7 June 2021
Over the years I have read many blogs by Yury Samodurov, but this was the first one that I felt should be made available in English, because it is a cri de coeur that may resonate with the remaining non-Russian Russophiles who did what they could before and/or after 1991 to help Soviet and then Russian democrats, whether liberals or outright dissidents, and have been aghast at much that has happened in Russia since that turning-point. To put it crudely, but concisely: is Putin really an improvement on Gorbachev? If not, when did things begin to go unstoppably wrong? To old-stagers like me, Alec Nove’s question, ‘Was Stalin Really Necessary?’, also meant ‘How soon was Stalin Inevitable?’. These two questions will never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction.
Since first reading the article translated below I have come across several Russian online references to a person’s (perhaps every person’s) zhiznennoe zadaniye, not easily translated into ‘normal’ English, like the title of this essay. Perhaps literally everyone is born to fulfil a particular purpose in her or his life? Did Samodurov have something like this in mind when he used the word prednaznacheniye in his title, translated here as ‘destiny’?
He is, of course, entitled to this bout of pessimism, but it is not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1960s, Soviet dissidents often drank to the toast, ‘To the success of our hopeless cause!’. I hope he will overcome his current depression, because, despite Putin’s bravado, the current President surely won’t last in office until 2036, and there will almost certainly soon be a chance to begin yet another attempt to make Russia a country that is run not for the benefit of the few, but for the majority of its citizens.
My era has not fulfilled its destiny
By Yury Samodurov (1)
11 May 2021
Ladies and gentlemen, here’s the thing. I’ve already said that I belong to the generation of the ‘young,’ or ‘late’, people of the Sixties [those who came of age and were imbued with the ideals of that decade – trans.], although in terms of years I am younger than they are, and I have explained why. That’s why in what follows I shall talk about the people of the Sixties in a sense broader than is usual.
Over the past 10 years, after a somewhat enforced retirement, I’ve been writing a great many posts and published several hundred pieces on Ekho Moskvy, Kasparov.Ru, not very many on Grani.ru, and a few on Radio Liberty and other websites. I buy quite a few books (although I hardly ever read what I buy because I can’t concentrate on anything except current affairs). I participated and continue to take part in numerous pickets and protest rallies. I occasionally attend exhibitions. Less often than I would like, I go out into the countryside.
And, all the time, I have constantly had the feeling I don’t have the strength to bring about any changes for the better, nor do I believe that my older and younger peers and contemporaries can do so, but I couldn’t quite understand why.
Yesterday, by chance, I started reading Natan Eidelman’s book The Last Chronicler, or The Two Lives of Nikolai Karamzin. [Последний летописец, или Две жизни Николая Карамзина]. (2) And in the preface by Yakov Gordin (3) I came across some lines and a striking thought that for me explains everything that has been going on around me for the last 20 years, everything on Facebook, everything going on within me, and the reason for my own lack of energy and vitality (not the result of ill-health).
These are the lines: ‘Eidelman died – as did his chief interlocutor and teacher, Pushkin – at the end of an era, a turning point between epochs. The fact that an era was ending without having fulfilled its destiny weighed heavily on Pushkin, depriving him of vital energy.’
This idea – that what weighs heavily on some people and deprives them of vital energy is the fact that their era and its leading figures, and to a certain extent they themselves, have failed to fulfil their destiny – is the key.
My era, which began with such an upsurge in the spiritual, intellectual and vital energy of so many people in perestroika, is passing away, or, more precisely, has ended, having failed to fulfil its destiny.
Our epoch (I was addressing Aleksandr Altunyan (4) when I wrote this) – the epoch of perestroika – ended under Yeltsin and his governments with vast misappropriation and theft, astounding in terms of scale, brazenness and cynicism. Everything created by the labour of preceding generations – factories, industrial plant, property – was appropriated first through voucher privatisation and then through the ‘loans-for-shares’ scheme, although the appropriators had created hardly anything of what they took over! What Yeltsin, Gaidar and ‘his team’ called the transition to market relations was not the creation of anything new but the plundering, with the consent of those in power and those close to them, of what others had created. The plundering of everything they could possibly think of seizing hold of.
Instead of a transition from totalitarianism to a free democratic society and normal market relations, the perestroika era – and those of us who were the bearers of its ethos – allowed everything we had sought to achieve to be cut short and brought to an end. Brought to an end, beginning under Yeltsin, by the seizure – by people close to the levers of power – of everything they could think of getting hold of, by the storming of the Supreme Soviet in 1993, by the war against Chechnya in 1994-2000, by the institution of an imitation of democracy and by rule by presidential decree.
And we end our lives powerless, unable to change or resist the Putin regime that behaves like a foreign occupying power. And it was to this same Putin that Yeltsin and the KGB, along with Yeltsin’s supporters among the liberal-collaborators and former members of the ‘underground’, gave presidential power. And, at the same time, we see that since 1993 neither the State Duma nor the Constitutional Court has exercised any effective oversight over presidential power or in practice restricted it in any way.
My words are powerless to prove the accuracy and profundity of what Yakov Gordin said, but I think he is right. What weighs on me, and on a great many people of our generation, depriving me of vital energy, is the intuitive sense that our epoch – the epoch of transition from totalitarianism to democracy (in other words, the epoch that began with Gorbachev’s perestroika) – has not fulfilled its destiny. Not only because of the 1991 putsch, but also because of the alliance of liberals and some of the democrats with Yeltsin and the KGB (the KGB was in practice preserved by Yeltsin). And also because of the desire to destroy the former Soviet system, rather than reform it in a spirit of convergence, which was what Gorbachev after all had sought to do.
The alliance of Yeltsin and the liberals with the KGB resulted in the creation of an anomalous pseudo-market in which everything that could be appropriated was appropriated and, even relatively recently, changed hands, not at market prices, but by ‘arrangement’ (my comrade, a former minority shareholder in the Tupolev corporation, was a witness of the ‘sale’ of the huge Tupolev building). (5) Everything was finally brought to an end with the direct transfer of power, by the liberals who were part of the system and former activists of the ‘underground’, to Putin, who came in from the KGB.
My generation will die out soon. Some will die sooner, others later. But the essential meaning of the life of our generation was formulated and anticipated by Yakov Gordin, perhaps without even realising it. His conjecture and diagnosis made it possible for me to understand why I no longer have that vital energy. I will permit myself to expand a little on what Yakov Gordin said.
As it was with Pushkin’s era at the beginning of the 19th century (‘The wonderful beginning of the days of Alexander [The First]’), the era of perestroika, launched by Gorbachev during the last 20 years of the 20th century, did not fulfil its destiny either then or in the following 20 years of the 21st century. The fact that it did not fulfil its destiny – the transition from totalitarianism to democracy – is felt and reflected in everything now happening around us: from the daily news on the internet about the arrests, fining, detention and imprisonment of civil protesters to the daily reports about the greed of urban developers and the authorities that is destroying our urban parks and historical buildings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, bringing about the over-development of central Moscow, and so on and so forth.
The fact that the epoch of perestroika launched by Gorbachev has not fulfilled its destiny weighs heavily upon a great many of those who supported it, depriving them of vital energy. These were the people who had hoped that perestroika would bring about the creation of new democratic forms of administration in the country: workers’ participation in the management and ownership of property, recognition by state and society of their guilt for the political repressions of the Stalin era and of the years that came after it, free and fair elections, uncensored and independent media, and so on and so forth.
Not for nothing are people of my generation, the ‘late’ people of the Sixties, left with only two public holidays which evoke either an emotional uplift: New Year, or a sense of solidarity: Victory Day (the latter with an abhorrence at its ever-growing militarisation).
Our epoch and the leading figures of the epoch, not having fulfilled their destiny, have achieved nothing else.
I won’t take it upon myself to judge which three or four events in the history of our country will be the most important for the upcoming generations, defining their view of the world, events by which they will distinguish themselves from us. I think the new generations will draw their vital energy from a different source and they will probably have a very different understanding of the post-Gorbachev era – including the Putin years – from that of my generation of the ‘late’ people of the Sixties.
1. Yury Samodurov, b. 1951, a geologist by training, was closely associated with the founding of the Memorial organisation and was the Director of the Sakharov Centre in Moscow from 1996 to 2008.
2. Natan Eydel’man (1930-1989) was a liberal historian and biographer with a particular interest in the first half of the 19th century. Nikolay Karamzin (1766-1826) was the author, i.a., of a renowned multi-volume history of Russia.
3. Yakov Gordin, b. 1935, is a very perceptive writer, editor and historian of, in particular, the St. Petersburg period of Russian history.
4. Aleksandr Altunyan, b. 1958, is a philologist with a strong interest in past and present Russian reactionaries.
5. This aerospace and defence company’s headquarters are located in the desirable (in most respects) Basmanny district of Moscow.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove and Martin Dewhirst, with footnotes by Martin Dewhirst