Managing Russia’s pragmatic idealists

April 8, 2011 Yevgeny Shestakov
In this discussion, Yevgeny Shestakov, talks with literary critic, writer and TV anchor Alexander Arkhangelsky about the state of Russian culture and society.
Alexander Arkhangelsky, source: ITAR-TASS
Alexander Arkhangelsky, source: ITAR-TASS

Yevgeny Shestakov: Why do foreigners mention Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov when talking about Russia but barely refer to any modern names at all? 

Alexander Arkhangelsky: In terms of literature, the novel that most recently made an incredible impression on Western readers, and turned the mentality of a whole generation upside down was Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago.” This novel revived the feeling that the Christian faith is still alive in this tawdry world, although it may not be necessarily linked with the church. 

It showed that the Russian world is tragic but also grand. The political scandal that accompanied the novel’s publication was very quickly forgotten, but the novel remains. You will easily find it in any shabby American or European bookstore. You can also find books by Lyudmila Ulitskaya or Vladimir Sorokin – his books have been just translated in America as well. However, there is not a single book that could shake Western readers to the core of their being. There is still Russian theater and cinema, for instance, the movies by Andrei Tarkovsky among others. But there are no works, no names that can, like passwords, open the door to other realms. I mean these Russian names are lacking in the West. It speaks to a lack of interest in Russia, to the fact that it’s not in fashion. But it is also due to the absence of any profound proposals. Those that do exist are sooner opportunistic.

Y.S.: Your colleagues, for instance, believe that the current situation in Russia is not conducive to generating culture and it is actually impeding the appearance of outstanding individuals.

A.A.: I think this is not the only point, or rather not the main point. What matters more is the lack of interest in humanitarian values in Russia. Neither society nor the elites – not only political but also economic and scientific ones – feel that the world is guided by any fundamental meaning greater than their own basic interests. When that sense of raison d’etre, of something greater, disappears, everything meaningful is relegated to the periphery of public consciousness, where it inevitably withers.

The 18th century, distinguished as it was by straightforward talk about the most important aspects of the Russian literary language was not, in itself, enough for Alexander Pushkin to emerge. It took Nikolai Karamzin and Vasily Zhukovsky to prepare the Russian public for the main event in literature. The key is not to be found in culture, but in life. No creative individual can accomplish anything without the commonly held belief that, in the end, a civilization’s success depends on cultural values and our perception of the world.

Y.S.: But maybe the problem is rooted in the notorious freedom of creative endeavor, when nobody controls anything about it or imposes anything on it?

A.A.: I don’t think that is the reason. Moreover, I believe it is no accident that the last Russian book to shake the world was written by an author who had matured in a different, Soviet, era before the revolution in the free world and who had managed to smuggle this Russian freedom past all his era’s obstacles. And then Russian culture began to gradually decay. It was extremely resilient, surviving a very long time under Soviet censorship. But eventually it started gasping for air, became stifled and in the generations that followed, grew ever weaker.

What we are witnessing now is more consequence than cause. Its origins lie not in the collapse of censorship, but in the attempts to stifle literature over a protracted period. Censorship does not help, but what does is a strained relationship with meaning. The Soviet era bore the inheritance of all preceding Russian cultures – people en masse understood that this meaning determines production, breakthroughs in science and eventually a comfortable environment for every individual. They realized that people were born not to make money, eat their fill and then die, but that making money can help make life easier, giving them more time to come to understand themselves and the world around them.  

Y.S.: At that time, society had certain ideals. Does it have any now?

A.A.: I don’t think such ideals are strongly pronounced, although I’ve been witnessing their spontaneous appearance in a wide variety of social strata over the last few years. Thus, a young man with a good job in a major company told me how, in their free time, he and the majority of his co-workers do what they can to help those less fortunate than themselves: people who are incapacitated or poor. Charity has ceased to be a form of propaganda for all that is good in life and has become a private affair. I think this reflects a yearning for ideals, for things that go beyond direct business interests. Some civic movements are emerging and, at least for the time being, they are apolitical. People are defending their right to live on their little patch of land and disregard bureaucratic business. 

It goes without saying that the Khimki forest affair is by no means a simple story, but we can see how it united people, and not because they wanted to grab a bit of forest but because of their sincere desire to protect the nature around them. I can assure you, all you have to do is put out an appeal on the Internet to help somebody and thousands of people will respond instantly. This is also a yearning for ideals. It is expressed in other forms as well. They may be linked with practical action rather than literature but I’m sure that is a connection that will, eventually, be made. These people are pragmatists, not romantics. They are young pragmatists who do not want to settle for their pragmatic life. They also want to live differently, and this new way of life opens up to them in civic action, in offering help to those who haven’t been so lucky.

And, finally, it is only natural that well-to-do, successful people have started thinking about how our political system is built. They did not join the Dissenters’ Marches, but they went to expensive cafes to discuss what they should do to make life more just. This conceptual fermentation is underway. I’m sure it will have an effect on culture.

Y.S.: How do you rate the government’s reaction to this process of fermentation?

A.A.: The government’s reaction has been diverse. On the one hand, it is consistently simplifying the picture of the modern world for its people. You can see for yourself what is happening with education. This is not just like being “penny wise and pound foolish” – the government is clearly trying to make things seem simpler than they really are. In its opinion, the mission of education is to streamline the brain instead of making it more sophisticated. But a modern person needs to be very sophisticated in order to live and play an active role in this world.

The government does not interfere with the display of individual initiative where it arises, but does not do much to facilitate it, either. Moreover, I see how cunningly it is shifting responsibility to others for decisions it does not want to make itself, but wants to see achieved. A clear example of this is the transfer of religious items held in museum collections to religious organizations. Let’s be straight about this – the government does not want to shut down these museums, but neither does it want to continue to be responsible for them and the buildings they occupy. It wants the church to see to that. Six years on, when the church receives the buildings that it has today requested, it won’t be able to afford to keep them up. The museums will have been shut by then, but public irritation will be directed at the church, not the government. In general, this is a rather cynical attitude.

However, other elites are coming to realize that the secret of the Russian civilization’s success or failure in the 21st century lies in culture, in human consciousness and ideals. It is increasingly common to hear people say that the world is not driven by interests alone, that one should look to culture and its experience. Maybe, this explains why modernization has stalled. I think this is the only possible explanation.

Y.S.: But is it possible to speak about the modernization of culture? Can this term be applied to it at all? 

A.A.: We can speak about a cultural factor in modernization. In Russian, modernization normally means the renovation of all aspects of life, with a view to creating a comfortable environment where people can express themselves as stunning and unique individuals. But to achieve this we need a different kind of economy and a different kind of infrastructure. 

When we talk about modernization, we mean that culture has a definite hierarchy of values in people’s minds, a definite picture of the world that they see in their mind’s eye. If modernization’s goals are not tailored to this picture, it won’t work. In general, modernization began after World War II, and I think only 10 percent of the countries that embarked on it were successful. The rest failed.  

Modernization was successful where cultural traditions were not brutally destroyed or frozen once and for all, where there was an understanding of diversity, the sense that all changes should be tailored to it, and that people should come to comprehend their own position during these changes, all the while identifying their own traditions and cultural experience within them. Where this path was followed, modernization was successful.

Y.S.: I have heard the opinion that modernization in this country is impossible as long as a significant proportion of the population still has a view on life that dates from the 1920, 1950s or 1970s while only a handful appreciate modern values.

A.A.: There is a very simple way of putting it that everyone will understand. You are free to remain however you want to be, but think about your children. If we want our children to be happy, we should create an environment that will allow them to be themselves and to join a developed world as equals. When people pose this question, they realize that something needs to change, that they themselves need to change for their children’s sake. They are unlikely to do it for themselves, they are probably simply too tired. They were subjected to different experiments for too long; they were shaken too much, took too many knocks, to have any energy left for themselves. But as a father, I can assure you that when you think about yourself, you may be a pessimist but when it comes to your children you are doomed to be an optimist. 

Y.S.: Is it possible to speak about the existence of a Russian cultural template?

A.A.: It can be discussed as a problem, because all too often the notion of a template is used to justify the rejection of any movement. This is our template, we exist within it and cannot move beyond it. It has taken shape once and for all, we’ll describe it and live within it, and if we don’t want change, then terribly sorry, it’s not that we don’t want change, it’s just that this template does not allow it. But I cannot help but ask whether this template even exists, or whether it is simply a product of our perception. And what are we dealing with – the template or the inertia that should be taken into account but which can be overcome? I think we are dealing with tradition rather than a template.

Y.S.: Is it enough to simply invest in culture in order to improve it? 

A.A.: It is essential to invest in culture, but the question is how and to what end. Let’s start by saying that we should not deprive culture of extra money. Of course, asking the government for money is a dangerous habit. In general, the government ought to support its artists, publishers and producers. The state should support its citizens and their right to have access to current cultural information. And when we put the question in these terms, it is clear that the government can invest in culture, in readers by buying books for libraries rather than paying authors or publishers. It will back publishers this way albeit indirectly. It can also invest in the promotion of Russian movies. The government can also redirect revenue raised from taxing the screening of foreign movies into its domestic cinema industry, as in France. It doesn’t make sense to spoon-feed artists – first, they will become spoiled and stop moving, and, second, the government will soon start telling them what to do and this will be the end of any kind of culture.

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