As readers of this column may have noted, I hardly ever comment on events in Moscow. Since 1984, when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in Russia, I have taken the view that the clever understand what transpires there without need for fresh explanations, while the daft, no matter how ingenious one’s explanations or persuasive one’s reasoning, will understand as little as they did in 1948, when Orwell’s novel was written. A central thesis of the novel, it may be recalled, is that, in a totalitarian state, books and ideas are not only not world-changing or life-saving but are actually a provocation, a trap, a stratagem to flush out and suppress dissent. To this I would add that, in a cryptototalitarian state, far from threatening or weakening absolute power, they abet it by clothing it in the purple of reason and the iridescence of pluralism.
It is a stubborn fallacy that freedoms of thought, speech, or expression are hardwired into the matrix of civil liberties in Western democracies, while their absence is the sine qua non of totalitarian regimes. A similar fallacy concerning freedom of commerce was spectacularly exposed in the Third Reich, where the fact that ordinary people could do what their neighbors in the East could only dream about—such as sell potatoes or mend shoes for a living—did not make Hitler’s regime any less totalitarian. Modern China is another example, and I think even the daft must now accept that private ownership of an electronics factory is not a telltale crack in the edifice of political dictatorship. Yet the old chestnut of freedom of expression is, despite Orwell, alive and well, and every bit as confusing as it was in 1948.
In 1984 I concluded that the new junta, which had taken power from the Communist Party while Brezhnev was still alive, was intelligent enough to allow the Russian people whatever temporary latitudes might be regarded as freedoms of speech and expression—just as, more recently, Beijing has allowed the Chinese people some conditional latitudes hailed as economic freedoms. And since, as a result of such misconstruction, the daft conclusion that Russia was now a free country had become the universally accepted view, I stopped writing about the wickedness of the Kremlin. The new junta, I thought, had understood Orwell’s thesis better than his Western biographers. The Kremlin was too clever for the West, and that was that.
They want to talk? Let ’em talk. They want to blog that the country’s president is a murderer, a thief, and a pedophile? Let ’em blog—just take down their names and addresses. With secret-police personnel now outnumbering, at 3.5 million, the Russian armed forces, what possible difference can all this blabbering make? With new laws allowing wholesale perlustration of correspondence, telephone eavesdropping, unrestricted access to internet-provider data, searches without warrants or witnesses, detention without court orders—strictures de jure unthinkable, paradoxically, in Stalin’s day—what chance of action has a dissident in a police state, no matter how much freedom of expression is allowed him?
But in January of this year, an absurd thing happened. As I have foresworn writing about Russian politics, I hasten to add that what now draws me to recall this absurd happening is its semantic component.
The only nongovernment TV station in Russia put out a survey asking whether the blockade of Leningrad had been historically justified, and if it would not have been wiser of Marshal Stalin to have surrendered the city to the Germans as Marshal Kutuzov surrendered Moscow to Napoleon. As political dissent, on a hundred-point scale this speculation rated about 1.75, I reckon, yet alleged popular dismay at the sacrilegious survey was at once used by the Kremlin to lean on cable operators, who promptly deleted the offender from their packages. Henceforth the only voice on Russia’s airwaves would be Marshal Putin’s.
Said Marshal Putin through the mouthpiece of a flunkey: “The events of the Leningrad blockade are to be treated as a dogma, one that must be followed rather than interpreted. The historic memory of our victorious nation is founded upon them.”
Hearing “dogma” used in this way recalled Montaigne endeavoring, with the aid of Virgil, to make cannibalism comme il faut. It made me think of Lou Reed calling heroin “my wife and my life.” It reminded me of the slogan “Seduction!” in happy primary colors on numberless covers of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. In short, I was present at the birth of a neologism. Here was a word radically redefined by a new culture in the ascendant, as since at least the 18th century dogmatic had had but one meaning in European languages—“imposing opinions in an authoritative, imperious, or arrogant manner,” as the OED has it—and that meaning had been narrowly pejorative.
A good sign, I reflected. If their new culture condones such usage, maybe the men in the Kremlin are not nearly as clever as it seemed back in 1984, when the running dogs of imperialism had been dropped to let a hundred flowers bloom. Maybe the West, daft as it is, still has a fighting chance.