Russia becoming a ‘cultural desert’ thus putting its survival in doubt, Pain says


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“There is nothing predetermined in the history of the development of humanity,” Emil Pain says, and consequently, “the fate of Russia is not doomed.” But the mythology Russians are being told by their leaders to accept, one of “’a besieged fortress’” cut off from others, has “an inevitable consequence: cultural desertification” and that can be fatal.

But even if it isn’t, “the longer and more virulently it manifests itself,” Russia’s leading specialist on ethnic conflict says, “the more complicated will it be” for Russians to escape this desert, to reconstruct bridges to others, and to build a new and better future for themselves and their country.

In an essay in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” today, Pain notes that many countries have faced the desertification of their natural environments because of changes in climate or poor use of resources. But he argues that it is critically important to understand that “analogous processes can take place in social life.”

History shows that “cultural ‘desertification’ leads to decline and sometimes as in the case of multi-national empires even to the disintegration of the country.” And that process is more likely to prove fatal than any foreign action: As William James Durrant observed, “’it is impossible to conquer a great civilization from the outside until it destroys itself within.’”

“Fears are becoming not only a resource for the mobilization of the population but also a weapon in competition for career advancement and other advantages.” That is because this is a mechanism common to all totalitarian systems.

And that process occurs in a remarkably similar way across time and place. First, these regimes seek to close themselves off; then, they suffer stagnation which produces conflicts among the elites which “with time ever more remind one of the fighting of spiders within a bottle;” and finally those divisions within the elites spread to society.

Russia in recent years has been following this trajectory, Pain says. “Numerous signs of spreading obscurantism are clearly manifested in contemporary Russia… An “ideological turn’ has occurred, from the depoliticization of the population to the political mobilization of the masses, above all a negative one against the created image of an internal and external enemy.”

After the protests of 2011-2012, he continues, “the Russian authorities launched a counterattack. For the first time since the 1980s government agitprop began to work, the essence of which in all times was reducible to obscurantism” and was designed to unify the population on the basis of myths and fears about “an external enemy.”

“It is no accident,” he continues, “that the main political force is Russia is called ‘the front,’ as in time of war,” that this obscurantism trend cut Russia off from Europe, a trend “which began several years before the introduction of sanctions by the West, or that it was accompanied by talk from the leadership about Russia’s supposed “’special path’” and an inviolable Russian “cultural code,” both ideas often used and then discredited.

This shutting of Russia off from the world “is giving birth to stagnation and depression,” with the only beneficiaries being those in the most backward forms of economic activity. And it has meant that internal problems remain unaddressed, festering and thus becoming ever more serious.

But this systemic shift also has consequences for individual Russians that some may not have noticed, Pain suggests. “Fears are becoming not only a resource for the mobilization of the population but also a weapon in competition for career advancement and other advantages.” That is because this is a mechanism common to all totalitarian systems.

That in turn leads to negative selection and promotion and thus to the deterioration of elites because “servility” is all and comparisons with outsiders are precluded. That in turn guarantees that favoritism and the sense that all officials are only temporary and accidentally in their positions, two things that leads to irresponsibility and makes the situation still worse.

“I don’t remember who said but it was said wisely: ‘People with brains flee from Russia not because they can’t earn a living but because there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe.’” Over the last three years, a half million have, taking with them the best minds of the country and meaning that “one can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Nobel laureates in Russia.”

Some regime politicians dismiss this as a problem. Duma deputy Milonov, for example, says it isn’t so bad that people with brains are leaving because those who are left are willing to get up at five to milk cows. “This is an example,” Pain says, “of the very irresponsibility” such people display and for which they are never punished.

According to Pain, there is another process in Russia today familiar to those who have studied other empires and their demise: “initially, the cultural centers and capitals spread their ideas to the provinces they controlled, but in the twilight, on the contrary, there occurs a barbarization of culture, archaic forms of the provinces seize the heart of the empire and the culture of the capital created over centuries degrades.”


That happened in Soviet times and it is happening again now, the Moscow ethnic specialist says, and in conclusion, he cites with approval the words of Terry Martin who noted that “modernization was the theory of Soviet intentions, but neo-traditionalism was the result of their unintended consequences.” The same thing risks being true again in the future.

Edited by: A. N.

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  1. Avatar puttypants says:

    Charlie Rose a very popular TV host is interviewing Putin this week which will give Putin a chance to whine about how threatened Russia is by NATO and USA. He lie and Charlie won’t challenge him. Rose does not do that. So Rose is giving Putin a chance to tell his lies to the USA without a challenge because Charlie does not know true Russia history. He has Russian propagandized history. Why isn’t Charlie interviewing the President of Ukraine. A much smaller weaker country that Putin has invaded and is devastated in the most cunning way. The wave of propaganda he’s unleashed against Ukraine and USA. All the surrounding countries embassies and republicans and democrats in the states should tell Rose and his station that in all fairness he needs to interview Ukrainian PM Yat’s and other countries around Russia who have been threatened.

    1. Avatar gmab says:

      I don’t know who Charlie Rose is but any station should let both sides speak. Putin will spew nothing but bs. He hardly talks about Ukraine anymore in Russian News, it’s all about Nato & Russia right now. Don’t you think so?

      1. Avatar puttypants says:

        He’s a popular TV interviewer in America. People will watch. Charlie will let Putin say whatever he wants and he will not challenge him maybe slightly. And no he usually doesn’t let the other side have their say. I just noticed a poll that only 37% of the democrats in the house believe Putin/Russia is to blame for the crisis in Ukraine??? Do they know something we don’t? Or are they getting too much Putler PR? How can Ukraine take any responsibility for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine??? That just shows you how screwed up the dem’s are. They still think Putin is a communist not a criminal. Dem’s always support communists no matter what they do. It’s obvious to me now that democrat’s really don’t believe in democracy or value it by their unsupported stance in Ukraine.

        1. Avatar Czech Friend says:

          this is why I have so little respect for Democrats when it comes to foreign policy. Are they so naive or so cynical?

          Leftists in Western Europe mostly support Putin because they are antiAmerican and still see Moscow as a powerful center of international socialism which of course it isn’t any more.

  2. Avatar puttypants says:

    How can they be pro a country that has been so vile to the countries around it and even to it’s own people. Have they not read what the communists did to people ..the gulags, the starvations, the murders simply for disagreeing with them particularly in Stalin’s time? Don’t they know the true history of this country Russia? The warmongering, the expansionism, the death and destruction it has caused throughout its history? I never would have believed that Europeans were so ill informed on such an important supbject. Why are they so anti-american?

    1. Avatar Czech Friend says:

      they are the offspring of that evil because all the good people are either dead or far gone.