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Moskovskiye Novosti, June 4, 2004

Boris Strugatsky: "We cannot do it any other way yet"

An interview with Boris Stugatsky by Boris Vishnevsky

A famous sci-fi writer believes that the authoritarianism of Russian society is so far incurable. So the screen version of his novel "It's Hard to Be God", now in the making, is not about to lose any of its relevancy

Question: You once said that the current governing authorities were trying to revive Russia's power structure circa 1913, adjusted to contemporary specifics. What exactly did you mean?

Strugatsky: The general setup is this: a tough "centreperiphery" top-down command structure with a minimum of self-government on the local level, unconditional subordination of the business sector to the central authorities, and strict supervision by the security and law enforcement agencies over all developments in the country. Yet at the same time there is no preventive censorship; there are broad opportunities for private business, which knows its place; there is a legal multiparty system, and there is considerable freedom of publishing activity. The Russia of 1906-13 was a heyday of liberalism, liberties, and private enterprise, unprecedented for a perennially totalitarian state. A Silver Age of sorts. Also, with a good outlook for the future - that is, as long as it did not get involved in a Big War. Today this setup is known as a "managed democracy." This regime even allows itself a certain degree of progress, but of course a very slow, stumped kind of progress - just like everything else done on behalf and in the name of the State and by its authoritarian hand.

The screws could be tightened even more than they are now. But then it would not be the "Russia of 1913" nor a "managed democracy" but something altogether different - something well-known to us, with all the ensuing consequences. My impression is that this is not something that the governing authorities are looking for. God forbid that I could wrong.

Question: In the meantime, the role of the state security and law enforcement structures in the country has been growing. In 1990-91, the KGB was generally hated and despised; today, the Federal Security Service (FSB) is honoured and respected. When did this turnaround come about?

Strugatsky: I would not talk about "honour and respect" v apart perhaps from the powers that be, but this is only natural. In the past, as now, the state security "organs" evoked basically the same kind of reaction from the broad masses: controlled/ deferential hostility. On the other hand, the subject of Stalin and Brezhnev reprisals (just as the subject of the various black-and-bloody spots of contemporary history) has by now to a very large extent been exhausted. Society today is fixed on other subjects of public interest. Besides, the FSB has managed to retain a rather low profile: The main dissidents today are fat cats and medium-level executives, they are being dealt with by another law enforcement monster - the Prosecutor General's Office.

Question: The FSB is respected not only by the powers that be. Just look at how its generals have been winning elections at all levels. Although it is true that the police are generally disliked. But why are the state security services treated so differently?

Strugatsky: The electorate comes up against the police on a daily basis and knows them through and through, up close and personal. State security officers are secretive people, beyond the reach of the general public and so somewhat enigmatic and even mythical. In accordance with ancient perceptions, they are the ruler's eyes and hands, the exponents and enforcers of the all-important Order: "They are simply indispensable - what with the general chaos and asylum." This is a hoary, tenacious myth that has yet to be debunked. The "generals winning elections at all levels," are part of the same myth - by virtue of their rarity, remoteness, exoticism, and near unreality. Incidentally, the police are disliked all right, but police generals are also respected and elected just as easily as any other generals.

Question: The official ideology of the present governing authorities posits the priority of state interests over citizens' rights. Isn't it strange that citizens put up with this so readily?

Strugatsky: This, if you will, is part of our general mentality. "We are men of the state," Peter the Great used to say. What he meant of course was that the state was above all else and that he, the sovereign, knew exactly what the state needed. No one else knew better than he did. Many of us think that this approach is quite sensible and even preferable than others. The fact is that the state is always an abstraction, a symbol, a highfalutin word, while the civil servant is always an embodiment of this symbol - the bureaucrat, who alone by definition, knows exactly what the state needs. This is why all developments in Russia are based, essentially, on a recurring pattern, and only one thing remains immutable: the power of thebureaucracy.

Question: "Statist" and "patriotic" speculations are in vogue today; many people go about calling themselves "statists." Is this nostalgia for a lost empire?

Strugatsky: Presumably nostalgia, inter alia. An individual generally prefers to live in a Great State. Sometimes I ask myself: How do others manage to do without this specific identity? Luxembourgers, for example? True, Luxembourg is a grand duchy.

Question: For some reason, one outcome of a decade-long democratic reform has been the revival of the autocracy - the building of an authoritarian regime. Why?

Strugatsky: Because we cannot do it any other way yet. We can only hope that this is merely a
stage in the transition from the accustomed totalitarian Russian system to a totally unaccustomed democratic system. At the end of the day, we are less than 20 years removed from classic totalitarianism - less than the lifetime of one generation.

Question: How long could the "authoritarian stage" last in Russia - until, for example, an economic catastrophe strikes with the plummeting of oil prices?

Strugatsky: Should - God forbid - an apocalypse, called "the crash of oil prices," occur, a real "authoritarian stage" will set in. The present situation will be just the thin end of the wedge - nothing compared with what is to come. A new serious decline in living standards will only be compensated by a further tightening of the screws. It is another matter that the screws are not what they used to be. So what - a new Great anti-bureaucratic Revolution? God forbid! There has been enough trouble, enough damage caused already. High oil prices impede our advancement. ("Why do we need advancement if things are going so well for us?") With low oil prices advancement raises its head, but then it turns out that this is the head of a dragon (uprising, coup, revolution, etc.).

Question: The desire of the people to swap freedom and democracy for order and security is unmistakable. Is this a purely Russian phenomenon?

Strugatsky: This is characteristic of any country with a rich totalitarian past. In 1933, the Germans traded freedom and democracy for "order and statehood." But Nazism is a dictatorship of nationalists. Ours is somewhat different - a dictatorship of bureaucrats. The similarity comes from dictatorship. The common denominator is dictatorship. Always and everywhere it has the same characteristics: the iron hand, the rigid vertical chain command, unbridled demagoguery, the enemy stereotype, etc.

Question: Why is there none of this today in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, or Bulgaria? How do they - those that at one time resembled the USSR - differ from us now?

Strugatsky: As a matter of fact, they never resembled us. Their peoples are also different, with a different history. The same holds true for their rulers. Their method of governance is more European. Simply there are no Soviet troops in those countries now or Soviet secret police, which were the only source of this "similarity."

Question: You have often said that the country's foreseeable future will hinge entirely on just one person. What can be expected from this person?

Strugatsky: I believe that his role model is Peter the Great - of course, without the emperor's Asiatic kinks and excesses. I strongly suspect that the structure of the pre-War (and pre-Revolutionary) Russia of 1913 appears optimal to him - not the best possible in principle, of course, but optimal - the best attainable in specific conditions.

Question: Will a lesson be drawn from the assassination of [the President of Chechnya] Kadyrov or will there be yet another crackdown to bring Chechnya to heel? The U.S. administration is now scurrying to apologize for tortures in Iraq, but over here no one seems to be following suit.

Strugatsky: The Chechnya problem will last for at least another two generations v maybe even three. The program that Putin is now trying to carry out there is probably the only viable option. Everything else is either naive, starry-eyed prattle or outright cannibalism. It is another matter that this program is working slowly or not at all. I am afraid that this is the best that can be hoped for under the circumstances.

Question: Many thought that trial by jury was a good thing. But then a jury acquitted the commandos who killed six innocent people.

Strugatsky: The most horrible part of the story is that the court did not even try to find out whose orders those commandos were carrying out. Why was their commanding officer not interrogated? These are the quirks of domestic jurisprudence. As for the jury court, well, "people's voice is God's voice." This is public opinion and nothing can be done about it, at any rate, not in one fell swoop.

Question: Does the fashion for Orthodoxy fit into the 1913 model? Do you think that there is a danger of clericisation?

Strugatsky: I am an agnostic. This is what, I believe, atheists are called nowadays. I am an inveterate agnostic: I would probably like to be a believer but I don't know how. However, being a believer is so convenient. Your life becomes full of meaning and you get a sense of security and protection, something that is out of reach to any atheist. But this is faith: spiritual life, the will of conscience. As far as the church is concerned, things get a little more complicated here. I suspect that there should not be an intermediary between God and man or this intermediary should not be a person. The church is a kind of party organization that is an intermediary between an individual and his faith in the bright Communist future - with all the ensuing consequences. I think that the danger of clericisation of our society does exist. But, let's face it, this is not the most deadly threat in store for us.


See also:

Understanding Russia

Moskovskiye Novosti, June 4, 2004

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