| 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
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
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
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
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.