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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Excess of Individualism

Being stuck in a city traffic jam -- as I have been a lot this week -- gets one to thinking, mostly about why one's stuck in a city traffic jam. The quick, easy answer is that there are simply too many cars in Moscow these days. They're being added to the streets at a rate of somewhere between 50 to 300 thousand a year, depending on who you're listening to.


But there's another answer, this being Moscow: Every single driver in the traffic jam is trying to get wherever he or she is going as fast as he or she conceivably can. Any action at all in pursuit of this aim is better than no action. So cars endlessly change lanes and get in each other's way -- with the result that everyone in the traffic jam gets where they're going a lot slower than they otherwise would. If they only had a little more patience. It may even be this that causes the traffic jam in the first place.


The point is that every Russian these days seems to believe that he or she -- as an individual -- has an absolutely equal right to take this action, just as he or she has an absolutely equal right to be first in line at the arrivals gate at Sheremetyevo, say, or an absolutely equal right to the best place on the beach at Nikolina Gora. My daughter Ksenia, walking the Nikolina Gora beach one evening this summer, tried to describe this new Russian phenomenon to me. "If I am here," she said, planting her feet in the sand, "then this is obviously a good place to be. So everybody else will want to be here too."


"With the result that nobody gets any sun at all," I said dryly.


"Yes, Jo," she answered. "But then we're all absolutely equal in our sunlessness again."


"What you're saying," I said, "reminds me of that ecological parable about a piece of commonly-owned land that will only give 100% nourishment to just 10 cows. The 10 cows have 10 owners. ..." "Yes, yes, I know," she said. "So one of the owners decides to sneak in an extra cow, because two cows each 90%-nourished are worth more than one that's 100%-nourished. Pretty soon all the other owners do the same, and they go on doing it, adding cattle to the land, until the cows die of malnutrition and the land is destroyed. That's very much what is happening in Russia today."


I asked her why. "Because Russia," she said, "whatever the West thinks, has always been a very extreme form of democracy, a democracy of absolute equality, but at the same time a democracy with no idea of any shared purpose -- except maybe the glory of the Tsar. But there's something else too. We now have freedom, but we have a foreign sort of freedom which doesn't connect with anything in our past. And at the same time we have absolutely no idea of the future. So freedom has just become license to do anything we can get away with in the here and now, a sort of eternal present. All we've got is an arena in which to demonstrate our absolute right to have the same as the person next door."


Which goes some way to explaining -- I think as I sit in my car -- not only traffic jams and the demented scrum in the Sheremetyevo arrivals hall, but also the destruction of the nearby countryside in the mad scurry of the dacha builders. When the first dacha went up in the next village, it was fair enough. But then everybody else decided that it was the perfect place to build, so they put up their palaces right next door to it, with no landscaping to separate the buildings, not even so much as an intervening tree. The result is that what might have been a community of dachas is now some kind of godawful dormitory suburb of Moscow. When it finally becomes a small town, then everyone will have to go and build another dacha somewhere else, in order to get a little peace.


But then to say this -- as Ksenia constantly reminds me -- is to judge what is happening here by Western standards. "You're like some paleface, Jo," she says, "judging the Indians, who've got along very well without you, thank you very much, for at least a thousand years. All that's happened here is that you've given us liquor, and so we're drunk. And now you're criticizing us for not being white gentlemen, able to hold our drink." And she's right, of course. For people who've had no place to call their own, it's what's inside that counts. Gardens are for poor people who need to grow things to survive. And well, traffic jams are the individual will of the people -- until a future with laws becomes available.