Vienna, November 5 – Because Russia's weak civil society has been "swallowed up" by that country's "authoritarian state," public politics in that country has ended, forcing both elites and masses to draw on updated versions of Soviet-era dissent and resistance to defend what they can of their interests, according to one of Moscow's most thoughtful social commentators.
In an article featured on the Polit.ru portal, Igor Kon, an internationally recognized expert on sociological questions, argues that as a result of this process, "parties and elections become fictions," political struggles take place only behind the scenes, and "political analysts give way to Kremlinogists" (www.polit.ru/author/2008/10/30/kon.html).
For many "career oriented" young people, he continues, such developments are not a problem. They just constitute a change in the rules of the game, but for those who care about civil rights and for those who are for whatever reason excluded from the game, they are. And as a result, members of each are turning to the Soviet past to find ways to advance their interests.
"For those who seek to oppose the powers that be but who cannot or do not consider it appropriate to go into the streets," Kon says, "the main and [even] the only form of political action is becoming Soviet-style human rights activity, under the slogan 'Observe Your Constitution!'"
"Although the practical effect of this activity is not great, and the personal risks connected with it enormous," the sociologist continues, "over the longer term, it undoubtedly works and will bring moral satisfaction" to those who engage in it and to the broader society as well.
As for "the silent majority," Kon argues, the methods available do it are generally variants on the "voting with [one's] feet" that also were in some cases practiced albeit in a less widespread way in Soviet times. And he lists what he suggests are seven ways that various parts of society are currently engaging in.
First, he says, there is "political absenteeism," which includes among other things non-participation in elections, a retreat into private life, and "the minimization of contacts with the disliked state" and its representatives.
Second, there is the development and the passing on to one's children of "an immunity" and even hostility to the ruling ideology. Often this takes the form of mute behavior, but that silence is "sometimes even more effective than an open polemic," especially if the power relations of the two sides are as great as now.
Three, Kon says, people make use of the Internet today much as some of them used samizdat in the past, as a way of learning what is actually taking place in their country instead of simply absorbing what the government wants people to believe.
Fourth, there are gender specific tactics, Kon says, with men displaying anger at what is going on and women aversion to it. Fifth, there is the outflow of capital, a vote of no confidence in the regime and a means of providing those who engage in it with the possibility of having a place to go.
Sixth, there is the tactic, newly available to most parts of Russian society, of participating in a brain drain, leaving the country in order to start a new and better life. And seventh, there is a rejection of the sharp alternatives presented by the state by younger people who are inclined to see the world along a series of continua rather than as a set of either-or situations.
Looking at this reemergence of authoritarianism and the impact of that type of regime on society, Kon concludes with the observation that since it is no longer clear when it is necessary to laugh or to cry, it is "better to laugh all the time" because that at least is "useful for one's health" and makes "surviving current difficulties easier."
But if Kon is able to laugh at some of the features of Russian life now, some are asking questions that raise vastly more serious issues. The Regions.ru portal asked members of the Duma and Federation council "whether Russia will return to the practice of political repressions" like those in Stalin's time?" (www.regions.ru/news/2176312/).
Happily, most but not all of those queried said that such a turn of events was impossible or unthinkable. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this report is that if one lives in a country where that is a question some think is worth asking, there may be far more dangers ahead than anyone wants to believe.