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“Unlike you, I have absolutely no desire to be Russian or to return to Russia.

I used to love a certain idea of Russia.

I loved and defended this idea of Russian culture, which in the 1970s and ‘80s conjured up a whole hodgepodge, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, the Slavophiles and Europhiles, the disciples of Pushkin and those of Dostoyevsky, the dissidents on the right and the left and those who, in the words of the mathematician Leonid Plyushch, belonged to neither of these camps but to the concentration camp and the gulag…

Then there’s what Russia has become, what appeared when the breakdown of communism, its debacle — what a mountaineer like your father would call its ‘thaw’ — revealed to the world: the Russia of Putin, of the war in Chechnya, the Russia that assassinated Anna Politkovskaja on the stairway in her building and that the same Anna Politkovskaja described in her wonderful book A Russian Diary, just before she was assassinated. It’s the Russia of the racist packs who, right in the center of Moscow, track down ‘non ethnic’ Russians… the Russia that has the nerve to explain to the world that it has its own “democracy,” a special, local democracy that is quite unrelated to Western canons and rights.

It’s the country of such specialties as its party, the Nashi, meaning ‘our own,’ which, to call a spade a spade, is a Stalin-Hitler combo, the Russia that, incidentally, is giving new life to the anti-Semitic European pamphlets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries… This Russia, which, apart from this kind of idiocy, believes in nothing at all… This Russia, which, the last time I went there, struck me as having had its culture erased and its brain washed, this Russia, whose most discouraging side, according to Anna Politkovskaja, to mention her yet again, was its amorphousness and passivity, the way it accepts, for example, that it hardly has any employment legislation left and that its workers are treated like dogs… In this Russia, no less than under communism, people are ready to betray their parents to steal a broom, a bowl, a badly screwed tap or bits of scrap iron from deserted buildings abandoned by oligarchs on the run or in prison.

Not only does this Russia inspire no desire in me, it fills me with horror. I’d go so far as to say that it frightens me because I see in it a possible destiny for the late-capitalist societies. Once upon a time, during your postwar ‘glory days,’ the middle class was terrorized by being told that Brezhnev’s communism was not an archaism restricted to distant societies but rather a picture of our future. We were wrong: it was not communism but post communism, Putinism, that may be the testing ground for our future.”


BHL on a tear in his book-form debate with French novelist Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World.

Regardless of whether you speak French, I recommend keeping up to speed on Lévy’s work wherever it’s translated. The man has more style and swagger and moral intelligence than several whole societies I can think of.

More from epitomizers of cool:

Below: BHL in Libya (2011), Egypt (2011), Ukraine (2014).

BHL en LibyeBHL place Tahrir

BHL Ukraine