“What are… the guiding ideas of this people with no religion or morality?”

When I discussed Walter Reich’s theory on the Soviet pathologization of idealistic behavior with a colleague, he mentioned a curious episode from the memoirs of a distinguished dissident. He said it was Andrei Amalrik; I’m not sure but here’s the story, anyway.

The dissident was undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, which could lead to “medical treatment” in a special mental ward. The doctors asked the man what had prompted him to make copies of prohibited books, expecting to hear about his principles and convictions. The dissident disappointed them, saying he always worked for money and did the copying for the money, too. That could have triggered an indictment for illegal entrepreneurship  – pretty much every kind of small business was illegal in the USSR – but it saved him from being labeled a schizophrenic.

And since I’ve mentioned Amalrik, his famous 1969 essay Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? has a few simple observations that still apply today, 45 years later.

…[T]he mass exodus of peasants to the city has created a new type of city dweller… He is both frightened and aggressive.  He no longer has any idea to what level of society he belongs.

While the old social structure in both town and village has been completely destroyed, a new one is only just beginning to form. The “ideological foundations” on which it is being built are extremely primitive: the desire for material well-being (relatively modest from a Western viewpoint) and the instinct for self-preservation…

It is hard to tell whether, aside from those purely material criteria, the bulk of our people possess any kind of moral criteria such as “honorable” and “dishonorable,” “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong”…

I have formed the impression, which may be wrong, that our people do not have any such moral criteria or hardly any. The Christian ethic, with its concepts of right and wrong, has been shaken loose and driven out of the popular consciousness. An attempt was made to replace it with “class” morality, which can be summarized as follows: Good is what at any given moment is required by authority…

The need for an ideological underpinning forces the regime to look toward a new ideology, namely, Great Russian nationalism, with its characteristic cult of strength and expansionist ambitions…

What, then, are the beliefs and guiding ideas of this people with no religion or morality? They believe in their own national strength, which they demand that other peoples fear, and they are guided by a recognition of the strength of their own regime, of which they themselves are afraid.

The editor-in-chief of the Russian Forbes, Eldar Murtazayev, recalls a conversation with Yegor Gaidar in the early 2000s. The reformer was skeptical about the pace of social change in Russia.

The Soviet Union existed for more than 70 years. I think that overcoming the consequence of such a distorted system will take no less time.

Murtazayev thought Gaidar’s thinking was too pessimistic.

Many years later, I think I understand what Gaidar had in mind. Twenty-five years (since the collapse of the USSR) is an enormous time span for economic reform… A quarter of a century is a huge time resource for changing a society’s national, ethnic, social makeup. But this period could be too short for a change in behavioral stereotypes…

Especially when the country is being run by a very special Soviet caste.

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