I just spent June in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. Although I lived in Moscow for many years during the 1980s and 1990s, I have had little opportunity to spend time in Putin’s Russia. It is, needless to say, an interesting land. On the one hand, there is an intensification of bodily control from above. The Duma has not only made laws regarding “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors” (a law that primarily targets all things gay if they are publicly accessible), but there are also laws against swearing in public or buying alcohol late at night. There’s discussion of making it illegal for women younger than 40 to buy cigarettes (to protect fetuses from the ill effects of tobacco use).
All of this control from above is mostly ignored in Russia’s big cities. I saw lesbian couples with children, gay men holding hands, and a few transgender individuals out and about. I went to stores at 2 A.M. to buy alcohol in clear violation of the law. Prostitution was openly advertised on the streets- literally numbers were painted onto the sidewalks. And as for smoking? Given how cheap cigarettes are (compared to how ridiculously expensive everything else is), I am fairly certain tobacco will continue to be the sin of choice for most people, including women of childbearing age.
All of this leads to a certain absurdist state wherein the rule of law is always fuzzy and flexible, constantly negotiated between citizens and their keepers. This is not to say that the state has not cracked down mercilessly on dissent. People continue to sit in prison for protesting Putin’s “election." And the effects of the “Bolotnaya affairs” are deeply felt. I know people who left the country to avoid imprisonment and probably won’t be able to come back. I know others who have left or are considering leaving. For them, Putin’s Russia an impossible place in which to exist.
And yet–as was the case under the Soviets–life goes on. The state intrudes in the daily life of its citizens with laws that are both oppressive and irrational. The people follow the laws and break them. They fall in love, work, raise families and go on. Most of the people I know hate Putin and his politics, but they are urban and educated. They are, by their own admission, in the minority. Recent pulls show that 68 percent of Russians support Putin. As my friend Asya says “The people are satisfied. As long as they can have a car, buy their cheap clothing from China and go the dacha for a bit, they are satisfied. Putin gives them that.” This satisfaction makes total sense. After the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union, some economic stability is a fairly reasonable desire.
Of course, the economic stability on which Putinchology relies might collapse with the building military violence in Crimea and Ukraine as well as the inevitable economic consequences of these policies. But for now, life in Putin’s Russia, like the life I knew in late Soviet Russia, is bearable for most if not all of its citizens. And so people will be gay and swear and buy alcohol late at night and generally behave as they wish with little regard to Putinchology. And even as the state continues to create enemies–both internal and external–to scare most people into believing such measures are necessary, Russians themselves may be losing faith in the power of nationalism. Despite all the talk of “homosexual pollution of the Russian character” and the evils of the US and the “fascism of Ukrainian nationalists,” Russians themselves are less enamored of nationalism than they were a year ago. A year ago, 10 percent of Russians would have voted for a nationalist party; today only 2.5 percent would. Nearly 60 percent of Russians have a negative attitude toward Russian nationalists, up from 50 percent a year ago.
As was the case under the Soviets, a state that creates absurd laws also creates a sense of cynicism among its citizens. As a friend, a former dissident under the Soviets, pointed out to me, “there can be no rule of law when the laws are so ridiculous.” The old joke about the Soviet state was “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” Now it might as well be “they pretend to rule us and we pretend to be ruled.”
As inevitable as Putin and his desire to reignite the Russian/Soviet Empire might seem, it is hardly a fait accompli. And no one can really know what will come next. But I cannot help but hope that Russians may require more than cars and clothes and country homes. They might actually require a state that does more than conjure up enemies and attempt total control of the population. They might even require a state that makes sense. As things worsen in Ukraine, this might be the exact moment at which Putinchology is revealed for what it really is: crazy.