Sergei Davidis: On agency and destiny

29 April 2024

Source: Face book

The discussion about the series ‘Traitors’ revealed an interesting paradox not directly related to the films.

In my review I wrote that the main problem of the 1990s was not that some bad ‘treacherous’ people came to power, but that society was unable and unwilling to organize oversight of what they did, avoided political participation, and allowed people in authority to steal and abuse their powers. In response, I received a number of commentaries along the lines of: ‘OK, so once again it’s the people at fault’; ‘once again it’s the people who are blamed’; and so on. Objections of this kind boil down to the notion that the people had nothing to do with what happened, are not responsible for anything and cannot be held to account.

I see a logical inconsistency in this position. If absolutely nothing depends on the people, then it turns out that the people of Russia do not have agency over their own destiny, they are led along the path of history either by external or higher forces, or by some kind of predetermination connected with their intrinsic nature.

But, first, in fact this approach means that those who today talk about the genetic inferiority of Russians (whatever that means), about the historical predetermination of aggressive dictatorship (there has never been anything good, so there never will be) are right. Whereas usually those who support the notion of the total absence of responsibility of society and the people (and here I completely agree with them) categorically disagree with such racist determinism.

And secondly, if the idea of a people’s responsibility for what happens to them implies the possibility of learning lessons from the past, acting differently in the future and thereby avoiding mistakes made in the past, then the idea of an absence of responsibility implies that nothing need be done, and actions have no meaning. If nothing has depended on us so far, there is no reason to think that we can change anything in our future.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove