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Kafka's castle is collapsing
April 1, 2010 10:22 AM   Subscribe

The saying "We have been put on Earth to make Kafka come true" has been well known since Soviet times.
posted by 31d1 (35 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Умом Россию не понять etc.
posted by Behemoth at 10:29 AM on April 1, 2010


The company has opened 230 stores all over the world, but was unable to overcome the implacable cupidity of the Samara officials. Their last complaint was that the building was insufficiently hurricane-proofed.

Ha ha, this article rules.
posted by Damn That Television at 10:34 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great article. This was great ---
It's strange, but did the ruling elite really think the law could be broken selectively? That while some representatives of the state are breaking things up, corporate raiding, racketeering and wrecking, others (like complete idiots) will be honestly fulfilling their part of the social contract? Falsehood gone mad has infiltrated the machine of state from top to bottom, poisoning the minds of the junior and middle ranks. Our police today is a huge army of bad lieutenants, capable at any moment of turning into mad majors.
posted by acro at 10:50 AM on April 1, 2010


What a sad, strange, compelling article.
posted by Damn That Television at 10:56 AM on April 1, 2010


Yeah, I was gonna post this at some point, but dropped the ball.
posted by nasreddin at 11:09 AM on April 1, 2010


Very good article!
posted by JHarris at 11:10 AM on April 1, 2010


Completely fascinating!
posted by Greg Nog at 11:18 AM on April 1, 2010


Managers at the State Bank VTB have run a scam which has robbed the country and the shareholders of hundreds of millions of dollars. One person has been dismissed.

HA HA CRAZY RUSSIANS
posted by JHarris at 11:25 AM on April 1, 2010


Could someone who knows more than I weigh in on the differences in Chinese and Russian corruption?
posted by benzenedream at 11:31 AM on April 1, 2010


That was fantastic and also I fear for Loshak's safety.
posted by everichon at 11:45 AM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


This was great and depressing.
posted by qvantamon at 12:06 PM on April 1, 2010


I have no actual knowledge or direct experience here, so this is just speculation which should be taken with the usual large grain of salt, but: my understanding of the differences between Chinese and Russian corruption is that it comes down to the the belief systems and expectations of people in each country.

In China the system is believed to be fundamentally healthy in an economic sense (perhaps even thriving), with a goal that can be achieved (growth of the nation) and people in charge who pretty much know what they're doing. Whether this is true or not, it leads to a mentality where everyone tries to fit in with the system's goals, because it will take care of them. Even corruption is part of that of that system (albeit an unwritten part), and the gains that people make from corruption are a shadowy, but still real part of the economy. People take as much as they can, but no more, because they don't want to break the system down.

But in Russia there is no confidence that the system works, or that the people in charge know what they're doing, or that the nation is working toward some constructive, achievable goal. As Andrei Loshak put it in his article, everything just seems to be absurd. The system is insane and spinning out of control, and in such an environment people simply want to grab as much as they can while they still can. They figure it's all going to collapse tomorrow, so they're no point in working hard today. The best course is to make yourself as rich and powerful as you can, so you can survive the apocalypse and start again when it's all over.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:13 PM on April 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


To be fair, the corruption in the system actually works both ways. I don't think you can find anyone in Russia who's completely clean of it. Everybody knows that the authorities are corrupt, so in return, nobody actually follows the laws (since it's impossible to do so) or pays the taxes. Nobody follows the traffic laws, because you'll have to pay the police either way. And so on and so further.
posted by daniel_charms at 12:17 PM on April 1, 2010


In (post) Soviet Russia, system corrupts you!
posted by kcds at 12:38 PM on April 1, 2010


At times of great difficulty simple people, who are not damaged by the «habit of giving orders» don't react in a dog eats dog way, they extend a helping hand. The further a person is away from power, the better he is.
I think I love this writer.
posted by Ritchie at 1:00 PM on April 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


Even corruption is part of that of that system (albeit an unwritten part), and the gains that people make from corruption are a shadowy, but still real part of the economy. People take as much as they can, but no more, because they don't want to break the system down.

That's why I think it helps to think of corruption in terms of system being twisted so that it no longer does what it is designed to do, rather than as individual acts like bribery or bad personality traits like greed.

If there's some town where the fire department has a really low budget, but pays for their trucks and whatnot by accepting bribes from everyone in exchange for their services, that's not very a good system but at least at the end of the day the firemen are getting paid and fires are getting put out. If, on the other hand, the fire department doesn't do anything other than breaking into people's houses, stealing everything, setting the houses on fire, and putting those fires out, then the original system that justified their role has been completely corrupted.

The IKEA anecdotes are a perfect example of that. IKEA designed an organization in Russia, and corruption ended up defeating most of what their organization tried to do. They hired someone to get the best price on generators (because the power infrastructure was hopelessly corrupt), and instead of getting them good prices he took kickbacks and managed to pay so much for the generators that it erased millions of dollars in profits for the company. As the article says, corruption is irrational because a corrupt system is by its nature a failing system.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:03 PM on April 1, 2010


We have been put on Earth to make Kafka come true

I'm totally going to steal that.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:26 PM on April 1, 2010


Ok, now I understand... ;-)
posted by vertriebskonzept at 1:28 PM on April 1, 2010


Excellent article.

But local officials were unlikely to be fazed by such trifles. Their actions are, after all, not dictated by narrow personal interest.

Не корысти ради! [Not for personal gain!]

It's Kafka crossed with Ilf & Petrov and armed to the teeth.
posted by languagehat at 2:58 PM on April 1, 2010 [1 favorite]



I pray for the writer's health.
posted by bukharin at 5:11 PM on April 1, 2010


The saying «We have been put on earth to make Kafka come true» has been well known since Soviet times. We have been so steeped in absurdity since childhood that we haven't even learnt to distinguish any of the rules that regulate it. We are on the other side of the looking glass but somehow manage to function, work out what moves to make and make careers for ourselves.

When Europeans first come to Russia they apply their boring rationalism to the situation, attempting to discover in it the logic to which they are accustomed. I remember English people from MAPS (Moscow Architecture Preservation Society), itself a kind of absurdity, talking about an 18th century mansion that was being knocked down in order to put up a pseudo-baroque restaurant «Turandot» in its place. They kept on exclaiming «It's absurd! Absurd!» Most of them eventually get used to things here and some even start obeying the rules of through the looking glass etiquette, where pies are handed out first and then cut up.

[...]

That a people gets the government it deserves is an odious lie. At times of great difficulty simple people, who are not damaged by the «habit of giving orders» don't react in a dog eats dog way, they extend a helping hand. The further a person is away from power, the better he is. I have seen this for myself in far away Ural villages built by lumberjacks before the Revolution.

[...]

Once the «repression machine» no longer inspires fear, the age old antipathy between the Russian and his government resurfaces. The philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev wrote that «Russia is the least governable country in the world. Anarchy is a manifestation of the Russian spirit and has been an essential part of the make up of our extremists, both left- and right-wing.
So, the good, simple people of Russia navigate the absurdities of the state the best they can, and keep themselves good and simple by staying away from power themselves.

On one level, I'm very much sympathetic to this sentiment, but I can't help but think that it ultimately undermines the hope of tyranny ever dying.

I'm puzzled by what he says here:
Corruption is irrational: its very existence is fatal for a state. This makes it an ideal accompaniment to the realm of the absurd, its operating system. You don't have to understand how it works, but it is has a very convenient function which any idiot can grasp. Press the button and you get a result. Survival in such a state depends on not looking for sense. If you do, then any acquaintance with the news bulletins in the Russian internet soon turns into a psychedelic bad trip. You experience a veritable avalanche of negative emotions: fear, horror, shock, outrage but, try as you will, you cannot find a cause-effect link:
What follows is a series of bizarre examples of Russian corruption. But in spite of the supposed complete irrationality, I can't help but see one aspect common to each: the Kremlin never loses anything and usually gains something.
posted by Anything at 6:35 PM on April 1, 2010


At times of great difficulty simple people, who are not damaged by the «habit of giving orders» don't react in a dog eats dog way, they extend a helping hand. The further a person is away from power, the better he is.

If that's true, then "power to the people" becomes a frightening mantra.
posted by Xezlec at 9:14 PM on April 1, 2010


It weirdly reminds me of Alexander Zinoviev's pre-Soviet Union collapse novel Yawning Heights (warning, Zinoviev himself was a dick).
Looks like some things have returned to the old days with a vengeance.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:14 PM on April 1, 2010


That was fantastic and also I fear for Loshak's safety.

There's no reason to fear for his safety. The difference between the Soviet treatment of freedom of expression and the Putinist one is basically this: in the former, everyone had to pretend things were going great, so any criticism of the system was out of bounds. Under Putin, the government seems to actively cultivate the idea that everything is terrible. Centuries of experience have taught it that Russian cynicism is an invincible elemental force, so it doesn't even try to suppress it. The government is basically concerned about two things: 1) concrete, specific, factual accusations of government involvement in something terrible, and 2) claims to political power by non-government actors of any kind. Generalized statements about how everyone is corrupt, everything is absurd, and so on are actually in the government's interest, because they minimize the possible impact of 1 and 2; moreover, they are an effective way of translating cynicism into political passivity. (I am by no means suggesting that politically-active citizens would make things "better." In Russia, a politically-active citizenry is the first step towards a neo-Nazi dictatorship, not Western-style democracy.)


That's why I think it helps to think of corruption in terms of system being twisted so that it no longer does what it is designed to do


What you're missing, I think, is that the Russian system was actually designed to facilitate corruption as much as possible.

On one level, I'm very much sympathetic to this sentiment, but I can't help but think that it ultimately undermines the hope of tyranny ever dying.

Ahahaha. Tyranny in Russia never dies, it just takes a breather for a few years.
posted by nasreddin at 8:38 AM on April 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


That's why I think it helps to think of corruption in terms of system being twisted so that it no longer does what it is designed to do

What you're missing, I think, is that the Russian system was actually designed to facilitate corruption as much as possible.


That might be true for post-Soviet Russia, but I think the Soviets that created the political and economic systems that eventually devolved into the current ones were really convinced that they were creating a perfect technocratic system. Their idealism and overconfidence that a small group of experts could effectively control every minor detail of a massive state from the top down directly led to the corruption and collapse of that system.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:52 AM on April 2, 2010


If that's true, then "power to the people" becomes a frightening mantra.

"power to the people" =/= «habit of giving orders», you see, because the power is not individuated.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:30 PM on April 2, 2010


That might be true for post-Soviet Russia, but I think the Soviets that created the political and economic systems that eventually devolved into the current ones were really convinced that they were creating a perfect technocratic system.

Just deleted a more in-depth paragraph. I'll sum it up by saying: I'm not sure history supports the idea that Lenin's rule started off as some beautiful ideal and gradually devolved.

For that matter, I'm always skeptical when people imply that Communism (or "technocracy") is the root cause of Russia's problems. It probably didn't help, but this is a poor country with a long and remarkably consistent history of tyranny dating back long before Communism was even conceived. No offense, Russians. I know you've done a lot of impressive things too.
posted by Xezlec at 7:03 PM on April 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


Russia is one of the most impressive nations on Earth. They went from quasi-feudalism to landing a space probe on Venus in less than a hundred years. And when you consider the terrible restrictions that Russian people have always had to work under, with the corruption and tyranny and all that, their achievements are even more astounding.
posted by Kevin Street at 9:24 PM on April 2, 2010


> I'm not sure history supports the idea that Lenin's rule started off as some beautiful ideal and gradually devolved.

Does anyone believe that any more? But Lenin's being a thug does not contradict the idea that he and his fellow thugs "were really convinced that they were creating a perfect technocratic system." It's particularly easy to be thuggish and still sleep the sleep of the just when you're convinced that you're creating a perfect technocratic system. I think Lenin was genuinely shocked at the rapid development of bureaucracy and corruption in his beautiful new worker-led* state. That's why he established Rabkrin; imagine his unhappiness when that fine institution "became an additional source of muddle, corruption, and bureaucratic intrigue." Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.

*With a little help from the vanguard Party.
posted by languagehat at 11:13 AM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Yikes, languagehat? Not sure I can live up to your level of discourse, but I'll try.)

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.

That's awfully pessimistic. I feel like a lot of countries have more or less tolerable systems of government. That's not to say there's no corruption in them at all, but surely there are some systems that work tolerably well. Surely some societies have succeeded in reducing corruption somehow.

It's particularly easy to be thuggish and still sleep the sleep of the just when you're convinced that you're creating a perfect technocratic system.

So the lesson is that it is dangerous to strive for progress, because your idealism blinds you to your own immediate missteps? Or is it just a matter of degree -- that he tried for too much and sacrificed too much to get it? I mean, it seems like it's hard to get any kind of lesson from that. It would be easy to come up with a list of things we all believe that fit roughly that same template of doing unpleasant things now in the interest of a better future. How do you determine which ones qualify as the "sleep of the just?"
posted by Xezlec at 1:45 PM on April 3, 2010


I think he's just saying that no human construction can ever be perfect, because the builders themselves are flawed. That's why so many would-be utopias crumble and fall. Any social system that works has to take human nature (both good and bad) into account.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:04 PM on April 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


> Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.

That's Kant, as translated by Isaiah Berlin (a collection of whose essays is titled The Crooked Timber of Humanity). And yes, it's pessimistic, but it's impossible to study history with open eyes and remain optimistic about mankind in general.

> So the lesson is that it is dangerous to strive for progress

No, the lesson is that if you find yourself butchering more and more people to realize your vision, you're probably on the wrong track.
posted by languagehat at 7:29 AM on April 4, 2010


...it's impossible to study history with open eyes and remain optimistic about mankind in general.

It's not impossible. It hasn't had that effect on me.
posted by Xezlec at 12:18 PM on April 6, 2010


...it's impossible to study history with open eyes and remain optimistic about mankind in general.

Whoa! I just woke up. How'd we get here?
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:31 PM on April 6, 2010


Go back to sleep!
posted by languagehat at 2:37 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


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