What We Should Be Working On Right Now

Vyacheslav Bahmin, Soviet dissident, human rights activist, co-chairman of Moscow Helsinki Group, talks about the most severe crisis in his memory – the current one – and what helped him to withstand the previous ones.

A while back, I believed that the publication of “GULAG Archipelago” and the acknowledgement of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as criminal and erroneous would cut off our ways back to the past, but reality showed that information in itself is not enough. You can read everything, know everything and still behave as if all of this does not exist. It does not change the brain; self-work does. Today, this self-work must be done quicker than in the 1970s, and it may prove easier; however, the decision to do it may be harder to make.

In the conditions of informational diversity, people often get hooked on the sources that correspond with their current feelings. This is how they end up inside an information bubble and lose sight of the big picture. Those bubbles are one of the explanations for the majority support of the current events in Ukraine.

Exiting this bubble is quite painful and terrifying. It is bad inside – everybody has it bad nowadays – however, exiting means watching your world collapse, and one can live for quite long in a semi-comfortable state (although now that span may be shortened). This is how people in the USSR clung to the myth of the great and happy motherland until the very end – however, we are living in a different world, and this analogy is rather toothless for it.

It happened to me once I realized the truth behind the expression “If you are not interested in politics, politics will become interested in you”. Once I realized that politics are the most powerful factor impacting the everyday life of an individual, facing them is inevitable, and, if you do not understand the meaning of current events, you will get lost and will not be able to make a single decision.

One faces politics unexpectedly, much like one gets hit in the head with a dusty sandbag. Today, many people have felt that hit. Perhaps they still want to stay on the sidelines; however, the politics have arrived and will arrive at their apartments, and say: judge this, don’t get involved in this, your salary will go down, but we shall be a great country…

It took me a year to understand my personal picture of the world. It was a painful year

It took me a year to understand my personal picture of the world. It was a painful year, but I have constructed my worldview, a belief system which 90% of Russians do not have. They do not have their own adequate understanding – something that is not translated on a screen and won’t change along with the images inside a TV.

On dangerous simplicity

Since our circle does not source most of its information from TV, many have not noticed what the mass viewers were being prepped for. Since 2014, they were explained to through every single channel that the region has become a stronghold for fascists who hate Russians, they were shown a heap of examples that mixed fakes and reality together. This stream of information prepared everybody for the fact that something has to be done about it. They were told that the “special operation” is the only way out the day before it happened. It is surprising, of course, that every village we advance to does not greet us with flowers, and the state media even forgot to create staged footage – apparently they had something else to do.

Today, propaganda will explain anything you wish to know, and, since you lack your own understanding, it will be comfortable to accept

Today, propaganda will explain anything you wish to know, and, since you lack your own understanding, it will be comfortable to accept in order to avoid fighting with yourself. In this case, however, you are an object rather than a subject, and you can be used in any way the state pleases; and you won’t even notice it.

The authorities use WWII vocabulary more than consciously: many have already written that this war is the single topic on which the society has reached consensus, and one of the very few events wherein we can certainly identify ourselves as “the good guys”. Nobody supports Nazis. In this regard, “denazification” is similar to fighting terrorism or extremism – even if all the extremism lies in the fact that someone walked out on the street holding a picket sign. The words make everything unambiguous and clear. However, building policy on that is pathetic. The people are getting tired of victorious sophistry.

It is unlikely that the work on shaping one’s worldview and self-awareness, even if done by many people simultaneously, will help us as a country: this is an inevitably singular decision, we will not become a political force that is capable of changing everything. It will, however, certainly help a person who has arrived at such a decision.

About a future book “February 2022”

When will there be an opportunity to write a book about the current events? Two or more generations may need to pass for a truly in-depth interpretation to emerge. And we can never have consensus – today we do not even have one on the Holocaust (otherwise people wouldn’t be held liable for denying it). Books such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” or  notes written by soldiers in the Chechen Republic will start appearing soon; the immediate experience of these authors will be valuable and interesting, but it will also be inevitably different and very emotional. The first attempt to objectively look at the situation will certainly happen in the nearest 10 or 20 years: interpreting the past is a quality of any thinking individual and society.

A while ago the world became more colorful, and after February 24th, after day one, it turned black and white again

It was easy for me to protest during the Soviet period – the world was black and white, and it was obvious that we were on the side of light. A while ago the world became more colorful, and after February 24th, after day one, it turned black and white again. And the contrast is more stark than in the USSR: then, we constantly talked that we were for peace, for de-escalation. The Caribbean crisis happened as if behind the scenes – and today we, every resident of the country, are unwilling participants in everything that is going on. We are a fortress besieged from every side. This is the most severe crisis in my memory.

On leaving

I am not planning to leave and will remain here regardless of what happens. In the USSR I had no opportunities for leaving, I knew that I would be arrested and imprisoned – so I never left. Most of my life has been dedicated to making life here different. And this is very difficult to achieve from abroad.