moral unsustainability of annexations» is doomed to failure. As ponyáteeya is the only language Russians understand, the West needs to use aspects of this language in its discussions with Russia if it wants to be effective.

The attack should have two targets: firstly, it is crucial to expunge the present Russian authorities from the notion of «our guys», by exhibiting proofs of their blatant theft and corruption, backstage bargaining, and direct betrayal of the interests of the Russian people. Secondly, it is important to explain to Russian patsaný that respecting international laws and norms is in their best interests, as these laws and norms do not contradict their own rules.

Despite all differences between civilizations the common denominator remains the same — happiness of your family and your people. Divergence starts when the code of ponyáteeya leads the Russians to seek happiness at the expense of those surrounding them, whereas Western civilization has evolved to the point where mutual satisfaction of all parties is regarded as the best solution. Not because the westerners are overly altruistic, but because it is the most reliable and lasting way out of a conflict of interests.

This common denominator creates premises for conveying the truth, obvious to the West and blurred by propaganda to the Russians. That truth consists in the fact that Russia will achieve neither happiness nor material wellbeing while isolated and in conflict with the rest of the world. Making ends meet, dragging out a miserable existence — probably. Living a normal and satisfying life — highly improbable.

Curiously enough the burden of proof in this case is not nearly as crushing as it might seem. The only source for Russian wellbeing today is its raw materials. The major buyers of these raw materials are Western countries. Even China buys Russian oil and gas for the purpose of manufacturing goods which are mostly consumed by the West.
In other words, Russian prosperity ends with Western reluctance to buy raw materials from Russia. Kremlin propaganda denies this danger, portraying Western dependence on Russian gas and oil as insuperable. But it is not true. The revolution in alternative energy sources could make Russian raw materials redundant in a short time frame.

To make things worse for Russia, it cannot survive on its own without Western technologies. The scientific lag has long reached a point of no return, not so much because of a devastating quarter century flight of «brains» as because of Russia’s reluctance to reproduce these «brains», that is, to take care of its educational system and properly to sponsor research and development. This is probably the most serious consequence of the state’s betting everything on one card — that of sales abroad of its raw materials.

All these mind-sobering facts the West should patiently, insistently, and firmly convey to Russian society on a daily basis, instead of repeating the useless mantra of «unacceptability of breaching international laws». Otherwise, the more Russians hear about their «unethical behavior», the more they themselves will repeat their own «living by conscience» and «rising-from-the-knees» mantras.

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Despre noi

Asociația Anima Fori - Sufletul Cetății s-a născut în anul 2012 din dorința unui mic grup de oameni de condei de a-și pune aptitudinile creatoare în slujba societății și a valorilor umaniste. Dorim să inițiem proiecte cu caracter științific, cultural și social, să sprijinim tineri performeri în evoluția lor și să ne implicăm în construirea unei societăți democratice, o societate bazată pe libertatea de conștiință și de exprimare a tuturor membrilor ei. Prezenta publicație este realizată în colaborare cu Gazeta Românească.

Despre noi

Asociația Anima Fori - Sufletul Cetății s-a născut în anul 2012 din dorința unui mic grup de oameni de condei de a-și pune aptitudinile creatoare în slujba societății și a valorilor umaniste. Dorim să inițiem proiecte cu caracter științific, cultural și social, să sprijinim tineri performeri în evoluția lor și să ne implicăm în construirea unei societăți democratice, o societate bazată pe libertatea de conștiință și de exprimare a tuturor membrilor ei. Prezenta publicație este realizată în colaborare cu Gazeta Românească.