reply to Adam Curtis on the fall of Soviet Union

Dear Mr. Curtis,
I am a free-lance geo-political theorist and philosopher from Melbourne, Australia, currently doing research into the psycho-social implications of the major ideologico-political crises of the modern era.
I have just finished watching your marathon doco-drama about Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. First of all, congratulations: to my mind, this is a magnificent piece of work which provides, in a concise, pictorially arresting form, an informative and insightful window into the trauma of an entire society. In some ways, it reminds me of the epic work by Claude Lanzmann, Shoa (but of course your work is also quite different in many respects).

One thing I particularly admire about your approach in this film is that it works as a kind of 'phenomenological historicization'. That is, whether or not you meant to, I feel you have created an artistic work of the first order, whose explanatory power resides in the way that it conveys a complex message not through intellectualization or academic theorization but through limpid observation and presentation of real events and circumstances, identifiable in all their geographically-historically concrete 'situatedness'. The simple and apodictically rendered explanatory captions direct the viewers attention to the givenness of what is happening without imposing itself in any way. In this manner, you've managed to make this period of history intelligible and comprehensible on both a deeply emotional and spiritual level, fashioning this comprehensibility and intelligibility quite directly out of the very material of the documentary footage by interweaving fragments of life-stories, concrete situations, personal narratives, and world-historical 'episodes' as captured on newsreel footage (again, this reminds me of Lanzmann's Shoa, which does something quite similar).

My mother and her parents were Hungarian-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, so I am no stranger to the phenomenon of inter-generational trauma. From my extensive reading and research into the social history of the Soviet Union, it's always struck me that, perhaps apart from the 12 year period of Nazi rule in Germany, there is perhaps no culture of the 20th century which has endured such an intensely deep-rooted but also long-lasting trauma as the Soviet peoples from its beginnings in the Stalinist-Totalitarian phase of the regime, and then right through to the 1970's. So I think that your perspective on the implications of the post-Soviet collapse could not be more salient in bringing out the sense that the historical trauma of Soviet society actually never really ended, and in fact, continues right down to the present day, just as it continues to shape many aspects of its social, political and institutional formations.

I often wonder whether the sort of incomprehension with the regard to the plight of Soviet and post-Soviet society on the part of a great majority of Western political elites and social commentators that you find so frustrating has a lot to do with the kind of intellectual dysphoria which has plagued European civilization from perhaps the end of World War One, a condition of disorientation which, in a sense, was only deepened after the catastrophe of 1939-45. In fact, Raymond Aron once characterized the historical period from the start of WW1 to the end of WW2 as a "continuous, 30 year long European civil war". But whilst Western Europe, in particular, Germany, managed, not without significant anomalies, to recover with the help of Western and US aid, Russia never really recovered, both socially and economically, from the enormous physical and human destruction of its country during WW2.

One thing I find striking when one compares the modern West and Russia concerns the major theme of your series - that is, Trauma. In many ways, I think your choice of title is absolutely brilliant and shows tremendous insight on your part. For it seems to me that the red-thread (sorry, pardon the pun!) which runs underneath all the events you describe, which in a sense brings together the political, social, historical, personal and institutional dimensions of the issues of modern Russia, is precisely this idea of individual and collective trauma. Of course, what's interesting is that the Western Europe itself went through a comparable level of trauma through the first half of the 20th century. But perhaps because it had many centuries of prior history from the Reformation onwards, during which it was able to develop, out of the tangled web of Christian civilization and its values, the epistemological, political and institutional principles vital for the development of a modern functioning liberal, secular and pluralistic society (such principles as the rule of law, non-arbitrary forms of governance, a dynamic economy driven by technological innovation, and respect for the impartiality of scientific knowledge), it was able to weather the storm so much better than modern Russia.

Anyway, returning to the notion of trauma as the theme of the modern epoch, one of the pioneering contemporary medical researchers and theorists of the phenomenon of intra-psychic trauma, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, once stated in his book, he Body Keeps the Score, that the modern discipline of trauma research has been in many ways an ongoing project throughout the entire 20th century, that its historical inception can be traced back to the first totally mechanized war of human history - i.e., WW1 - and the at the time much discussed phenomenon of "shell shock", but that it only reached a critical turning point with therapeutic models developed specifically by people like Van der Kolk and his associates, to treat US servicemen suffering from trauma after their return from Vietnam in the 1970's.

I've known quite a number of Russian people in my life, and perhaps because I myself have long suffered the effects of a PTSD condition caused by the inter-generational trauma transmitted by my parents, I recognize in many such Russians the tell-tale signs and deep scars left by manifold existential trauma. The predominant sense I have is that each generation of Russian people ends up transmitting the traumas they experienced in particular dreadful epochs of modern Russian history to their children, so that it becomes an ever-reinforcing cycle. Perhaps related to this is that I've always been struck by what I can only call a deeply sadistic element in Russian society and Russian people, which seems to reflect a callous disregard for the value of human individual life, a deeply anti-fraternal ethos, mistrust of the motives of other persons, an overarching cynicism about human nature, and, finally, an amoral and fiercely opportunistic element.

This last point in particular it seems to me explains a lot about that now much-discussed phenomenon of 'political apathy' amongst the broader Russian population, but also the completely unprincipled behaviour of so many pivotal figures in Russian public life over the course of the last few decades (I'm thinking in particular of the so-called Oligarchs and their complete absence of any sense of social responsibility). I relate the almost total disappearance of civil society in present-day Russia (in marked contrast, for instance, to current-day Ukraine) to the societal mentality imbibed by many, many years of Soviet terror, which basically destroyed every last remnant of social solidarity. The result of decades of systemic terror and coercion was a universal climate of fear and suspicion which set one person against another, sometimes brother against brother, so that society as a whole existed in a kind of permanent state of civil war. In effect, the working principle of Soviet society was a Hobbesian "war of all against all".

In conclusion, the sense I have is that because Russian society is so deeply dysfunctional on so many levels, the political and social problems they now face cannot be effectively addressed until there is, firstly, some insight into deeply disturbed nature of the Russian psyche and how this is reflected at all levels of the culture, from institutions, to community and civil-society; and secondly, the development of these people's capacity to effectively and practically find a way to process their long-running age-old traumas (rather than merely projecting them out onto 'outsiders' - what is commonly called the Russian 'victim mentality'). Without this, I'm convinced there is no chance for Russia to move forward out of the morass it now finds itself in. In fact, I even venture to suggest that should it turn out, by some utterly strange and implausible turn of events, Vladimir Putin dies tommorow and Navalny is released from prison and comes to power, nothing in Russia would actually change, and that one would probably have a re-run of the disastrous Yeltsin years. What I mean is that movement towards some kind of real democratic political system will always fail in Russia, not because there don't exist people with a genuine will to democratize but more because of a complete absence of properly functioning political and social institutions, along with both a culture of probity and civic responsibility and personnel with the competence that would allow them to organize and manage the complex processes typical of any technologically and industrially advanced society.

A lot of this, of course, has to do with the very deep levels of institutionally sanctioned corruption in the country. Stephen Kotkin once remarked that the problem of Russia is that it operates on the basis of Rule by Law rather than the Rule of Law. Hence the power of mafia and gangster-criminal political elites is partly a function of the deep entrenchment, in the old Soviet social system, of a highly developed spoils-system of social advancement and a hyper-bureaucratized legal formalism (to understand this, one need only to read some accounts of the management of the Soviet system of the Gulag). This might explain why, despite the absolute arbitrariness of the Russian system of governance, there is nevertheless a vast, complex legal apparatus in the country (the same applied, by the way, in The Third Reich). Hannah Arendt once said that government by bureaucracy is basically a form of lawlessness. Couple that with an authoritarian cult of personalist rule (i.e., Putin), then one would be well on the way to accounting for the otherwise disorientingly contradictory aspects of the regime.