By Paul Goble
Russia has had many kinds of people at the top of its political pyramid, Vladimir Pastukhov says; but rarely has it had some who have risen to the top without a revolution who are “so uncouth” as now in the case of Viktor Zolotov, the commander of Russia’s National Guard who has challenged opposition leader Aleksey Navalny to a duel.
“When a powerful favorite, the first gendarme of the Empire, threatens his opponent,” the London-based Russian historian and commentator says, “this is dangerous” because no one has any doubts that he has “unlimited possibilities in a state where law does not operate” (mbk.sobchakprotivvseh.ru/sences/viktor-zolotov-kak-zerkalo/).
“But when [this man] proposes to fight his opponent in public so as to reduce him with his own hands to mush, this is already not dangerous but rather funny and sad,” Pastukhov continues. Everyone needs to remember that “what is permitted a military officer is not permitted to a gendarme.” Zolotov, the historian says, is not General Rokhlin.
Because there has been much talk of dueling in Russia lately, however, some around Zolotov apparently became convinced that he should issue this challenge. But they didn’t think it through and couldn’t imagine how Russians and Navalny would react to such a challenge and such a threat – and how it would affect their views of the powers that be.
When Usmanov made his dismissive comments about Navalny, that was one thing. “Here however is something else – a fatal inadequacy, a lack of correspondence with the times, a falling out of the cultural space. Zolotov’s declaration broke through not so much a political or legal bottom as a cultural one.”
Indeed, Pastukhov continues, “it has become an indicator of the completion of the process of the de-civilization of Russia, and therefore it must be considered in the first instance precisely as a cultural and not as a political or legal phenomenon.”
Zolotov, the historian says, “is among the group of leaders who are the first to successfully complete this process themselves, at the very least with regard to themselves. He isn’t capable of sensing the border between wildness and culture.” His appeal to the officer’s code of honor only highlights this fact.
“In reality,” Pastukhov continues, Zolotov “is guided by an entirely different code, the law of the pack. His reaction is the reaction of a caveman, direct and primitive … It is thus strange that he didn’t propose eating the heart of his enemy at the end of the fight.” That would have been consistent.
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In Zolotov’s mental world, “physically dealing with opponents directly is normal,” and all the work of humankind to move beyond that over the centuries is something he is not familiar with. In his caveman-like naivete, he is not frightening but funny” – and that carries with it problems for him and for his fellow members of the pack.
Frightening are the people who killed Nemtsov, Politkovskaya and Estemirova without any publicity. Frightening too are those who torture defenseless people in jails And frightening are Zolotov’s subordinates who “have ceased to distinguish men from women, children from adults” and suppress everyone at protests.
Here we are speaking about something else, Pastukhov says, “about complete cultural disorientation, about the loss of criteria which allow people to make distinctions between between what can be said aloud and what can be remarked about only after the microphone is turned off.”
“Zolotov,” Pastukhov argues, “is a distorted mirror of the state of Russian culture today,” a reflection of the fact that “the cult of the fist flourishes and that he who has the biggest fist in the land becomes its chief shaman.”
But Zolotov’s actions do have a political meaning: On the one hand, they are causing the Russian people to laugh at their leaders, a development that is always corrosive of the power leaders have. And on the other, they are making Navalny more popular, something Zolotov certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do but now cannot fail to do anything else.