AFTER THE PROTEST following Navalny’s sentencing in July 2013—after several of the best hours he could remember, when he and the people all around him were doing what had to be done, asking no one’s permission to do it—after the police finally dispersed the crowd, Seryozha found himself standing in the square across the street from the Bolshoi Theatre. Everyone was gone. Some people had been loaded onto police buses. Most had gone home. A few had settled in at nearby bars. The night was warm, and the terrace bars on the pedestrian mall around the corner were serving Cuba Libres. Seryozha still felt the spot where a policeman’s baton had poked at his back as he and his little group were pushed along the sidewalk, away from the protest site. He still felt hoarse from shouting out to other protesters when he wanted them to break away from the cops, then double back and take their stand again. Too few of them had heard him. He went home.
The next day, after Navalny had been released from prison, Seryozha read on Facebook that a woman had gone back to the square to continue the protest. He knew her—not well, but he knew her name and he had often gone to a café she managed. She kept writing the same thing on her page, calling on people to come and stand with her, to refuse to leave until all charges against Navalny were dropped and until the Bolotnoye prisoners were released. She wrote comments on her friends’ pages—she had a lot of friends—demanding that they come and join her. Sometimes they did, for an hour or two, and then they went back to their lives. She stayed. Every day for three weeks she stood in the square, beneath a clock that was counting down the days and hours to the start of the Sochi Olympics. She held a handwritten sign in Russian and English: “Free All Political Prisoners.” For the first few days, she was surrounded by dozens of police officers and several paddy wagons—they clearly expected the protesters to return. But then they left, and the woman stood alone. Every day she posted a picture of herself beneath the clock, which was counting days in reverse, as prisoners do.1
Seryozha knew that he should go, but he did not. He felt the cloud coming back down on him again, heavier than before. All he could think about was that he, Seryozha, was not beyond reproach. If he was not beyond reproach, then he had no right to call on other people to act, like he had the other day. He had to act himself. But acting involved other people, and he had no right to involve them. So he was not acting. Not acting was shameful. The shame about his inaction combined with the shame he now felt about his pride, his unwarranted claims to other people’s attention, and this double shame, this shame that kept doubling back on itself, paralyzed him.
The paralysis let up briefly in March. After the occupation of Crimea, the outside world became so loud that it broke through the cloud. Seryozha got in touch with a couple of men he had met at the protests in 2011–2012. Together they printed out and laminated portraits of the more than a hundred men and women who had died in the Maidan. They took them to the Ukrainian embassy and set them in a row along the fence, in a linear memorial.2 A few hours later the police asked the embassy to remove the pictures. They explained that a rally celebrating the annexation of Crimea was happening nearby and there could be trouble. The embassy complied. After that, the cloud descended again.
Seryozha went to see a psychiatrist that spring. He explained what was happening to him. He had no friends. He was not working. Most days, he was not leaving the house. He was a useless, worthless human being.
The psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants. A few days after Seryozha started taking them, he felt no different except that his whole body itched. At least he was feeling his body—maybe this was a good thing, the beginning of recovery. Then he could think of nothing but the itch. By the time he realized that he needed medical attention, by the time he told a doctor that he felt like his skin was coming off, that he felt like he was dying, he really was dying. He had a condition called toxic epidermal necrolysis, a rare side effect of the antidepressants.3 Some of the damage was permanent. After that, when Seryozha struggled to get out of bed in the morning, it was hard, usually impossible, because of what the depression was doing to him and what the antidepressant drugs had done.
WHEN ARUTYUNYAN LOOKED at her clients, she almost found herself missing the early Putin years. For her, that had been a time when things started shutting down—when a world in which, for a decade or more, opportunity had seemed limitless, began closing in. But she had known even then that she was in the minority. Most of her clients craved “stability,” whatever that meant. It had all been too much for them for years. Their anxiety had been intolerable: what Arutyunyan had experienced as “freedom from” the constraints of the totalitarian state, many of her clients experienced as “freedom to”—find a way, measure up, do as well as the others. When the first constraints began snapping back into place, to the beat of the “stability” drum, they had felt calmer. One client had finally felt grounded enough to start her own business—something that she had wanted and feared for years. She, and the business, did well for a while. In fact, even now the business was doing well enough. But the client was having panic attacks. So many laws had changed without warning, so many unwritten rules had gone into effect, that she was constantly unsure whether she had missed something. One day, in February 2016, she stepped outside in the morning to discover that overnight all the low-rise commercial buildings on her street—the shops that sold flowers and bread and soda and cigarettes—had been torn down.
Altogether, ninety-seven buildings in Moscow were demolished that night. The city said that their papers were not in order.4 But they had stood there for years, in many cases well over a decade—surely their owners thought their papers were good. The woman’s own business rented space in an old-construction high-rise, but what was it that she was missing? She had a strong sense—she got signals—that she should be cultivating connections and giving bribes, but she did not know how and, more to the point, she felt strongly that she should not. The signals she was getting about what was right came into conflict with her own inner sense of what was right. If only the law were clear and permanent and applied to all equally.
If only the law were clear and permanent and applied to all equally, Arutyunyan’s job would be easier. She would guide her client to understand that her fears were projections—which they were, by definition, yet how was she to draw the line between the woman’s fear of a collision with her superego and her fear of a collision with Russia’s so-called law enforcement? The client’s world did not just feel unpredictable: it was unpredictable by design.
It was not just this client who was living in a state of constant anxiety: the entire country was. It was the oldest trick in the book—a constant state of low-level dread made people easy to control, because it robbed them of the sense that they could control anything themselves. This was not the sort of anxiety that moved people to action and accomplishment. This was the sort of anxiety that exceeded human capacity. Like if your teenage daughter has not come home—by morning you have run out of logical explanations, you can no longer calm yourself by pretending that she might have missed the last Metro train and spent the night at a friend’s house and her phone battery had died, and you are left alone with your fear. You can no longer sit still or reason. You regress, and after a while the only thing you can do is scream, like a helpless terrified baby. You need an adult, a figure of authority. Almost anyone willing to take charge will do. And then, if that someone wants to remain in charge, he will have to make sure that you continue to feel helpless.
The whole country felt helpless. You could see it if you turned on the television, which Arutyunyan rarely did. Everyone on television was screaming all the time. There were debate shows—this was what they were called, that is—in which two or more people ostensibly representing two sides of an issue yelled at each other for an hour and a half at a time. “America wants to see us weak!” yelled a politician who happened to be the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, the Stalin-era foreign minister who signed the Soviet-Nazi pact. “What is Russia supposed to do?” yelled back his nominal opponent, whose side was supposed to argue for peace with the United States but who was only there to project anxiety. While both debaters yelled in fear, the moderator, who wore all black to every show, yelled in order to scare the participants and the audience.5
Newscasts and morning shows ran cookie-cutter anxiety-producing segments. A news report would focus on the dangers of drugs, or of sexual predators. Then a person introduced as an activist would enter the studio and explain that the government was not doing enough to confront the danger. There should be the death penalty for drug dealers! Pedophiles should be castrated! By the end of the monologue, the hosts—usually a man and a woman—would be in a panic, screaming that no one was protecting their children from drugs and pedophiles. The format harked back to a Soviet tradition, in which it was always the imaginary “ordinary people” who supposedly begged the Party for ever more restrictive and punitive laws, but its main purpose was to maintain a constant pitch of high anxiety.
What options did this frightening country offer its intolerably anxious citizens? They could curl up into total passivity, or they could join a whole that was greater than they were. If any possession could be summarily taken away, no one felt any longer like anything was truly their own. But they could rejoice alongside other citizens that Crimea was “theirs.” They could fully subscribe to the paranoid worldview in which everyone, led by the United States, was out to weaken and destroy Russia. Paranoia offered a measure of comfort: at least it placed the source of overwhelming anxiety securely outside the person and even the country. It was a great relief to belong, and to entrust authority to someone stronger. The only thing was, belonging itself required vigilance. One had to pay attention: one day Ukraine was where the important war was being fought, the next day it was Syria. In the paranoid worldview, the source of danger was a constantly moving target. One could belong, but one could never feel in control.
TRAUMA IS, as one American theorist has phrased it, “a historical experience of survival exceeding the grasp of the person who survives.”6 It is the experience of having come into contact with a danger so great that it, and the fact of having escaped it, refuse to fit in one’s mind. Freud first wrote about trauma in the context of survivors of the First World War and then again as he struggled to understand the Nazi persecution of Jews. In his 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud introduced the idea of a death drive, a destructive force fueled by trauma, which has made survival intolerable. The death drive compelled repetition, an endless return to loss. Many of Freud’s followers later rejected the idea of the death drive, and Freud himself, in his later work, broadened the concept to include outwardly directed aggression. But some later scholars focusing on trauma linked the idea of the death drive to the high rate of suicide among survivors of concentration camps or the Vietnam War.7
After the Second World War, American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who had also trained in psychoanalysis, studied survivors of Chinese internment camps, survivors of the atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima, and the doctors who became killers in Nazi concentration camps. His aim was to “identify psychological experiences of people caught up in historical storms,” he wrote.8 He spent a lifetime developing clinical and theoretical approaches to trauma. He described phenomena specific to survivors. He called one “psychic numbing”—a sort of emotional shutdown in response to unconscionable events.9 In his study of Nazi doctors, he identified a psychological principle he called “doubling,” defined as “the division of the self into two functioning wholes, so that a part-self acts as an entire self.”10 He described what he believed to be a specifically twentieth-century experience: that of “lifelong immersion in death.”11
Lifton’s work began a conversation about trauma experienced not only by individuals but by groups, including entire societies, which in some cases passed their experience of surviving the unimaginable from generation to generation. Like people, societies could fragment in response to trauma, could go numb, perhaps, as Nicholas Eberstadt suggested when he looked for an explanation for Russia’s excessive death rates—an entire society could become depressed. If Eberstadt had been trained as a psychoanalyst rather than an economist, he might even have considered that an entire society could be seized by the death drive.
Traumatic experiences that affect entire societies could include natural disasters, catastrophic wars, genocide, revolution, and lives spent in a situation of chronic oppression. In cases where the trauma was extended in time—as with ongoing oppression or state terror—change, even apparently positive change, wrought further trauma. When familiar social structures stopped functioning, it could be as traumatic as when physical structures collapsed in the case of a natural disaster. Strategies of adaptation that worked under the old order were no longer useful. Therapists working in Kosovo in 2000, for example, discovered that people who had for years been victimized by being told what to do now longed to be told what to do. Liberian refugees in the United States, encouraged by well-meaning American therapists to seek support in their own community, re-created patterns of corruption and exploitation: becoming victims of familiar abuse was indeed comforting.12
Arutyunyan’s mentors had frowned on the word “trauma”—too much of a wastebasket. The word would make it seem as if people were passive recipients of whatever happened to them, and as if terrible things on the outside produced predictably terrible results on the inside. This sort of thinking was antithetical to psychoanalysis, which Arutyunyan had, after all, chosen because it saw the many and varied conflicts that raged inside a person’s psyche all on their own. Arutyunyan had met psychoanalysts who really believed that all of a person’s fears and anxieties were always projections, that nothing was external. She wished she could think that way herself.
A British analyst once said that he preferred depression brought on by big bad events to depression that was apparently spontaneous: tragedy increased the chances of recovery. Too bad this logic held only in cases when you could expect the big and bad to end.
IN OCTOBER 2015, Putin convened his annual meeting of international scholars and journalists who specialized in Russia. This year, the gathering was held in Sochi, where facilities built for the 2014 Winter Olympics had fallen into disuse. A month earlier, Putin had flown to New York to address the seventieth General Assembly of the United Nations. He proposed forming an international antiterrorist coalition “like the anti-Hitler coalition.”13 The offer, in other words, was to join forces in fighting ISIS in exchange for Russia’s unhindered reign in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region—just like participation in the anti-Hitler coalition had allowed the Soviet Union to keep the spoils of its earlier alliance with Hitler. When the United States snubbed the offer, Russia began bombing Syria. Now Putin convened international guests for a discussion titled “Societies Between War and Peace.”
“Peace, a life at peace, has always been and continues to be an ideal for humanity,” he said. “But peace as a state of world politics has never been stable.” In other words, peace was an anomaly, a fragile state of equilibrium that, he said, was exceedingly difficult to sustain. The advent of nuclear arms helped, he said, by introducing the specter of mutually assured destruction, and for a while—from the 1950s through the 1980s—“world leaders acted responsibly, weighing all circumstances and possible consequences.” This was a variation on the usual Soviet nostalgia rhetoric: casting the Cold War as the golden era of world peace.
In the last quarter century, the threshold for applying force has clearly been lowered. Immunity against war acquired as a result of two world wars, literally on a psychological, subconscious level, has been weakened.14
He went on to blame this state of affairs on the United States and to justify Russian intervention in Syria, but the key point of his speech was that only at war could his Russia feel at peace. Or, as Erich Fromm had written of Nazi Germany seventy-five years earlier, “It is fate that there are wars.”15 Arendt, writing about Hitler, had described a nostalgia for the First World War, which had satisfied a “yearning for anonymity, for being just a number and functioning only as a cog. . . . War had been experienced as that ‘mightiest of all mass actions’ which obliterated individual differences so that even suffering, which traditionally had marked off individuals through unique unexchangeable destinies, could now be interpreted as ‘an instrument of historical progress.’”16 The concept of historical progress—of perpetual motion—was, in turn, key to Arendt’s understanding of how totalitarianism took hold.
Russia’s official rhetoric was evolving in full accordance with Gudkov’s diagnosis of “recurrent totalitarianism.” Following this inexorable logic, in September 2016, the justice ministry classified the Levada Center itself as a foreign agent. Gudkov had been expecting this for months, and he knew it spelled the end of his life’s work. The law on “foreign agents” required organizations to identify themselves as such in all communications with the public. How would Levada sociologists ever conduct a survey again if they had to present themselves as “foreign agents”?17
YEARS EARLIER, Arutyunyan’s son, who was born in 1980, told his parents that he had realized they had raised him “in an oasis.” The home where he had grown up—Arutyunyan’s grandmother’s giant Academy of Sciences flat, where four generations had now lived—had been largely shielded from the privations of the 1980s, the fears of the 1990s, and even from much of the sense of shutting down that pervaded the 2000s. These days, though, Arutyunyan found it difficult to stay in her oasis.
Not only had the country changed politically—now the city around her was changing physically. The low-rise stores and cafés had been razed, eliminating the eye-level urban environment that had appeared in the 1990s. The city returned to its totalitarian scale. In Arutyunyan’s neighborhood, the streets were eight lanes wide, the sidewalks could fit twelve people across, and the buildings had archways seven stories high. In the absence of the low-rise stores, people once again became mere specks.
Then the city ripped up the asphalt on the sidewalks throughout central Moscow and replaced it with pavement tiles. The first freeze showed that the ice that formed on these tiles stayed smooth and clear, unlike most of the ice on asphalt. People fell. Some days, the streets looked like scenes from slapstick comedy. Pedestrians kept slipping and falling, and slipping and falling. It was hard not to laugh, even as people were breaking arms and hips all around you. Then it was time to marvel at the regime’s insistence on turning its own metaphors literal: it was determined to break its people.
In the summer of 2016, the city ripped up the sidewalks again, all over central Moscow. For weeks, it felt like the city was at war with itself. Walking to the store or to the Metro became difficult and unpredictable—people had just formed new routines after the disappearance of the low-rise stores, and now ditches, fences, and dead ends appeared unpredictably in their way, forcing pedestrians to step into the streets, zigzag, and, most important, constantly pay attention. The state of low-level dread became a characteristic of being outside in the city, at any time of day or night.
Finally, more tile was laid down. The city now created a series of bike paths—though these were generally short segments that connected two dead ends. There was a sort of architectural-rendering symmetry and beauty in Moscow’s new look. But like a first-year architecture student, someone had forgotten to put trees in these renderings. The city’s streets had been stripped of all that had been growing there. Everything was made of stone and right angles. Moscow had acquired the geometry and texture of a graveyard.
Maybe Freud was right about the death drive in the first place. And maybe a country could indeed be affected by it just like a person could. Maybe this energy had been unleashed in Russia. Maybe it was bent on destruction for the sake of destruction, war for the sake of war. Maybe this city and this country were burying themselves alive. The more Arutyunyan thought about it, the less fanciful the idea seemed to her. Entire civilizations in history had ceased to exist. How had life in them felt in the last decades and days? Russia and the Russians had been dying for a century—in the wars, in the Gulag, and, most of all, in the daily disregard for human life. She had always thought of that disregard as negligence, but perhaps it should be understood as active desire. This country wanted to kill itself. Everything that was alive here—the people, their words, their protest, their love—drew aggression because the energy of life had become unbearable for this society. It wanted to die; life was a foreign agent.
At least, that was what Freud might say. At least Arutyunyan had read him. Future generations of Russians might not be so lucky—if there were any future generations of Russians, that was.
She stubbed out a cigarette and lit another.