Kundera’s Angels and Contemporary Political Criticism of Russia

In this article, I want to analyze a strand of contemporary criticism of Russia by means of exploring the tradition of this criticism in the writings of speculative authors.

Painting by Alexander Pytka
Painting by Alexander Pytka


It’s difficult not to notice the international attention that Russia has been receiving during the last few months. Much of this attention from the West has taken the form of criticism, especially concerning alleged human rights violations, financial management of the recent Olympic games, and military actions during the internal political turmoil in Ukraine.

Whether it’s warranted or not, the Western media and internet sources have lambasted Russia for these recent events. Perhaps the most interesting and consistent form that this criticism takes is the qualification of actions of the Russian government as authoritarian and imperialist.

But this criticism doesn’t simply consist of the drawing of attention to historical precedents. At the core of this criticism is a far more significant claim about Russia itself.

In a recent article, CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter Elise Labott states that “[This] is not the Cold War. Today, the United States has the upper hand economically, militarily and diplomatically. But it does face a resurgent, defiant and increasingly authoritarian Russia.”

Interestingly, Labott uses the word “resurgent” rather than “rising” or “ascending,” which would be more in line with the image of a “new face of Russia” that the recent Olympics have tried to propagate. Rather, the word “resurgent” suggests a “reviving” or “reinstitution.” What then is the type of Russia that is being revived? If it is being denied the possibility of rising as a new entity, then it can only being revived as a “defiant and increasingly authoritarian” Russia.

In other words, Labott is not asserting that Russia is behaving like the Soviet Union, for this “is not the Cold War.” She is asserting more generally that Russia is what Russia once was. This claim that Russia is somehow fulfilling a specifically Russian legacy is in fact the core of the contemporary criticism that the Russian government is becoming increasingly authoritarian and imperialist.

This argument – sometimes used against and sometimes in support of the Russian government – has had a long history. It has especially enjoyed a long tradition among speculative writers, especially those from Eastern Europe. For instance, Dostoevsky articulated this argument in the 19th century, Kundera in the 20th, and Boris Strugatsky in the 21st.

In my opinion, this argument has its best and funniest expression in Vladimir Voinovich’s Moscow 2042. Writing in 1986, a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Voinovich provides the satirical story of a man who travels fifty years into the future to see what Moscow will be like. The protagonist finds a bizarre dystopian city under a warped version of Communism and a strengthened police force. At the end of the novel, the Communist system collapses. However, as the former state collapses, the citizens embrace a dissident writer who enters Moscow on a white horse and proclaims himself tsar.  In this way, Voinovich depicts the end of Communist totalitarianism as the beginning of feudal autocracy.

Whether made in jest or in earnest, Voinovich is presenting the argument that Russian society is incapable of breaking free of a certain legacy; that it is doomed, as it were, to perpetuate an authoritarian form of government.

But let’s be clear what this being “doomed” or “fated” consists in. We’re not here concerned with the argument concerning good intentions gone awry.

This latter argument is one that can be found, for instance, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The rebellion at Manor Farm is conducted for the purpose of freeing the animals from the oppressive and unjust supervision of the farmer Mr. Jones. In the end, the pigs who assume leadership over the animals ultimately betray the initial motivations of the revolution by becoming – in both their leadership and their personal behavior – like the humans who they overthrew.

Evidently, Orwell’s dystopian cycle of political progress is different from the one Voinovich presents. Orwell shows us the cycle of a political ideology being doomed to introduce the very form of government that it was meant to modify or overcome. Voinovich shows us the cycle of a form of government being doomed to persist even as various manifestations of that form collapse and are replaced.

In other words, Orwell provides us an argument concerning the site of an ideology, which is the form of government; specifically, authoritarianism may seem to be overcome by Communism, but really Communism is another means of assuring authoritarianism. Conversely, Voinovich provides us an argument concerning the site of a form of government, which is the political state; specifically, Russia will always be an authoritarian state, regardless of the forms that authoritarianism takes.

So to say that Russia is somehow doomed to be an authoritarian state is to make a claim about Russia, not authoritarianism. Voinovich is saying that it will always be the case that Russia is what Russia once was.

Painting by Alexander Pytka
Painting by Alexander Pytka

But why is this idea motivated into criticism of Russia today? Why doesn’t this idea strike us as an object of absurdist humour? Why have I used “doomed” as opposed to “fated,” a sign that I have succumbed to the ethos of a particular time and place?

In an essay written in 1984, Milan Kundera considers whether Communism is a fulfillment or a contradiction of what he calls “Russian history.” He concludes that it is represents discontinuity insofar as it denies Russian religiosity. But Communism represents a fulfillment of Russia’s “centralizing tendencies and imperial dreams.”

Kundera’s essay nicely makes the distinction between two potential arguments: it is not the case that Communism is somehow inherent to Russia; rather, Communism is a means of fulfilling a distinct Russian legacy. This is why Labott can make the same statements that writers were making during the Cold War while still asserting that this is not the Cold War. This is also why Orwell’s argument isn’t particularly useful in the analysis of contemporary criticism.

Crucially, Kundera links his claim about Russian history to the separate claim that the Russian civilization is its own unique and separate civilization, as distinct from a supposed Western civilization. He writes: “I don’t know if it is worse than ours [Western civilization], but I do know it is different: Russia knows another (greater) dimension of disaster, another image of space (a space so immense entire nations are swallowed up in it), another sense of time (slow and patient), another way of laughing, living, and dying.”

The idea that Russia is somehow a civilization of its own is not new either to fiction or to socio-political discourse. In fact, it is an old belief and it serves as a justificatory purpose. Kundera is able to explain the unique Russian legacy as a logical entailment of a unique Russian civilization.

But the idea of an entirely distinct Russian civilization – or at least one that is separated from the rest of the world – no longer holds an appeal in our century, in a century of increasing economic interdependence, global communication, cultural assimilation, and international accountability. This means that – in the absence of any other apparent reason – the Russian legacy is unjustified, a violation of sorts. This is why it provokes Western criticism.

In his speech at the closing ceremony, Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the Sochi organizing committee, repeated his purpose for the 2014 winter Olympics: to show to the world “the new face of Russia.” Supposing the truth of the abovementioned allegations against Russia, we can imagine Voinovich and Kundera laughing cynically at such a statement. They laugh for the same reason that Kundera’s angels laugh: because, despite being blatantly obfuscated, the reasons for this statement make sense.

But the contemporary Western observer doesn’t laugh; rather, he is a sober critic labeling the Olympic mandate a piece of propaganda. This is because the Russian legacy he perceives is extraneous to the contemporary world – its reasons don’t make sense. Not extraneous because it doesn’t fit into a given Western perception of how states ought to behave; but extraneous because it lacks a justificatory footing in the current era.

-Contributed by Alexander Pytka


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