I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man… I used to be in the government service, but am no longer. I was a spiteful official. I was rude and took pleasure in being so…When petitioners used to come for information to the table at which I sat, I used to grind my teeth at them, and felt intense enjoyment when I succeeded in making anybody unhappy. [Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground]
You know, I can remember when I first was learning how to downhill ski. I clearly recall my more experienced friends going with me to buy my first pair of skis. “Get ones that are more forgiving,” they would say. “Forgiving?” I would ask. “Yes, forgiving! If you make a small mistake executing a turn or something, the skis won’t take it out on your body, they are flexible, they are forgiving. They don’t make you pay for that minor infraction of the rule.”
This is the message that I began to understand clearly today about Russia and the trailing effect of its bureaucratic choke-hold from the Soviet period, its lingering impact on human relations. I have been living for most of the time over the past eight years here in the western part of Siberia. I have been trying to formulate in my mind what distinguishes daily life in America from life here. Obviously, I am not speaking of the climatic and economic differences (the material conditions), if you will. Rather, I have been consumed with the more evanescent but more challenging issues of personality, of character, of attitude. What is the distinguishing trait that seems to separate the Russian from that of American character? Forgiveness; individual forgiveness!
In raising this question, it is important for us to understand the ever so slight difference in the systems that command and control these two former superpowers. That’s right, the USA is also a former superpower; its appearance of superiority, only a spectacle. Granted, it’s a spectacle backed up by a real life killing-machine – but a spectacle nevertheless. There is really no substance behind the appearance of our claim to supremacy… after all we can’t even win a war against a handful of tribal Islamists.
Back to our problem! The Soviet system that reigned here for over 70 years created a bureaucratic choke-hold, an atmosphere that required even demanded inflexibility. It was a system that did not encourage nor even allow the idea of forgiveness. Even the religious illusion of divine forgiveness was banished from the kingdom as a keystone principle from Marx’s own hand. (Yet, I am not here to debate religion again; it is after all only a handmaiden to politics). Yet, this inflexibility seems to have crept into the Russian psyche and now reigns unchecked over behavior in all civic, i.e., public, social, or economic situations. Even commercial enterprises still find it hard to inculcate flexibility. “You bought it… so it’s your problem,” seems to be a common refrain from businesses when a customer returns with a faulty purchase.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming that American bureaucratic stylings are any friendlier than their Russian counterparts; they are not. After all: rules are rules! But the individuals inhabiting those spaces are, relatively speaking, more forgiving… on the whole. Perhaps we in the States have been protected from the cynicism that inhabits the systematic control as it was exercised within the Soviet State. And perhaps the insidiousness of that control has destroyed the very foundation of for-give-ness, i.e., GIVING! And the inability to “give” or “share” in the public square is itself the result of a loss of trust in one another, a loss that was burned into the hard-tested hearts of Russians over the bulk of the 20th Century. Trust, as we find it among small groups, clans and tribes, is the missing ingredient by and large in the systems that today pretend to hold things together in our urban environments and lifestyles of increasing interiority, anonymity and anomie. (Texting, anyone?) When you destroy the bonds of kinship – not just consanguinity, but bonds of affinity as well – you tear trust asunder… because trust cannot inhabit a world filled with anonymous citizen soldiers, officials, bureaucrats and petitioners. Again I refer you to Dostoyevsky’s thoughts in Notes From Underground:
I was lying when I said just now that I was a spiteful official. I was lying from spite. I was simply amusing myself with the petitioners… and in reality I never could become spiteful. I was conscious every moment in myself of many, very many elements absolutely opposite to that. I felt them positively swarming in me, these opposite elements. I knew that they had been swarming in me all my life and craving some outlet from me, but I would not let them, would not let them, purposely would not let them come out. They tormented me till I was ashamed: they drove me to convulsions and—sickened me, at last, how they sickened me!
Yet, the pretense of trust that seemed to under-gird the American system is itself now coming unraveled. With each new revelation (of a Manning or a Snowden), the unraveling just continues. Many have already come to distrust the system (and those bureaucrats who fill its posts); and I am afraid it will not be very long before trust in the (anonymous) Other also is lost here as well. We already have begun to see that loss of trust, of flexibility, of giving and forgiving, in the litany of shootings we are uninvited witnesses to day in and day out.
Systems are never trustworthy; they cannot judge the individual. You are merely a particular instance to which some general rule applies in a strictly syllogistic relationship. But, that is not relationship; it is only a logical function carried out by a purely rational and analytical mind. There is no emotional component… just find it in the rulebook and follow the rule. There are no exceptions… “Now, get on line and wait your turn!”