New Russia Fears Solitude, Islam, Joblessness

When Mikhail was a little boy, he was afraid of mice, spiders and the dark. Later, it was snakes, women and the dead. As an adult, when his wife reproached him for being lazy, he said he suffered from "ergophobia," a fear of labor. He began working against his will, although he had everything going for him: Mikhail was considered to be among the best inventors at the electric power plant. Not a month went by when he didn't think up some kind of construction or device to make the work more efficient. He received a pittance for this. In his spare time, he liked to leaf through medical textbooks and encyclopedic dictionaries. "Just think!" he once said: "There are 213 phobias known to science. Have you ever heard of dextrophobia -- fear of objects that are found to your right? And how about phro-nemophobia -- fear of thinking?"

But, there is nothing astonishing about this last phobia. It seems to me that fear of thinking -- of free thought -- was one of the traits that used to characterize Russian society on the whole.

I didn't recognized Mikhail when we met after not seeing each other for 10 years. He had become an energetic and adventurous person. I asked him how his phobias were doing. He laughed: "I'm afraid of one thing -- not succeeding. Yesterday I signed a contract which promised very decent profits. Money and freedom, old boy, are the best remedy for fear." He then rushed off for his next business meeting.

Of course, I was glad for my old friend. I remembered how even as recently as the '80s, I was afraid of having a run-in with the Communist Party apparatus at work: In this case, my family would not only have had any means of surviving but would have no place to live, and I would not have any prospect of finding another position, since after you renounced party work, you were persona non grata in most places. In the end, I was able to overcome my fears by telling myself: "They may be able to take away your money and apartment, but they can't remove what's most important to you -- literature." However strange this may seem, it helped. Later the Gorbachev era gave the Soviet Union what are, in my view, the most important freedoms: freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

But, alas, freedom did not bring such impressive results in all cases. The experience of fear is as individual as that of love. Russians are uncomfortable in this troubled country. Many say they imagined freedom to be otherwise. They are experiencing what an American philosopher called "freedom shock."

Traditional phobias in Russia have changed, as has life itself. Ten years ago, a Soviet person was deeply convinced that he could always get help from state, party, trade union and other institutions. Russians, for example, would use the least excuse to run to the hospital for a certificate saying they were incapable of working, which allowed them to go home and lie on the sofa or attend to their own affairs. But the state was not always as benevolent as it seemed. The Soviet government and Health Ministry gave strict, secret orders that limited the number of doctor's slips that could be given out. Some categories of sick people -- for example, pensioners -- could not count on being hospitalized in certain cases. This was so money would not be wasted.

Today people understand the banal fact that health costs money. You have to take care of your health. And although sociologists with communist tendencies try to convince us that alcohol consumption is rising exponentially, and that it is leading to the destruction of the gene pool in Russia, the demand for athletic trainers and sports clubs is increasing just as fast. More and more people understand that in the current conditions, they can count only on themselves and close family -- and only later on the government.

The rising fear of solitude is a very curious phenomenon. It should not be forgotten that for a thousand years, Russians have lived collectively and shared cramped quarters where it was impossible to be alone. The dread of solitude is tied to the fear of being left unemployed. And although unemployment is not now very widespread, the government will most likely have to deal with it soon. It is not a question of welfare but of "hidden unemployment" that can only be solved one way: firm and consistent reform of the economy, which in itself is a source of fear for many Russians.

Having been deprived of information, Soviet people were afraid to look truth in the eye. Of course, we were aware that the country had crime. Well before the collapse of communism, a person could kill on the streets with impunity. But the number of people who fear being attacked by criminals has increased two-fold over the past seven or eight years, according to opinion polls. This may have its positive side. As the sociologist Boris Dubin points out, the increase in the level of concern over crime shows that people have stopped fearing the truth. Yes, not all criminals are called to account for their crimes, but we are ready to put pressure on officials who are responsible for the safety of society.

What do old people now fear? As in the entire world, of course, they are afraid of death. But after the January 1992 reforms, they also feared that their deaths would bring ruin to those close to them. Intellectuals, for their part, are afraid of being humiliated, whereas people of a lower social standing simply shrug their shoulders when they are insulted in public. But I don't think this is a uniquely Russian trait. People who live in the countryside are afraid of "unknown" forces, which may be owing to the fact that they depend on the weather for their harvests. (They were the only social category of those polled who listed war among their fears.)

Two or three years ago, the papers were still reporting on a new wave of mysticism. Books on the occult, magic and astrology filled bookstore shelves. Two out of every three newspapers printed astrological forecasts. Witches demonstrated the art of raising the dead on television. All this, of course, took place as the monolith of communist ideology was being destroyed. But the interest in mysticism seems to be on the decline in recent years.

Far more alarming is the new fear in Russia of Islam. Sociologists now say that in the past two years, one out of every 20 people considers Islam to be an enemy religion. And although Moslems make up a relatively small percentage of the population, they have replaced Americans and Jews as the traditional image of the enemy.

It will not be the last time Russia and Russian politicians will be confronted with the new reality of the Moslem presence, that arose after the federal campaign in Chechnya. It seems we are only now beginning to break from the fear of facing such a hard truth. But Russia will undoubtedly do so, just as it escaped from phronemophobia.

Yury Buyda is on the editorial staff of Novoye Vremya and Znamya. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.