`It’s still a soviet Russia in many ways`

Journalist and writer Leonid Parfenov, who is working on a comprehensive study of Russian society and its transformations over the course of five decades, talks to RT about his book and its findings.

Read the full transcript of the interview.

RT: Hello, Leonid, thank you very much for being with us today.

L.P.: Hello, thank you very much.

RT: Your new book is called “Namedni. Nasha Era” (The other day. Our Era). Four volumes are being published. Now the first volume has been released and it’s already an absolute best seller. In your words “it’s a book about a passing Soviet civilization substituted by a Russian one.”

In the West they would argue there’s no real difference between these two civilizations. What’s the difference?

L.P.: Actually, I also believe the difference is not big. It happened that the Soviet reality appeared to be a matrix for a Russian one. Today’s Russia did not even try to recreate pre-revolutionary Russia, as the Baltic and Eastern European states tried to do this, sometimes even fondly. They wanted with a click like in a TV montage to go back to a previous point – the year of 1939-40 – and from there, start to recreate past times.

It wasn’t the case for present-day Russia: even in the time of Yeltsin there was no condemnation of the Soviet Union, Soviet civilization and Soviet co-ordinates. It never happened, much less during the later time. A critical attitude to the Soviet Union was only taken during perestroika, in the time of glasnost.

There are many reasons for this. But there’s only one conclusion – the Soviet Union appeared to be the only past which most Russians perceived as theirs. It was the only starting point from which you could continue something. It was the only source for statehood patterns, national thinking and mindset stereotypes and so on and so forth.

RT: Is it wrong?

L.P.: It’s wrong in the sense that it’s circular – the country doesn’t rise up to a completely new level. Only decorations are changed. We’re sitting in a new café with Italian furniture, and there are only a few people here. And in Soviet times there were no such cafes and in those which existed there were no seats at all. This has changed. A consumer boom is the main area where decorations are new. But the core remains the same.

RT: Besides the consumer boom, there aren’t any other fundamental differences between today’s Russia and the Soviet Union?

L.P.: In the main part, no, there aren’t. There’s another issue – the absence of a united Russia, except that it’s written in quotation marks not without purpose. There’s a multi-layer pie. The middle class is practically absent. Some people live according to different principles and perceive the world and themselves differently. But in the country only two per cent of people consider themselves Europeans, twenty per cent consider themselves Russians and the rest call themselves citizens of the regions. It’s a very weird picture from the view of a stranger.

RT: You know, last year’s Economist published a very interesting suggestion how Europe and the European Union would look by 2020. And Russia was part of it. Is it realistic?

L.P.: I think that for Russia the goal of utmost importance for the 21st century is to be integrated into Europe – by any means. This is the only thing that can save our country, our nation. There is no other way. As Ivan Turgenev used to say, “Of course, a Russian duck is not like any other duck in Europe, but still, it’s a duck, and it breathes through lungs, not through gills.”

No matter what you do with a Russian man, he always likes to move to the West when he can. Even now, during this consumer boom, I don’t see people eager to wear Chinese clothes or Indian sari. We’re not an Asian country, our mentality is not Asian. All our concepts regarding what it means to have a good life come from Europe.

RT: Let’s go back to the book. It lists the most important events of the last 40 years. From your point of view as the author, what makes an event important?

L.P.: From the author’s point of view, it is my position as an author. Say, tourism in 1963 – is it a major event or not? Yes, it is. Why? Because people want to get out of the city, they can go to Siberia, into a new clear area, where we can build a new country – things like that. People wanted to get away from lies, from the city life, from their jobs. They found true friendship and love here in romantic settings. This place was free from daily chores, free from the communist party and the government.

RT: Besides global tendencies and important events, do you have any trends, like stilettos or miniskirts, represented in your book.

L.P.: Of course. Absurd, serious, Soviet historiography says, “How can you put the Prague Spring next to miniskirts?!” Well, it was right next to miniskirts! Here’s a picture of Prague, and Soviet tanks in Prague. Those girls that confronted tanks in Prague wore miniskirts. That also was their concept of freedom – just as Alexander Dubček’s concept of `socialism with a human face` was their idea of freedom.

There’s nothing wrong with it. All these things have an effect on human life. For example, Ronald Reagan believed that all men who had zippers on their pants instead of buttons were homosexuals. That’s what his generation thought. It was considered unmasculine – like wearing women’s clothes. Tights produced a revolution in people’s minds. It was literally like the French Revolution. Everything changed: sexuality, the concept of female beauty; the limits of how far a man’s hand can go, and so on.

RT: Your book, just like your former programme, covers the period right up to and including the 2000s.

L.P.: Yes, inclusive.

RT: What was the main event of 2008, in your opinion?

L.P.: This is a multipurpose method actually. I proved a long time ago that between 22 and 28 phenomena happen every year. This year certainly includes Obama, the war in Georgia, the economic crisis, Medvedev, and iPhone obviously. But perhaps iPhone will be credited to the last year when it was on the grey market in Russia, not on the white one as this year, which caused a real furore.

The example of iPhone helps us to understand things. What’s new about it? It’s the new sensation of the touch-screen gadget. It’s a peak of gadget mania, this craziness for both teenagers and the elderly. It seems very important to always carry these cute technical toys in pockets together with money and keys. This shows the way man has changed and what it has added to his character and perception of the world.

RT: Your quote: “Information is something that someone doesn’t want to see published, written or printed; all the rest is advertisement.”

L.P.: It’s true.

RT: Please, explain.

L.P.: What’s there to explain? If the information really tells something new, it’s a problem. And it means that recognition of this problem is negative for someone. If you tell about the crisis it’s bad for the banks; it’s bad for the government as it is likely to mean the government is not coping; consumers find it interesting and intriguing. Any significant information affects someone’s interests. If it doesn’t affect anyone and pleases everyone then it’s definitely an advertisement.

RT: Do you think this development of the outward appearance stupefies people’s minds?

L.P.: You know, even the Ancient Greeks used to write that the younger generations were only getting worse. Nothing has obviously changed since then. And every past generation thinks that the future generation is more superficial, dull and primitive. I don’t believe it’s true. I believe it’s just different, which doesn’t mean it’s worse. Yes, people read less but they live and see more and they have more of a different kind of information, unlike the literary one. Things just change. They simply receive the information about the world in a different way. They gain their experience not through books but rather through direct live impressions.

RT: What’s your understanding of freedom of speech in a global sense?

L.P.: You see, it’s very simple. It just means an editorial policy which depends on a particular editorial body and on nothing else. I don’t suggest that we should tell everything. There are different formats of publishing and different understandings of what’s too much and what’s not sufficient. I had to make such decisions when I worked in television and on Newsweek. How should we present one topic or another? There are really different ways to do it. But each one of us knows that in one case we act professionally only, and in the other we also proceed from what will be said and how it will be taken and what has been said about not touching this or that issue. Freedom implies freedom. It’s like seeing a giraffe: you’ll always recognize it once you’ve seen it.

RT: What about the saying that the end justifies the means?

L.P.: Of course it does! Our goal is to inform. It is our goal to demonstrate the full picture of the world. I was even in the Vremya programme of Channel One for the first time in my life. I was commenting on a euthanasia event practically live on air; or at least the visual information was being displayed as live. So what? Unfortunately, death is a part of life. There is a problem of euthanasia. This is obviously not the first time you’ve heard about it. And you’d like to have an idea of what it is like.

All the rest is an issue of tact and style and relevance. Say, if 50 years ago people had that photo of a little girl running and crying because her dress had been burnt, their reaction would’ve been: you cannot have a naked little girl, especially from the front, on a photo! But we cannot see a picture of the war in Vietnam without this photo. We would have not understood a thing about the war in Vietnam, if not for this photo which had been taken 40 years ago. It’s the same thing here.

RT: Are you more of an editor or a journalist or an analyst?

L.P.: I’m definitely a journalist. When I’m moving my pen across paper I know that I’m doing my job. Then I always feel good and comfortable. At the end of a day I know that my day was fruitful. I can also act in a film based on my writings. Or I can work on what’s been written, like compose, finalize or edit it. But I know I am doing my job only when I do things myself, rather than supervise others.

RT: What are you going to do in 10 years?

L.P.: Geez!

RT: Think about it.

L.P.: If I was told 10 years ago that I would not be working on television but rather writing a book I would not have believed it. We always do things for the first time. And you should never fix upon anything in Russia. All the things in the biography of several recent generations had happened for the first time in the global sense. So in 10 years I will be living my life for the first time as well. And I don’t know what will happen then.

RT: Thank you.

L.P.: Thank you.