"The present is not forever"

Shifts in the perception of biographical and historical time are central to many Russian people's understanding of the war in Ukraine, argues Professor Svetlana Stephenson.

Date: 13 April 2022

The war in Ukraine has led to a radical rethinking of Russian people’s relationship with time, to a new perception of the past, present and future. As the philosopher Henri Bergson wrote, the time of a person's life is not reducible to "clock" time, it is not calculated in hours, minutes and seconds. Our experiences of time have different duration and it can accelerate, slow down, and even stand still. Depending on what is happening now, our past is also changing. If, as Bergson says, new notes are added to the music, then everything that went before also changes. Catastrophic events completely redefine our lives, shifting all the time coordinates.

Shifts in the perception of biographical and historical time are central to many Russian people’s understanding of what has happened as a result of the war unleashed by their country in Ukraine. In public speeches, Facebook posts and private conversations people say that their entire lives have been cancelled, that all the plans that they made for themselves and their children have collapsed. Time has either stopped or no longer belongs to them. The horizon is open to those who in their dreams rush to Warsaw, to Berlin, to Washington, it is they who, in the insane frenzy of nationalism and militarism, see themselves as the creators of history. The rest are frozen in the endless present.

Once again, as was the case after the Bolshevik Revolution, young Russian Europeans feel like "an unfortunate generation", as Mikhail Bulgakov described them in his 1919 article "Future Prospects". He speaks of the event of the revolution, which excluded people from historical time. Only the next generations will see a better life, will return to European history: 

Now, when our unfortunate motherland lies at the very bottom of its pit of shame and disaster, driven there by the ‘Great Social Revolution’, more and more of us are beginning to have one and the same thought. This thought is persistent. It is a dark, gloomy thought that rises in one’s consciousness and powerfully demands an answer. It is simple: what will become of us? … The present is before our eyes. Its prospects are such that one would like to close his eyes … We will need to pay for our past with incredible labour, with bleak poverty of life. We will have to pay in the figurative as well as the literal meaning of the word ... And we will pay it off. And only then, when it is very late, will we once again begin to create something, in order to become fully legitimate, in order to be allowed again into the halls of Versailles. Who will see these bright days? Will we? O no! Our children, maybe, or perhaps our grandchildren, for the scope of history is wide; history counts decades just as easy as it counts individual years.”

These reflections echo what many Russian people feel today, being immersed in the infinite present. The future is no longer in sight, but even the present seems to be unreal. The horizon of everyday life is covered with a black veil. At the same time, Russia seems to have reverted to the past. The economy has been set back 30 or 40 years. Socially, the country is plunging into the archaic, decivilizing reality of war, murder, plunder of foreign land. 

The past itself is being re-assessed. It now seems to have inevitably led to this catastrophe. The personal compromises of recent years now seem criminal, as they paved the way for the final triumph of evil. Russian culture itself comes under new scrutiny, it is filled with meanings that support national exclusivity, contempt for foreigners, it is imbued with a sense of self-satisfaction and admiration for the supposed spirituality and morality of the Russian people. From Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great to the Soviet days, everywhere we see manifestations of the immanent vices of Russian civilization, the omnipotence of rulers and the slavish obedience of subjects.

The earlier expectations that Russia was becoming a "normal" European country now seem like a naive utopia. The European future is stifled by Putin and his aging courtiers, with many of the population indifferent. The past once again grabs the future with a dead hand. Unlike the Western Oedipal archetype, according to which the son must kill his father, the Patriarch, in order to find his place in the world, in the Russian archetype the father kills his son. Here is one of the key themes of Russian history and literature. Ivan the Terrible killed his son in a fit of insane rage. Peter the Great also killed his son, who, in his opinion, was plotting to overthrow the tzar together with his Catholic enemies. In Nikolai Gogol’s “Taras Bulba”, the father kills his son, who betrayed his Cossack heritage for the sake of a Polish girl. In Mikhail Sholokhov's story "The Mole", a father kills his son during the Civil War without recognizing him, and then, noticing a familiar mole, commits suicide, thereby turning the story of Oedipus upside down.

Yet we must remember that nothing is predetermined. There is no single logic in the development of events that our rational, linear imagination suggests. The world is chaotic, the order that seems inevitable to us is fragile and unstable. The country’s authorities want to present its history as uncontested, based on thousand years' strong foundations. But references to some monolithic past of Russia, to its special path, used by the authorities and repeated by a disappointed and, so far, demoralised liberal intelligentsia, are also a social construct that excludes everything that does not fit into a single picture. And what is excluded is Russia's deep involvement in the global world, the perceptions of the future associated with development, education, a variety of consumer and life choices, which, judging by the polls of the "pre-war" period, are shared by wide sections of the population, especially its younger members.

These expectations will also determine the future, they cannot be crossed out by a group of elders who cling to power and are ready for its sake and for the sake of historical chimeras to cancel the future of their own and neighbouring countries. But the future will come, it's already here, it's just hard to see it behind the screen built by propagandists and our apocalyptic imagination. Just as there was no inevitability in what happened, which came as a result of concrete decisions guided by a group of people around Putin on the basis of their own interests and fantasies, so there is no inevitability in the future either. And just as the plans of those who unleashed this war were shattered by Ukrainians' ideas about their past, present and future, so in Russia the future will very soon turn out to be very different from how it is seen in the Kremlin.

This article was originally published on 12 April 2022 on the Russian language website of Radio Free Europe.