To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.
— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Century upon century of sadistic domination on the part of Kipchak khans, paranoid Rurikids, autocratic Romanovs, genocidal Soviet commissars, kleptocratic oligarchs, and former KGB goons have left the Russian people marked with commensurate layers of spiritual scar tissue. Any populace subjected to such unrelenting coercion by its own state would understandably resort to the well-known psychological self-defense mechanisms of denial, repression, regression, displacement, reaction formation, and introjection just to make it through the day, let alone the epoch. All these phenomena are very much in evidence in the Russian case, but it was the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak, in his perceptive 2005 study of everyday Soviet life, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, who added another related mechanism to the inventory: the state of “being vnye,” or “outside,” existing “within a context while remaining oblivious of it,” “simultaneously a part of the system and yet not following certain of its parameters.” It is this psychosocial out-of-body experience that has enabled ordinary Russians to maintain a modicum of internal moral equipoise in the face of soul-crushing czarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet despotism.
The samizdat journalist Sergei Dovlatov considered his fellow writer Joseph Brodsky to be something of a prodigy when it came to “being vnye”:
Brodsky created an unheard-of model of behavior. He lived not in a proletarian state, but in a monastery of his own spirit. He did not struggle with the regime. He simply did not notice it. He was not really aware of its existence. His lack of knowledge in the sphere of Soviet life could appear feigned. For example, he was certain that … Comintern was the name of a musical group. He could not identify members of the politburo of the Central Committee.
Brodsky’s casual insouciance was no doubt quite charming at the time and enabled him to produce some decent early poetry, like the quietist “A Jewish Cemetery near Leningrad” (1958), which spoke of those buried dead who:
Maybe believed blindly
But they taught their children to be tolerant
To become resistant
And they did not sow wheat
They never sowed wheat
They simply lay down
In the cold ground, like grain
And fell asleep forever
And were covered with earth
None of this, mind you, prevented Brodsky from being accused of “social parasitism,” sentenced to hard labor in the Arctic Circle, and then “strongly advised” to enter into permanent exile.
Other writers were rather more successful at threading the delicate needle of Soviet cultural and political life. Lilianna Zinovyevna Lungina, a Smolensk-born translator interviewed for the riveting 15-part 2009 documentary Podstrochnik, or Word for Word, expressed her dismay at how the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko proved “capable of remarkable things, such as ‘Babi Yar,’” yet proudly insisted that “on his left side he carried a Party membership card instead of a heart.” She continued:
He wrote things like that, too. I can’t just brush aside that reference to a Party card. Somehow he managed to balance both things.… He was a person with liberal views and sympathies, when all was said and done. He simply knew how to perform a good balancing act, he knew how to stay afloat. And he kept floating.
Lungina was likewise disappointed with Mikhail Lifshitz, a philosopher of art who was unjustly attacked during Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s loathsome “campaign against cosmopolitanism” but remained supportive of the brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising on the spurious, supposedly Hegelian grounds that “everything happens for a logical reason,” leading Lungina to conclude:
Courage that is, let’s call it physical — for example, courage in war, when a person masters his fear of bullets or when he overcomes his fear of confronting a gang that has taken over a street — this sort of courage is quite distinct from intellectual courage. Life taught me that intellectual courage is much harder to muster than physical courage, than overcoming the instinct to save one’s own skin. People find it easier to risk their lives than to admit to themselves that the path they have chosen is mistaken, to cross out that path, to refuse to go in the direction that you have been moving your entire life. I saw many examples —among French Communists, by the way, as well as among us — of noble, courageous people, who did not have the strength of spirit to make this choice.
Generations of Russians have learned that mastering the art of being vnye can obviate the need to make such a frightening and dangerous choice.
Yurchak, in his ethnographic investigation into ordinary Soviet life, noted how the exhortations of dissidents like Václav Havel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to “live in truth” or “live not by lies” were largely ignored by a general public that preferred, as his informants characterized it, “living lightly,” “leading a very fun life,” and “making merry in general” when at all possible. Reasonable, nonideological people opted to go into what was known as vnutrenniaia emigratsiia, or “internal emigration,” another way of describing the psychological state of vnye. This is not meant as a critique of what is essentially human nature. In every society, and every subset of society, there are received ideas and disfavored ideas; people instinctively know when to keep schtum and also how to “eate and drinke, for to morrowe wee die.” There is always a front stage and a backstage. In Russia, however, that stage also has any number of deadly trap doors hidden beneath it; there are agents of the Oprichniki, Okhrana, Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, or FSB waiting in the wings; the actors are quite frequently taken out back and murdered; and the denouement is seldom if ever a happy one.
What is more or less natural in an individual can be positively Orwellian when adopted by the body politic as a whole. It is one thing for, say, Yevtushenko “to know and not know” depending on his own personal circumstances, eloquently conjuring up as he did the Nazi horrors of Babi Yar while eagerly swearing an oath of fealty to a Soviet state equally capable of killing by the tens of millions. Yevtushenko even admitted to being convinced of the guilt of the Jewish physicians targeted in the infamous “Doctors’ Plot” affair, at least until Stalin was dead and the Khrushchev Thaw had begun, at which point he could safely say what he surely must have known all along, that the plot “was being used to launch an anti-Semitic campaign.” All this tergiversation, simply because he wished to stay afloat and not be drowned somewhere in the Gulag archipelago — we can readily understand the psychology at work here. But it is another thing altogether when that same phenomenon is writ large, as when a country, say, erects memorials to victims of the Gulag system (like the Maska skorbi, or Mask of Sorrow, in Magadan, Russia), only to turn around and erect monuments to the inhuman dictator responsible for that very system. The “carefully constructed lies” of the state are very different than those of an individual. Cognitive dissonance is to be expected in a person, consistency’s being the “last refuge of the unimaginative,” as poet Oscar Wilde put it, echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s even better-known aphorism about foolish consistency, hobgoblins, and little minds. Collective cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, can drive a country stark staring mad.
The Russian Federation is essentially a patchwork of incongruously coexisting contradictions. It has never been determined whether, in the aftermath of two imperial collapses over the course of the 20th century, Russia is a multinational Eurasian community or a nationalistic republic of Russian speakers. Is there “one history, one nation, one Russia,” as the nationalist politician Sergey Baburin proclaimed? Or is it simply the case that “Russia is the former Soviet Union,” a belief that Baburin has also maintained? Generations of czarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet historians failed to agree upon the very nature of imperial Russia, which was fundamentally benign and different from other colonial ventures, according to pan-Slavists like Nikolai Danilevsky and Vladimir Lamansky, or was an “absolute evil” for captive nations, as the historian and Bolshevik revolutionary Mikhail Pokrovsky more plausibly countered. Is Russia forging a universal “Russian world,” whatever that might mean, or should it prioritize “Slavic values over universal human values,” as the Communist Party General Secretary Gennady Zyuganov suggests? Russia is often bafflingly presented as a noble, immovable bulwark of orthodoxy and traditionalism, but the far-right philosopher Aleksandr Dugin and his ilk actually view this era as a new “Time of Troubles,” with Russia beset by vampiric internal and external forces. As the Belgian historian David Engels and others have pointed out to their fellow conservatives, it is hard to look at the astronomically high rates of abortion, divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, HIV/AIDS, etc. — not to mention the rampant corruption, the staggering inequality, the political oppression, and the barbarity on display in Grozny, Aleppo, Idlib, Bucha, Mariupol, Izyum, and elsewhere — and avoid reaching the conclusion that Russia is indeed deeply spiritually unwell. (READ MORE by Matthew Omolesky: The Ukrainian Dancers: Cultural Genocide, Cancel Culture, and the Fight to Preserve Ukrainian Identity)
It has never been determined whether, in the aftermath of two imperial collapses over the course of the 20th century, Russia is a multinational Eurasian community or a nationalistic republic of Russian speakers.
These contradictions have hit a fever pitch during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Orwell could hardly have done better than Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who justified the illegal attack on the grounds that “[t]he goal of Russia’s special military operation is to stop any war that could take place on Ukrainian territory or that could start from there.” (It was this statement by Lavrov that prompted Ukraine’s UN envoy, Sergiy Kyslytsya, to urge his diplomatic counterpart to seek help for mental health issues by calling the National Health Service 111 hotline, though, unfortunately, as of the time of writing, Lavrov has yet to be sectioned under any relevant mental health act.) In one breath, the war is described as a “humanitarian operation,” and in another as a crusade “to crush [and] destroy Ukraine even if we have to tear down all their factories and poison all the black soil, even if we have to cut the tendons of our economy and lose many of the best [of] our young men,” as the journalist Egor Kholmogorov laid it out in decidedly anti-humanitarian terms. Ukraine is deemed a brotherly nation desperate to be reunited with its neighbor, yet propagandists concomitantly denigrate Ukrainian so-called khokhols as “sub-humans” in need of “biological annihilation,” even calling for more and more Buchas, as was the case when the war correspondent Vladlen Tatarsky, appearing on the inaptly named RT program Beautiful Russia, beseeched his fellow Russians to admit “Yes, that’s how we are …We’ll show you even more. Fear us!”
Without putting too fine a point on it, none of this makes any sense whatsoever. It is all so mystifying that I am reminded of the 19th-century Czech poet and journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský’s 1845 epigram “Ruská konstitucí,” or “The Russian Constitution”:
ruský cár velmožům
míti třeba tisíc duší,
jenom žádný rozum.
[From time immemorial
The Russian czar has allowed the magnates
To have perhaps a thousand souls,
But never any reason.]
The Russian embrace of unreason is now basically complete. Admirable organizations like Memorial International that raised awareness of events like the Great Purge and the Red Terror have been intimidated, branded as foreign agents, and ordered to close, and with actual Russian history rendered non grata, pseudohistory abounds, as exemplified by widespread revisionism and re-Stalinization efforts. Consider the absolute nonsense on display at the Yaroslavl Museum of the New Chronology, where visitors can learn about how Jesus Christ was actually a composite of the prophet Elisha, Saint Basil, and the Western Xia emperor Li Yuanhao(!); how Jerusalem, Troy, and Rome are all the same city; how all of Eurasia and much of North America was colonized by something called the “Russian Horde”; how the written history of human civilization extends no further back than 800 A.D.; and how a dark conspiracy engineered by the Vatican, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Romanovs somehow kept all of this under wraps until recently. (READ MORE: Inhuman Land: Aleksandr Radishchev, Józef Czapski, and the Search for the Other Russia)
Aleksandr Dugin, meanwhile, rants and raves about Russia’s upcoming “decisive battle” with the “the civilization of the Antichrist,” and the need for Russia to forge a grand alliance with Iran, North Korea, Serbia, Syria, Central African Republic, Mali, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and other sympathetic countries in order to prevail. And then there is Roman Silantyev, head of the Moscow State Linguistic University’s “Laboratory of Destructology”— something which actually exists — who is heroically raising the alarm concerning the ever-present threat of “Columbine Satanism.” Bitter Winter’s Massimo Introvigne has wryly observed that
Silantyev has a new book on “Columbine Satanism” and he promoted it in a conference in Nizhny Novgorod attended by representatives of the Office of the President of the Russian Federation for Public Projects, the National Anti-Terrorism Committee, the FSB, the Main Directorate for Combating Extremism of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia, and Dvorkin’s deputy in their Russian anti-cult umbrella organization that had joined the European federation FECRIS, Alexander Novopashin, who moderated a session where “experts” discussed how to counter the ideology of “Columbine Satanism” (if only it existed).
The esteemed professor of Destructology has also been warning his fellow Russians about the danger posed by the “MKU” or “Maniacs Murder Cult,” which is apparently at the heart of Ukrainian resistance to the Muscovite invasion, “another interesting organization,” Introvigne adds, “which has the advantage of having all the features of the stereotypical ‘cult’ and only one disadvantage, it does not exist.”
This is truly bizarre stuff, and it is little wonder that your average Russian would prefer to undertake a vnutrenniaia emigratsiia, an “internal emigration” to a psychological state of vnye than to be obliged to take any of this even remotely seriously. Evidently, quite a few Russians have opted for a more literal form of emigration, with at least 300,000 of them departing the federation in the months following the invasion of Ukraine, including some 50,000 IT specialists and perhaps 15,000 millionaires, and we have just seen, in the aftermath of Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization and accelerated conscription, how plane tickets from Russia to visa-free destinations immediately sold out. For those who remain, a blissful state of vnye may be tricky to maintain, given how difficult it is to remain outside a system that is forcibly conscripting men of all ages as it transitions to what the Russian military analyst Konstantin Sivkov has called “military socialism” fueled by a “wartime economy.”
Historical precedent suggests that the Russian people will once again put their heads down and find ways of believing blindly.
Putin’s partial mobilization decree has triggered modest protests in cities from the Urals to the Far East, though these acts of resistance admittedly pale in comparison to what we are currently witnessing in Iran in the aftermath of the unconscionable murder of Mahsa Amini by the regime’s morality police, or the immense efforts of the Ukrainian people to preserve their national identity against staggering odds. Thus far, Russia has relied on its elite units and private military companies mixed with divisions drawn from the hinterland (Buryats, Tuvans, and Chechens) in order to keep the war from overly impacting the traditional Russian heartland. As the Russian fronts collapse and casualties mount, this balancing act is no longer feasible, and the war has finally begun to hit home. Historical precedent suggests that the Russian people will once again put their heads down and find ways of believing blindly, or being vnye, but perhaps this is the moment when they at last, as Lilianna Lungina once urged, “admit to themselves that the path they have chosen is mistaken, to cross out that path, to refuse to go in the direction that you have been moving your entire life,” and finally put an end to a pariah-status ruscist regime that offers only death, destruction, and increasingly unhinged ideologies. One can live in hope. After all, as we know, everything is forever, until it is no more.