From IKEA’s Russian woes to maniacal cops on a deadly rampage, Andrei Loshak sees today’s Russia as a state of the absurd, a wonderland where Alice (the population) is up against the madness of the authorities. Both sides have been pushed to the edge, and both are beginning to snap.
Extracts from the article “Short Circuited” by Andrei Lokshak, full original version available on openspace.ru, translation by me (sorry for any mistakes).
State of the Absurd
“We were born to bring Kafka to life,” has been a famous saying since Soviet times. Submerged in the absurd since childhood, we Russians have become experts in it. From our position on the other side of the looking glass, we manage to get by despite it. And it’s only Europeans, with their tiresome rationalism, that arrive in Russia and immediately start trying to find a comprehensible logic in what is happening. But in the end most of them get used to the way things work here and some of them even start to obey the laws of etiquette that require that the cake is shared out, and then sliced up – the laws of the other side of the looking glass – Russian wonderland.
The Russian branch of IKEA is a perfect example. IKEA declared from the outset that even in Russia it intended to unwaveringly uphold its clear Swedish rules, based on a protestant work ethic and strict logistics. As a result, before the opening of IKEA’s first store in Moscow the local authorities cut off its electricity supply. For no practical reason whatsoever – just in order to “rough up” the company as payback for its excessive integrity. Ever since, the Swedes knew their stores were going to be needing their own generators and have tried to do everything in order to depend as little as possible on the mood of the local authorities. The store in Samara built three years ago has proven more problematic - the opening has been postponed nine times. IKEA, a company that has launched 230 stores around the world, just couldn’t break through the unflinching greed of the Samaran bureaucrats, whose last issue in a long line of grievances was that the building was “insufficiently hurricane-proof”. The Swedes, lacking any information about the destructive tornadoes that wreak devastation on the left bank of the Volga, finally took offence. The legendary founder of the company Ingvar Kamprad declared that investments in Russia would be curtailed. But it’s doubtful that such a scare will have any effect on local bureaucrats. For they act not in their own greedy interests. They support the normal functioning of an irrational system.
A few months later another blow was in line for Kamprad. It turned out that in using the generators – the idea that IKEA was so proud of – the company overpaid 200 million dollars, which practically reduced the profits of the whole eastern European division of the company over the past few years to zero. The Swedes thought themselves such Lancelots, having cut off the head of the dragon of corruption, but had forgotten that according to the laws of wonderland a new head quickly sprouts. An official investigation revealed that the Russian IKEA employee responsible for renting the generators had been receiving a cut from the leasers and had been significantly raising the cost of their services. IKEA cut its contract with this firm and as a result was fined another 5 million euros by the Russian courts for breaking the conditions of contract.
Then – the final blow. A couple of weeks ago the Swedish tabloids revealed that the director of IKEA for Russia and Eastern Europe, Per Kaufmann, famous for his public criticism of Russian corruption, had been turning a blind eye to evidence of backhanders being made to contractors of the regional administration. Kamprad stayed true to his principles and immediately sacked Kaufmann, who had been his closest colleague for the past 20 years. He admitted defeat. Maybe for the first time in his life. The Swedes repeated the mistake of land surveyor K in Kafka’s “The Castle”, who tried to conquer the absurd by the strength of reason. It turned out to be a crazy plan. The possibilities of reason are limited, but the absurd knows no boundaries.
Corruption is irrational, as its very existence is deadly for a state. This is precisely why it ideally suits a state of the absurd, and is its operating system. The survival strategy for those living in such a state is not to look for the sense in anything. For those who dare attempt it, a glace at the Russian newsreel quickly turns into a psychedelic bad trip. A person will experience a cascade of dazzling negative emotions: fear, horror, shock, indignation, but meanwhile cannot find any logic: “Managers of the state bank VTB pulled off fraud, stole from the state and shareholders millions of dollars. One person has been fired.” , “Commander of the airborne forces of Russia General Shamanov will not be brought to trial due to no crime having taken place. The General tried to obstruct the work of a police investigator who was investigating a case concerning the General’s father in law, a criminal heavyweight who goes by the name of “Glyb”, for whom an international search warrant has been issued. The General called upon two squadrons of the air force special task force to deal with the police officer. The case has been closed because, as Shamanov himself explained, he later personally called off the order to capture the investigator."
It is the most Orwellian oxymora heard from the highest levels that are the final straw in the waves of paradoxical information and are enough to drive you insane: “conservative modernisation”, “sovereign democracy”, “parliament is not the place for discussions”. Such apparent contradictions are regularly thrown at our consciousness and heighten the feelings of disorientation and existential weightlessness which lead to a person being prepared to accept any information from above, however monstrous and contradictive it may be. As a result no one is even mildly surprised to hear that United Russia has won 102% in the elections. For what could surprise a nation where the title of main liberal democrat has been held by Vladimir Zhirinovsky for the past 20 years? The most ominous oxymoron of our time? “Law enforcement authorities”, in other words - organised crime. But, as strange as it may seem, it is precisely the police, in pushing the limits of moral decay, who can save the country. At some point in time the absurd, when it reaches critical proportions, transforms into outright nonsense, that is - utter insanity.
The State vs. the People
The turning point came with the massacre committed by Major Evsyukov. The shooting of shoppers in the supermarket didn’t just contradict common sense – it was devoid of it whatsoever. It was just after this massacre that the law enforcement went on the offensive against its own people. Every day we now hear about how someone in uniform has killed, robbed, run over in a car, or violated someone. For me, personally, what topped this all off was Evsyukov’s court case: “Former officer of the criminal investigation department of the district department of internal affairs Roman Potemkin, who participated in the arrest of Evsyukov, took a stand as witness. Potemkin was brought to court in handcuffs as he himself has been under investigation for extortion since October.” The collapse of the law enforcement system has actually already begun.
As is often the case, in the individual insanity of Evsyukov there was also the cast-iron logic of social processes. The system had to go mad. National security services in a healthy state, as Lenin once wrote, are steamrollers, unquestioningly carrying out the commands from above. As machines do not have and should not have brains, and commands are not given to them every day, their daily life is strictly regulated by instructions and rules. A malfunctioning occurs when commands from their owner dramatically contradict the rules of their maker. A short circuit occurs that causes over 2 million evil robocops to unleash terror against the civilians.
It’s strange – did the ruling elite really seriously assume that the law could be broken selectively? That whilst some carve up, squeeze dry, racketeer and topple the country, others, like complete idiots, will start to honestly carry out their duties under the social contract? This lie, taken to the absurd, has infiltrated the state apparatus from the top to the bottom, poisoned the heads of the junior and middle-ranking personnel. Our police force is now a massive army of bad lieutenants, ready at any moment to turn into insane majors.
People vs. the State
When the absurd grew into insanity the system hit the self-destruct command. The impenetrable fortress started to crumble from within. The eagle’s two heads are tearing one another to pieces and feathers are flying. But here’s the strange thing: the direr the state entropy, the faster everything falls apart and the easier it is to breathe. It’s as if there is now more air. I think that fear in society has disappeared. In the inability of the authorities to control their own kind the people have seen weakness. Such a state cannot have power to repress. The wild bites of the crazed system brought people out of their hypnosis. In the place of fear and apathy has come anger.
Mikhail Bakunin once wrote “Nothing is more dangerous for man’s private morality than the habit of command”. When the authorities start to degrade, you want to be higher than them, to counter cynicism with dignity, moral degradation with composure and humanity. The philosopher Murray Bookchin called this “self-organised reconstruction of society”. The vestiges of this process are already observable. Whereas before people only participated in public rallies when the bulldozers were already driving up to their house, now expressing protest has almost become fashionable. People have started standing up for one another. A couple of weeks ago a drunken police officer in a Mercedes ran over a woman standing at a bus stop. How did the officials act? The cop driving was incapable of stringing two words together; the man in uniform next to him hopped out of the car and ran off. Then their colleagues from the district department of internal affairs turned up and together with the road traffic police tried to sweep it all under the rug. How did people act? Three top bank managers who happened by chance to have seen the accident gave the woman first aid, called an ambulance, and when they noticed that the number plate was being unscrewed from the car, they called some journalists. It was only thanks to the noise they made over the matter that the public prosecutor found out about what happened. A scandal broke out. Heads went flying again (as if in their place new ones aren’t going to grow). A small victory was won over the system. The idea that a people deserves the government it has is a foul lie. At moments of great difficulty, simple people who have not been maimed by the “habit of command” don’t tear at each other’s throats, but hold out a hand of help.
As soon as the “steamroller” stops inspiring fear, out comes the age-old opposition of the Russian people to the state. The philosopher Berdiaev wrote, “Russia is the most un-governable country in the world. Anarchism is a characteristic of the Russian soul, it has been inherent in different ways both in the extreme left and the extreme right. Both the Slavophiles and Dostoevsky are also, essentially, anarchists like Bakunin, Kropotkin, or Tolstoy.” All imperialists and supporters of sovereign power in Russia are enemies of the people – and history just goes to show this. Our interests are diametrically opposed, “when the state gets stronger the people feebler” was the reverse dependency observed long ago by Kliuchevsky. Nothing has changed since. The popular teenage band “Lumen” sings, “I love my country so much, but I hate the State”. You couldn’t put it any better.
The most interesting thing is that those who work for the state are also anti-state in spirit. Just try talking to any cop or civil servant off the record. You’ll find more deception and cynicism than the classicists could ever have dreamed of. And the ruling elite similarly hides under patriotic rhetoric whilst carrying out its daily ritual of the absurd. As soon as the time comes they’ll scarper to Antibes and Marbella. They say that the Prime Minister’s daughters live in either Germany or Switzerland. In any case, not in Russia, that’s for sure. He’s no enemy to his own children.