IN MARCH 2008, Seryozha flew to Moscow to vote in the presidential election. He had been living in Kiev for a year, barely following Russian politics, but he knew he had to vote. His grandfather would have said so. Alexander Nikolaevich always talked about how lucky Seryozha was to have been raised with elections. Perhaps this was why Seryozha felt he had to fly to Moscow and cast a ballot at his local precinct rather than vote at the embassy in Kiev.

It was an hourlong flight. From Sheremetyevo International Airport, Seryozha took a shuttle, a rickety minivan, to the nearest Metro stop. The vans ran one after another, and so did the slower large buses, so the Metro station was always full of travelers, most of whom looked tired from journeys much longer than Seryozha’s had been. Seryozha got in line to the ticket booth: of course, everyone had just come in from someplace else and no one had the multiple-ride cards that saved Muscovites time in line. The Metro station was stuffy and loud, the air full of everyone’s travel dust. Bags made it feel even more crowded than it was. Tired children complained. Tired adults snapped at them. The line seemed interminable.

Actually, it lasted fifty minutes. If Seryozha was tired by the time he reached the ticket window, what must it have been like for everyone else?

“Sixty rides, please,” he said, pushing a thousand-ruble note through the window. According to a typed price list posted on the ticket booth, sixty rides was the highest-denomination ticket available. It cost 580 rubles, or about twenty dollars.

When he had the ticket, Seryozha walked over to the turnstiles and said as loudly as he could:

“I have just stood in this line for fifty minutes! I don’t want you to have to stand in line for fifty minutes too, just because you came here from another town! I have purchased sixty rides! Please go through on this ticket.”

There was a pause. Many people seemed to have heard him but not believed him. Then one woman walked over. Seryozha fed his ticket into the turnstile, it spat out the ticket and flashed green, and the woman went through. Then one more person went, then a couple, and then a young police lieutenant was pushing his clean-shaven face into Seryozha’s.

“You have to come with me.”

Seryozha went. The lieutenant led him through one of the black metal doors in the lobby into the station’s own police precinct, where a more senior officer sat. His completely bald head was red and beaded with sweat, and though he was sitting there behind his metal desk, he looked and breathed like he had just been climbing stairs. As soon as they entered, the sweaty man started shouting at Seryozha, a barrage of obscenities. No one had ever shouted at Seryozha like this, and it must have shown on his face, because the young lieutenant now led him back out of the room. Out of earshot of the sweaty man, he tried to use his own words to tell Seryozha that what he had done with the ticket was wrong. He could not really make a logical case, or even a coherent sentence, and this made Seryozha want to help him.

“Look,” he said, “there was no fraud here. I did get a discount for buying twenty rides at once, but I am not profiting from it and I saved everyone time and trouble—including the cashier!”

“The resale of tickets is illegal,” said the lieutenant.

“I wasn’t reselling them.”

“You could have gotten the cashier in trouble. She could get fired.”

“Why would she get fired? She did nothing wrong! No one did anything wrong.”

“What do you think you are, God?”

Something changed right then. Seryozha felt a calm and clarity. The word “zen” floated into his mind, followed by a perfectly formed phrase: “This man’s mind works in a way that I will never be able to understand.”

“I understand,” said Seryozha, and walked away from the policeman. He fed his ticket into a turnstile, walked through, and then stuffed the ticket into the hands of the first person to pause long enough in response to Seryozha’s “Excuse me, please.” Seryozha had no use for the remaining fifty-five rides.

He went directly to his polling place. It was set up in a school: a half-dozen makeshift booths and two transparent plastic ballot bins in the center of the room. He took his ballot and stopped short of entering a booth. The first name and bio on the ballot were:

BOGDANOV, ANDREI VLADIMIROVICH. Born in 1970, resident of Moscow. Place of work: Democratic Party of Russia, political party. Job title: Central Committee Chairman. Place of work: Solntsevo Municipal Council, City of Moscow. Job title: Deputy, part-time. Nominated by: self. Registered on the basis of voter signatures. Party affiliation: Democratic Party of Russia, party leader.1

This made Seryozha mad as the lieutenant had not, and his sweaty-headed boss had not, and all their made-up rules had not. This was outright mockery. An independent candidate—one who was not already a member of parliament—was required by new Putin-era laws to submit two million voter signatures in order to be registered as a candidate, with no more than fifty thousand signatures coming from any one region of the country.2 This demanded either a lot of money or a large nationwide grassroots network of activists—preferably both. Many people had tried that year. Garry Kasparov could not even convene the required public meeting of an initial group of supporters, because no one would rent him space for such a meeting, for any amount of money. Boris Nemtsov had dropped out of the race to help another candidate, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, but Kasyanov’s signatures were arbitrarily thrown out.3

But here was some guy named Bogdanov, whom no one had ever heard of, who was ostensibly representing a party that had in fact been dormant since the early 1990s, whose political experience consisted of being a part-time member of a tiny powerless municipal council, and even this was probably fake—and Seryozha was supposed to pretend to believe that this clown had collected two million signatures? This felt just like the time when Seryozha thought everyone was crazy suddenly to accept that nobody, Putin, as the president-apparent. Except this felt worse. It was even more of an offense to human intelligence than the spectacle of Putin handing the presidency over to Medvedev like it was his to lend. Seryozha dropped his blank ballot into one of the bins and walked out. He took a cab back to the airport.

The Central Election Commission reported that Bogdanov got 1.3 percent of the vote. Medvedev won in the first round with 70.28 percent. The two perennial candidates—Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and the Liberal Democratic Party’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky (who, as members of parliament, were exempt from having to collect signatures to get on the ballot)—split the rest.4

BOTH OF THE THINGS that happened to Seryozha that day were examples of krugovaya poruka—“circular guarantee”—or what Levada had called “collective hostage-taking,” one of the most effective and, he had written, morally abhorrent Soviet institutions. It turned everyone into an enforcer of the existing order, independent and often outside of any law. In the case of the Metro queue, the police officer instinctively sensed that it was his job to ensure that all passengers remain in a state of equal misery, and to prevent any attempt at self-organization. At the polling place, the ballot—with the absurd, almost virtual candidate in first place—turned every voter into a co-conspirator. By casting a ballot one affirmed the legitimacy of the exercise. By voting for Medvedev in the absence of a believable alternative, one agreed to pretend to be an active supporter, symbolically entering the circle—krug in Russian—on which the system of “circular guarantees” is based. (In previous years the ballot had included the option of voting “against all candidates,” but a 2006 law eliminated this option.)

Much earlier, soon after Putin’s first election victory, Gudkov had decided that he needed to take time out of analyzing survey results to write about something else: a concept. The concept was totalitarianism. The word had not been used much in the last decade. It had been thrilling, in the late 1980s, to hear Soviet leaders—first Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev and then Gorbachev himself—start using the word to describe the Soviet system. These had been moments of epic honesty and openness. But then, after the Soviet regime appeared to have collapsed into a pile of dust, the word became instantly irrelevant: totalitarianism had ended, and the topics of the day were reforms, the economy, and the new system Russia was assumed to be building. Even the few people who stubbornly insisted on reckoning with the past generally chose to focus on one specific period in Soviet history—Stalinism—and one element of the Soviet system: state terror. But since the Levada studies continued to show that Homo Sovieticus was thriving and reproducing and the initial hypothesis about the withering of Soviet institutions had long been debunked, it seemed like a good idea to return to thinking about the nature of the system that had produced the institutions and the man.

The term “totalitarianism” first came into use in the late 1920s, soon after the first totalitarian regimes formed. At the beginning it was simply descriptive, used by both opponents and supporters of regimes that aimed to totally transform societies, as did the Soviet, Italian, and later German leaders. In fact, the first person to use the phrase “totalitarian state” may have been Benito Mussolini, in a 1925 speech in which he extolled the virtues of concentrating all of society in a single state entity. At that point, “totalitarian state” was a vision rather than a system, but it was a vision clearly opposed to Western democratic arrangements, which it saw as weak. By implied definition, a totalitarian state would draw its strength from concentrating all power—including the power of every individual’s support for the regime—into a single whole. Both the Germans and the Italians saw the Soviet Union as a successful model of achieving such concentration. Before the Second World War, a few thinkers attempted to describe what made totalitarian regimes different from any that had come before. In 1936, Luigi Sturzo, an Italian priest and politician in exile, identified four key characteristics of the totalitarian state:

(a) Administrative centralization is carried to extremes—the suppression not only of all local autonomy . . . but also of the autonomy of all public or semi-public institutions, charitable organizations, cultural associations, universities. . . . The independence of the legislature and judiciary has completely disappeared, and even the government is reduced to a body subordinate to a leader, who has become dictator under the euphemisms of Duce, Marshal, or Führer. . . .

(b) The Party is militarized. Either it dominates the army or the army allies itself with the prevailing power and the two armed forces cooperate or amalgamate. The youth of the country is militarized, collective life is felt to be military life, dreams of revanche or of empire, conflicts at home and abroad, penetrate the whole social structure. . . .

(c) Everyone must have faith in the new state and learn to love it. From the schools up to the universities conformity of feeling is not enough; there must be an absolute intellectual and moral surrender, a trusting enthusiasm, a religious mysticism where the new state is concerned. . . . A whole new moral environment must be created in addition to the work of the school. Hence the official textbook, the state inspired and standardized newspaper, the cinema, the wireless, sports, school societies, the grant[ing] of prizes, are not only controlled but are directed toward an end—the worship of the totalitarian state, whether its banner be nation, race or class. The whole of social life is continually mobilized in parades, festivals, pageants, plebiscites, sporting events, calculated to capture the mind, the imagination, the feeling of the populace. And to excite this collective spirit of exaltation the worship of the state or class or race would be too vague in itself. The vital focus of emotion is the man, the hero, the demigod—Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini—whose person is sacred and whose words are the works of a prophet. . . .

(d) It is impossible for the totalitarian state to allow economic freedom to either capitalists or workers. There is no room for free trade unions or free employers’ associations. Instead there are state syndicates or corporations, with no freedom of action, controlled and organized within the state and for the state.5

After the war, another exile, this one from Germany, published the most detailed and definitive description of totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt’s three-volume The Origins of Totalitarianism was published in 1951. For Arendt, the key characteristics of a totalitarian state were ideology and state terror. The substance of the ideology, to the extent that ideology has a substance, was unimportant: any ideology could become the basis of a totalitarian system if it could be encapsulated and coupled with terror. The terror was used to enforce the ideology but also to fuel it. Whatever premise formed the basis of the ideology, be it the superiority of a particular race or of a particular class, was used to derive imagined laws of history: only a certain race or a certain class was destined to survive. The “laws of history” justified the terror ostensibly required for this survival. Arendt wrote about the subjugation of public space—in effect the disappearance of public space, which, by depriving a person of boundaries and agency, rendered him profoundly lonely. This, she wrote, was the product of the marriage of ideology and terror. In this model, Mussolini’s Italy was no longer considered a totalitarian state, whatever Mussolini himself might have said. Arendt wrote about Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, though she had much more knowledge of the former.6

The first edition of Origins was devoted to the roots and causes of totalitarianism, not to describing the resulting state: she wrote the last chapter, “Ideology and Terror,” in 1953.7 That year, another German exile, Carl Joachim Friedrich, speaking at a conference on totalitarianism (at which Arendt was also a speaker), offered a concise five-point definition of totalitarian society:

  1. An official ideology, consisting of an official body of doctrine covering all vital aspects of man’s existence, to which everyone in that society is supposed to adhere at least passively. . . .
  2. A single mass party consisting of a relatively small percentage of the total population (up to 10 per cent) of men and women passionately and unquestioningly dedicated to the ideology and prepared to assist in every way in promoting its general acceptance, such party being organized in strictly hierarchical, oligarchical manner, usually under a single leader and typically either superior to or completely commingled with the bureaucratic governmental organization.
  3. A technologically conditioned near-complete monopoly of control . . . of all means of effective armed combat.
  4. A similarly technologically conditioned near-complete monopoly of control . . . of all means of effective mass communication . . .
  5. A system of terroristic police control, depending for its effectiveness upon points 3 and 4 and characteristically directed not only against demonstrable “enemies” of the regime, but against arbitrarily selected classes of the population.8

In another three years Friedrich and his student Zbigniew Brzezinski, an exile from Poland, published Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, a much slimmer volume than Origins, that attempted not so much to describe as to define totalitarianism. They added a sixth point to Friedrich’s earlier list: a centralized, controlled economy.9

Friedrich, like Arendt, stressed that the Nazi and Soviet regimes were essentially similar, which justified placing them in the same category, apart from all the other countries of the world. In the years that followed, most of the concept’s critics focused on this very premise. Some, like another German exile, Herbert Marcuse, argued that all industrialized countries carried in them the seeds of a system like Germany’s.10 Others, especially Western Sovietologists who hailed from the Left, argued that a model based on the study of Nazi Germany did not fit the facts of Soviet life very well, and perhaps even existed solely to discredit the Soviet regime. After the fall of the Soviet Union made it easier to study the country that had been, academics began noting how much richer private life had been in the USSR than they had once thought, how inconsistent and how widely disregarded the ideology, and how comparatively mild police enforcement became after Stalin’s death. All of this appeared to contradict the model. A group of scholars led by Australian-American historian Sheila Fitzpatrick put together a collection of papers specifically looking at the differences between Nazi and Soviet systems. They called it Beyond Totalitarianism.11

The concept had fallen out of use not only in Russia but also among those who studied Russia in the West, but Gudkov had the idea that it was time to revisit it. If you thought about it, the problems with the definition of totalitarianism were built in from the start. First, even though all the original scholars of totalitarianism were exiles from the totalitarian countries, they produced their descriptions on the outside. Certain distinctions were inaccessible to them. Looking from the outside in, one cannot see, for example, whether people attend a parade because they are forced to do so or because they so desire. Researchers generally assumed one or the other: either that people were passive victims or that they were fervent believers. But on the inside, both assumptions were wrong, for all the people at the parade (or any other form of collective action) and for each one of them individually. They did not feel like helpless victims, but they did not feel like fanatics either. They felt normal. They were members of a society. The parades and various other forms of collective life gave them a sense of belonging that humans generally need. They were in no position to appraise the risks of non-belonging in comparison with such risks in other societies, to think about the fact that being marked as an outsider in the Soviet Union carried immeasurably greater penalties than being marked as one in a Western democracy. They would not be lying if they said that they wanted to be a part of the parade, or the collective in general—and that if they exerted pressure on others to be a part of the collective too, they did so willingly. But this did not make them true believers in the ideology, in the way Westerners might imagine it: the ideology served simply as a key to unity, as the collective’s shared language. In addition, the mark of a totalitarian ideology, according to Arendt, was its hermetic nature: it explained away the entire world, and no argument could pierce its bubble. Soviet citizens lived inside the ideology—it was their home, and it felt ordinary.

It stood to reason that up close the two pillars of totalitarianism—ideology and terror—looked different than they did from a distance. It stood to reason, too, that researchers might overestimate the weight of ideology, because their objects of study were texts, and texts reflected the ideology more than anything else. Intellectuals were always falling into the trap of mistaking the written word for a true mirror of life.

In the Soviet Union, the ideology proved mutable. The official line shifted radically, from internationalism to the “friendship of the peoples,” from viewing the family as a bourgeois anachronism to seeing it as the essential unit of Soviet society. What did not change was the importance of mobilization around whatever the ideology was, and the idea that the country was exceptional. What if ideology as such was not quite so important a component of totalitarian society? And what of terror? Arendt wrote her book soon after the Holocaust; Stalinist terror was still claiming hundreds of thousands of people a year. But the Soviet Union survived for decades after mass terror ended in 1953. Perhaps terror was necessary for the establishment of a totalitarian regime, but once established could it be maintained by institutions that carried within them the memory of terror?

Around 2004—toward the end of Putin’s first term—Western journalists began, cautiously, to apply the word “authoritarian” to the Russian regime. Arendt had argued that authoritarian regimes were essentially unlike totalitarian ones and more like tyrannies, because they demanded the observance of certain knowable rules and laws rather than total subjugation from their subjects. A different distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes was later proposed by Juan José Linz, a double exile. The son of a German father and a Spanish mother, Linz had left Germany as a child and Franco’s Spain as an adult. As a sociologist at Yale, he wrote a book called Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, in which he suggested the following three differences: in authoritarian regimes, the boundary between state and society was not diminished; authoritarian regimes had mentalities rather than ideologies; authoritarian regimes, unlike totalitarian ones, had low levels of societal mobilization. The subjects of authoritarian regimes were, according to Linz’s definition, passive: they simply accepted one-party or one-person rule. Authoritarian regimes were profoundly apolitical.12

This did not seem the right category. Everything had become political. Russia under Putin was mobilizing—the rhetoric, the renewed military parades, and, more than anything else, the Kremlin’s youth movements with their training camps—all existed for this purpose. The boundary between state and society, faint as it had once been, was now obliterated: the takeover of the media and the attack on civil society had served that purpose. There was another issue with calling the Russian regime “authoritarian”: it did not take into account the Soviet legacy, which Gudkov increasingly thought was key to understanding the nature of the current regime. He also happened to think that, contrary to what many Western Sovietologists believed, Soviet society had in fact been closest to matching the theoretical model of totalitarianism in real life. And as evidence mounted that Soviet social institutions had been preserved and were resurgent, Gudkov began to think of Russia as a permutation of a totalitarian system. To understand it, Gudkov decided to propose his own definition of totalitarianism, based on the Soviet experience. It contained seven points:

  1. The symbiosis of Party and state . . . Society is organized in a strictly hierarchical way. It is constructed from the top down. . . . Society is thus turned upside down: the powerful upper layer will sooner or later become the least competent and least informed stratum, devoid of potential to develop or make its work more efficient. Every changeover brings a less active, less competent individual to the top. . . .
  2. A forced societal consensus, created through a monopoly on mass media, combined with strict censorship. This creates the conditions for chronic mobilization of the population, always prepared to carry out the decisions of the party-state. . . . The subjects’ attention is focused predominantly on events inside the country, which is isolated from the outside world; hence the sense of exceptionalism, a focus on “us,” and a powerful alienation barrier, a refusal to know or understand events “on the other side.”
  3. State terror, carried out by the secret police, special services, extrajudicial paramilitary structures . . . The existence of the secret police and concentration camps on the one hand and official propaganda and cultural production on the other, create the conditions for “doublethink.” . . . The scale and character of the terror can vary greatly, from the Great Terror in 1918–1922 and the 1930s through the 1950s to the persecution, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, of dissidents, whose number and influence were relatively small.
  4. The militarization of society and the economy . . . The activities of mobilizational structures that pierce society from top to bottom, from all educational institutions . . . to sporting clubs etc. . . . are intended less to prepare the population for battle against an external enemy than to systematically train the population . . . to carry out any and all of the regime’s initiatives, because the “leader knows best.”
  5. A command, distributive economy and the concomitant chronic, inevitable shortages of goods, services, information, etc. . . . Shortages are not mere deficits but also a way of organizing society through official hierarchical structures of access to goods and services . . . supplemented by informal shadow economy structures.
  6. A chronic state of poverty . . . Totalitarianism takes hold under the conditions of increasing poverty—when a large part of the population has no hope for a better future and projects hope on some extraordinary political measures. Totalitarianism is sustained by maintaining a very low standard of living.
  7. A static population, strict limits on both vertical and horizontal social mobility except that which is carried out by the state for its own purposes.13

Gudkov did not include ideology on his list of characteristics of totalitarianism: he had concluded that ideology was essential only at the very beginning, for the future totalitarian rulers to seize power. After that, terror kicked in. Later, the drive to conform would take a leading role. This produced what Gudkov meant by “doublethink”: it was not the bizarre state described by Orwell but rather a habitual, almost passive fragmentation, when people thought different, often utterly contradictory things at different times and in different situations—whatever they needed to think in order to conform at that particular moment. This, more than anything else, guaranteed that no effective resistance was possible in the Soviet Union: fragmented people could not form and sustain relationships of solidarity and could not imaginatively plan for the future, which is essential for any group effort.

The purpose of defining the Soviet totalitarian regime was to gain more clarity on what Russia had inherited. The inventory was long. On paper, one-party rule had been abolished—but the people remained. The old nomenklatura continued to dominate the bureaucracy and the bureaucracy continued to dominate society, maintaining its upside-down structure. If anything, the upheaval of the 1990s had sped up the process of rotation, as a result of which ever less informed and less competent people were brought to the top. Censorship had been abolished, but after a brief period of freedom, mass media were being monopolized by the state. The KGB had been renamed and had lost some of its reach (some functions, like border control, were taken away), but the judiciary continued to serve the executive power, rule of law had not been established, and law enforcement saw its function in protecting the state. To the extent that society had been demilitarized, Putin had reversed this process—indeed, on the day Yeltsin’s resignation made him acting president, Putin found the time to sign a cabinet measure reintroducing military training in secondary schools.14The economy was no longer ruled by a central planning authority, but it retained its distributive nature: the Kremlin apportioned assets and access during the privatization of the 1990s, and when Putin came to office he got to work redistributing companies and wealth. Lower down the food chain, this distributive way of functioning was usually called corruption, but it was not exactly that, since the issue lay not with any individual bureaucrat but with the very system of limiting and distributing goods and services. This, in turn, rested on the institution of collective hostage-taking—a system that reinforced lowered expectations, like the Metro Seryozha encountered, which was not selling a service but distributing it.

What should the Russian system be called, then? It was no longer the totalitarian regime it had been, but after disassembling some of its totalitarian institutions—like the Party-state or total militarization—it had started re-creating them, or something that resembled them. But these struck Gudkov as being more like imitations of totalitarian institutions. Western journalists were using the word “authoritarianism” because they seemed to think that authoritarianism was totalitarianism-lite, but the regime was not authoritarian either. Gudkov thought it might be called “pseudototalitarianism.” One thing was certain: this regime was not going to develop into a functioning democracy. In fact, it did not seem capable of developing at all. It probably could not re-create the old systems of terror and complete mobilization. Its sole purpose, or so it seemed to Gudkov when he was writing about this in 2001, was to stay afloat, to maintain just enough inertia. In this, its main resource was the Russian citizen weaned on generations of doublethink and collective hostage-taking: the Homo Sovieticus.

BACK WHEN SOCIOLOGISTS and political scientists were defining totalitarianism, psychoanalysts and philosophers were trying to understand and explain it. Gudkov had little patience for much of their writing, in part because they were, generally speaking, Marxists, and in part because several of them were German exiles with a mission—to warn the rest of the Western world that it could happen there. They had seen fascism rise to power in a functioning democracy, and they wanted their knowledge to serve as warning. Gudkov’s experience was different—at this point he was less interested in how totalitarianism came to be than in how it refused to end—but some of what he was trying to describe when he wrote about Homo Sovieticus had been noticed by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm seventy years earlier.

Fromm had fled Germany in 1934, and in 1941 he wrote an urgent book called Escape from Freedom, in which he attempted to describe the psychological origins of Nazism, though he was careful to note that “Nazism is a psychological problem, but the psychological factors themselves have to be understood as being molded by socio-economic factors; Nazism is an economic and political problem, but the hold it has over a whole people has to be understood on psychological grounds.”15

To make his case, Fromm went back to the Middle Ages, when

a person was identical with his role in society; he was a peasant, artisan, or knight, not an individual who happened to have this or that occupation. The social order was conceived as a natural order, and being a definite part of it gave a feeling of security and of belonging. There was comparatively little competition. One was born into a certain economic position which guaranteed a livelihood determined by tradition.16

This description also fit late Soviet society, which, as Gudkov had observed, used limits on social mobility as one of its most important instruments of control. People generally moved neither up nor down the socioeconomic ladder—nor were they likely to work in a field very different from their parents’. Seryozha, who did not encounter a single child from outside the top level of the nomenklatura until after the Soviet Union collapsed, grew up behind a series of literal walls, but the invisible walls separating other Soviet citizens from members of different groups were just as effective. People who transcended these boundaries, as, for example, Lyosha’s mother did when she left the village to go to university, did so through great effort and determination and were invariably exceptions—as Galina was even within her own family. Still, she was able to move but a step up and one sideways from her initial station: she became a schoolteacher in the small town closest to the village where her mother had worked at the collective farm.

Back at the beginning of the Reformation, wrote Fromm, the individual gained the ability to determine his own path—and at the same time lost his sense of certainty in place and self. Fromm divided newfound freedom into two parts: “freedom to” and “freedom from.” If the former was positive, the latter could cause unbearable anxiety: “The world has become limitless and at the same time threatening. . . . By losing his fixed place in a closed world man loses the answer to the meaning of his life; the result is that doubt has befallen him concerning himself and the aim of life.”17 Along came Martin Luther and John Calvin with remedies for this anxiety: “By not only accepting his own insignificance but by humiliating himself to the utmost, by giving up every vestige of individual will, by renouncing and denouncing his individual strength, the individual could hope to be acceptable to God.”18 In other words, the individual could in one swoop regain his certainty in the future—it would now be in God’s hands—and rid himself of his most unbearable burden: the self.

In Fromm’s view, a new kind of character was thus inaugurated and soon became prevalent among the middle classes of some societies. He described this character as someone who by an individual psychoanalyst might be diagnosed as a sadomasochistic personality but on the level of social psychology could be called the “authoritarian personality”—in part because sadomasochistic tendencies in individual relationships are usually understood as a pathology while similar behavior in society can be the most rational and “normal” strategy. The authoritarian character survives by surrendering his power to an outside authority—God or a leader—whom Fromm called the “magic helper.” The “magic helper” is a source of guidance, security, and also of pride, because with surrender comes a sense of belonging. The authoritarian character is defined by his relationship to power:

For the authoritarian character there exist, so to speak, two sexes: the powerful ones and the powerless ones. His love, admiration and readiness for submission are automatically aroused by power, whether of a person or of an institution. Power fascinates him not for any values for which a specific power may stand, but just because it is power. Just as his “love” is automatically aroused by power, so powerless people or institutions automatically arouse his contempt. The very sight of a powerless person makes him want to attack, dominate, humiliate him.19

Another key trait of the authoritarian character is his longing for and belief in historical determination and permanence:

It is fate that there are wars and that one part of mankind has to be ruled by another. It is fate that the amount of suffering can never be less than it always has been. . . . The authoritarian character worships the past. What has been, will eternally be. To wish or to work for something that has not yet been before is crime or madness. The miracle of creation—and creation is always a miracle—is outside his range of emotional experience.20

Fromm and thinkers who wrote about the threat of totalitarianism after he did—Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno21—believed that this character was common in modern societies. Periods of great social and economic upheaval had the ability to make the authoritarian character dominant in society and to carry an authoritarian character to the top. Germany after the First World War was in just such a state. Old certainties were gone, social structures were in disarray, and a chasm appeared between generations:

Under the changed conditions, especially the inflation, the older generation was bewildered and puzzled and much less adapted to the new conditions than the smarter, younger generation. Thus the younger generation felt superior to their elders and could not take them, and their teachings, quite seriously any more. Furthermore, the economic decline of the middle class deprived the parents of their economic role as backers of the economic future of their children.22

This passage described the Russian 1990s as precisely as it did the German 1930s, about which it was written. Arendt described this state as “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness of an unprecedented depth.”23 A void opened up where certainty had been; the burden of freedom became unbearable. Hitler emerged as a quintessential authoritarian character with a program that appealed to other authoritarian characters. He hated the Weimar Republic because it was weak, just as his audience hated their elders. Fromm did not see the substance of Nazi ideology as important—indeed, he saw no substance in the ideology at all. Arendt also stressed that the premises of Hitler’s—and Lenin’s—ideologies to outsiders “looked preposterously ‘primitive’ and absurd.”24Fromm observed no logic whatsoever in the ideology: “Nazism never had any genuine political or economic principles. It is essential to understand that the very principle of Nazism is its radical opportunism.”25 What Nazi ideology and practice did have, according to Fromm, was ritual that satisfied the audience’s masochistic craving:

They are told again and again: the individual is nothing and does not count. The individual should accept this personal insignificance, dissolve himself in a higher power, and then feel proud in participating in the strength and glory of this higher power.26

And for the sadistic side of the authoritarian character, the ideology offered “a feeling of superiority over the rest of mankind” that, Fromm wrote, was able to “compensate them—for a time at least—for the fact that their lives had been impoverished, economically and culturally.”27

IN THE SPRING OF 2008, the biggest national television channel announced an online contest to choose the greatest Russian who ever lived. It was called the Name of Russia. By mid-July, with nearly two and a half million votes cast, contest organizers announced that they had temporarily put a halt to the voting because someone—or some group—had rigged the results to make Joseph Stalin the winner. Once voting resumed, the results changed dramatically, to make Nicholas II, the last of the czars, come out on top. But then the organizers said that this, too, had been the result of a hacker attack.28 After a few weeks, the winner was announced: rather than either of the two popular frontrunners, it was Alexander Nevsky, a thirteenth-century prince known to most Russians as a vague memory from the history books and as the leader of Russian troops in the epic ice battle in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky.

Lyosha was furious. Everyone could see what had happened: the television executives were mortified by Stalin’s popular victory and decided to falsify results the same way real voting officials wrote up whatever was required of them. Except they must have gotten their signals crossed: they thought that Russia’s last czar was a safe choice, but they failed to consider what he stood for because he had abdicated, giving in to the Revolution. He had been weak, and now he was despised. Worse, Yeltsin had once publicly repented for the Bolsheviks’ murder of the czar and his family, admitting a legacy of guilt—and this admission, too, in the new disposition looked like weakness. So Alexander Nevsky, who had not even been in the running, looked like a safe political choice: all anyone knew about him was that he had fought wars.

“What kind of historical hero is he?” raged Lyosha. “He has no place at all in the Russian historiography!”

“But he fought the Germans!” said the other Lyosha. “And won.”

The other Lyosha was, it would seem, Lyosha’s boyfriend. He had started messaging Lyosha earlier that year on the VKontakte social network. Lyosha played hard to get. He actually was hard to get. His sublimation strategy, implemented two years earlier, was working. He was happy with his research and his friends. He spent all his time working on his dissertation. He shared an apartment with a female friend and her husband. He stayed away from the gay crowd, because it scared him: it felt like the abyss.

The other Lyosha would not give up. After a couple of months Lyosha agreed to meet. Then he relented. He figured he was strong enough now to allow himself to feel something. What he felt, very soon, was flummoxed. The other Lyosha had his own particular way of conducting a relationship. He would come to Lyosha’s apartment every day after work. It was all Lyosha could do to prevent the other Lyosha from moving in, but for all purposes the other Lyosha now lived in his apartment. The other Lyosha said they were a family. Lyosha said that he was opposed to the traditional model of family, but the other Lyosha said that he was Russian Orthodox. He wore a cross around his neck, and he talked about tradition. What kind of tradition could two gay men have in a country where they were utterly invisible? The kind of tradition in which Lyosha, who was twenty-three, was expected to be in every way the dominant partner to the other Lyosha, who was twenty. Or so the other Lyosha said—even though it was Lyosha who felt dominated.

They argued all the time. These were strange arguments. The other Lyosha simply contradicted everything Lyosha said. Lyosha soon realized that the other Lyosha goaded him to get attention, but he could not restrain himself, because, more often than not, the other Lyosha picked fights about things Lyosha genuinely cared about and understood. The other Lyosha said that he liked Putin.

“How can you like Putin?” asked Lyosha.

“I am just starting out in my career, and Putin’s Plan is an appropriate plan,” the other Lyosha responded.

The answer seemed nonsensical on every level. First, there was no such thing as Putin’s Plan: it was a phrase used during the parliamentary campaign, but there was no book or even flyer that contained whatever plan this might be. It was like every Russian was supposed to know intuitively what Putin’s Plan was, like it was divine providence, like it was the natural law of things. And the other Lyosha said it was an “appropriate” plan like it was a thing that actually existed—and had something to do with his career! The other Lyosha worked as an assistant to a liberal member of the Perm legislature, Nikita Belykh, a leader of the Union of Right Forces Party that Nemtsov had founded. Lyosha considered asking the other Lyosha why, if Putin’s Plan was so “appropriate,” he worked for Belykh, but realized that he did not want to know the answer. He figured that the other Lyosha would say that he worked for Belykh for the money, and what was worse, that would be a lie, because his was an unpaid assistantship: in contemporary Russian, “money” could be the polite word for “power.” Also, the other Lyosha was a member of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Young Russia—the one that had, among other things, laid siege to the Estonian embassy the previous summer. He and his best friend, a young woman, attended the militarized summer training camps at Lake Seligher.

The other Lyosha never ran out of things to argue about. He picked a fight about Gorbachev, whom he hated for destroying the Soviet Union—and kept arguing, even though he was too young to remember even a day of life under Gorbachev. He called Yeltsin “nothing but an alcoholic.” During one of their fights Lyosha lost it. He hauled off and hit the other Lyosha.

He could not believe what he had done, and broke up with the other Lyosha on the spot. But, true to his inexplicable self, the other Lyosha seemed to revel in the incident. For months afterward, he bragged to their mutual friends that Lyosha was a “tyrant.”

FROMM WOULD HAVE FOUND nothing mysterious about the other Lyosha: he was a walking caricature of the authoritarian character, right down to his automatic readiness to worship a thirteenth-century military leader.

Gudkov found nothing mysterious or surprising in the Name of Russia contest. The Levada team had been asking respondents to name “the greatest people who have ever lived” from the beginning of the Homo Sovieticus project. Results had differed only slightly over the years. Stalin had risen steadily—from 12 percent in 1989 to 40 in 2003 (he dropped four percentage points in 2008, which may have been related to the discussion of the supposed hacking of the Name of Russia site). Stalin had not made it into the top five in 1989, but in every subsequent survey he was among the leaders, coming in fourth in 1994 and 1999, and third in 2003 and 2008. Others in the top five were, consistently, Peter the Great, Pushkin, and Lenin. Napoleon and Georgy Zhukov, who commanded the Red Army when it entered Berlin in 1945, made appearances in different years, as did Mikhail Lomonosov, remembered as the country’s first scientist, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Putin, who was first named in 2003 by 21 percent of the respondents, by 2008 was at 32 percent, which made him number five among the greatest people who ever lived.29

To Gudkov, the list looked bad from the beginning and worse with every passing survey. Russians apparently saw great people as having been almost exclusively Russian—and with the exception of Catherine the Great, they had all been men. By choosing primarily military leaders and heads of state (who were also generally appraised as military leaders), they showed that they equated greatness with power. (Albert Einstein, one of the few foreigners, started out at 9 percent in 1989 but quickly slipped while Hitler gained on him.)

It all fit. The love of power, the focus on Russia to the exclusion of the rest of the world—with an exception made perhaps only for a Napoleon or a Hitler, whose power trumped even their enemy status but who were made relevant by the fact that they had invaded Russia—this and other survey results added up to a totalitarian mind-set. The only consideration that gave Gudkov pause was what seemed like an utter lack of a concept of the future. He had been taught that totalitarianism presupposed the image of a glorious future. But as he researched both Communist and Nazi ideologies, he came to the conclusion that the appeal of the rhetoric in both cases lay in archaic, primitive images: a simple society, a world of “us,” a tribe. Fromm, in fact, rejected the very idea of an image of the future in Nazi ideology and stressed the “worship of the past.”

IT MAY BE MORE ACCURATE to say that the Soviet system offered not a vision of the future but the ability to know one’s future, much as tradesmen did in feudal times, and to make very small-scale, manageable decisions about the future. Arutyunyan thought about this when she researched her family history. How could her great-grandmother, a peasant woman before the Revolution, have imagined her future? How would she have known that all her sons would die from drink but her daughter would become an academic and a member of the Central Committee? So incomprehensible was this future that she could not fully understand it even after it had happened: of her daughter she knew only that she was “an important person.”

But by the time Arutyunyan was growing up in the 1960s, the future stretched out before the Soviet citizen like a narrow but relatively well-lit hallway. If one was born to an educated family, like Arutyunyan was, one went to university. Her grandmother had been a historian, her parents were social historians and sociologists, and Arutyunyan received a degree in psychology, worked at the Institute of Sociology, and married a sociologist. There were, however, choices to be made, chief among them: whether to join the Party. Joining promised greater career advancement and possible perks, up to the ability to travel abroad. Not joining seemed to offer a small degree of autonomy. Each professional field had its own sets of minor choices as well. A theater actor from Moscow, for example, could choose to stay in a repertory in the capital or move to the provinces and become the lead at a local theater.

In the 1990s, the narrow hallway exploded into wide-open space. For Arutyunyan, this was exhilarating, the very essence of freedom. True, life became unpredictable and sometimes felt hard—for a few years in the early 1990s Arutyunyan was the sole breadwinner in her family of four adults and two children. Her parents and husband stubbornly stuck to their social sciences even as their colleagues looked for ways to earn money elsewhere. But Arutyunyan was learning to be a psychoanalyst, like she had always dreamed, and she was traveling abroad, like she had barely dared imagine. In Fromm’s classification, all she experienced was “freedom to.”

In a few years she saw more and more patients who were suffering from the unbearable burden of “freedom from.” Much of their pain was regret: the 1990s looked darker in retrospect, and the roads not chosen weighed too heavily. One patient had left academia—he had been a biochemist—to work for a pharmaceutical company. The company went bankrupt, he could not find another job, and now he was driving a taxi for a living. He could not stop thinking about where he had gone wrong. Should he have stuck it out in academia? His former colleagues who had, seemed to have done better.

There was a specific Russian expression: budushchego net, “There is no future.” As though it could indeed be canceled. People said it when a particular vision of the future collapsed. For many people—many more than Arutyunyan realized at the time, when she was reveling in her “freedom to”—the future ended when the Soviet Union collapsed and the narrow hallway disappeared. Others struggled on, but the anxiety caused by uncertainty rendered them incapable of meaningful action. In the early 2000s, with the arrival of Putin, whose simple rhetoric made the world comprehensible again, and with inflation receding under the force of high oil prices, many of these patients felt better. They could function again. They were sure that Putin had something to do with it. “Stability” was the magic word of the day—the opposite of fear and anxiety.

The naughts were a time of stability for Arutyunyan too. In 2005 she became a fully credentialed member of the International Psychoanalytical Association—one of only eleven Russians with that status. The same year, the Moscow Psychoanalytic Society was authorized to be a study group—taking it one step closer to full membership in the world of psychoanalytic societies—and Arutyunyan became its chairperson. For her, too, the future was acquiring more definite contours—but she had never longed for this, and was only now realizing how much of an outsider this made her in Russian society.

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