The Russian Genius

I thought Richard Lourie’s column today in the Moscow Times was particularly interesting, and reminded me of several conversations I had during my last trip to Caracas.  A friend commented to me that a true totalitarian, whether you’re talking about Mr. Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin, is not satisfied with the simple dominance of the political realm and the powers of the state.  A true totalitarian, she said, is a totalitarian of the mind – occupying every sphere of public and cultural life, creating a name and cult of a personality much, much larger than their office.  Chavez, who just attempted to broadcast four straight days on the radio, is obsessive about always holding the nation’s (and world’s) attention.  Putin is arguably less focused in this regard, at least in my opinion, though we do get the occasional topless fishing trip and tiger hunting.  However Richard Lourie’s point about the historically important cultural role of a national genius to share the spotlight is well taken.

Vladimir Putin’s stability became a shaky stagnation, a swamp struck by occasional tremors. But Russia does not need a genius because things are dire in the country now, or will be soon. Russia needs a genius because something must resist the centripetal force of the government, which now controls nearly all politics, the judiciary, television and, increasingly, business. The voice that speaks out against that centralization of power could be that of a writer like Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn, a religious figure like Avakum Petrov or Gleb Yakunin, a scientist like Sakharov, a historian countering the new trend to rewrite Soviet history or a even a businessman. Ennobled by prison, Mikhail Khodorkovsky could play that role — which is one reason why he may be reconvicted.

The task of the genius is to oppose the regime, to force a dialogue, to create a dynamic in a society that has none. The genius does not seek overthrow but true give and take. What Russian society needs are alternatives and inspiration, proof that there are other possibilities besides Putinism forever, to show themselves and the world that Russia is more than a gas company with a tsarist flag. For that reason, the genius need not be in direct opposition to the regime — a poet or scientist, a fearless judge or priest would shame the current regime’s smug and brutal drabness with brilliance and courage. And if that genius should in fact suddenly appear in Russia, then one can only say, “God help him or her.”