The recent revolt provided a graphic example of the deep-seated fatalism that afflicts Russia: the idea that whatever you do, it doesn’t really matter- things will turn out the same, probably miserably. What will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see (or change). Russians have had a millenium of oppression and misery to drum this lesson into them, starting with the Mongols, who celebrated their conquering of Rus by killing every second person in Moscow. Under foreign occupations, the tsars serfdom, communist slavery; people learned that what they wanted and needed didn’t matter—it was better not to hope, because that only led to greater disappointment. The communists in particular specialized in creating an interlocking web of mutual exclusivity carefully designed to crush the human spirit. 2 years ago, the most common response to any suggestion was: “I think that is impossible, Michael”.
With the personal and market freedoms of the last 2-5 years however, people realized that they could influence their fate, change it, even take it to the highest heights. Businessmen stretched their financial muscles and imagination in the worlds suddenly opening up to them. Yet even there, hopeless fatalism didn’t relinquish its grip, with people usually spending every penny immediately as if they might die tomorrow (and sometimes thusly provoking that result).
The war displayed fatalism’s continued pervasiveness, with people blithely crowding next to machine gun and armored battles, heedless of danger, even as others nearby were killed and wounded. If you have no control over your life, nothing you do can endanger it either, or so the thinking goes. At least a dozen people paid the ultimate price for their entertainment, yet even those seriously wounded vowed they would do it all again, the same way.
Ironically, as Russians discover their power to change their world, foreigners are more and more susceptible to fatalism. In the CNN video of the attack on Ostankino, TV cameramen film the rebel trucks crashing through the doors... from 6 feet away, as if they were impervious to the bullets that were bound to come. They weren’t: 6 journalists were killed, 9 wounded (inc. at the White House), probably the heaviest one-day toll since WW II. Fatalism, as with the defiantly wounded spectators, engenders serious stupidity.
Apathy and exhaustion have fuelled fatalism’s power; overwhelmed by the wrenching changes of the last 2 years (prices increasing 30-100 times in dollar terms and the majority 2-5 times poorer), many people feel farther than ever from influencing their destiny.
The vagaries of fate are usually ascribed to some divine power, but with the suppression of religion, that was nelzya for the last ¾ century, so people designated various other powers as the responsible party. The latest such omniscient authority is the Mafia, who are spoken of with a respect that is disquieting, if not obscene. When someone is murdered, people knowingly cluck about “his being involved in something he shouldn’t”, as if criminal retribution were a form of divine justice, one so dependable that it’s use was proof of guilt.
As a technical rock climber I have an intimate knowledge of fate and one’s power to control it. In 1980, I was packed to go to Mt. St. Helens (Washington St.) to shoot photos of it’s imminent explosion, but at the last minute I decided not to go, unsure if anything would really happen. I’d planned to be on Spirit Lake, about 9 km from the mountain; when it exploded 6 days later with the power of a 20 megaton bomb, every living thing within 23 km (north) was killed, and a cool wind blew over my soul from 4500 km away. 7 years later I explored the area for several weeks: a moonscape of craters, dust, and thousands of sq km of blown down 80 M trees, lined up like toothpicks, and I became obsessed with the stories of the victims (60 dead) and survivors, and the arbitrary line that divided them, since I felt myself among them. In one party of 6, 2 were killed, 2 seriously injured, and 2 unhurt. Who decides?
Friends of a band left a record release party a few weeks ago and splashed their Lada into an oncoming BMW on the deadly Ring Rd near Prospect Mira. “You know, a week before”, the band’s manager said,”Dima was so drunk he could barely stand, and I wasn’t letting him leave, then he ran out and drove away. He got home fine that night, but at the party he didn’t have a drop, and he gets killed. It doesn’t make sense.” It rarely does.
In a metro recently, I had to mull over the issues of fate hurriedly when a derelict stumbled into view. He was a wretched sight: shoeless, ragged filthy clothes, head bandaged top to jaw and bleeding in 3 places, and staggering 2 M back and forth. A spot of blood on the floor revealed their previous embrace. As he reeled to less than a meter from the train pit, I moved close. If he lurched towards the certain death of the pit (if not from the fall or electrocution, certainly from the train due in 30 seconds), should I A. grab him and pull him back, B. shove him hard enough to knock him safely to the platform floor, or C. watch him fall in and study the result (as 98% of Russians and probably 90% of Americans would do). After all, perhaps this was his fate, and everybody: the derelict, the people he impacted, his family, would be better off (except for the Metro workers). But the man lurched back out towards the exit to live perhaps a few weeks longer... and the choice wasn’t forced. Qué sera, sera.
Michael Hammerschlag is a commentator in Moscow.