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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Is to Be Done For It to Turn Out Better?

What is to be done, when yellow leaves begin to fall outside the window, softly landing on the cooling earth? In Moscow this means winter is once again coming.


Moscow has survived many events during its existence -- destruction, arson, robbery, invasions, wars, revolutions, perestroikas, glory and shame, but every year winter comes to Moscow all the same, and yellow leaves fall outside Moscow windows, softly landing on the cooling earth.


Why do I mention this?


Because at the start of this century, an agitated young man from St. Petersburg who was prey to the political passions of the time appeared before the brilliant, paradoxically minded religious philosopher Vasily Rozanov with an eternal Russian question:


What is to be done?


What is to be done when the highest philological attainment of the past years of perestroika and democratization is a phrase uttered by the current Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, which will undoubtedly go down in history: "Khoteli, kak luchshe, a poluchilos, kak vsegda" -- "We wanted it to be better, but it turned out like always."


This -- I am speaking to you here as a professional literary person -- is a very strong phrase, and if any writer had thought up only this one expression during his entire writing life, then he could consider that this very life had not been spent in vain.


But Chernomyrdin is not a writer. He was an oil man who became prime minister. And Russia is not just literature. To be precise, Russia is not literature at all but an enormous expanse "from Moscow to its outskirts," which are now much closer to Moscow, not in a spiritual but a geographic sense.


"We now have just one border all around," says the character from my last play, a former thief who has entered the market economy and is planning to emigrate from Moscow to the Crimea.


I wish him Godspeed.


Godspeed to all of us, from Moscow to its outskirts, but only in good matters and not in stupidities and abominations such as the war in Chechnya, which ends and then does not end but smolders beneath the ashes. Someone always needs to tear at old wounds and provoke both military fighters and the people, whom I am certain are trying to forget everything that has happened and wish it were a nightmare. When the country is carrying out an endless, absurd war, it is dying.


And now the country is simply sick. Like always, and the level of danger of this illness changes every day: from a light head cold that clears up as in any other European and not very European country to suddenly serious complications that can be experienced before a fatal outcome, as was the case this summer when the Communists again set out to storm the heights of power -- this time not in the usual way, through coups d'etat, but through democratic elections.


What of it? They lost. And I hope "seriously and for a long time" -- words once spoken by Vladimir Ulyanov Lenin, who in his time was also concerned with the question of "what is to be done." They will always lose if there really is democracy and not some phony imitation of it.


Something didn't come out right in their very conception, which was set forth in the Russian text of the communist hit "The International" with the words: "The entire world of violence, we'll destroy to its foundation," as well as with evident and inconspicuous threats directed at those who would get in the way of their building a "bright future." But losing did not disturb them. They returned to their old habits: exposing the regime, frightening and inciting people, making a fuss at regional elections, and, I have to admit, somehow they succeeded.


But to my overwhelming joy, I see that the fools in the country are becoming fewer and fewer.


The lack of euphoria seems to me to be one of the signs of "new thinking," and clearly it has increased the intelligence quotient of the Russian population, which apparently is beginning to do away with its belief in miracles as a panacea for all misfortunes and sorrows.


There is a lack of euphoria, but there is hope that the country has gone through the kind of tense confrontation it experienced this summer for the last time.


There is a lack of euphoria but a feeling of hope and a recognition that communism is not needed here, just as it is not needed in other countries of the world, and that communists don't know how to rule anyone without repression, which they have bluntly demonstrated for the last 70-odd years, that these guys don't understand hints, that they don't have a sense of humor, and that they see democracy as a sign of weakness.


The desire to live normally, as all other people in the world live, has finally come to replace eschatological Russian romanticism, which is good for writing novels on Raskolnikovs who kill old women with axes but is not at all suited to ordinary life, where you have to earn a living, raise children, propagate, grow old and die in your own bed -- not on a prison bunk, at revolutionary barricades or in war trenches.


And so life is passing by like always on the Russian expanse -- on Moscow streets and provincial roads; in multistoried steel and concrete apartment buildings; in wooden izbas, or peasant cottages; and in villas belonging to New Russians, who have become the heroes of new anecdotes. Black humor and the absurd, like always, hover over the country, which is constantly covered with white winter snow.


There is a passion for the president and passion for Michael Jackson as he performed at Moscow's Dinamo stadium wearing a full-dress uniform of the Soviet Army. Expos?s, betrayals, enmity and friendship, strikes and capital in the millions, taxes, literary prizes, theater premieres, murders and explosions, construction and destruction, restoration and oblivion, and corruption, of course: All these are part of a single cosmos from which some Russians fly away to take a look from above at the chaos being stirred up below.


Like always ... and perhaps like everywhere? Can what I've described be lacking in other countries -- even in the most civilized countries that, unlike Russia, maintained normal development thanks in part to the communist experiment?


What is to be done?


"If it's summer, then there are berries to be cleaned and jam to be cooked; if winter, then there is tea to be drunk with the jam." This is how Rozanov answered the young man's question.


The philosopher then had almost two decades more to live before his horrible death by starvation in 1919 under the Communist authorities, and almost 100 years have passed since this question has arisen again and again and again.





Yevgeny Popov, a founding editor of the dissident journal Almanakh, is a writer whose work includes "The Soul of a Patriot." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.