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Russia’s spiral of cynicism

One may be tempted to simply trace the current cynical bent in Russian political culture as an extension of the Soviet past. Yet, while the Soviet experience was essential for nurturing a cynical outlook, the massive social and political transformations of the 1990s largely shaped Russia’s contemporary political culture.

October 5, 2021 - Paul Shields - Articles and Commentary

On a recent research trip to Russia, I struggled to find a single word that described how no one in this country trusted anything. After hundreds of conversations, it was clear many doubted the gas in their car, cartoons on television, milk in the store, and their neighbour down the road. Nothing was real and everything was part of some secret game. And eventually towards the end of my trip, the word, tucked back in my mind sprang forth: cynical. Yes, that is it. Russia is cynical.  

I was disappointed to find that writers had already described Russia as a cynical society and that I was not so clever after all. Sociologist Lev Gudkov argues that cynicism is so saturated in daily Russian life, that it is the “dominant feature of that society”. Anthropologists Natalia Roudakova and Olga Shevchenko find that every level of Russian society beats the cynical drum: journalists, everyday citizens and even the political elite are jaded and expect the worst from others. Even Joseph Conrad in 1907 penned that Russia could be summarised in one word: cynicism. Russia’s unique brand of trust issues revolves primarily around politics, as those with power and those striving for it are held in extreme disrepute. 

“I like Putin”, a friend of mine said, “but I know he fills his pockets with our money.”  

“And what about Navalny?” 

“Navalny says our roads are bad. Corruption is bad. I agree. I just don’t trust him.”

Such dual thinking was common. Those I met were keen to point out the selfish behaviour by politicians and feel self-validated with their ability to see the “truth”. This common perception was often accompanied by sincere indifference, distrust and a lack of interest towards politics altogether. The ultimate irony is that such thinking supported the very system they loathed. 

The origins of a cynical society

Where did this all come from? Why did Russians become so distrusting, cynical and apathetic towards politics? It is hard to pin down exactly. German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk suggests in his magnum opus, A Critique of Cynical Reason, that cynicism is a defence mechanism during times of crisis. It is precisely during large-scale social transitions (war, revolutions, technological advancement), where people experience displacement and disillusionment and a general feeling they are being misled. To protect themselves, those amid chaos often develop a resentful acceptance of the way things are. Given that societies can change at different speeds, certain periods are more prone to developing widespread cynicism than others. Sloterdijk employs the historical example of Weimar Germany to trace the emergence of a cynical culture that ultimately came to accept the emerging Nazi order under Hitler. 

Following the defeat of the First World War and the humiliating Treaty of Versailles, citizens of Weimar Germany felt deceived by the leadership and came to question the sacrifices they gave during the war. Moreover, inflation destroyed the economy. Not only did the German Papiermark become useless but there were few jobs to be had. Weimar society after the war was ideologically bankrupt and exhausted with no clear direction. The decade following Versailles proved just as difficult, as the never-ending cycle of social and political crisis hallowed out the society.

By living in such a state of continual crisis, cynical thinking was the way out. It was much easier to adopt a wary attitude “rather than deal with issues of money, interests, political parties and ideologies”, Sloterdijk writes. The apathetic view was used to overcome the sense of disempowerment, hopelessness, and being overwhelmed. Cynicism was thus an easy escape to a perceived moral high ground, developed not from deep insight, but trauma. 

Late Soviet cynicism

The parallels of crisis are numerous in modern Russia. Alexei Yurchak, in his book, Everything was Forever Until it was No more, describes how by the even late 1970s and 1980s official Soviet ideology became meaningless and warped in a state of lies and catastrophe. While statues of Lenin and workers’ parades were everyway, Soviet citizens did not believe them. 

As Yurchak describes, students would willingly march with official signs, but not know or care what was on it. They would swear an oath during a Young Communist League meeting but read Solzhenitsyn under their desks. Soviet citizens were thus forced to simulate allegiance – by participating in official gatherings, shouting slogans, and voting on predetermined outcomes – while clearly recognising the falsity of their behaviour in private.

Manifestations of such cynical thought in the late Soviet period emerged in various cultural activities in what Yurchak calls “Living Vyne” (Living Outside). Citizens participated in an underground art movement or belonged to an informal physics club, but communally rejected both official Soviet ideology and the dissidents who fought against the ideology. 

The cynical critique of both the official ideology and the dissident movement was thus founded on similar grounds: both the state and dissidents meaningfully engaged with an ideology that was unbelievable. Why engage in lies? Soviet citizens therefore constructed their lives around non-involvement and passive engagement only when required. They “lived outside” of politics completely. A crisis for an ideology that once bound the Soviet Union together led to a different crisis: one of apathy and disengagement. 

Post-Soviet cynicism

One may be tempted to simply trace the current cynical bent in Russian political culture as an extension of the Soviet past. However, while the Soviet experience was essential for nurturing a cynical outlook, the massive social and political transformations of the 1990s also shaped Russia’s political culture.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Russian government had to simultaneously create a new state, a new political system and a new economic system overnight. Such ambitions destabilised the economy with hyperinflation, while bureaucratic infighting slowed the process of implementing necessary reforms. As a result, the provision of goods and services slowed to a trickle, ushering in an era of growing inequality and poverty. The ensuing chaos of led to a decline in social services, employment, living standards and the basic human development of the Russian population. 

Health care statistics during the 1990s illuminates the decline and crisis of the period, as they reflect the stress, uncertainty and decay of living standards. According to the United Nation’s Development Programme report from 2001, levels of tuberculosis doubled across Russia in the 1990s. Deaths exceed births by 11.2 million between the years 1993-2005, as the population declined by about 700,000 per year. Male life expectancy sharply declined to below 60, a level not observed in peacetime developed economies. Childhood immunisation programmes even collapsed for a brief period in the wake of the crisis, while the official poverty rate grew to 25 per cent of the population.

This profound social transformation is also reflected in anthropological accounts of life during this period. Olga Shevchenko’s monograph on daily life in Moscow during the 1990s shows how citizens came to understand this period as a constant “state of emergency”. Shevchenko writes: “The period…indicated a sharp rupture in people’s perceptions of their lives and of the nation’s history more broadly. In their eyes, a gulf had opened between the first post-socialist decade and the rest of their lives, which they had spent in the disappearing socialist universe.”

The structural reorganisation of society broke down communities and formed new ones. The constant sense of change and unpredictability left many disoriented and constantly worried. It was an environment of hopelessness, fear, frustration and unending anxiety.

As a response, Russian citizens hardened their cynical outlook toward politics to assert a sense of agency over their lives. Such a view provided a sense of personal moral worth, especially as those involved in politics were often characterized as immoral subjects. 

Ironically, competence among Russian citizens was equated with being practically and psychologically independent from the state. In short, active political disengagement was a valued social currency. If people ever spoke of political freedom, it became “understood as a freedom from politics”, where one would not have to be involved or even care.

The failure of Russia to successfully consolidate democracy seems to have both damaged the reputation of non-authoritarian alternatives and confirmed the suspicious beliefs of the politically cynic. Russia’s failed political modernisation infected the society with apathy. For those that might have believed in a transition to democracy, their unmet expectations subsequently morphed into anger, despair and a fully realised cynicism. Cynicism thus partly emerged from a grave disappointment. To be disillusioned you must first have believed. 

These attitudes that were forged in the immediate post-socialist era was ironically, the reverse of a democratic socialisation. Rather than see participation as important and part of their civic responsibilities in a democracy, Russian citizens grew further sceptical towards any political involvement at all. If any organisation committed itself to criticising the social order, they were immediately suspected of intended manipulation and self-aggrandisement. 

Russia’s enduring authoritarianism

The great irony of being politically cynical is that it helps sustain the status quo. In authoritarian countries, cynicism stabilises the regime because it encourages people to sit at home rather than protest on the street.

Cynicism is useful for authoritarian leaders as it eliminates the imagined possibility of alternatives. Any proposed alternative, no matter how idealistic or appealing, is undermined by a distrust of motivations. The political cynic reasons: if politics is all the same and nothing ever changes, why should I do anything? Why should I be involved? Such thinking disinhibits taking political action at the individual level, limiting any bottom-up political challenge to the regime before it can develop. 

For Russia, a lack of political participation is key. One of the fundamental characteristics of an authoritarian regime is a reliance on political apathy and de-politicisation. Whereas traditional totalitarian systems – like China under Mao Zedong or the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin – push for mass mobilisation, indoctrination, and the co-optation of elites, authoritarians prefer to solve conflict through citizen disengagement. This kind of repression prefers to strangle popular opposition before it can emerge.

Reversing widespread political cynicism is a difficult task. That is because extreme cynicism adopts the false logic of conspiracy theories: if you cannot prove that it is false (that someone is not selfishly motivated), that makes it true. This non-falsifiable position is stubborn, as any contrary evidence is instantly put under doubt. 

Not letting cynical values spread in the realm of politics is therefore worthwhile. Bulwarks against the spread of cynicism might include not letting political values degenerate into positions of moral equivalency and continually reaffirming the value of politics in everyday life.  

Paul Shields completed a Masters of Philosophy at Oxford University and was a Fulbright Scholarship recipient in Russia and graduated from Stanford with honours.

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