by Ksenia Golubovič, Literary critic, translator and lecturer
Interview by Vera Pozzi, post-doc researcher within the Postsecular Conflicts Project of the Department of Sociology of the University of Innsbruck
Ksenia Golubovič, born in 1972, is a writer, literary critic, translator and lecturer. Graduated from Lomonosov State University in Moscow, she has collaborated with independent non-commercial publishing projects, including Logos (as editor and translator), Post-Babel Condition, and Dictionary of War. She also collaborated with the Moscow School of New Cinema. She is the author of the autobiographical books Wishes Granted (placed on the long-list for the Russian Booker Prize) and Serbian Parabel. Her activities include teaching poetry and cinema, as well as publishing essays and interviews.
Ksenia Golubovič declared: “This interview would not have been possible without a long consultation and discussion with Alena Gromova, an industrial designer who works with various companies throughout the Russian Federation.”
If we took a snapshot of Russian society today, what would we see beyond the sensational events?
First of all, I would say that today we are no longer in the “post-Soviet” era. Among the younger generations there are many people who have not had any contact with the Soviet Union – and therefore cannot be nostalgic for that period, having only experienced the current status quo. This space is divided into two levels: the surface, where people know what their priorities are, which appear to them as substantially natural and follow the mainstream path of the European middle class. Education, health, decent housing, travel, income, and starting a family in the way that suits them best are their priorities, just like anyone else living in the “global world.” But there is also another level that occurs when an individual experiences the pressure exerted by the System—rooted in the State Machine—when he or she tries to live according to acceptable living standards. In this case, when any type of problem – internal or derived from the surrounding environment – encounters this Machine, it is likely that the individual in question will suffer disproportionate pressure. If I had to represent this concept with a geometric shape, I would refer to the infinite 8 or the Mobius strip: even when a certain path may start, in search of the best, on the lighter side of the strip, one easily finds oneself on the “dark side.” Nevertheless, we still manage to move forward and achieve results. This is possible because – despite everything – we are involved every day in a system that allows us to “build bridges,” while navigating the flaws in this system. In finding good specialists, good teachers, the “recommendation” works as an effective social tool. We help each other. And the desired standard still remains “European,” even when we fail.
Can you give an example of the difficulties that a citizen or a citizen may encounter when encountering the State Machine?
For example, in the case of a problem resulting in a court case or a conflict with a large organization, state or private. In this case the risk of losing, even in the case of being right, would be 99% certain. A friend recently told me that in her recent apartment renovation, work had been planned on the pipes which, although they were carried out on paper, they were not in fact. What happened is that the money for the renovations disappeared and the construction managers disappeared, but the tenants could not sue them because they were unaware that the renovation should have been done before the documentation was produced. Therefore, their appeal was not accepted because it arrived out of time. The result is that the tenants will have to live for another twenty years with broken pipes, which for the state are completely fixed, given that the documents state the opposite. And therefore it is not possible to make any claims.
What can you tell us about the health system, especially during this pandemic?
The elderly risk not receiving decent medical care, because doctors are tacitly warned by insurance companies not to spend too much on people whose lives exceed the average life expectancy that the state has attributed to its citizens (70 years). Thus, the state and private companies go hand in hand in applying pressure. If you have COVID, no one takes care of the consequences of it, in fact you remain alone and your death will not ruin the official statistics. In this way, citizens always lose and the state behaves like a big scammer who plays with rigged cards. If you protest they call you “extremist,” if you use democratic rhetoric you can be pointed out as a “foreign agent,” if you use common sense you can be called “crazy.”
How can people access education and get a job, or start their own business in today’s Russia?
First of all, it should be kept in mind that everything is done through a system of family or friends ties or personal contacts, so no one expects to be able to access, for example, a scholarship or get a place in a prestigious company, as all these seats are reserved for those who are part of the “right path.” Government officials are given near immunity, at least until the state decides otherwise and throws an unfortunate individual into the midst of a public corruption scandal. Yet more and more people work for the state, because the state leaves no alternatives. Small and medium-sized businesses are practically non-existent at the moment. And after a certain age, people have no alternative but to work inside the State Machine. This makes them dependent not on the economy but on the state propaganda machine. So they are forced to be part of the mechanism that puts them under pressure every day. This is of course if they have no direct links within the government and with the people in power. Furthermore, there is a very large gap between big cities and small towns, between the rich and the poor. In some ways, it is like living in a state of peace and war at the same time.
How is civil society structured? Can we speak in terms of “majority” and “minority” and, in this case, could we define the members of the former as “liberals” and the latter as “conservatives”?
Minority and majority are important elements in any political discourse. And that of “minority” is a term whose meaning can be very broad. The social elite is also a minority, as is the category of the “excluded” from society and the “oppressed”: it all depends on who is supported. It could be said that, in today’s Russia, all those people and organizations that are constantly branded as “foreign agents,” that is, anyone who receives money from abroad, can be a sign of “good quality.” This is because the criteria of their work meet European or American standards and support the middle-class values that people seek. Just as it was with the Soviet dissidents, in time “the excluded” will be able to rise to the status of social elite. The “majority” of today is made up of people who have made their choice in favor of the state, this is because they have not been able to find opportunities to formulate different choices within more independent sectors of the economy. If approached in the right way, these people may express different opinions, but they publicly support the government because they depend on it. Minorities are largely made up of individuals who can still “function” independently, whether it is a social elite, a homeless person, a dissident or a director. The ideology of the state is not yet completely totalitarian and leaves people a little space to make some independent moves. But only for those who are strong and confident.
What do you think of the concept of “silent majority” in reference to Russia?
I think there is no such thing as a “silent majority.” It is a very dubious notion about which there has been much speculation. Sometimes it even goes so far as to trace an anthropological division between “us” and “them.” The term silent majority is used to frame people as a submissive, childish mass of Putin supporters who expect the state’s permission for every act and thought. What I think is that there are people who are silent not because they have nothing to say or because they are completely submissive, but because they have had a traumatic experience in dialogue with the state, that is, as something that leads nowhere. And so they don’t want to spend their lives arguing and fighting to no avail, thus depriving their families of their attention and care. I disagree when you point the finger at someone or something. People cannot be blamed for the natural desire to spend their life comfortably and among those they love. Furthermore, the struggle for rights and justice for all has never been very “majority.” What we should ask ourselves is how is the “minority” fighting for human rights, and whether it will be able to find a language in common with the great human mass of private citizens. This is the key question. As well as the uncompromising inner growth of the “minority.”
In an interview with Carlo Ginzburg in 2015, he said: “What I see in the liberal part of [Russian] society today is an inflexible desire to expose the lie, but not to understand who shared it.” Do you see this risk also in the complex movement that has arisen around the figure of Alexei Navalny?
It was 2015 when I asked this question in the context of the discussion on Ukraine and Crimea. Thinking about today I think I have already given an answer. As for Alexei Navalny, I can say that he has never been my “hero.” In some ways I see him as a nationalist and a populist, which is always dangerous because, if he were to keep his promises, they would have a great social cost. But I can only admire his courage in the face of so much suffering, his almost voluntary imprisonment, his decision to go through with it. It is like someone who has decided to carry out a public experiment to demonstrate that struggle is possible, that we can act and become a symbol of an action like this beyond any attempt to deprive ourselves of life.
Do you see somewhere in Russian civil society – I am thinking of groups, institutions or individual artists, intellectuals etc. – the presence of this will to “understand”?
I think yes. To a large extent, anyone who does a job today that has some value tries to carry it out, tries to understand people’s lives without being an apologist for it, but observing it with empathy. Among the names that may be known to you there is certainly Andrei Zvjagincev with his famous films Leviathan and Loveless. But I also want to mention Kirill Serebrennikov, a famous theater director and the writers Evgenij Vodolazkin and Viktor Pelevin. But many others too, including singer Manizha who recently stormed Eurovision. Personally, I love the way Russian character and life are described in Olga Sedakova’s Travels, although her position rather expresses individual suffering within the general Russian condition.
According to the Calvert Journal [an online magazine that explores contemporary culture and creativity of the New East: Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia], in 2018 the Russian educational website Arzamas had 1 million subscribers on its social networks, and 4 million monthly views on average. Can we say that there is a growing demand for culture? And do you think this could help develop an attitude towards the aforementioned “understanding”?
I am amazed how many people are hungry for knowledge. There was a time when education was not in fashion. Education did not seem to solve the problem of achieving prosperity and rapid success. I’m talking about the 90s. Now everything has changed. Now the improvement of life comes only through education. And a good background from that point of view becomes important because it teaches you to think and to broaden the vision of the world in which you live. More and more people see themselves as part of an international space. I was really impressed with the amount of people who signed up for the poetry and film classes I gave in Moscow during the pandemic. People of different ages start sharing the same educational spaces. And lifelong learning is becoming a value and a norm. Therefore, the “majority” we are talking about also has among their priorities that of receiving a good education. Consequently, a path is being taken in which the assimilation of European standards of medicine, education, culture, and well-being is indirectly leading to the idea of free choice. And this, once again, brings people closer to understanding the need to protect the right to choose freely. This is one of the hopes I have for the company. I have hope in time, in change, in persistence. I recall what Samuel Beckett once said: “Fail again, fail better!”