Dour Russians

Russians are all in the news, today.

Unless you’ve been living in a very deep fuhrerbunker, you’ll know that Russia invaded Ukraine, and is losing a tremendous amount of personnel and gear, and has been “cancelled” by the global powers that have suddenly realized that imperialism is still bad for business.

We should not believe that there is such a thing as a national character – Russians are not, by breeding or boundary, a dour bunch. That comes from their collective experience, which, if you have a good memory, is a complex quilt of horror and stolidity, ultra-violence, stubbornness in the face of enemies, and surviving some of the most ludicrous failures of political “big ideas” to work. Starting with Lenin’s big ideas, and ending with Putin’s attempt to re-establish the Russian Empire, by way of Yegor Gaidar, Trofim Lysenko, and Lavrentiy Beria. The Russians comprise a population that has been variously bombed, shot at close range, starved to death accidentally, starved to death deliberately, used as a punching-bag, used as human subjects in vast experiments, and forgotten and left to fend for themselves. They have seen and experienced the failures of politics up close and personal and that has a profound effect on their expectations from a political system.

They don’t have reasons to love and respect anyone, to be frank. Russians ought not be forced to forgive American economists who, operating on theories they pulled out of thin air, recommended a “shock doctrine” approach to transitioning the former Soviet economy into a sort of free market capitalism, overnight. It was a disaster and people were – literally – starving on the streets of Moscow (US media doesn’t report that, much) failed states can’t survive that kind of thing and inevitably they transition to something more workable. In Russia that manifested as a series of choices of politicians that went from bad to worse; that is an evolution that ought to be familiar to anyone who has been watching the still-United Kingdom’s choices of prime minister, lately. But, if you happen to find yourself seriously discussing free market capitalism with a naive optimist who believes in it, just tell them to examine the history of Russia and the rise of the oligarchs, and to grow up, stop putting crayons up their nose, and study history not economics.

That’s all the set-up. If you’ve followed me thus far, you may be thinking, “I wish I knew the Russian soul better, so I could understand…” or maybe, “I remember Yeltsin climbing on the tank, and then we have Putin.” If you want to be qualified to have an opinion about Russia, you need to understand it better. Well, you can invest 6 hours in watching Adam Curtis’ amazing newish series “Traumazone” or just watch the third episode. Curtis has taken a different approach with this series – it’s not narrated by his soothing and slightly dystopian disassociated voice – it’s close-captioned. That’s brilliant because you can’t stop looking for even a second or you’ll miss something. The whole series is a lot, and it left me so depressed I wanted to lie down in front of a tank and drink vodka, but it’s really brilliant the way he puts the small pieces together to give the viewer a feeling for the whole great disaster that is Russia.

That’s the episode that covers the craziness of how Gorbachev was deposed, brought back to power, publicly stabbed in the face by Yeltsin, and then Yeltsin went on to mis-manage the economic transition in the most spectacular way possible. The first two episodes are set-up and cover how Gorbachev came to power and was deposed. Then, it gets dark as all the vassal nations at the periphery decide to start fighting, usually on ethnic lines. See, Russia’s had a strategy (which worked so well for Germany in the 1930s!) of colonizing conquered states with ethnic Russians that it can then use as a cause to intervene militarily if necessary. It’s an old trick. All imperialists do it. Humans should move away from it, because “nationality” and “ethnicity” are fantasies and they’re mostly used by the worst class of political leaders, to lead us to our doom.

One gets the sense, from Curtis’ documentary, that a Russian is an absolutely fearless yet emotionally vulnerable force of destruction that will plod forward and survive pretty much anything. There is one scene in Episode 3 (can’t “spoiler” history!) where the Russian armored personnel carriers that are initially sent to drive off Yeltsin’s supporters in Moscow are attacked by unarmed men, mostly Afghan war veterans, who deal with the armored personnel carriers using a trick they learned from the mujahideen: you take a big canvas tarp and throw it over the armored personnel carrier. Now, the people inside are blind. Then, you pick one hatch, force it open, and start pulling the people inside out, one at a time, and beat the living shit out of them, one at a time. Curtis includes that sort of footage, so if you are the kind of person who tries to hide under the covers at the sight of real, bloody, violence maybe give this a miss.

BBC has weird viewing rules and it’s not possible to view stuff from outside the UK using BBC’s viewer system. So things appear on youtube pretty quickly. The bad news is that they disappear from youtube randomly, too. So these links may or may not work in a while. Just search for “adam curtis traumazone part” and you’ll get all the episodes in a scattered fashion.

Episode 1: if you youtube this, it’ll get the “algorithm” to suck in and offer you the rest, I bet.

I’ll let you do your own searching from there.

Last night as I was drifting off, I checked back in on the Brazilian elections and it sounds like things went as well as they reasonably could. Lula won, Bolsonaro says he won’t accept it (he has been saying he won’t accept a defeat for years). There are reports that at some polling places, army units in uniform blocked voters and only let through Bolsonaro supporters. Folks, that is our future if we don’t figure out a way to get the republicans from pursuing that path. I believe it ought to be a meme-war issue: if someone steals an election, it’s pitchforks and torches and a general strike. But the meme we must promote is: if you cheated, you lost. What is depressing is that Bolsonaro tried to militarize the election, lost, and has still not been run out of town on a rail. Democracy’s weakness is revealed in these moments – it becomes the mice voting to bell the cat. Massive uprisings and protests are appropriate, and if they get violent, don’t let the authoritarians get away with it. The big problem, as I pointed out years ago,[stderr] is that being “against the government” works for an anti-government movement, but that doesn’t necessarily imply unity among the anti-government forces. This problem is not unique to the right or the left – as we can see, if the Qanon idiots ally with the incels, they might be able to do some damage but afterwards they will not be able to form a government by consensus because there’s no consensus there except a desire to overthrow the left.


  1. flex says

    I’m not really well read in Russian history, but I believe that the abuse of the Russian people started well before Lenin.

  2. says

    @flex: oh, yes.

    I said Lenin because, in a sense, he was chosen by the people not inflicted upon them by divine right. Of course the people never really chose what Lenin did to them. He was the first of a long series of politicians who took power, then revealed themselves as authoritarian pieces of shit. This seems to have happened over and over and I don’t think anyone could experience any of such a thing without getting highly skeptical of democracy.

  3. Tethys says

    One factor that rarely seems to get discussed is that Russians were still serfs until 1861. The abolishment of feudal government led to a huge boom in new agricultural techniques, growth of villages and settlements, and industry within the Russian Empire.

    The Russian revolution pretty much destroyed that thriving economy right along with murdering the Czar and his family.

  4. Tethys says

    Stalin was definitely an exemplar of the bloody red faction that won. Originally there were White/Black/Red/Green factions of the Russian revolution.

    I don’t pretend to understand everything that was going on, but the end of the Czars and imperial Russia are pivotal events for my personal family history. The destroyed farming villages shown on the news in Ukraine today are STILL quite recognizably German built villages, houses, churches, and settlements that we were evicted from circa 1890 to 1904.

    The only difference Russia made after taking over in 1917 seems to be the lack of wells, and then starving people because it was the German settlers who grew all the wheat, you Russian idiots.

  5. says

    starving people because it was the German settlers who grew all the wheat, you Russian idiots.

    Wait… are you saying Lysenko was wrong!?

    When I first heard about that, I thought it was ridiculous that so many people would believe in something so obviously stupid, so thoroughly that they starved themselves to death. But now when I look at the Qanoners and the US response to COVID I think Lysenko could have given Dr Oz a few points on his technique.

    Learning how to grow wheat is easy: you ask a farmer! Then, you iteratively refine their seeding and harvesting machines. That’s it. And that refinement should be based on asking the farmer where they need help. “It would be great if the machine also made the straw into big tied-off bundles!” Oh right.

  6. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Russia’s had a strategy (which worked so well for Germany in the 1930s!) of colonizing conquered states with ethnic Russians that it can then use as a cause to intervene militarily if necessary. It’s an old trick.

    Indeed an old trick. This is just how the Romans stabilized Gaul, by seeding it with towns populated by demobilized Roman soldiers. It worked for a good while…

  7. JM says

    @6 Marcus Ranum: It didn’t really take that many. As long as Stalin believed and was willing to have anybody who tried/taught/talked about anything else killed/exiled Lysenko needed only a few followers.

    It wasn’t Lysenko that destroyed the farming industry. It was the forced conversion of the farms to large collective operations under central government control. Lysenkoism was brought in after production had crashed as a way to fix the problem.

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