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LOOKING AHEAD
01.11.2008

October 21, 2008 (the date of publication in Russian)

Artyom Peshkov

SWEET DREAMS, MY LAND?

Intellectual indolence of ordinary people can become an obstacle to Russia's progress

THE DEEPENING GAP

What differentiates the intelligentsia from the rest of the people? And what is the antonym for the intelligentsia after classical proletariat has vanished? Ostensibly, Russian intelligentsia still exists. However, its distinctive features have become vaguer than ever before.

In the Soviet period, one of those distinctive features was higher education. During recent years, the number of high schools has multiplied, as well as the number of graduates wishing to enter high school. However, the educational level of this generation does not correspond with the term "intelligentsia", not speaking of "intellectual elite". A swift increase of quantity turned a collapse of quality, and higher education became not a privilege but something common. However, young specialists are tacitly divided in accordance with the rating of the high school: Postgraduates of "old-stock" universities are evaluated much higher than those who finished some newfangled academy.

However, the gap between the thinking part of the population and the indifferent Philistines is deeper than ever before. While in the USSR it could be reduced by pulling up the average level of education to higher standards, today's intellectual minority is again "terribly distant from the people", as Lenin once wrote about early Russian revolutionaries.

Most of the eggheads contesting in forecasts of the nation's future are committing an unforgivable systemic error: they base their view of the people upon the experience of dealing with a flock of persons of their own brand. Deriving judgments on public opinion from posts on a particular LiveJournal page, they overlook the huge majority of compatriots who are either illiterate in the Internet, or have their own LiveJournal page focused only on their personal affairs like employment, love, prices, but not the fate of Russia and the globe.

What do we know about the vast majority of the population that believes to the talking heads in the TV? Are we able to apprehend the active users of mass culture, glossy magazines and Hollywood movies?

 

WISH TO KNOW LESS

While the thinkers, isolated from reality, are busy seeking new ways to save the state, the people whom these plans are dedicated to are spectacularly evolving in a certain direction. A common Russian used to have specific features distinguishing them from Americans and Europeans: particularly, independence in making decisions on any issue. A Western housewife would hardly venture of proscribe medicine to the neighbor's child, while a Western physician would hardly try to repair a defunct TV. A Western Philistine is usually unaware what is going on in another hemisphere, while a lot of Americans are illiterate in their nation's political affairs. A Russian, even having no secondary education, used to regard himself as a specialist in almost every aspect of everyday life as well as in global affairs spending hours contemplating on the destiny of the mankind, at the same time digging in himself. In fact, he used to mind everyone's business. This property of a Russian could be appreciated or ridiculed, as this knowing-all was sometimes funny – but still nicer than total indifference.

Today, the distance between an average Ivanov and an average Johnson is rapidly contracting. The title of the Soviet-time youth TV program, "Wish to Know More", sounds pretty obsolete.

 

DISTANCING FROM REALITY

Though the Soviet-time TV propaganda used to draw the world in black and white, every citizen was supposed to be concerned of the poor peasants of Latin America or to applaud to labor achievements of a Vietnamese worker. Despite the specific bias in informing the audience, the state-owned means of propaganda encouraged curiosity of an average citizen. Today's mass media seem to be interested in the opposite. Global news is broadcasted on a few specialized channels while the rest dedicate themselves to entertainment. This does not mean that the TV is only amusing the audience: comic serials are interleaved with horror movies. However, the virtual world of horror is as distant from the reality as the virtual world of pleasure. What is lacking is the picture of the real world on the planet.

Moreover, being interested in political and economic affairs is today unfashionable. The youth believes that politics, as well as finances, is somewhat boring or dirty, while the world-outlook is reduced to a few stereotypic assumptions like "Americans are idiots", "War is evil", and "Life is a jungle". Middle-age Russians borrow ready-made judgments both from succinct news reports and political jokes from humoristic programs, with no attempt of insight. Views of elderly people are restricted to the attitude to USSR's disintegration and the President's personality, the combination varying without any logic.

 

THE CAUCASUS CONFLICT: A LITMUS PAPER

The Georgian-Ossetian conflict revealed the capability of a today's Russian for analysis. While conservative and liberal eggheads were speculating on the geopolitical implications of the affair, millions of Philistines, who used to roar "Russia ahead!" from open windows during the European soccer championship, were trying to make judgments on the tragedy of Tskhinval. These judgments are strikingly primitive, regardless from the age.

"Why spend such a lot of money for these wogs? They would better pay me a better pension than to help to God knows whom", says an old lady. It is hard to believe that she had spent most of her life in the USSR in which Georgia and Abkhazia was a part of her nation, while assistance to a country in need was regarded as a normal mission of the state.

"We are returning to totalitarian times", laments an "enlightened" engineer. "Why don't we then recognize independence of Chechnya?"

Meanwhile, a teenager, hardly aware of the location of Georgia, sincerely fears that now America will drop a nuclear bomb on Moscow. "We'll drop a bomb on anybody we like ourselves", disagrees his schoolmate.

This array of primitive stereotypes, displaying common intellectual idleness, does not correspond with the official view that the Russian nation has recognized itself as one of the major poles of the new global order.

 

THE SINKING STANDARDS

The popular perception of the Georgian-Ossetian war is just one of the symptoms of the phenomenon of degradation of thinking. This phenomenon surfaces also in recent polls among school graduates, indicating a strikingly poor level of general knowledge. If this process continues for several years, most of the jokes applied to "ignorant Americans" may be similarly applied to common Russians.

Is it possible to make a people happy without its own contribution? Is it possible to upgrade a nation without general education? The Russian intelligentsia has repeatedly tried to improve the society "from above". The assumption of intellectuals that the logic of common people is similar to their own is today a more obvious error than before.

A number of politicians use the primitivism of popular beliefs for their own purposes, in fact being satisfied with the poor level of the mass thinking. They overlook the fact that in the nearest future, they will have to address this very people, urging them for a common effort for the nation's strategic tasks.

In order to fulfill tasks of a national scale, the masses of the people is to be morally and intellectually prepared to perceive and implement new ideas. Attempts to use the masses as a blind force are not only cynical but unworkable. If the population is generally unaware of what is happening, it will be also unable to accept new views if they don't correspond with the customary assumptions.

 

CAUGHT IN A DREAM

There are two different ways to govern. It is possible to explain and implement the policy addressing it to the thinking layer of the society alone. But this approach is lacking the broad support of the population. Another way is to deal with the electorate by the means of primitivization of messages in a form of simple slogans.

Simplification as a concept of power and control is convenient and cost-efficient but defective in its nature because of degrading society.

On this very approach to manage human mind the "consumer society" is based: to switch off the instinct of spiritual self-protection, to impose the most primitive goods and material wealth as the basic values and then to use them as an enticement. It is ridiculous that the states which control their population upon such philosophy are calling themselves "democratic".

The only way out of the dilemma (of intellectual degradation of the society and of the risk of being not understood by ordinary people) which is available now is the necessity to elaborate the new language of communication besides primitivization and marginalization.

Having to deal with the challenging and complicated issues of national development, the Russian leadership will require support from the population to a larger extent than before. This requires communication with people not only by means of TV but also through public organizations. Ostensibly, this resource is quite available: during recent years, the President's Staff spawned a number of movements, tasked to deliver the government's initiatives to the masses. However, the youth activists, recruited for this purpose, were instructed rather to reproduce particular slogans to boost patriotic views, either for popularizing Russia's economic success or for protecting Russian minorities in neighbor states. At present, these movements are not on the scene. Are they still in function, and are they prepared for dealing with new challenges? Are these movements generally instrumental for communication between the federal powers and the population?

Unfortunately, slogans are good for indoctrination but quite often they are detrimental for self-sufficient ability to think, to reason, to derive unassisted conclusions and to make decisions. The language of simple slogans is hardly workable in the situation when people are supposed to reassess the conveniently adopted assumptions. Meanwhile, the necessary new language of communication is not elaborated. A number of intellectuals, proposing their concepts to the society, are unable or unwilling to translate them into a message accessible for masses.

The agenda of the real development of Russia requires a qualitatively new kind of communication between the powers and the population. In fact, the people are caught in a dream. The above described process of degradation needs to be reversed. This task requires a special effort on the national level, in which intellectual courage has to be combined with organizing skills. The effort to overcome the crisis of spiritual self-identification of the Russian majority is becoming an urgent necessity.


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