16 June 2022
Liudmila Ulitskaya, writer, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize for human rights, in conversation with Anna Vinkelman of Novaya gazeta
— Media all over the world are trying to get through to people, to call them to action, to awaken a civic voice in them. But so far it can’t be said this has been very successful. “We are little people, there’s nothing we can do.” Is this true?
— To answer this question, I’ll have to go back into ancient history. What is a citizen from the standpoint of an ancient Greek? A citizen is one of the owners of the polis, that is, the city. As a rule, the city’s modern citizen has lost that sense that something belongs to him and something depends on him in the city’s organization. We can’t not take that into consideration.
— In general, what is this “little man” who can’t do anything?
— The person in the totalitarian or near-totalitarian state. His social rights are greatly reduced.
— Is this a phenomenon of Russian culture and literature exclusively?
— I don’t think the “little man” is the fruit of Russian culture exclusively. In Russia, though, the “little man” became a very important part of society: voiceless, submissive, accustomed to his human dignity being trampled.
— When you say his rights are reduced, what does that mean? How and at the expense of what might they be restored?
— Each state does its own accounting of its citizen’s rights and obligations. In different societies this balance works out differently. In some cases, the stress falls on obligations; in others, on rights. When there are more obligations than rights, the state is not very good. But if the citizen has no rights, then he cannot have obligations, either, and he becomes a slave.
— Is this somehow connected to innate intelligence? With upbringing perhaps?
— No, this is connected not to the intelligence or upbringing of any given person but exclusively to the society’s level of development.
— What is so characteristic in the type of upbringing that does not make a citizen of a person, shall we say?
— The best way to rear someone with a servile consciousness is to give him the answers to all the questions and not set any tasks for him that he ought to have had the chance to resolve independently.
— So what we get isn’t a citizen. How can this person be influenced then?
— Leave him in peace and don’t ask the impossible. History knows uprisings of slaves as a result of which the slaves became free. But history also knows examples when free people became slaves. There is one path to freedom: education
— Education in the broad sense of the word? Or do you mean also the necessity of changing school and university education?
— In the broad sense of the word, but starting with a good primary school.
— Is there a direct link here? Europe, for example, has marvelous universities, of course. But many don’t choose to study at them. You can’t say everyone is educated and has a diploma. Still, the level of civic consciousness is many times higher.
— Education is not only college or university. It’s the family, the environment a child grows up in, the primary school and first teachers.
— In that sense, can we expect transformations only from within the country?
— To be honest, I’m not anticipating any transformation. Where would that come from? To anticipate transformations, you first have to learn to set objectives. Our last formulated objective was “build communism.” I didn’t notice any other precisely formulated objectives. Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention? You can always count on the Lord God, of course. Maybe some kind of transformation will be lowered down from above? But you can be mistaken, too.
— If we look on what is going on right now as some historical cycle coming to a close, do you think the new one will also have “little men”?
— Where are they supposed to go? This is the main problem of our future. To be frank, the greatest evil in the world stems not from ‘little men’ but from men who imagine themselves great.
— Can you imagine Russia without this phenomenon (the little man who can’t do anything)? Or the world in general (if beyond this it turned out this was not just our phenomenon)? They say that “man is manure for history.” (Hegel?)
— Hegel himself was anything but the “manure of history.” You’ve touched on an important problem of demography that clashes with today’s political correctness. In the human population, what is called progress is made thanks to a very small percentage of the population. From that standpoint, everyone else can be considered manure. Both you and I, who are not outstanding scholars or organizers, are part of that manure. Let us treat this manure with respect and, as much as possible, love.
— What is the role of cultural figures here?
— It’s huge. They are the engines of progress, the enlighteners of society.
— What is an intelligent person? Is it the antonym of this “but we are little men”?
— An intelligent person is someone who doesn’t engage with those petty questions but studies the phenomena of nature. Including human nature.
— The polis, which you spoke of at the very beginning, nonetheless assumes that the human being is still closely tied to nature. Now that’s no longer true. How are nature and policy interconnected?
— Good policy is possible if nature is bad and if the weather is bad. But good policy is ruled out when it is conducted by selfish people. And there aren’t very many unselfish altruists in the world.
— What about nature and education? How exactly would that look in practice—man studying nature and thereby receiving an education?
— In primordial times, that’s exactly how the matter stood. Man studied nature because he himself was a part of it and in this way he received his education. Over the last two millenia, the state of affairs has changed greatly. Modern man does not realize the degree to which he himself is a part of nature, and highly developed nature at that.
— Where in literature is this theme best represented? What should we read to understand better?
— Well, you have to read the great authors. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Nabokov. They don’t ignore this theme.
— Will reading and understanding in general help here?
— Reading alone and exclusively. What else?
— In the future, yes. But if we were just to read right now, would that really help?
— Well if that won’t, then nothing will.
— How do we avoid snobbery here? Or indifference? (Look, I’m an activist, but they’re all fools—isn’t that how it is? Or not?)
— In and of itself, reading is a wonderful way to avoid both.
— In the end, isn’t it true that the fact that the majority of people aren’t very smart is the only possible engine of history?
— I’m afraid that whichever way history moves, it’s no thanks to fools.
Translated by Marian Schwartz