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Ideas

The Eternal Russian Art Of Isolation

Like from a Pushkin tale, Soviet embargo, or even a COVID lockdown, Russia is at home when it is proudly or despondently cut off from the external world. And after a post-Soviet pause of opening up, here we are again, says Russian writer Yury Saprykin.

The Eternal Russian Art Of Isolation

A woman crosses the deserted Red Square in Moscow during a COVID lockdown

​Yury Saprykin

-Essay-

MOSCOW — Our current state is ultimately more the norm than the exception: it's only taken a few days to return to this phase, now it seems that life simply took its natural position. Like the hero of a Russian novel, who overcame apathy and suddenly rushed somewhere, chased an unrealizable dream, only to immediately lose his strength and collapse on the old sofa.

This impulse took 30 or so years, which is not a long time for a Russian novel.

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Thirty years, though not a very long life is enough to witness the end of the previous cycle and the beginning of a new one. Old-timers have something to remember: “hostile voices” on a shortwave radio, the concept of “contacts with foreigners,” imported jeans bought from speculators, a bottle of French cognac from a “traveling” colleague.


Nostalgia for brighter days of “ice cream for 20 *kopecks" (*1/100th of a ruble) gradually spread across the post-Soviet society, yet ignoring many other things that were given in the same package with the ice cream. Well, dreams come true, now people can see in detail what else is in the package.

Love-hate with the West

The practices of adaptation and survival hidden in the collective memory — from shopping and stocking up for future use to the cryptic tools of Aesopian language for avoiding censorship — are rapidly coming back. People born after the collapse of the USSR find it more difficult to imagine, whereas older people have flashbacks set to click.

Isolation, insularity, cut off from the outside world: there can be many reasons for it. Geographical remoteness or political hostility, theories and practices of a "special path" — history has flipped us many different coins, but they all fell on the same side.

Even in the most culturally subtle forms of the Russian “golden age,” a desire to be closed is constantly visible: how common are the tales of a Russian writer, finding himself in Europe, horrified by how bourgeois and mechanistic everything is there, and ultimately returning to his estate. The writer could not even decide anything like that; the decision was made for him: whether it was Alexander Pushkin, our worldwide scope of sympathy, who never went abroad, or Mikhail Bulgakov, knocking on Soviet doors with petitions to leave abroad only to be refused each time.

Of course, this is not only about visa restrictions: an invisible barrier that limits the movement of people and goods, ideas and values and creates a special atmosphere with a greater attraction / repulsion of everything Western and intense reflection around relations with the authorities that build this barrier.

A woman walks by empty shelves in a supermarket in Moscow

Vlad Karkov/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Survival mechanisms

Any sociologist, both then and now, will tell you that this reflection affects a tiny percentage: there are always many more people tied to their place, regarding autarky as a natural way of being, and not as a result of external force.

The attitude towards isolation divides us into nomads and sedentary people: what is good enough for a peasant is death for a musician; moreover, in difficult times the peasant approach turns out to be more weighty, due to its basic common sense.

Here, certain survival mechanisms work. They were developed not by limiting external relations, but by difficult historical experience in general: avoidance, hiding, stocking up for future use — these practices save one both from war and plague, not to mention the closure of foreign trade networks.

Why do we need this McDonald's? Our fried potatoes are better. This is also a time-tested defense mechanism. It has a downside: a long potato diet gives the unavailable McDonald's (and other consumer pleasures) exaggerated value. Thus, in the 1970s Soviet youth used to stick miraculously obtained packs of imported cigarettes on the wall — a kind of “tobacco iconostasis,” an empty bottle of whiskey or a can of Czech beer was kept as a piece of art, any Boney M that crept through the Iron Curtain became an object of an unhealthy cult.

Isolation contributes to the blossoming of all kinds of economic genius: how to save, adapt, remake

The thing is not new but branded. It is a phrase that expresses a complex set of feelings, from modesty to pride, if now can still recall it.

Adaptability and life hacks

Like nothing else, isolation contributes to the blossoming of all kinds of economic genius: how to save, adapt, remake. Like the “life hacks” section, it's just one of those times when, being unable to buy a new one of something, you had to prolong the life of a used one: “If your old mattress is worn out, don’t despair.”

Substituting imports also implies replacing the unavailable with improvised means, encouraging incredible creativity: for example, in the 1970s, the heroes of Soviet television were self-taught inventors from the program "You Can Do It," explaining how to make a quite fit car from plywood and aluminum buckets. And so it seems that the Facebook flash mob “Izoizolyacia” — which during the COVID pandemic, Russians deprived of visiting museums portrayed Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" wrapped in a terry towel — continues the same old tradition for a new round.

Self-portraits in the style of Vermeer reflect another eternal effect of isolation: a longing for world culture. The inability to touch the “sacred stones of Europe,” the feeling of a tradition to which we belong, but from which we are artificially cut off. All of this evokes sadness but also awakens the imagination.

As Joseph Brodsky (who was himself shaped by this specifically Russian longing) once said, “An intellectual appetite for everything coming from the other side, makes one catch weak signals from the outside, figure out the whole in fragments, engage in dialogue with those who will not hear you.”

In a word, it creates a tense field where imagination complements attention. Role models borrowed from antiquity, imitation of the original heard in bad re-recordings, art learned from reproductions — this is a set of cultural strategies shaped by isolation and knowledge.

First days of opening of the first McDonald'd in Moscow in 1990

Grzegorz Galazka/Mondadori Portfolio/ZUMA

Power of nostaglia

Isolation is returning so naturally also because it has been present for a long time. Foreign flights are being canceled — well, we are not used to their return yet: COVID-19 has taught us that any ties can be instantly broken, and the usual routes blocked, not even because of international escalation, simply because it is needed now (and this “now” has no end date).

The pandemic measures have already forced many to plunge into private life, home and online presence: the fact that quarantine isolation was accompanied by the prefix "self-" should not mislead anyone: all this was also perceived as sanctions imposed from outside. The world is dangerously sick, and we have to wait it out at home, without leaving the room, without making a mistake, this idea has become habitual in recent years, you just need to adapt it to new inputs.

You can survive any hardship only when you can find meaning in it.

In the first months of coronavirus restrictions, advice and “life hacks” from psychologists on how to cope with anxiety and panic during isolation were popular. To lock oneself within four walls, to cut off some parts of life that were usual but no longer available, even to leave the public for the private is a psychologically unsafe thing.

Important organs were amputated from the social body, now there is a void that leads to phantom pain. Coronavirus psychologists advised the same things that psychologists always advise: walks, meditation and communication with loved ones. However, what if loved ones suddenly found themselves far away — ideologically or geographically, their social ties were suddenly cut off and you're left alone with your alienation?

According to Viktor Frankl, the most serious psychological crisis is associated with experiencing the meaninglessness of life; you can survive any hardship only when you can find meaning in it. The isolation of the late Soviet model also had its own set of interpretations that enabled one to experience it as a sacrifice for the sake of something higher: serving people, preserving culture. Recall Oleg Yankovsky in the finale of the film "Nostalghia" carrying a lit candle...

But what if, instead of the idea of sacrificial service, there is just an exhausting feeling of guilt? Old-timers have no answer to offer, Soviet recipes do not work. It doesn't matter how familiar the external features of the next isolation may feel, it will have to be lived from scratch.

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