On April 25 in St. Petersburg, Open Russia hosted a talk with Irina Prokhorova, a literary historian and editor-in-chief of the New Literary Observer. The discussion was framed around the theme: "Politics in Russia: Opportunities, Values, Ideals."

 

 

During her talk, Irina Prokhorova touched on a number of crucial problems that exist in Russia today, many of which deserve to be the topic of a full-fledged lecture themselves.

The first group of problems addressed in the talk are related to the current social situation in Russia. According to Prokhorova, terror has been pushed to the foreground of the public discourse and is manifested in the form of intimidation campaigns against those perceived as «enemies.» Although this response may initially be interpreted as hysteria, for some groups, it is in fact a calculated, logical strategy for career-building. These groups see others’ actions as "blasphemy" or "revolt" and immediately launch an intimidation campaign against them, setting the "conviction machine" in motion and the wheel of state repressions turning. As a result, the initiators of this campaign get promoted. The latest example of this pattern is the decision by Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky to ban the production of Tannhäuser at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater and to fire its director. According to Prokhorova, people such as Medinsky are not as crazy as they appear; they are simply following certain principles on which Russian politics is based. Such actions on the lower levels of government are encouraged by those at the top, thus becoming an integral part of the country’s government. "A ticket to the top is available only to the unworthy," said Prokhorova.

The second group of issues that modern Russia is facing today is associated with the country’s history, which is filled with myths and contradictory interpretations. For example, it is normal to hear in the popular discourse mention of the "Great Rus," with its 1,000-year history, but Prokhorova pointed out that it is more accurate to place the start of contemporary Russia in the times of Peter the Great, thus reducing its history to 300 years. Russia, said Prokhorova, "is a young state. It’s an empire with many complications, and its transformation into a republic and into a federation has been a very difficult process."

Prokhorova provided an interesting example focusing on popular views of the abolishment of serfdom in Russia. "It is a known fact," she said, "that [this reform] brought about the October Revolution. ... Even though Slavophiles and Westernizers argued and differed on many issues, they agreed on one thing—that the peasants were backward and not ready to own their own land. This was a widespread prejudice in Russian society.... Modern studies show that the peasants were not backward at all—they desired more power. As we know, the Bolsheviks manipulated this [tension] very well. One must admit that they knew the Russian people slightly better [than intelligentsia and the political elite]. And they used that [knowledge to their advantage], promising the peasants their land."

According to Prokhorova, today the Russian opposition is making the same mistake in maintaining the same prejudice about "backward people," which makes the opposition not that different from the political elite. Based on her own experience in Norilsk, where she met and spoke with many miners, and multiple encounters with people from all different social backgrounds during book exhibits, Prokhorova concluded: "I see how interesting and wise people can be, much more than we can imagine." Therefore, she continued, the opposition should abandon its arrogant thinking that it is the "bearer of the great truth, and the rest are dumb."

She also called for the abandonment of the outdated Soviet classification of the socium—the authorities, the people, and the intelligentsia—pointing out that although "social life in Russia is very complex, interesting, and multileveled, we are still making certain decisions based on the same literary myths, as are the authorities. If you think about it, we are operating within a system of prejudices." Prokhorovа also criticized popular belief in "Russia’s special way" and called for it to be abandoned on two grounds: first, because conversation about "the special way usually arises at the moment when there is an urge to justify some horrible deed," and second, because "every country has a special way, and every country has developed its own methods to achieve democratic values."

 

The video is available in Russian only.

 

She paid special attention to another complicated social and economic issue: the reforms of the 1990s that many people in Russia view negatively today. She highlighted two key problems surrounding this issue: the myth of the loss of "people’s property" and privatization. Prokhorova pointed out that people tend to think that these reforms took a lot away from them, but that the property they lament losing never belonged to them in the first place: "It was [part of] a system of state serfdom... a specific type of administrative capitalism." She also said that many people forget that during the reforms of the 1990s, they were given the opportunity to privatize their apartments for free, leading "everyone to overnight become property-owners."

Speaking further of the privatization of the Soviet state companies, Prokhorova said that many questions still remain regarding the way this process was implemented: "There must have been a bunch of ugly things, gangsters raiding the factories," she concluded. In her opinion, the dilemma that the reformers faced at the time was the following: "Should they give up large companies to foreign investors or try to grow [Russia’s] own bourgeoisie?" Focusing on the metal giant Norilsk Nickel (in which her brother Mikhail Prokhorov owned a stake), Prokhorova observed that the former "horrible Stalinist monster [of a company] that constantly operated at a loss in Soviet times" has been transformed into a "super profitable" enterprise that is a "major taxpayer of the whole region."

Finally, according to Prokhorova, despite all the problems of the 1990s, it was during that time that the foundational ideas of freedom were established, and it’s on that foundation that the country relies today. "It is amazing that until recently... we didn’t understand [that a free environment] is more important than all the barricades.... Because this is a fight for people’s minds and souls," said Prokhorova. In her words, education, enlightenment, and systematic work with the public are the key areas in which the Russian opposition should be working, "the major political goals today." Political life should not be reduced to preparing for elections and campaigning.

There are a number of obstacles to the achievement of these goals. First, the authorities are trying to take control of education, with "brilliant professors" being fired and "propagandists and ideologists" taking over their places. Prokhorova argued that if no one fights against this, the environment of freedom that provides opportunities for change will disappear. Second, "young people who are entering universities now are different; this is the new generation that has grown up within a system based on lies." Third, the humanities in Russia today lack the understanding that "part of the profession and their mission" is "to transmit new meanings to the public." "We don’t have a language in which to speak to the public," said Prokhorova. Finally, the fact that the Russian authorities have monopolized the idea of "values" is yet another problem. The opposition needs to interrupt this conversation and put forth its own moral ideals for the public.

However, the situation is not as dire as it might seem. Prokhorova expressed the belief that there is public demand for worthy, honest, and high-quality information. "People instinctively feel that [this is something] they are missing," she said. Besides, in Russia today there are many more sources of information than there were in Soviet times.

According to Prokhorova, "if we want to actually achieve democratization and the humanization of society," we must engage in systematic and gradual awareness-building—a process that will take years. "Then," she concluded, "we will see some results."

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