Two Pees In A Pod

Homo Sovieticus is basically the human being who evolved to survive under conditions of state terror. Any person faced with an ongoing traumatic situation develops certain survival skills, certain coping mechanisms—the personality fragments, and different parts of the person get activated depending on these rapidly shifting circumstances.

The hypothesis that I write about in the book, on the part of the sociologist who invented the term Homo Sovieticus, was that it was generationally bound. And once enough time had passed since state terror ended, since the 1950s, Homo Sovieticus was just going to die out, and then the Soviet Union was going to collapse. And the Soviet Union seemed to collapse right on schedule. But then it turned out that Homo Sovieticus didn’t go anywhere, because there’s such a thing as intergenerational trauma. And those coping skills—those ways of behaving and thinking—are actually passed on from generation to generation in society as a whole.

So society as a whole has cultural institutions that sort of kick into gear as soon as they start getting signals that they interpret as signals from a totalitarian past. And I think that’s what’s happened under Putin. Putin set out to build a mafia state. He didn’t set out to build a totalitarian regime. But he was building his mafia state on the ruins of a totalitarian regime. And so we end up with a mafia state and a totalitarian society.

After Putin is over—and he will be over eventually, everything ends—Russia will not maintain its current borders. I’m pretty sure of that. It’s an empire that is experiencing more and more tension, and it’s holding together as a result of a combination of both fear and greed. So Putin either instills fear in the regions, or buys them off. That system will break down the moment the Kremlin is thrown into disarray, which it will be when Putin is gone. Putin is definitely aware of the challenges to Russian territorial integrity.

He does feel permanently threatened—threatened personally, to the extent that he doesn’t actually perceive a boundary between himself and the state. He has continuously come in—and this is actually another weird parallel between him and Trump—he has continuously campaigned on the threat to the country. His message has consistently been, We’re on the brink of catastrophe and I’m the only person who can hold things together. And if I step away, everything will fall apart. I think that he sincerely believes that. He believes that even more sincerely because he has been watching Putin TV for 17 years. And so he says to the television what it should say, and then it says it, and then he believes it. Which is also not dissimilar from the media bubble that Trump is intent on creating—or has, to a large extent, created for himself.

There’s a direct parallel in this appeal to the imaginary past. That’s what Putin does, and that’s what Trump does. And they do it in some really remarkably similar ways. This vague idea of traditional values. This idea of making America great again, making Russia great again.

And it’s not clear which “great” it is, but it communicates in a very comprehensible way: You can go back to the time when you felt more comfortable, when you could understand the world that you lived in, when you were not constantly confronted with things that make you uneasy—those things can be homosexuals, immigrants, transgender people—and I’m going to take you back to a comfortable past.

Similar practices. Putin came to power after 10 years of a transitional state in Russia, and 70 years of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism was marked by a kind of new-speak where words were used to mean their opposites. One of my favorite examples is what they called voting, “the free expression of citizen will,” when “the free expression of citizen will” was actually somebody having to go to your precinct under penalty of law and having to put a check mark next to the one name on the ballot. And then Putin came and renewed the practice of having words mean their opposites, but also introduced the new practice of having words mean nothing. He just keeps talking. And throwing numbers out there. Most of them wrong.

It’s meant to create the impression that he knows what he’s talking about. But it’s also just meant to drown you in meaningless stuff. And Trump actually does both of those things.

I think he has an incredible instinct for assimilating words and phrases from the liberal discourse and making them mean their opposite—“safe space,” “witch hunt,” “fake news.” But he also just creates word salad. So he talks and you don’t even know where the punctuation marks fall. And the more you try to engage with those words, the less they mean, because you just drown in them. And so, in that sense, they’re both doing the same thing. They do it so differently, but the effect is so similar. 

Masha Gessen

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