The Authoritarian Absurd
Before and After Communism
A talk by Kathleen Parthé, Professor of Russian & Director of Russian Studies
Friday, November 30th
“Theatre of the absurd” has been increasingly used to describe governance under Putin, both in policy and in the visual aspects of his second and third terms as president (riding shirtless, diving for carefully arranged artifacts, tranquilizing wild animals, flying with the birds…). Recognition of the absurdity of authoritarian rulers with reformist pretensions arose earlier in Russian political analysis, particularly in the writings of Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), and many of his observations apply as easily to Russia after 2000 as they do to his own time. Even from London exile, Herzen picked up on contradictions that arose when – unlike the folk hero Ilya Muromets, who confidently chose one of three paths before him – the tsar attempted to travel in two different directions simultaneously, on one road liberating people and on another severely restricting their freedom. A modern court system coexisted with politicized trials and unhealthy prisons, and serf emancipation alongside poverty and the absence of rights. Openness was heralded, but investigative reporting was dangerous, and the more troubled the nation, the louder the jubilees. Herzen gave Alexander II ample time to enact reforms, but by the early 1860s his faith had failed, and, like critics of Russia’s 21st century rulers, Herzen used laughter to expose the fact that Russians “have a great many policeman and very few rights.” In Rabelais and his World, Mikhail Bakhtin remarked on Herzen’s wish to write a history of laughter as the great leveler and one of the most powerful means of destruction. Herzen exploited a number of comic possibilities in his writing: puns, sarcasm, satire, parody, and what he called “irony-the-consoler and avenger.” My paper will examine the phenomenon of continuity (preemstvennost’) in Russian civilization that has brought authoritarianism and blasphemy safely through to the present.