Famously, one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's favorite phrases was, “It’s boring in the world, gentlemen!” And according to Vienna-based historian, culturologist, professor, and author Alexander Etkind, Dostoyevsky stands as a particular hero to current Russian President Vladimir Putin for exactly this sentiment.
Etkind, born in St. Petersburg, is well-known in the world of the humanities and social sciences for his series of books that have become fundamental to the perception of Russian history.
In an interview with RFE/RL, he delves into the need to psychoanalyze the deep pathology that has manifested itself in the current Russian government, and he maintains that it is through the understanding of Russia’s past preoccupations and prerogatives that we can glimpse the true mechanism of Putin’s motives in detaching modern Russia from the modern world -- and, ultimately, its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
RFE/RL: Your book Eros Of The Impossible: The History Of Psychoanalysis In Russia, published in 1993, is a collection of essays about Russia’s Silver Age (1890-1917) from a psychoanalytical perspective. Nietzsche plays an important role in the intellectual history of that period, and you write that everywhere else Nietzscheism was a beautiful intellectual game, but in Russia it was practical Nietzscheism. Lenin is a practical example. Can we apply an understanding of Nietzsche to what is happening in Russia now, to its war in Ukraine, and to Putin himself?
Alexander Etkind: The first chapters speak of there being a strange combination of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. This led to extraordinary phenomena: Trotsky, for example, was both a Nietzschean and a Freudian, although he considered himself, of course, exclusively a Marxist. The most difficult thing for these people was the idea of a “superman.” For Trotsky, as for Gorky, and for other people, this idea was essential: to create new people, and these people will live in a completely new way.
Putinism, unfortunately, is intellectually very poor. I believe Trotsky read Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, but I don’t believe Putin has read anything like that…. Once upon a time, [Andrei] Illarionov, the [former] chief economic adviser to the Russian president, gave him Ayn Rand to read. This seems to be the extent of Putin’s foray into foreign literature.
RFE/RL: Russia is tearing itself out of modern civilization and happily destroying the foundations of everything that has been built in the past 30 years. How do you see the dark, masochistic culture that has taken over playing a role in this?
The true fetish is Ukraine, and it’s connected to revanchism.... It’s like the obsessive feelings of a rejected partner who has already had it once or many times and wants it again."
Etkind: A masochist, as you know, takes pleasure [in suffering]. And it is hard to understand how these people find pleasure. I think it’s about fetishism. Fetishism is when a part becomes more important than the whole -- for example, a [shoe] heel or some kind of ribbon is more important than a woman. A fetishist is difficult to understand from the outside, and they cannot understand each other: One fetishist loves a ribbon, and the other a heel. On the map, even the form of Crimea is very reminiscent of a fetish. [First it was Crimea,] now it’s the Donbas; then it becomes the whole of Ukraine.
The fetish has now expanded beyond Crimea. They draw maps and discuss strategy, but the true fetish is Ukraine, and it’s connected to revanchism. We’re talking about a new conquest, a new mastery of what existed in the past. It’s like the obsessive feelings of a rejected partner who has already had it once or many times and wants it again.
RFE/RL: Putin himself started out as a modernizer. At what point did Russia become such an enemy of modernity?
Etkind: I call what we have now "paleo-modernity" -- all these mountains of concrete, seas of oil, tanks, piles of garbage. Today's modernity is in many respects the opposite [of what modernity was before]. This transition was painful for everyone; it took decades. But in Russia, this shift happened at the beginning of Putin's rule. Illarionov wrote volumes denying climate change and calling it a man-made phenomenon. Then he moved to the [United] States, became a supporter of then-President Donald Trump, who himself is an anti-modernist, climate-change denier.
But the main point of denial came when Russia realized it was losing the main source of its existence: oil and gas exports. When this understanding came, it also was met with denial: No, these are just words, nothing will happen. [The West] will run to Siberia for firewood, as Putin said at some point; they don’t even have nuclear power plants [in the West] anymore.
RFE/RL: Russia has never recognized the violence in its own history, written in its genetic code: internal colonialism, the colonization of a vast territory of countless peasants, violence against the Caucasus, and then the terrors of the 20th century such as revolutionary terror, the Great Terror of the 1930s, then Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Chechnya. These things aren’t spoken of, but they have all led to the current war.
Etkind: This is a tip of the iceberg -- perhaps a part that’s completely underwater. But there’s another part of the iceberg, much more visible from the surface: the Putin regime’s general rejection of modernity. At the moment, I’m writing a book called Russia Against Modernity.
Until it launched the war in Ukraine, the Russian Federation was a respected, rich country.... But Putin made the decision to move this colossus, and now this iceberg is floating and melting along the way."
Humanity has pressing problems that we all know by heart, namely global warming, pandemics, decarbonization; in general, the transition of civilization to completely different grounds. For Russia, as it has evolved over the past 30 years of post-Soviet rule, this global modernity is a threat. Russia’s development has gone in the other direction. Russia’s statements about climate change, the environment, sustainable development are all just empty words….
But at some point, it turned out that the people making these policies in Russia realized that this is serious. It was a shock. All of this is connected: deep unprocessed traumas and catastrophes, a pathological fetishism, and a resistance to modernity.
RFE/RL: Another book of yours is called The Nature Of Evil: A Cultural History Of Natural Resources. Russia is a textbook example of a country with natural resources, relying from its inception on their export: wood, furs, fish, wheat, hydrocarbons. Is what’s happening now in part Russia's belated hysterical reaction to the global energy transition, realizing that the age of oil is coming to an end, and trying to force Russian hydrocarbons back onto consumers?
Etkind: This plays a part in many factors. A global event is a war, and such an event has many historical reasons. It started with denial of the climate catastrophe, the energy transition. That denial was the first phase. The second phase was deception: Let them start introducing all sorts of carbon taxes and complex recalculation schemes in the Kyoto agreement, for example, and Russia will benefit.
Russia has a lot of forests, and even more swamps, and so it needed to impose a method of calculation in which, on the one hand, [it] can export energy that will be used elsewhere. The taxes on emissions will be paid by the countries that burn up all this oil, while Russia has deindustrialization and burns less and less, produces less and less electricity, and has fewer and fewer emissions. Russia then gets paid once for its oil and then again, for a second time, for having so few emissions.
This took a few years. Former President Dmitry Medvedev was passionate about these calculations and prospects. There’s the stage of denial, the stage of deceit, and the stage of forcible imposition of the former energy and financial order -- because energy and finance in the modern world are, unfortunately, one and the same.
RFE/RL: Can Russia cease to rely on the export of natural resources, or would Russia as we know it cease to exist?
Etkind: Yes and yes. It would be a completely different Russia. Here’s how modern Russia works: All these riches come from western Siberia. Two districts in particular -- Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansiysk -- produce all of the national wealth. It goes through pipes and is bought by countries in Western Europe. Large amounts of money flow back to Moscow. Moscow redistributes it; X amount goes to Chechnya, X amount to Tyva, X amount remains in Moscow. And the leftovers informally go to the so-called elite.
Historians will write volumes on this subject, and they’ll all contradict each other. My take is simple: He was bored. This war was born of boredom."
But what if no one’s buying? Moscow will no longer be able to give Chechnya, Tuva, Komi, or Voronezh everything they used to receive. There’s an idea of Russians as being very modest. They can live in poverty. They will endure all this. It was like this under Stalin and Khrushchev, and even Brezhnev, but that time is long gone.
During the past prosperous years, Russians have become accustomed to a certain prosperity. Yes, this wealth pales in comparison to that of the Dutch or even Latvians; however, I think when Moscow runs out of funds for redistribution, all these interesting places, countries, and republics will begin to live their own lives. Chechnya will have to figure out how it can earn money for itself, and Tyva and Voronezh will, too.
Until it launched the war in Ukraine, the Russian Federation was a respected, rich country with nuclear weapons and other things that are best avoided. On this basis, the regime could exist as is for a few more decades. But Putin made the decision to move this colossus, and now this iceberg is floating and melting along the way.
RFE/RL: What will future historians think about Putin’s motives for setting off this self-destructive bomb?
Etkind: Historians will write volumes on this subject, and they’ll all contradict each other. My take is simple: He was bored. This war was born of boredom. There are different ways to say it, that it came from dissatisfaction, ambition, or the feeling that this would be his last chance to accomplish something important, heroic.
The prosperous years were boring years from his point of view. If I manage to write another book (say, a psychoanalysis of the Kremlin), then the idea of political boredom will be a key theme.