There is a black hole where Russia's ethics should be
22 juli 2016
Why is Russia dismissing every criticism, like the WADA-report on doping, as Russophobia? The problem with Russia, writes Russian cultural critic Andrei Arkhangelsky, is that the authoritarian ethics system of the Soviet Union was not replaced by a humanistic set of values. In stead we witness a dangerous nihilism, when war becomes an attractive cleansing principle.
Illustratie Nanette Hoogslag
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did its authoritarian ethics system of self-sacrifice and collective responsibility. At the time, everyone expected that capitalism would bring with it a new, humanist system, focused on the individual, their life, freedom, and liberties. But the unrestrained consumption of the 2000s affected neither the ethics nor the mass consciousness of post-Soviet Russians. The paradox of the 1990s is that in place of the Soviet authoritarian ethics, nothing appeared at all. There’s a huge hole at the center of Russian society where ethics should be.
Unlike authoritarian ethics, it’s impossible to force humanist ethics onto a population. They must be born naturally, through discourse. The state can give a push in the right direction, but this requires a modicum of political will. Society must be willing to publicly discuss such issues as what is good and evil, what we should live for, and what constitutes meaning. In the 1990s, Russian society wasn’t ready to discuss such questions. It didn’t even understand that such a discussion was necessary.
The failure of the church
The only entity that bothered to bring up questions of ethics in the early 1990s was the church, the only carrier of non-authoritarian ethics. But the church behaved as if seventy years of Soviet rule was a black hole: in order for the nation to recover its moral principles it simply had to revert to the way things were before 1917, which was a utopian desire.
The Russian value crisis of the 1990s heralded the end of ethics, an intentional refusal of humanism, a nihilism still apparent in the diatribes of contemporary propagandists.
Nostalgia for Stalin is caused by feelings of insecurity
The ethics of war
With the ethics of neo-Stalinism come the ethics of war, which contain no plans for the future, only the catastrophic philosophical belief that with war comes cleansing. Today’s return to war ethics (us/them, friends/enemies) is not so much a demonstration of aggression as of uncertainty, a subconscious attempt to find some sort of support beam.
Anti-ethics doesn’t contain anything positive; it’s built solely on the denouncement of others’ value systems. Its fundamental negativity is based on the following idea: individuals are unable to decide for themselves what is good and what is bad. Only the government can see the big picture and therefore make ethical evaluations.
Everybody is lying
The last two years have seen a hybrid of authoritarian and negative ethics. Soviet ethics are invoked when they serve a useful function ('we’re always right') but when necessary, negative ethics come to the rescue ('everyone is as bad as each other'). We’re left with doublethink. To sum it all up in a single syllogism: We’re always right because everyone else is lying.
A new ethical system must answer the most important questions of post-Soviet society, first and foremost about the value of peace. Russians must place human life above death and establish peaceful ethics as a counterweight to militarism.
The concept of work is, itself, in dire need of rethinking from an ethical standpoint. Is it possible to go about your work without thinking about its moral consequences, for example, if you work at a propagandistic news outlet?
The current Russian political climate forces one to make an ethical choice. Did anyone take politics half so seriously ten years ago? Did we think about 'fighting for peace?' Did we pay so much attention to the propaganda on radio and TV? Ethical reasoning can no longer be counted as a recreation but a necessity. Although the country is stuck in a moral quagmire, a new system of ethics is being born - through contrariness. It’s still in its infancy, and usually takes the form of negations like 'don’t lie, don’t steal'.
Without new values, ones that mesh with a society of consumption, capitalism will not work. All attempts to solve the problem automatically, relying on the rules of the market, are doomed. Without a new conception of the self and consequently a new ethical system, it’s impossible to build either a society or an economy, for neither can flourish when people don’t know how to exist.