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Russian 20th century as a bungee jump

30.01.2001 10:12

Russian 20th century exactly corresponds to the emotional roller coaster experienced by someone doing the first bungee jump.

Czar Nicholas II’s regime was like going up in the bungee jump elevator: on the surface, everything was fine, but there was a premonition of an impending catastrophe. The Provisional Government of 1917 was like standing on the high platform, knowing that the jump head first into an abyss is now inevitable. The Bolshevik revolution of October 17, was like a step into the abyss, and the first few meters of flight, when you are surprised at yourself that you are flying free and that you are still alive. You have just had to leave your wallet with all your money behind, you have nothing on you that could fall off, not even your shoes, but you no longer care. A fraction of a second, and the acceleration kicks in, and this is the Civil War, a moment when you are certain that you are going to die. You are going to die! Right now! Here it comes!

And then you realize that you are probably not dead yet. Or is it you? You are flying at a tremendous speed head first towards the ground, closer and closer. Now? Inside, you have already accepted death, so the moment of smashing against the ground no longer scares you, indeed, it is sort of welcome.

A totalitarian state is not “a police state”, or a state where they march under banners. A totalitarian state is one where every citizen, occasionally or constantly, feels that life is more horrible than death, where every citizen feels that his death has already occurred, and seeing himself functioning, is too emotionally drained to be surprised.

In Russia, millions of inmates felt this way, but so did millions of guards, judges, journalists, and coworkers of the victims. Millions of disinherited peasants felt this way, but so did all the party members. All those who as much as glanced at a portrait of Stalin, did not know whether they lived in a God’s world or in a Stalin’s world, and therefore could not be sure whether it was really them, whether they were really here.

And then, just when you thought you were going to hit the ground, the bungee rope starts jerking you around. It is very scary, and also beautiful at the same time: you cannot tell who is right or wrong, where is up or down. This moment is called “the purges” when high ranking Party members find themselves in the same cell with pickpockets. And then the jerking stops and everything becomes very quiet as you find yourself hanging upside down at a hundred feet height. You see everything and everyone clearly, but you see just the tops of their heads, and it is very unreal. Your “friend-foe” recognition system is totally broken. It is like, “Excuse me, are you my dad or are you an enemy of the people?”

Then there is Khrushchev’s time when you are slowly lifted up to the cabin and your feet are freed from the bungee grip. It looks like now you could again be walking.

Then there is a tremendously boring period as you take the elevator to the ground. After the tremendous acceleration of a headlong flight, it feels like the elevator is hardly moving at all! (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev).

And then finally your feet are on the ground. You are free, but you cannot walk. Who are all these people? What are they saying? What is it all for? How am I to live now? I was just over there, high up, flying faster than a plane, with my head down! What am I to do, here on Earth? You take a few embarrassing slips due to queasiness, but the Yeltsin’s time ends, too. It was the time when you were supposedly free to do what you were not really able to do, because you were just groggy.

And then the time of Putin comes around, and, with your feet firmly on the ground, you say, “Yea, the flying part was good, they should not have untied the bungee, I am already thinking of taking the plunge again”. This is what looks like a nostalgia for the times of Stalin, a yearning to “have the country’s feet bound again”.

No German truly believes that Hitler really existed, even those who saw him alive. To cover up the real Hitler, they have an image of a Hitler, who could be “cruel” or a “criminal” or “a guy with a funny moustache”. Whatever the label, it is just a label, and that is what allows the Germans to go on living. The same with the Russians: the Soviet anthem is a hymn of the Stalin era and to the Stalin era, and historians will tell you that this era was worse than horrible. But this is not how the Russians see it: each one has a deck of a few simple labels that they shuffle at will. It is exactly like a difference between doing a bungee jump and watching it. Putin does not want to “revive the time of Stalin”, he merely hopes that the image would help him to cover up a gaping hole. It is exactly the same as taking a bungee jump: to fill an otherwise empty evening. And the fact that Putin is trying to cover is this: the Russians refuse or prove to be incapable of being the citizens of Russia, to take their own lives and the fate of their country into their own hands and to manage it productively and humanely.

The following table recaps the era, with the “Main Emotion” column proving that Russia went through the same emotional roller coaster as a bungee jumper.

PERIOD BASIS OF CHARACTER MAIN EMOTION
Pre-revolution Character is based on individual experience of each particular person, but the factory, and especially the WWI, undermine “credibility” of individual experiences as a foundation of life. One increasingly believes newspapers more than one’s own five senses. doubt, uncertainty
Revolution “We shall build our world, the new world: he, who was nothing, will be everything.” - Russian version of the Communist hymn, the Internationale. There is no firm basis of character, everything is permitted and people cannot tell good from evil exhilaration, horror and joy rolled into one.
Stalin’s time Character is firmly based on the ideology while individual experiences and judgments are hidden or abandoned. Everything is normal, there are strong emotions of joy, achievement, growth, heroism, fear, sometimes horror; but all of it somehow does not seem real It could not be me! It could not be happening!
Khrushchev Noticing life around you, breathing in the fresh air Touching the ground with your feet as if for the first time
Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev Life is boring and routine, yet one cannot help but to enjoy stability Wondering where did all the excitement go
Yeltsin Great changes, big hopes, and predictably tragic results I must be a hero: look at me (yet knowing that little has changed inside); wearing a mask of a hero, but the flowers one should be getting for one’s heroism did not materialize. The hasty kiss the West gave to Russia, relieved that the crazy jumper was in fact alive, did not lead to a marriage with a groggy, shaken, and wild-eyed amateur stuntman
Putin Angry return to the same old self, emptiness and uncertainty Wishing for the same feeling of self-denial as one experienced before, but knowing that only the routine reality lies ahead
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