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Assault on the Future

Maxim Trudolyubov

I grew up in a country for which the future was something of a religion. The future was by definition “bright.” There were official slogans about it, poems and novels were written about it. In today’s Russia, the future is presented as frightening and “dark.” It could bring revolution and chaos. How did this radical change come about?


“We have the world’s best rockets and factories, we live in the world’s best city, we live better than all other boys and girls on the planet,” I remember myself musing during a boring class in my primary school in Moscow during the early 1980s. “We should probably share some of these riches with those less fortunate ones. Why not help others, given that our life will only get better anyway?” Conquering space, creating new technologies, living in the best social system in the world, maintaining both military might and a commitment to peace—these were the early themes of my generation.


Although the “best social system” faltered right in front of our eyes, we were given not fewer but more reasons for historic optimism. Gorbachev’s perestroika and the new opportunities of the 1990s instilled in us a sense of expanding horizons. We read the books that would have gotten our parents arrested had they read them. We learned to embrace changes that led away from the Soviet past. For us, political change meant new educational opportunities, new jobs, new ways of personal advancement. 


Alexei Navalny was part of that generation. This is why it was strange to see that a dark view of this crucial transformative period in the past prevailed among Navalny’s circle, who are continuing his cause (see my piece about the documentary Traitors produced by the Anti-Corruption Foundation). In this view, the 1990s were nothing but chaos and corruption. This view is more natural for previous generations, including Putin’s.


A War of Generations


The previous generation was different. Russians close to Putin’s age—those born between the second half of the 1940s and the mid-1960s—belong to what the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak has called the “last Soviet generation.” As studies show, in the USSR’s later years, the period when Putin was growing up, Soviet society lost any remnants of collectivist idealism and turned toward material well-being and the values of individualism.


These people had experienced deep disillusionment regarding their country’s prospects. And they were the ones who, without setting idealistic goals, buried the Soviet system, as Yurchak showed in his seminal book, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More


If elections and other procedures for competitive changes of power were to work in Russia, those who grew up under Brezhnev would have to be replaced by people of Navalny’s age, who grew up under Gorbachev and Yeltsin—age cohorts roughly corresponding to Generation X. The social and cultural context of Russian Gen-Xers’ youth and their overall historical experience are profoundly different from those of their predecessors. Navalny’s and my own late school and college years were a period of historic change, the weakening of the totalitarian state and the expectation of Russia’s full integration into the world. 


For many of us, the Putin years were a time during which we were deprived of the freedoms, opportunities, and prospects that had seemed natural to us. Putin was the one who “lost the Soviet Union,” and he has worked to impose that bitterness on all his countrymen. The last Soviet generation, Putin’s generation, had disappointments; the first post-Soviet generation, Navalny’s generation, had hopes. For this reason, the murder of Alexei Navalny was not just a crime but also a symbolic killing of hopes for historic change and integration into the world.


Dismantling the Future 


A deeper reason why the current regime in Russia is so stable is that the Kremlin has succeeded in instilling in citizens a belief that the passage of time itself brings with it new threats. Putin’s real supporters do not so much support him as cling to the present, with its dwindling possibilities. They—perhaps without realizing it—are in favor of slow degradation as opposed to rapid degradation. 


The Kremlin’s campaign managers keep pushing Russian society into approving a leader under whom the life of society has been deteriorating for more than a decade. And they present this person as a protector against even worse deterioration, cataclysms and invasion of enemy forces. 


It is not so important whether the current Russian rulers share this dark view of political reality. In their rhetoric, the role of the “bright past,” a golden age lost, is played either by the Russian Empire or by the Soviet Union, depending on the audience. And the “dark future,” a pending apocalypse, is the threat of crisis, the collapse of the country or its capture by enemies. 


But suspension does not equal prevention. If we consider that the role of the ruler is only to buy time before the end of the world—that is, in our case, a future “color revolution”—it follows that this event is inevitable anyway. The most ardent loyalists and uncompromising oppositionists essentially agree on one thing: the coming of the future can be delayed for a long time, but it will not spare the system of power Putin created. 


Assault on the Future in the West


What is difficult to understand for a person of my background is why anxiety about the future seems to prevail in the West too. Western media, the book market, and popular art are overflowing with images of catastrophes and scenes from a post-apocalyptic future. Journalists and public intellectuals speak of a climate catastrophe, a migration crisis, man-made viruses, artificial intelligence spinning out of control, and, of course, a major war.


The change of generations is not perceived as something positive: the millennials are sure that the boomers have stolen the future from them and things will only get worse. Against the background of unprecedented prosperity, politicians periodically come to power in the developed world, promising to prevent one or another “national catastrophe.”


Much of this can be explained by the way media, news cycles, and human attention are organized. But a lot of it runs deeper. The idea of progress once saw only positive aspects in the intergenerational transmission of human experience and knowledge. Today’s attitude to progress is very different from the techno-optimism characteristic of the twentieth century. Now change seems to bring us bills in need of payment or a list of “sins” to be paid for. 


A major rethink of the West’s pessimism about the future is in order. One suggestion is that Russia could serve as an example of what happens to a society that succumbs to the influence of preachers of a dark future. No one should repeat this experience. A second suggestion is that the anxiety about the future can only be defused by abandoning the thought trap that makes political change apocalyptically described, either negatively (“the end of the world”) or positively (“the new kingdom”).

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more