NEW YEAR’S EVE 1994 was depressing. Like most of his acquaintances, Lev Gudkov was feeling shell-shocked—or simply shocked. Russia had gone to war against a part of itself. After months of rumors, threats, and several botched covert operations, Yeltsin had decided to put an end to a forceful separatist movement in Chechnya, a small republic in the North Caucasus, on the border with Turkey and Georgia. He would use the army to dislodge the local government. But the Chechen resistance was well armed and possessed of ten times the resolve of the Russian troops, along with familiarity with the terrain and the support of the local population. What had been planned as a fast attack, essentially a police operation, turned into an all-out military offensive. On December 31—twenty days after the operation began—Moscow staged a series of bombing raids that reduced Grozny, one of the country’s own cities, to a smoking ruin. Several of the old dissidents—men who were well past middle age, and who had seen prison but never armed battle—were now down in Chechnya, documenting the atrocities and trying to use their own bodies to draw the world’s attention to the war. The entire Moscow press corps, it seemed, was also there. Information was flowing from Chechnya like blood from a broken artery. The effect of the glut of macabre detail was as terrifying and depressing as anything Gudkov had ever experienced.
This effect was exacerbated by the results of a survey the public opinion center had just completed. Five years after the original Homo Sovieticus study, Levada’s team decided to check in. It was another difficult survey to design: the country’s borders, its name, and its system of government had changed since the first study. Some questions had to be discarded, and some of the others were reworked. A few new ones had to be devised.
There was good news in the survey: when people were asked Gudkov’s “dynamite” question—what ought to be done with various deviant groups—their responses generally expressed more tolerance than they had five years earlier. The overall share of those who favored “liquidating” deviants went down from 31 to 23 percent, and those who supported the idea of “leaving them to their own devices” went up from 12 to 29 percent. Those who would “liquidate” the disabled decreased from 25 to 18 percent while those who would “help” the disabled grew from 50 to 56 percent. By Western standards, these were frightening figures, but those were not the standards to be applied here: the sociologists wanted to know only how much attitudes were changing, and in which direction. But even such scant optimism as was engendered by this approach was dampened by responses to other questions. The share of those who would “leave alone” members of religious cults dropped from 57 to 51 percent while the proportion of those who would “liquidate” or “isolate” them grew noticeably. The same thing happened with “rockers”: 26 percent wanted to “liquidate” them, up from 20. This issue was a bit of a Rorschach test: no one could be quite sure what “rockers” meant. It had once referred to those who played or listened to forbidden Western music, but the days when the state banned rock music were long over. If there was no marginalized or indeed identifiable group that was called “rockers,” whom were the respondents wanting to “liquidate,” and why? The sociologists concluded that the word had become a stand-in for “other,” or “strange,” and elicited an aggressive reaction precisely because—unlike homosexuals or the disabled—“rockers,” whoever they were, were not the subject of any public discussion.
The rest of the survey left little room for hope. The percentage of people who said they were unhappy had more than doubled in five years—from 14 to 34 (though the share of those who said they were happy stayed steady at 46). A clue to what had made so many people so unhappy showed up in answers to another question, in which respondents were asked to rank the importance of changes that had occurred in the country. Barely half named things that could be considered accomplishments, such as political freedoms, the ability to travel, work, and study abroad, the right to open one’s own business, and the “option of living without regard for the authorities,” as the sociologists phrased it. An overwhelming majority saw the state’s failures as the most significant changes: the rise of unemployment, the “impoverishment of the people,” and a “weakening of Russian unity.” Asked to name the most important events in the entire history of the country, people resorted to Soviet historiography, pointing to the Great October Revolution and the Great Patriotic War, which seemed to have lost none of its symbolic sheen despite a wealth of newly available information, starting with the Stalin-Hitler military alliance. In general, people seemed to have lost interest in learning more about Stalin, his rule, and his terror. Twenty-five percent of respondents now saw his role in history as positive (there was no benchmark to compare this response with, because five years earlier, at the height of the public conversation about Stalinist terror, the question itself would have been inconceivable). He ranked not far below Gorbachev and Yeltsin, whose “positive” ratings were 33 and 30 percent, respectively. These reflected a newly dim view of perestroika, which, people overwhelmingly said, had led to the regrettable breakup of the Soviet Union. The democratic revolution of 1991—the defeat of totalitarianism—was an event that existed in the sociologists’ minds but not in the minds of their respondents.
Gudkov recalled going to a celebratory rally immediately after the failure of the August 1991 coup. A German friend had come along. “Long live great Russia!” chanted the crowd, and Gudkov sensed his friend tensing up. He noted that Germans are hypersensitive to expressions of nationalism, but Gudkov himself was unconcerned about the crowd’s sentiment. Now he wondered if he should have paid more attention to the tone, and to the linguistic sleight of hand of the slogan. It had started as “Long live democratic Russia,” but in the course of a few hours the word “democratic” had been dropped in favor of “great.” Had the ideas of freedom and democracy really been forgotten no sooner than they had apparently won?
Asked, in 1994, which of the major changes of the last five years had brought the country more harm or more good, Russians were lukewarm on freedoms: only 53 percent thought that freedom of speech had been a positive change, and other new freedoms ranked lower. Only 8 percent thought that the breakup of the Soviet Union had been a positive development. Seventy-five percent thought it had caused more harm, and this was the single highest figure in the entire survey, the thing Russians agreed on over any other.
Respondents did not exactly want to return to the Soviet Union, from what Gudkov could tell: the memory of food shortages, poverty, and airlessness was still raw. What Russians wanted was certainty, a clear sense of who they were and what their country was.
The sociologists tried to tease out what ideas of national identity there were. All individuals and societies define themselves, to some extent, in opposition to others, and for the Russians in 1994 this jumping-off image was a generalized stereotype of the European. This imaginary person was rational, cultivated, active—and Other. Russia was coming off a period of concerted self-denigration, when society was processing the shock of seeing firsthand what it had been told was the “rotten West.” It had turned out to be shiny, happy, and also ordinary and law-based. For years, newspapers had used the phrase “the civilized world” to refer to that which Russia was not. Now Russians were distinctly tired of thinking of themselves, and their country, as inferior. So what did they see as the innate positive qualities of Russians? This open question elicited, on the basis of 2,957 surveys, three leading qualities: “open,” “simple,” and “patient.” The ideal Russian, it seemed, was a person without qualities. It was clear to Gudkov that this was the blank mirror of the hostile and violent regimes under which Russians had long lived.
Hannah Arendt had written about the way totalitarianism robs people of the ability to form opinions, to define themselves as distinct from other members of society or from the regime itself.1 Now this hollowed-out person was holding up the emptiness as his greatest virtue. If “open” and “simple” described the undifferentiated nature of a Russian, then “patient,” as Gudkov read the responses, referred to Russians’ tolerance for violence. In contrast to the imaginary European, all of whose qualities described agency, the respondents saw themselves as subjects of a regime that ruled by force. This made it seem that the war in Chechnya, which most of Gudkov’s circle saw as a tragic anomaly, was actually a logical expression of the people’s expectations.
The worst news in the survey, though, was that it contradicted Levada’s original concept of Homo Sovieticus: back in 1989, he had predicted that as the subjects of totalitarianism died off, Soviet institutions would crumble. But this survey suggested that Homo Sovieticus was not going anywhere: there was no clear evidence that this sociological type was less prevalent among young people than in their parents’ generation. Homo Sovieticus’s central trait—doublethink—was in full display across age groups. Respondents continued to think in antinomies. A central one was this. A majority of respondents agreed with the following statement: “Over the seventy-five years of the Soviet regime our people have become different from people of the West, and it is too late to change that.” A slightly larger majority agreed with the statement “Sooner or later Russia will follow the path that is common for all civilized countries.” Most people agreed with both statements at the same time, and the fact that they did seemed to affirm the former and make the latter seem vanishingly unlikely.2
If Levada’s original hypothesis was wrong, then the sociologists’ interpretation of the collapse of the Soviet Union needed to be revised. Levada had long ago suggested that Soviet society moved, pendulum-like, between periods of extreme oppression and relative liberalization, as under Khrushchev and early on under Gorbachev, and that these cycles followed a pragmatic logic. The periods of liberalization allowed pent-up frustrations—and, more important, the people who would articulate them—to bubble to the surface. With the potential troublemakers visible and active, the crackdown that inevitably followed eliminated them. In the long run, the cycles ensured the stability of the regime. The sociologists called the crackdowns “periodic castration.”
Perestroika had seemed to begin as yet another period of a temporary loosening of the reins, but then the pendulum appeared to swing too far, bringing the entire edifice down. But what if that was not what happened? What if, in fact, it had swung just as far as it needed to go to maintain the cycles? What if the changes in borders, state structure, and laws did not actually reflect or cause profound changes in the structure of society?
ON DECEMBER 31, 1995, Channel 1, the main television broadcaster, aired a wholly new type of show. The New Year’s Eve tradition had been in flux since perestroika. In 1986, Gorbachev, speaking at the twenty-seventh Party Congress, condemned Soviet television for being dull. In response, broadcast executives rushed to reformat their programming, scrapping, among others, The Blue Flame, the New Year’s Eve variety show that had been in existence for a generation. Now Channel 1, which reached about 93 percent of Russian households, showed a film that sounded remarkably like the old show.3 Called Old Songs About the Most Important Things, it was billed as a musical. The cast of characters harked back to the propaganda musicals of the 1930s and 1950s. These generally featured collective-farm workers, friendly competitions, and innocuous love interests that spurred self-improvement in the less perfect of the pair. Often, there was class conflict that presented the opportunity for mild ideological critique, which invariably ended with the victory of communism over evil.
Old Songs featured collective-farm workers, a truck driver, a recently decommissioned soldier, a teacher, a bourgeois, a recently released convict, a “rocker” (one could tell because he had long hair and wore fancy city clothes), and a “virgin ready for marriage” (this was the role as listed in the credits), among others. The plot, such as it was, provided opportunities for this ensemble to sing twenty-one Soviet songs, most of them lyrical but many with references to the Great Patriotic War. This was no remake of a Soviet movie, though. In this film, the classes lived in peace. Indeed, there was no conflict of any kind. There was a lot of pursuing of love interests, interspersed with the women’s insistence that there be no premarital sex, but there was no culmination: no one got married, no one had sex, and nothing triumphed over anything else. The only person clearly marked as Other in the film—the “rocker”—sang a song in Ukrainian, a language not yet perceived as foreign but rather as a difficult-to-decipher dialect of Russian. In fact, nothing happened in the film, and this seemed to be the heart of its nostalgic message: against the backdrop of post-Soviet Russia, where the war in Chechnya was entering its second year, where newspapers reported endlessly on crime, conflict, and constant economic concerns, it imagined a past straight out of Soviet newspapers, where nothing ever happened unless it was in the West. In Old Songs, people happily consumed Soviet-made products such as hollow-filter Belomorkanal cigarettes (so named for the Gulag’s largest project) and a rubbery processed cheese called Druzhba (“Friendship”), but they bought them willingly, and without having to stand in line, from a well-stocked shop where male customers were cheerfully served by busty saleswomen decked out in evening gowns. The Soviet era was recast as romantically placid and the Soviet regime as benevolent. In the film’s most bizarre moment, a man and a woman huddle in a tiny rowboat.
“Do you know why your feet are so adorable?” he asks her.
“I do,” she responds. “It is because our Soviet regime is so wonderful.”
“That’s correct,” he says, and rises from kissing her feet to kissing her face—or so we assume, for the camera shyly pans away. The scene referenced Soviet-era spoofs of Soviet propaganda, which ascribed to the regime both unlimited powers and boundless magnanimity. But if the Soviet-era spoofs, which circulated in samizdat or simply as jokes, were edgy, this spoof of a spoof was soft and rounded. At the end of the film the entire cast, including the “rocker,” the bourgeois, and the convict, gather around a giant table at the center of which sits one of the unique edible symbols of Soviet privilege, a roast suckling pig just like the ones Zhanna’s father started receiving on New Year’s Eve once he became governor. In the reimagined Soviet past, everyone got a piece of the pig.4
Created by two men who were about to become the most influential people in Russian television,* Old Songs was a huge hit. The new renditions of the old songs could, for the next year and beyond, be heard on street corners all over the country, where kiosks were briskly selling two-cassette audio sets. There would be sequels: Old Songs About the Most Important Things 2, 3, and 4. The following year, the other major federal broadcast channel resurrected The Blue Flame, the Soviet New Year’s Eve show, to compete for what was turning out to be a giant nostalgia audience. Once cable and satellite television took hold a few years later, an entire channel was launched to show Soviet television twenty-four hours a day. It was called Nostalgia, and its logo, shown in a corner of the screen, contained a red hammer and sickle.
Television producers were tapping into the moods Gudkov and his colleagues had documented in their survey. In the years between the 1989 and 1994 studies, Russians had grown tired of thinking about the future. They were drawing their sense of identity from the past, and they were imbuing this past with an additional air of wholesome conservatism.
THE “OPEN,” “SIMPLE” quality-less Russian outsourced his agency to something or someone more powerful. An element of the nostalgia that was becoming evident by the end of 1995 was the longing for a strong leader, capable of exerting the force for which Homo Sovieticus was ever prepared. Yeltsin no longer seemed suited for the role: he was passive, often absent, always embroiled in yet another tussle with the parliament, though these had long since stopped seeming fateful. His army was fighting a hopeless, protracted war against Russian citizens in Chechnya, and Yeltsin himself, who had once seemed larger than life, was fumbling even this opportunity to demonstrate his resolve. On two occasions Chechen insurgents took large groups of hostages on territories adjacent to Chechnya, in an effort to force Russia to negotiate. The first time, Yeltsin went missing and his prime minister had to handle the negotiations; the second time, Yeltsin made incoherent televised comments.5 The war had lost him the support of the old dissidents and many of the new liberal economists who had worked in his government, but this served only to reinforce a tendency that had been evident for a couple of years: Yeltsin was increasingly surrounding himself with old Soviet hands. In the population at large, the war was unpopular but not so unpopular that it could arouse protests of any scale—after a few attempts, efforts to organize demonstrations devolved into a weekly miniature rally, more of an information session held by a few activists staffing a table in central Moscow. The war did not arouse passions, but in 1995 Yeltsin’s popularity plummeted into the single digits.6 In 1996, as he approached the end of his first term, his political life seemed to be over.
Yeltsin, democrat though he was, had a distinctly monarchical obsession with choosing a successor. In August 1994 he cruised into Nizhny Novgorod on a river liner sailing down the Volga and, stepping ashore to speak to the crowds, announced that he had settled on a successor: Boris Nemtsov. “I just want to say that he has grown so much that we can now set our sights on his being president,” said Yeltsin. The awkward phrasing showed that the decision was Yeltsin’s, not the younger man’s.7 Nemtsov remained the heir apparent until he began voicing his opposition to the war in Chechnya. In 1996 the people of Nizhny Novgorod collected a million signatures against the war—with a population of 3.7 million, this meant that nearly all adults in the region signed. Nemtsov rode in a Nizhny Novgorod–made van to deliver the signatures to the Kremlin. He had the driver stop just outside the fortress and marched straight into Yeltsin’s office, one of the fat cardboard binders with petitions in his hands.
“What do you think,” asked Yeltsin, addressing him in the familiar, as one might address a child. “Are these signatures for me or against me?”
“If you stop the war, they will be for you, and if you don’t, they will be against you.”
When Nemtsov left, he assumed he was no longer Yeltsin’s chosen successor. He did not hear from the president for months.8
In March 1996, Yegor Gaidar, the former prime minister, came to Nizhny Novgorod to ask Nemtsov to run for president. He joined Nemtsov on a visit to one of the collective farms, and what he saw only affirmed his resolve. Nemtsov, who had been governor during four and a half years of struggle and extremely complicated reforms, was genuinely beloved in his region. Unlike Gaidar, whose name was associated with every unpopular move made by the Russian government and whose manner and looks made him seem aloof and condescending, Nemtsov was a natural politician, charismatic and attractive in an approachable way. Gaidar argued that Nemtsov could become the true democratic candidate and beat both Yeltsin and the resurgent Communists in the election. Nemtsov said that he could not betray Yeltsin. Gaidar argued in favor of principle over personal loyalty, and failed.9
In the end, it looked like it would be Yeltsin against the Communists and he would lose. But the country’s newly rich rallied behind the president, as did the politicians he had patronized—including, in the end, the majority of the antiwar bureaucrats—and as did the newly free press. But most of all, it was Yeltsin himself who rallied. After a couple of years when he seemed to oscillate between depression and binge-drinking, the president mobilized to campaign. “The people suddenly saw an entirely different president, one they had forgotten: it was Yeltsin as he had been in 1991, with his unique ability to talk to people, to attract support through his energy and drive,” Gaidar wrote later.10
Surveys conducted by Levada’s center showed that Russians wanted three things in this election cycle: an end to economic instability; an end to the war in Chechnya; and the restoration of their country to greatness. Among themselves, the sociologists began talking about the trauma caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the Kremlin, they wrote memo after memo. Gudkov wrote one in which he claimed to prove that if Yeltsin did not find a way to end the war in Chechnya, he would lose the election. Yeltsin called Nemtsov to summon him to a government airport in Moscow: they were going to Chechnya, together, to signal the beginning of the end of the war.11 Yeltsin dispatched a negotiation team to Chechnya with the mandate to broker peace at any cost. Watching television reports on negotiations that quickly proceeded from ceasefire to treaty, Gudkov marveled at the real-life consequences of sociology.
If peace in Chechnya was a difficult goal, the other two—ending economic hardship and restoring Russian grandeur—were impossible. Yeltsin opted to fight directly against the rising wave of nostalgia. His campaign endeavored to drown out Old Songs About the Most Important Things with a barrage of messages, most of them frightening. Cartoons imagined a future under the Communists, with nothing in the refrigerator and only one program on television. A rock star implored his fans to vote for Yeltsin because “I don’t want my country to turn into a communist concentration camp again.” A clip composed of black-and-white footage from the 1918–1922 civil war said, “It’s not too late to prevent civil war or famine.”12 In July 1996, Yeltsin won the election.
YELTSIN WAS APPARENTLY AWARE THAT he had won by promoting an emotion rather than a program. Ten days after the election, he created a commission to look for a new Russian national idea. He appointed a close aide, Georgy Satarov, to run the commission, and gave it a year to produce a result. The government newspaper Rossiyskaya gazeta announced an essay contest with a handsome top prize—10 million rubles, or about $2,000, for the best national idea in seven pages or less. Satarov, an intellectual and a liberal, rushed to reassure the public that the commission would not be crafting an ideology and forcing it on the population, Soviet style. Rather, it would aim to help articulate an idea on which the nation could agree, and perhaps already agreed on. Satarov himself proposed to the commission that it could borrow a page from West Germany’s post-Nazism playbook, combining a program of economic healing with what he called “national penitence.” The proposal flopped. The essay contest fizzled, and the grand prize was never awarded.13
“Rumor has it, government dachas outside Moscow are filled with dozens of Russia’s ‘best minds,’” wrote the leading nationalist magazine, Nash sovremennik (“Our Contemporary”), in May 1997. “They’ve wasted tons of paper trying to formulate the idea. But it seems something is not working.”14
Rumor in the Kremlin press pool in the fall of 1997 was that Yeltsin would unveil the Russian national idea during a visit to Nizhny Novgorod, which remained a post-Communist transition success story. Word was, Yeltsin would say that Russia was now a capitalist country working toward the glorious future of a “people’s capitalism.” The construction paralleled the old Soviet propaganda paradigm, when the country was said to be “socialist,” working toward a glorious communist future. A catchphrase had apparently been coined to express the essence of the new national idea: “equal-opportunity capitalism,” as opposed to what much of the population perceived to be Russia’s current state of enrichment for the well-connected.
The rumor may have been false, in whole or in part, or Yeltsin may have thought better of the plan. On the visit to Nizhny Novgorod he did make liberal use of the phrase “equal-opportunity capitalism,” but he did not present it as the new Russian idea. The press pool concluded that conservatives in the Kremlin had scuttled the proposal, once again winning at palace intrigue.15
GUDKOV’S AND HIS COLLEAGUES’ RESEARCH suggested that no message about the present and the future could capture the hearts and minds of Russians, who now had their eyes set firmly on the past. A year after failing to produce an idea for the future, Yeltsin addressed the past, finally introducing the concept of national penitence. On July 17, 1998, he took an apparently impulsive, unplanned trip to St. Petersburg to speak at the reburial of the remains of Russia’s last czar and his family. It was the eightieth anniversary of the day when Czar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, their five children, and four other people had been executed in the basement of a house in Yekaterinburg, where they had been held for several months.
After the execution, the house had served as a museum of the Revolution, and later as a minor administrative building. Details of what had happened to Nicholas and his family were never made public. No one knew where they were buried. Soviet schoolchildren learned only that the last Russian czar had abdicated and the October Revolution had triumphed. To ensure that all memory of the execution was erased, in the 1970s the Party ordered the house razed, and Yeltsin, then the local Party boss, made sure the order was carried out. Local lore maintained an uncertain memory of the execution, however, and in 1991 remains that were thought to belong to the czar and his family were exhumed. Genetic analysis took seven years—the science of testing remains was just then coming into being—but in the end the remains were positively identified as belonging to the czar, his wife, and three of the five children. Now they would receive a proper Russian Orthodox burial.
Yeltsin entered a St. Petersburg cathedral, flanked by the local governor and Nemtsov, who had last chaired the government commission on identifying the remains. “Esteemed countrymen,” said Yeltsin,
today is a historic day for Russia. It has been eighty years since the day the last Russian emperor and his family were killed. For many years we concealed this horrific crime, but the time has come to tell the truth. The Yekaterinburg massacre is one of the most shameful pages of our history. As we bury the remains of these innocent victims, we seek redemption for the sins of our fathers. The blame belongs with those who committed this act of violence and with those who, for decades, justified their actions. The blame belongs with all of us. We have no right to lie to ourselves, using political adjectives to justify senseless cruelty. The execution of the Romanov family resulted from an irreparable split in Russian society, into “us” and “them.” We are still suffering from the consequences of that split. By burying the remains of the victims of the Yekaterinburg tragedy we commit, first and foremost, an act of human justice. It symbolizes the unification of our people and the redemption of our shared guilt. We are all responsible for preserving the historical memory of our people. That is why I had to be here today. It is my duty as a man and as the president to be here. I bow my head before the victims of merciless killing.
Yeltsin lowered his head, and after a moment of silence the church choir stepped in. Rather, this was what happened on national television.16 In reality, Yeltsin continued for another two minutes:
As we build a new Russia, we must find our footing in its history. The Romanov* name is written on some of the glorious pages of our fatherland’s history, but this name is also connected to one of history’s most bitter lessons: any attempt to change our life through violence is doomed. It is our duty to bring closure to this century, which for Russia became a century of blood and lawlessness, through repentance and reconciliation, regardless of our political views, religious belief, and membership in an ethnic group. History is giving us a chance. As we enter the third millennium, we must do this, for the sake of those alive today and for the sake of the generations to come. Let us remember the innocent victims of hatred and violence. May they rest in peace.17
Whether in its truncated or full version, it was a magnificent speech, all the more striking because Yeltsin, for all his charisma, had never been a particularly inspiring speaker.
Lyosha was thirteen when the czar and his family were reinterred. Four years earlier, he had read a book about the family and the execution and had decided that he hated the Bolsheviks for killing children. His mother had hidden away her desktop bust of Lenin a couple of years earlier, and had started bringing home books like this one. When school started again in September 1998, Lyosha’s entire class discussed Yeltsin’s speech. They concluded that now, after the ceremony, the Soviet era was finally over.
But what did that mean? Solikamsk began rebuilding a cathedral destroyed by the Bolsheviks. A men’s monastery, which had been repurposed as a Soviet jail, reopened as a monastery. Somehow, these events seemed to Lyosha to connect directly to Yeltsin’s speech in the glorious St. Petersburg cathedral, under an elaborate dome and majestic chandeliers to which the camera had panned after the president bowed his head.
Yeltsin’s brief speech contained two key messages: the need for national unity and the need for national penitence. Only the unity part had traction, though, perhaps because it had been heard before, paired with “agreement and reconciliation.” The ideas of redemption and of accepting the blame for Soviet-era crimes sounded from the national pulpit only once, on that day in St. Petersburg, and they remained suspended somewhere under the beautiful painted dome. Nemtsov, who wrote a detailed memoir of his political career in the 1990s, made no mention of his role as chairman of the commission that identified the remains. Yeltsin, for his part, left the entire subject of the “national idea” out of his memoirs. In a book published in 2000—barely two years after the ceremony—Yeltsin quoted his own speech at the reburial as follows:
For many years we concealed this horrific crime, but the time has come to tell the truth. The Yekaterinburg massacre is one of the most shameful pages of our history. As we bury the remains of these innocent victims, we seek redemption for the sins of our fathers. The blame belongs with those who committed this act of violence and with those who, for decades, justified their actions. . . . I bow my head before the victims of merciless killing. . . . Any attempt to change our life through violence is doomed.18
In this version of the speech, blame was entirely externalized. The theme of shared responsibility, as well as the idea of the historic significance of the moment, was omitted. Both sets of omissions—Nemtsov’s and Yeltsin’s—showed the extent to which, for both politicians, the symbolic sphere took a backseat to the material. Yeltsin’s elisions also suggested that he had thought better of his one attempt to accept, on behalf of his nation, the weight of responsibility for its “century of blood and lawlessness.”
BY THE TIME Lyosha was a teenager, he was familiar with the Soviet film canon—the small number of movies that had been produced in the Soviet Union, and the fact that they kept being shown on television made this possible. He liked the propaganda musicals of the 1930s and 1950s, which he watched with his mother, and the slightly bitter comedies from the 1970s—mild, wink-and-a-smile satires of the Brezhnev era—but his favorites were the films about the Great Patriotic War. He liked all of them: the melodramas from the 1950s, the treacly portrayals of heroism from the 1970s, and the singular 1970s film that carried a heavy undertone of complexity (it was called Twenty Days Without War). Basically, he loved the Great Patriotic War.
So did most Russians. The 1994 survey showed that, after all the upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s, they clung stronger than ever to the one event that seemed to occupy an unambiguous place in the nation’s memory. Reading survey responses, Gudkov imagined this war as an ideal vehicle. The vehicle had headlights, which illuminated the Soviet Union’s future as a superpower. The vehicle also had rear lights, which cast a beatifying glow on the crimes of the regime that preceded the war. The vehicle’s heft conveniently obscured the outsize losses of the Soviet military and the disregard for human life that had made them, and the Soviet victory, possible. What Gudkov could not yet quite imagine were people like Lyosha, born in the year perestroika began but identified entirely with a war that had ended forty years to the day before he was born.
Masha loved the war too. As she entered her preteen years, she and her mother began an asymmetrical argument. Tatiana became more explicit about why they continued to live amid peeling plaster: life in Russia was no kind of life, she said, and it would never be any kind of life. She did not mean that they did not live well, exactly—by this time it was clear that they were some kind of well-off—but she meant that life that required paying a bribe to do anything was a life of daily humiliation, and in protest she continued willfully failing to repaint, re-wallpaper, or buy a washing machine; instead, they gave their washing to a new wash-and-fold place called Diana, which had pickup and drop-off spots all over town. The implication was that someday they would go somewhere else to live a life worth living, and this life was a life beyond Russia.
In protest against her mother’s protest, Masha joined the Young Seamen Club, which somehow deigned to accept a girl. The club offered target practice, endless talk of Russian military greatness, and computer-programming lessons, which were the reason Tatiana allowed Masha to join up. As soon as the ice broke at the Khimki Reservoir, a short tram ride from Tatiana and Masha’s dilapidated apartment, the Young Seamen would start practice—paddling around the reservoir in small rowboats. They sailed to St. Petersburg to tour a real navy yard, but Masha was excluded because the ship could not accommodate a female.
As the only female Young Seaman, though, Masha was given a ticket to attend the festivities on May 9, 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the great victory. World leaders were coming, though this had not been easy to arrange. Yeltsin was facing international criticism for the war in Chechnya, and American president Bill Clinton was wavering as late as March. As a concession, or a lure, Yeltsin promised to forgo a military parade with tanks and rockets in Red Square. Such parades had been conducted before the Second World War to frighten potential opponents and after the Second World War to celebrate victory, but none had been held since 1990. A chapel had even been constructed at the entrance to Red Square in the exact spot where a chapel had stood until 1931, when it was razed to make way for military equipment on parade days. For the half-century jubilee, a parade was planned again, but Yeltsin volunteered to hold it elsewhere, allowing foreign leaders to attend a veterans’ procession in Red Square but avoid the military.
Clinton came, as did the United Kingdom’s John Major, France’s François Mitterrand, Germany’s Helmut Kohl, and many others—the first meeting of the Allies on Russian soil since 1945, and one of the largest gatherings of dignitaries in Moscow, ever.19 Military bands from all over the world paraded just next to Red Square, in front of the History Museum, and this was the part of the festivities that Masha got to attend. She thought it was awesome. Even Tatiana admitted reluctantly that she could see its appeal. Masha, triumphant, clutched an iron-on patch given to her by one of the members of the American brass band.
THE HISTORY MUSEUM, which still told a story that spanned from the Stone Age to the USSR and had left more than a few Little Octobrists with the impression that prehistoric man had developed directly into Lenin, had, on days when there was no Victory Day parade, become a magnet for Russian nationalists of all kinds. Men and occasionally women milled around on its porch, giving speeches aimed at the thousands who filed by daily, convening improvised discussion groups, handing out flyers, and, most important, selling books and periodicals. One came here to buy the journal Nash sovremennik and other publications that advertised themselves as “patriotic.” Folding tables buckled under the weight of books on Russia and the Russians, which ranged from works by men who had left on the Philosophers’ Ship to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
By far the most prominent and most numerous were books by Lev Gumilev, a prolific ethnographer whose work had been inaccessible to the general public during the Soviet era. Gumilev was the son of Anna Akhmatova, one of the greatest Russian poets of all time, and Nikolai Gumilev, a poet and an officer in the czar’s army who was executed by the Bolsheviks. Lev Gumilev was arrested for the first time, briefly, in 1933, when he was barely twenty-one, then again two years later. That time he was held for a couple of months and, upon his release, expelled from the university. In 1938 he was arrested again. He spent the following five years in the Gulag. Almost as soon as he was released, he was conscripted. After the end of the Second World War he was finally allowed to return to his studies, and, at the age of thirty-six, to defend his doctoral dissertation. Then he was arrested again, and sentenced to ten years. He served seven—his release came after Khrushchev condemned Stalin’s political prosecutions—and finally obtained his first research position at the age of forty-four. He claimed, however, to have conceived his most important ideas while he was in the camps.20
Gumilev’s central idea was the concept of ethnogenesis, a process by which, according to his theory, different ethnic groups came into being and acquired distinct characteristics that were passed on from generation to generation. An ethnic group, or an ethnos, as Gumilev called it, was shaped by two major forces: the geographic conditions in which they lived, and radiation from outer space. In his works on ethnogenesis, Gumilev detailed his ideas on radiation and the resulting genetic mutations, while in his works on history he pursued the geographic-determinist line and drew on the ideas of Eurasianists, a school of thought—born around the time of, and apparently in reaction to, the Bolshevik Revolution—that held that Russia’s unique course was set by its predicament of straddling the two continents.21
Gumilev was barely tolerated by the Soviet academic establishment after he was released and his name was cleared, and his ideas were largely shunned. But he enjoyed a year or two of popularity and even celebrity before his death in 1992: he recorded a series of lectures that millions saw on television, and later the press runs of his books, originally written for an academic audience, beat all conceivable records. He was the perfect post-Soviet intellectual hero, a victim of the regime whose mind seemed to have triumphed over unconscionable adversity. His famous mother’s best-known work, a heartbreaking cycle of poems called Requiem, which circulated underground in the Soviet Union, told the story of his imprisonment.
They took you away at dawn,
As though at a wake, I followed,
In the dark room weeping children,
Among icons, the candle guttered.
On your lips, the chill of a cross,
On your brow a deathly pall.
I’ll be, like a woman to be shot,
Dragged to the Kremlin wall.22
Gumilev’s intellectual quest could be seen as the essence—or as a caricature—of the fate of the social sciences in the Soviet Union: decades spent working in a hostile environment, isolated from the ideas of others, struggling to invent the wheel in the dark. Working on his own, Gumilev had had to create his own theory of the universe, complete with radiation from outer space. The totality of his theory and its scientific sheen had to appeal to post-Soviet minds, which had just lost another totalizing explanation of the world. Ethnos entered everyday Russian speech, as did other concepts of Gumilev’s coinage, such as passionarnost’, a measure of the degree to which an ethnos was initially receptive to radiation and eventually possessed of ethnos-specific powers.
Other schools of thought that offered totality and scientific language were also gaining a foothold in Russia. Scientology, for example, was particularly popular among small-business men and bureaucrats in smaller cities. But two attributes made Gumilev’s ideas perfect for the historical moment. His insistence on the essential nature of ethnic groups helped explain the agony of the empire. His geographic determinism fit well with the idea of Russia’s unique destiny, which the Levada survey had shown to be so important for Russians.
Masha’s grandmother was taken with Gumilev’s theories. Masha’s mother objected. She chose a different all-encompassing revisionist theory, one invented by Anatoli Fomenko, a mathematician who claimed that his calculations recast all of world history. In his story, history was shorter and more accessible: in the Middle Ages, the world was a giant empire with Russia at its center; before that, there was hardly anything. Conventional history was fiction, concocted by the Russians-who-ruled-the-world for their own entertainment. Fomenko was a classic conspiracy theorist: he proved his assertions by way of relentlessly logical constructions based on random mathematical assumptions, and he dismissed all contrary evidence as falsification by his enemies. Fomenko was particularly popular with the exact-sciences crowd, including the chess champion Garry Kasparov, who for a time became a vocal adherent.23 The head of Moscow State University, also a mathematician, idolized Fomenko and by the mid-1990s had promoted him to the top of the university’s mathematics hierarchy, lending his theories ever more credibility.24 This was yet another reason for family fights: Masha’s grandmother held forth on ethnogenesis, Masha’s mother screamed at her about the math that proved that everything was something else, and Masha’s grandfather shouted the loudest that all of it was a Jewish conspiracy. Sometimes he also mentioned the queers, but then Masha’s mother invariably pointed out that Tchaikovsky had been a homosexual and yet a great Russian composer. To Masha, she added that Freddie Mercury had been gay too.
DUGIN ABSORBED ALL of Gumilev as his foundational science. Gumilev’s language became his language, and he used Gumilev’s premises to launch his own new ideas. He was writing nearly as fast as he was reading, firing off articles for the patriotic press and then compiling them into books at the rate of one or two every year. Now that he had access to a nearly unlimited number of publications, he was finding ideas he could use everywhere. The German theorist Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, became a source of inspiration, but so did Karl Popper, the Austrian-British philosopher who created the concept of an “open society.” George Soros, the Hungarian-born American billionaire who was opening foundations and learning institutions throughout the disintegrating Eastern Bloc, had been taken with Popper for decades and included the words “open society” in the names of most of his organizations. Popper’s ideas represented everything that Russia was now declaring it wanted to be, and the philosopher himself had once suggested a dichotomy: the open society on one hand, and its enemies on the other. Dugin wanted to be the enemy of the open society.
In 1994, Dugin published The Conservative Revolution. In this book, he envisioned a movement that would resist what he called “extremist humanism”—the idea that all humans everywhere have rights—and the concept of a law-based society. He explained that these ideas, imported from the West, were wrong precisely because they were fundamentally foreign to Russians, whose ethnos developed in accordance with its own destiny and whose geography made it the natural enemy of the United States and Britain.25
Dugin teamed up with two men who were older and much better-known than he: a rock star named Yegor Letov and a writer named Eduard Limonov. Both were leather-jacket-wearing bohemians who had spent their lives in opposition to any establishment they encountered. Limonov had been an underground poet in the Soviet Union, a gay-identified hobo in 1970s New York, an avant-garde writer in 1980s Paris, and he had returned to Russia by way of Yugoslavia, where he had spent time traveling with the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and firing at Bosnian Muslims for fun. Now Limonov was looking for a way to be heard in the cacophony of post-Soviet Russia. Together, the three men took the idea proposed to Dugin by Robert Steuckers, the Belgian, three years earlier, and launched the National Bolshevik Party. For Limonov, Letov, and another avant-garde musician who immediately joined the group with the shocking name, the National Bolshevik Party was primarily an artistic exercise. Dugin took it more seriously as a long-term project, both a political and a philosophical one. After nearly four years of shuttling back and forth to Europe to take part in New Right gatherings, Dugin stopped traveling to concentrate on working in Russia. He penned the party’s manifesto, which read in part:
The best and most complete definition of national-bolshevism would be the following: “National-bolshevism is a superideology common to all enemies of open society.” It is not merely one of the ideologies hostile to an open society but specifically its complete conscious total and substantive opposite. National-bolshevism is a worldview that is built on the total and radical negation of the individual and his centrality.26
Neither the Bolsheviks nor the Nazis had stated it quite so explicitly.