Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Window on Eurasia: New Dystopian Novel Foresees Russian Breakdown by 2012

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 13 – In recent years, Russian writers have routinely dealt with many of that country’s most difficult and intractable problems in dystopian novels, but most such books have been set in a distant or indeterminate future and thus strike many readers as early warnings rather than descriptions of what is taking place in Russia today.
But a new book, Yevgeny Zubaryev’s “2012. Chronicles of a Time of Troubles” (in Russian, Moscow-St. Petersburg: AST Asterl-SPB, 2008), describes events so close to the present that it is leading readers and reviewers to treat it as a commentary on present-day Russian political and social life.
One reviewer, Rosbalt.ru’s Tatyana Chesnokova, in fact argues that all of the events described in the book are entirely plausible extensions of the current political and social situation in the country, a conclusion that makes Zubaryev’s novel more worthy of attention than might otherwise be the case (www.rosbalt.ru/2009/01/11/608605.html).
In his book, she writes, Zubaryev offers “a dramatic picture of the sudden degradation of the social order of Russia,” a world in which “Moscow begins to lose control over the situation in the localities” and in which “the inability and unwillingness of the powers that be to restore order and take responsibility [for that] is masked by liberal demagoguery.”
As public order decays around the country, the security services “work exclusively for themselves and for a narrow circle of the most senior bureaucrats,” and Moscow remains “the single zone of relative order” because there “the corrupt bureaucracy seeks to preserve a peaceful life for itself.” Everywhere else, according to Zubaryev’s story, “chaos” continues to spread.
Criminals rule the streets, and the authorities do nothing, fearful that going after the criminals will only exacerbate “national, social and regional” tensions and make the bad situation even worse. And as things deteriorate, most people withdraw from public life hoping to avoid becoming victims of either criminal elements or corrupt officials.
But as is often the case with such dystopias, a hero emerges who stands up to these forces. In Zubayev’s novel, it is a student of the St. Petersburg Polytechnic who having returned from military service agrees to organize the delivery of supplies from the northern capital to the city of Elista.
This group overcomes any number of difficulties and helps those in need, and “quite quickly around this small nucleus of decisive men begins to form a new structure – people who want order, who want to live, who want a strong and decisive leader.” And these people, in what Chesnokova argues is “an entirely predictable way,” save Russia.
But it is her comments about this group, on the one hand, and remarks about the social degradation, on the other, that are the most intriguing aspects of her review. With regard to the first, she notes that Zubaryev has displayed “ethnic political correctness” by including a Jew and an Armenian in the band, lest it look like some kind of restoration of the Third Reich.
Moreover, she points out that the leader of this group is “strikingly similar” to Vladimir Putin: “a simple resident of St. Petersburg, a true comrade, a leader who is not afraid to take tough decisions up to and including the use of force and who hates the rotten liberals and all those liars from the OSCE.”
Chesnokova suggests that these parallels may not have occurred to Zubaryev but adds that they are obvious to any reader. However that may be, she insists that the real subject of this books is “about a society which is quickly losing its social capital,” a society which she writes is “very similar to the one in present-day Russia.”
According to the reviewer, social capital, a term taken from social philosophy, refers to “the system of informal rules and mechanisms which exist within a definite group of people, including within an entire country” and whose “chief component” is “trust and the readiness to help others.”
“In essence,” she continues, “this is the social cement which holds formal constructions together,” and that is precisely what post-Soviet Russian society does not have. Before 1991, she says, “there wasn’t freedom and sausages but there was social capital.” Today, that doesn’t exist, and “people do not believe the authorities [because] they understand that the latter often lie.”
But still worse, Chesnokova continues, “people do not believe in themselves and do not believe in the essential goodness of human nature.” Instead, they view others and they view themselves as fundamentally base creatures ready and able to commit the worst sort of crimes against others.
In her vision, and she suggests this is Zubaryev’s as well, “corrupt oligarchic capitalism has been able to awaken in all nations and social strata of Russia their worst aspects” by destroying the social capital and cement that had held things together and thus opening the way to a new time of troubles.
Thus, writer and reviewer continue, the fundamental problem for Russia and Russians is “the total corruption which has penetrated the entire system of state institutions beginning fr4omt he very top. And if the authorities do not find in themselves the strength to resolve this problem, then the dark prophecy of “The Chronicle of a Time of Troubles” will be fulfilled.”

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