Photo from UNIAN

Psychiatrist Semen Gluzman: Russians tend to believe the worst leaders they choose, unlike Ukrainians who turn to criticism right after election

16:50, 03 November 2017
13 min. 392 Interview

On the eve of the centenary of the October Revolution, a former political prisoner and dissident, psychiatrist and human rights activist Semen Gluzman in an interview with UNIAN talked about how Russians manage at the same time to remain adherents of the Russian Empire and cherish the cult of Stalin, yearn for communism and be demonstratively pious, accept repression by government and worship its leaders.

Ukraine’s northern neighbor waging a hybrid war against it is full of contradictions and lacks logic in many of its moves. The Russian population, stupefied by propaganda, is also blind to understanding the cause-effect relations. For example, there is no visible public controversy over the sale of (and high demand for) hand watches with a drop of blood of the Russian royal family heir ahead of the centenary of the actual destruction of the Russian monarchy. Similarly, Russians don’t see any problem in depicting one of the bloodiest dictators of the last century on icons and are willing to pray to the image of Stalin, whose repressive machine killed millions of people. In general, Russian population has no cognitive dissonance over the displays of piety by former Communist chiefs and security operatives… After all, while standing in favor of the canonization of Tsar Nicholas II, these people love to reminisce on cheap sausage in Soviet grocery stores.

A Ukrainian psychiatrist Semen Gluzman has told UNIAN how Russians are able to combine all these contradicting beliefs and features.

Some Russian propagandists, in particular, Zakhar Prilepin, compare the war in Donbas with the October Revolution of 1917: "In 2014, in Donbas, as on October 25 in Petrograd, a counter-revolution has taken place, in a sense; the people of southeastern Ukraine came out against the bourgeois-nationalist coup at the Maidan." Is it an attempt to reshape history, praising the so-called Communist idea, or to justify Russian aggression in Donbas?

I don’t know how these events could even be compared. Prilepin might as well say that Ukrainians don’t exist as a nation. It's simply impossible to argue with this kind of people; they are not historians, but science fiction writers, whom we need to step over and get over with.

First, we see completely different motivational-causal categories. The October revolution was a result of a totally unprofessional management of the country by the tsar and his team, the destruction of the economy by that endless war with Germany. And that’s why it happened. It was not a “Communist” revolution, it was a real one. My father told me that almost no one was aware of the Bolsheviks, the people knew Socialist-Revolutionaries (SR), while the Bolsheviks represented a certain group somewhere in Geneva. Further, the Bolsheviks together with the SRs seized power because, in fact, the country had already disintegrated.

The events happening here in Ukraine were pre-organized, and that we some fail to understand. "Little green men" surfaced because our security forces were lame, while the army had long been weakened. Therefore, everything was very easy for them. But, you know, for me it was amazing to see how our middle section of the intelligentsia and the youths reacted. "We are going to war," they said. There is a historian I know, who left everything behind and spent a year in Donbas. And each of us knows such people.

Why does such outright propaganda have an influence over Russians?

This is like Stalinist propaganda. But then it will be like after the death of Stalin or Hitler: "I did not realize...". That’s like when Germans incinerated Jews in concentration camps and that yellowish smoke came out, and later when the Allies defeated the Nazis, many Germans said: "We didn’t know what kind of smoke that was..." Although, of course, they all knew everything, it’s just that the people were afraid. And this is normal human fear. After all, why should I be thrown in a concentration camp or killed just because someone else is being killed?

From the psychiatric perspective, are people equally affected by propaganda? Does it depend on their mental condition?

It varies. There are no identical events and situations. There is a specific situation. And if I’m not just exposed to being affected, but wait for someone to explain to me why I feel so bad, and hear such explanation (which can also vary), then I will believe it. If I resist someone else's opinion and want to personally understand what's going on, it's more difficult for them to "handle" me. But, in principle, any intelligence services have special units. Although I don’t know what they have now in these intel services; I think that they don’t have a quarter of what they should... I sometimes communicate with operatives, and it’s a sad picture, you know...

But, nevertheless, there are people who respond. Although this is not about psychiatry for sure and has nothing to do with any mental condition. The husband of my mother's sister was arrested as a Romanian spy, but when Stalin died, she sobbed. Her father said to her: "Are not you ashamed? This man killed your husband, how can you weep?" How can I explain this? She just felt sad about his death.

Gluzman explained why the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991, still remains in the minds of Russians / Photo from UNIAN

... Many people wept.

Yes, that’s right. By the way, when Brezhnev died, I also saw a couple of such idiots in the city. Although, maybe it was all a setup. But the human race is strange, indeed.

There has only been a single moral authority for me, Huzar [Lyubomir Huzar, a Ukrainian religious figure]. All the rest is just not serious. And when someone puts me on some rating of moral authorities, it's purely ridiculous.

Are you so self-critical?

I'm just a normal person and I know more about myself. I'm no moral authority. What am I, sinless?

This summer, the Levada Center’s poll has shown that Russians consider Stalin the most outstanding figure of all time. Do you find this surprising?

I do. At the same time, I don’t think that everything is so simple here. Although, probably, they assessed everything objectively from their perspective... When Stalin died in 1953, I was 6. I remember my mother was sitting there sowing black and red ribbons; my father and my mother's brother were also there. Every minute, one of them would grunt and say: "It's a shame, it’s not happened earlier ..." Only afterward have a realized, they meant "It’s a shame he didn’t die earlier."

And the attitude was the same in Russia, too. They also had their intelligentsia, there was a massive number of people who have been executed or repressed. But almost as soon as Stalin was buried, people suddenly began to change and all this fear was gone. As soon as this Soviet Stalin's horror began to dissipate, people started to come to their senses.

We are only human, and human may not believe. I think that in North Korea, once someone finally feeds these people, in a few weeks everything will be just fine ... Many of those who are fed well today will protect their past. But there is practically no ideology in this.

Ideology is an interesting subject to elaborate on. Why has the Soviet Union which collapsed in 1991 remained in the minds of a part of the population? Is it all really about some pleasant reminiscing of younger days or the notorious Communist idea?

This is an important point. When we reminisce about our younger days, even the sun seems to have shined brighter back then. At the same time, most people burn down their negative emotions; and it's a normal thing, that’s the way people are. But there are other things, too...

If you seriously talk about it, we should note that in the years when Brezhnev was in power, there has already been no such idea. The biggest cynics were party officials and KGB operatives. I remember very well when back in 1972, when I was under investigation, a detective suddenly told me two anti-Soviet jokes ...

Even Brezhnev himself did not believe in this idea. Once in an interview he told how in his university years he would unload rail cars, when some part cargo was sold under the table, in other words, the workers were stealing. There is no way this could be called a Communist idea of equality.

I just know it, simply because I grew up in a family where everyone told the truth. My father, a member of the Communist Party from 1925, one day told me that as early as in the late 1920's he had realized what they were "building." He told how in the early days of the Soviet Union, when he was plunged with hunger, he would come to party activists, his comrades in Kyiv, and [they] would have everything on their tables: high quality sausage, cognac ... And these comrades would tell him that he’s an idiot because he refused an offered job where he would be fed well. That is, there was nothing about equality.

Therefore, there was no Communism, there was a totalitarian system with an official ideology, which was constantly changing. For example, they publish in a Soviet encyclopedia a biography of an outstanding Soviet figure, for example, Trotsky or someone less important. And then, say, Trotsky or someone like him gets expelled from the Soviet Union or executed, or whatever. So, I was told that the specially designed pages to replace the obsolete ones were sent to the locations where the purchased encyclopedias were stored. Something was just invented starting with a letter "T" ... It was absolute cynicism, an ultimate lie, and it was all mixed up only on fear.

At the same time, Communism was just a very sweet idea. I had a friend, now deceased, a dissident Leonid Plyushch, a real Marxist. When he was arrested in 1972, he would say at all interrogations, "I am a Marxist, I don’t wish to and will not cooperate with the fascist regime."

If we talk about those Communists in our parliament who voted to proclaim the independence of the Ukrainian state, they did it for one simple reason - they were afraid of Yeltsin. They thought that in Russia some sort of democratization would really start, so they were scared, and they decided that we would have a big island of Communism, and they would be able to restore what they had lost. But this never worked out. After all, the Ukrainian people are different...

Why are we different and in what way?

You know, for the first time I answered this question was in a conversation with an American ambassador with whom I was friends. This was the time when Aleksander Lukashenko came to power in Belarus. So, we were sitting with this ambassador in his office, and he asked me: "I don’t understand: Belarus and Ukraine, you are close ethnically, culturally and historically, but why are you different from them? They [Belarusians] already have their "Batska" [a common nickname for Lukashenko, translated from Belarusian as “dad”], while here you have rampant democracy?" It should be noted that, of course, nothing was perfect here but at the same time, it felt like Ukraine had a chance to jump out of its past and get closer to Europe. Ambassadors believed in us, they felt comfortable here.

I thought and said: "As you know, I’ve spent many years doing time in camps for political prisoners. And as far as I remember, about 30% of the prisoners were ethnic Ukrainians or immigrants from Ukraine. Neither before nor after me was there a single Belarusian prisoner, although the KGB was everywhere. But the Ukrainians had some kind of enzyme of resistance." He contemplated over my answer and said that it was excellent.

When various diplomats came to us, I always told them, "Gentlemen, let me show you our prisons and psychiatric clinics. You only seem to talk with Kuchma, but Ukraine is different." And once, the British ambassador agreed. This was in the Chornobyl zone, where we drove in a diplomatic vehicle, together with his wife and even his son, as I remember. Then I suddenly asked him: "Have you even got any permit with our Foreign Ministry, or am I just taking you there like that?" He looked at me and gave an eloquent answer: "Doctor, we're not in Russia, right?"

However, my optimism subsides when I see what the current government is doing. I have the impression that there will be no third Maidan, but if something starts, there will be a real "grinder" here. But this is a matter of a separate conversation ...

Gluzman believes that several ideologies can unite in a single mind / Photo from UNIAN

Then let’s return to the fact that there was no Communism in the USSR, only a totalitarian system. How can we explain the modern praise for that conditional Soviet 2-ruble sausage? It’s as if everyone forgot the repression and terror. Is people's memory so picky?

Partly, it is. By the way, back in the Gorbachev era, I’d already traveled to Europe and America several times, and I naively imagined that if the totalitarian regime falls and they start showing on TV how people live in the west, the Soviet people will rush to build the same opportunities for themselves. But, it turned out to be not so simple.

Why do many seem to be turning heads over their shoulders? Of course, now we are seeing less of such things (our generation is dying out), but we did have all those daydreaming of cheap sausage and stuff like that... All of this was due to complete disinformation - there was no actual information that one could live differently.

I returned to Kyiv in 1982 [Semen Gluzman was sentenced in 1972 to 7 years in prison camps and 3 years of exile for "distributing" self-made and banned foreign literature as well as “fake reports on human rights violations in the Soviet Union", including politically-motivated abuse in psychiatry], when the Soviet rule was nearing a completion, Brezhnev was dying, and I remember how an idea was imposed upon people (it was not a coincidence, there were special KGB assets assigned to do so), when some old ladies in public places would go, "Indeed, it's hard nowadays because the products disappear from grocery stores, but the most important thing is that there’s no war, and God forbid it starts…"

But people looked back because, as one of my friends (at the time, a young officer who didn’t understand our dissident movement) once put it, "I'm standing on the escalator, and this escalator is taking me up. In five years I will receive a "star", in ten years, I’ll have another one…" And for many people, it was important: realizing what’s ahead of you; there was some kind of social security.

Although, of course, Party bosses and top officials had anything they needed at their disposal. Smaller-scale clerks could sneak behind the stores’ closed doors on certain days. Special stores operated to serve them.  They also had custom made clothes, they had an opportunity to visit departmental recreational facilities across the country. They were fine, in general.

And what about the rest? Where does the longing for the Soviet era come from among those who used to have anything?

The rest were just used to live like this. You see, given all that poverty, there was a comprehensible reality, at least, among the people living in towns. For example, those who retired, even though they could not buy an apartment or a car for their children, those pensions helped them survive, these pensions were quite substantial. That is, this path up the escalator continued - people knew what to expect ahead.

How do you explain the fact that today in Russia, in fact, the two opposing worldviews are being promoted: "a pro-Soviet" outlook (the so-called “sovok”) and the veneration of Tsar Nicholas II?

Anything could merge in a human brain. There is a cynical group of some ideologists has been working rather professionally under Putin. The only thing is that none of them thinks about the consequences - they live today and tomorrow, but they don’t think about the day after tomorrow. Look closely, almost all of those surrounding Putin are billionaires. They have bought islands, estates, yachts, but this time is passing because the life of a dictator, like the life of any ordinary person, is finite. And then there will be a mess.

I have no crystal ball, but I know that the history tends to repeat itself. In Russia there are many zones where everything will ignite when the dictator goes. And yes, innocent people will suffer. After all, the Russians are also different: Putin is Russian, but Sakharov [a globally acclaimed dissident and human rights activist, academician Andrei Sakharov] is also Russian.

Recently, The Economist portrayed on its cover Vladimir Putin as the tsar. The magazine tweeted: " As the world marks the centenary of the October Revolution, Russia is once again under the rule of the tsar." Back in March of this year, one of the invaders of Crimea, Aksenov, offered monarchy  as the only way of development for Russia. In the summer, Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church Illarion also voiced the idea of monarchy, vowing active participation of the Church in the future debate on the issue. Is it possible to assume that a tentative monitoring of public opinion is underway in Russia on the issue of restoring monarchy?

I cannot be sure, but even if Putin and his entourage are trying to do this, they will not succeed. It's all going to crumble swiftly. The same was with the death of Stalin - Stalin died and a terrible empire crumbled, while millions of survivors were released from prison camps.

When they [the dictators] die, a release reaction starts. Some keep believing some things for a little while but the majority of the population does not. People just seek to survive. Moreover, when this happens, more economic problems will emerge. And in such cases, ideology goes to the background.

The Russian military-historical society is preparing for the opening of the "Monument of Reconciliation" in Crimea. Russian media reported that "the symbol of the unification of the White and Red armies in honor of the centenary of the revolution should emerge in Sevastopol," so the grand opening is scheduled for November 4.

It’s the first time I hear about it. Let's see if it happens. This is a very competent position, actually. Many years have passed… Although, doing so in Crimea is ridiculous, of course. That’s; as if it’s a state... I don’t know, maybe if they erected it in Moscow or in St. Petersburg, where the revolution began... In general, this is all the evidence of the lack of logic.

It is difficult to imagine that such a move was made without permission from the Kremlin. However, according to Putin’s press secretary of Dmitriy Peskov, the Russian president is not going to take part in the events for the centenary of the revolution. That’s some strange distancing, isn’t it? Why don’t they come up with a clear position?

They cannot afford a clear position because the Soviet government has discredited itself while the Empire collapsed for internal reasons, not because of an attack by U.S. naval forces or Japanese submarines. At the same time, they live off of this disintegration. They stole everything they could, and they will go on stealing.

You have already mentioned that the biggest cynics in terms of Communist ideology were Party leaders and the KGB. Is the situation the same with the current Russian leadership?

Well, of course. These are people who have stolen billions. And you want them to believe in anything?

Well, is there at least anyone with an ideology?

This is not how it works. Maybe there’s some crazy guy out there, but the system will quickly throw him out. It also happens in our softer country, where, thank God, much is possible and permissible. Just try to imagine some hospital chief who doesn’t give a share to their supervisor from some healthcare management office? Of course, there may be some exceptions, but I’ve been living in all this, people have been telling me things... Ultimate corruption.

Although this is another kind of corruption - they do not make billions, they simply survive. I recently went to a hospital where I had an appointment with a young doctor. We engaged in a conversation, talking about corruption, and he says: "Of course [I take money], but how else can I survive? The work is difficult, several surgeries a day. I will not buy an island, but I want my family to survive. If the country does not pay me decently, I will provide for myself."

Another friend of mine, who is a chief doctor, has brilliant specialists in his team who need to be paid extra, so that they don’t leave the country to work abroad (they have already received job offers from other countries).

If we continue the topic of cynicism and insanity of the Russian government, why do you think they still haven’t buried Lenin? Can he still be viewed as some ideological instrument of influence today?

At the same time, they claim they’re Christians ...

No, this is not a Communist idea, but simply an "exotic" feature. There are all kinds of people. There are bunches of those who rush to check out the body. It’s as if to say that “I’ve already seen a circus and now I’m going to the Red Square.” Meanwhile, someone makes money on this. So, what kind of ideology and faith can we be talking about?

How do you think the country will change when the current 20-year-olds come to power in Russia, those who have not lived in the Soviet Union? Will they get rid of the advance of Soviet ideology?

Russia will get over this only in one case - if they try to get rid of their imperial nostalgia. Now in this country, where also no one believes in anything, they are simply trying to glue the empire together.

Changes are possible if they learn to respect themselves as the British did back in the day when they were ceased to be imperialists. I was told by an English professor that, we, the Brits, gave up on our colonies, and although it was not a very smart gesture but, thus, we showed that we are still a great nation, we are humanists.

You know, there is such a thing as phantom pain. So, now Russia is experiencing this terrible phantom pain. "How could it happen that Ukraine and Belarus separated? How can one live without them?" The Communist idea is merely an accompanying one, just like this wild Orthodoxy.

How much do you think the demand for the Soviet Union is relevant for Ukrainians, if compared with the Russians?

This is a primitive explanation, but the one important to me. How are we, Ukrainians, different from Russians? "Both Russians and us, we choose the worst as our leaders. But Russians believe their worst ones once they choose them, and then start to fear them. Out case is different: we choose them... and two days later, in our kitchens we start grumbling, what kind of bastards they turned out to be…"

We talk about it out loud. And the Maidans are also the result of some inner protesting freedom. Unfortunately, it does not lead to other categories of freedom, in particular, control over government. But, I think that no one can ever close people's mouths in Ukraine. And in Russia, they can. And these people still believe their government. That’s given their opportunity to listen to free media (say, foreign outlets), there is unhindered access to the internet.

For me, it is generally a mystery. For three years, I’ve been in exile in distant Siberia. And back then, for the locals, I became one of their kind. I remember how things I said reflected with them. And I just don’t understand how the Russian government managed to turn them back into the Soviet herd so quickly.

Iryna Shevchenko

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