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The greeting card looks happily auspicious. But as many Russians know, or should remember, the month of January 1937 saw the second of Stalin’s show trials against alleged Trotskyists, the epitome of evil in Russia in those days. That was followed in June of 1937 by the trumped-up trial and execution of Marshal Tukhachevsky and seven other Red Army commanders. Stalin had gulled Hitler and his men into forging evidence against Tukhachevsky and the others in case torture didn’t produce their self-incrimination. It did.

Across the water in the US, where rule by consent, not terror, was the norm, Detective Comics launched themselves before Superman and Batman made their debut as fighters against evil. This was the first cover, and the epitome of evil that year for Americans – Ching Lung. Now the Americans, and Russians too, depend on him for their future prosperity.

Most Russians feel better off on the eve of 2011 than they felt when they received this card 74 years ago. That they know how bad it was doesn’t automatically mean that they, we, are more enlightened about then, or about now.

Enlightenment is a special condition affecting the head and the balls, as Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher explained in a short essay published in 1784. “Enlightenment,” he said, “is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding , but lack of resolve and courage to use it without another’s guidance. Sapere aude! Dare to know. That is the motto of the Enlightenment.”

Too bad for us in Russia. It is not only dangerous to dare to know – if you dare, and find out, the likelihood is that the country’s Guidance will make sure not a word of it is published. If you are the obstinate type, and keep daring, you are likely to be threatened with assault, banishment, or death. The backfile for this year is full of stories which the editors, reporters and managers of the Russian newspapers have accepted inducements not to publish nor investigate for themselves. The Moscow journalism faculties are full of professors who pretend this isn’t happening, and make sure their lectures don’t upset the pretence. Russians know that for every reporter whose fingers are crushed for his derring-do, there are a dozen with their hands out for a bribe to look elsewhere; and another half-dozen, the lucky ones, with fists full of rich forgetfulness.

You can tell the history of all societies, Russia not excepted, by the effectiveness of its forms of control. This starts from force, the most primitive and also the least efficient; through fraud which is also clumsy and costly; to subversion. Fear for your life gives way to fear for your livelihood. A society is truly modern, in Dmitry Medvedev’s sense of the term, when its inhabitants are persuaded to act against their own interests, believing they are acting for the best when, in reality, they are deceiving and cheating themselves.

The good news about the primitiveness of the Russians you’ve been reading about all year is that most of them, even (especially) the oligarchs, are much too fearful to be candidates for subversion. In a country where noone dares to know, noone dares. And so we are all stuck between force and fraud, between fear and loathing. It was the same when Astolphe de Custine visited in 1839. He recognized then, and we might as well realize now, that as the years go by, not much changes, and for very good reason.

Recognizing that is proof against subversion. So let’s celebrate what we dare not. And lest the auspices look gloomy, try singing this one as you lift your glass at midnight.


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