from The Velvet Dictatorship
by Anna-Lena Laurén
introduced and translated by D.E. Hurford
For some fifteen years, Anna-Lena Laurén’s reporting from Russia and the former Soviet Union has combined wide-ranging political insight and analytical skill, and a fascination with everyday life and the ability to depict it vividly, readably, and with an ear for dialogue.
Her career has encompassed working as a news correspondent in both her native Finland and in Sweden, working for the public service broadcaster YLE and the broadsheets (currently Dagens Nyheter in Sweden and Hufvudstadsbladet in Finland) as well as publishing six books on topics such as Ukraine, the Caucasus and life in Russia, among others. She was Journalist of the Year in Finland in 2021, and nominated for Sweden’s Grand Journalist Prize in 2021.
Her most recent book, Sammetsdiktaturen (The Velvet Dictatorship, reviewed in SBR 2021:2) is an essay collection, each chapter examining a different facet of Russian contemporary society, and usually starting off with an anecdote from daily life. As the Putin regime’s brutal, unjustifiable military assault on Ukraine sparks renewed condemnation of the Kremlin’s violent and repressive policies, Anna-Lena Laurén’s writing offers a valuable insight into life under what she calls a ‘velvet dictatorship’.
In this extract from the book, Laurén explores discourse in civil society, the Soviet regime’s lasting impact on communication, and the true meaning of democracy.
This is a translated extract from an essay published in 2021. For comment from Anna-Lena Laurén on the war in Ukraine, read: ‘You don’t believe in war. Where in the past four decades have you seen reason prevail?’ also published in SBR 2022:1.
from The Velvet Dictatorship
Just a Technical Fault
One Wednesday in April I took the trolleybus home to our flat in Moscow. I was reading an article on my phone and had got so absorbed in the text that I wasn’t following where we were going too closely. I heard the stop announcements, which came a few hundred metres before each stop.
Suddenly it said:
‘Ulitsa Marii Ulyanovoy!’
That was my stop. I got up and realised we’d actually passed it and were approaching the next one.
Irritated, I went up to the driver and said:
‘You’ve set up the announcements wrong again. We’ve already gone past Marii Ulyanovoy!’
The driver shrugged.
‘Just a technical fault. What do you expect me to do?’
I got off at the next stop and as I walked home, I kept thinking about those words.
Just a technical fault.
On 25 March 2018, 41 children burned to death in the Winter Cherry shopping centre in the Siberian town of Kemerovo. When the fire alarm sounded, one of the guards switched it off.
Just like the bus driver, the guard was convinced the problem was a ‘technical fault’. He thought of the fire alarm as being just for show – not as something that was actually necessary.
There are many similar examples. Harmless ones – like hot and cold water taps in Russia sometimes being installed so that the warm water comes out of the tap with the blue dot on it. Electronic gate locks that display a green light when they’re locked and a red one when they’re open.
The dangerous ones include the idea that fire alarms are for show, something you install to avoid a fine from the fire safety inspector – not to save lives in the event of a fire – in the same way that seatbelts are still considered as being just for show by many Russian taxi drivers. (Except for children. You buckle them up otherwise the police might land you with a hefty fine.) Some drivers get small pieces of plastic made to stick in the buckle so that the car doesn’t start beeping when you drive without the seatbelt fastened. When the penalty for not using a seatbelt was increased dramatically in the 2010s, many drivers solved the problem by pulling the belt across their chest – but not fastening it into the buckle.
The people who install the announcements, the locks and the taps wrongly all have one thing in common – their view on the value of making sense.
It doesn’t matter whether people understand.
The underlying issue is transparency. The Russian service sector doesn’t prioritise a feeling of engagement. The thinking is not: I shall now install a tap so that everyone knows which one has cold water and which one hot. The thinking is: my job is to install the tap. The colours don’t really matter too much; people can just try them out and see which one is which.
The same goes for the bus driver who didn’t see a problem with the stop announcements being wrong; everyone knows where they’re getting off anyway.
Everyone knows these things anyway.
Russian society is characterised by tacit understanding. A lot of communication is based on signals that are never actually said out loud. Having to ask about things is embarrassing, because you expose your ignorance.
As a foreigner I’ve never had the luxury of being able to hide my ignorance. No matter how long I live in Russia, I still keep ending up in situations where I can’t help but publicly demonstrate to everyone the most embarrassing thing imaginable in Russia – that I don’t know.
One Friday in October me and my daughter took the bus to a house outside Tver, where we were spending the weekend. The bus went from Moscow to Vologda, stopping at numerous small towns en route. It was as black as an oil slick outside, you couldn’t see a thing, and the GPS on my phone was running very slowly.
The bus driver didn’t call out the towns we stopped in. He just stopped the bus in the inky darkness. After all, everyone knew where to get off, as they were from around there.
I wasn’t from that area, though, and I had no idea where we were, and the feeble mobile network meant my phone was useless. If I didn’t go up to the driver now and ask when we’d be in Olenino we’d miss our stop.
I made my way up to the front, well aware that the driver wouldn’t welcome my question.
‘Excuse me, but you are stopping in Olenino, aren’t you?’
‘You are stopping in Olenino?’
‘Course I am. Go and sit down again. You can get off in Olenino.’
‘Will you say when you get there?’
‘Why would I need to do that?’
‘Because it’s pitch-black outside and this is the first time I’ve done this trip. How else would I know when we’ve reached Olenino?’
The driver was silent for a few seconds.
‘I’ll let you know.’
I returned to my seat. This ritual was one I’d undergone many times in Russia. It starts with you not being told anything. Therefore, you have to ask. The reaction is always the same – the question is felt to be inappropriate.
Just after I’d sat down again, a woman behind me said:
‘I’ll tell you when we get to Olenino. There’s at least fifty kilometres more to go.’
A Russian paradox: staff in the service sector often operate on a principle of keeping information to themselves. But when you do ask a question – thereby showing your weakness – you will be helped immediately. Not necessarily by the person actually responsible for customers, though. Instead, ordinary people step in and make sure you end up on the right train, get off at the right stop, or head in the right direction. There is an enormous generosity and readiness to help.
In effect, there are two parallel currents flowing through Russian society – the professionals in the service sector who don’t want to part with information, and the unknown passers-by who help you out. Both the result of having lived in a society which has never rewarded anyone for sharing information or being clear.
And which maintains a strong tradition of compassion. Helping the weaker is the done thing.
A retired Finnish ambassador to Moscow once described to me what you did in the Soviet era when you needed someone’s phone number. There were small kiosks in the city manned by staff sitting behind a window with the phonebooks. If you needed someone’s phone number, you went to one of these kiosks, bent forward in front of the window like the Cyrillic letter Г (G) and asked for the number. They would then write the number down on a slip of paper and push it out under the window.
There was no question of being allowed to look through the phone book yourself, of course.
Buying a train ticket or changing money still requires you to bend over like a Cyrillic Г. Even today, most of the windows for those kinds of things are at a height that means the customer has to contort themselves into the most uncomfortable pose possible. If you have an issue to resolve or a question to ask, you need to know your place from the beginning.
Then again, the actual flow of information is no longer restricted. That’s one of the most common preconceptions I find myself correcting when I’m in Sweden or at home in Finland. Many people believe that the reason Russians think the way they do – supporting Putin, for example – is because they don’t know any better.
But they do. People in Russia have access to the exact same information as the West. True, the authorities shut down the odd website occasionally, but that means very little in practice. The media offering is enormous: partly propaganda, but also independent journalism. As a journalist, I could keep myself busy from morning to night reporting on news in the independent media like Dozhd, Meduza, Novaya Gazeta and RBK.
Moscow is also distinctly better at using apps than many cities in the West. There are apps that tell you when the next bus will arrive, apps for parking, apps for using rental bikes, apps for buying metro tickets and tax apps. All of them simple and user-friendly.
As soon as communication between two people is required, though, it’s a different matter entirely. Then you, the customer, have to contort yourself into a Г. Every time I have to deal with an official, a salesperson or anyone else working in services in Russia I’m the one who has to make sure I systematically extract from them all the information I might possibly ever need. Nothing’s for free.
Transparency and making sense have several dimensions. One is how you express yourself.
One afternoon I was taking a bus between the small town of Chernogolovka and Moscow. I’d interviewed the mother of a chronically ill child together with the press secretary of a charity, reporting on the shortage of medicines in Russia.
The journey from Chernogolovka to Moscow was 80 kilometres, and we had plenty of time for talking. We got onto the topic of languages and language skills. The press secretary was learning Swedish in his spare time and used an app to learn new words.
Suddenly he said:
‘The Soviet system destroyed Russians’ ability to express themselves. It destroyed our language.’
‘How?’ I wondered.
‘Haven’t you noticed that people in Russia can’t express themselves clearly? That they can’t say what they actually mean?’
I was euphoric. Finally, someone who could put this phenomenon into words!
After a total of ten years in Russia, this press secretary was the first person to acknowledge that it was often hard to understand what people meant. Russians almost never answer the question you ask. They always answer completely different questions.
‘What do you work with?’ I might ask someone I’m interviewing.
‘I’m a manager.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘I work in sales.’
‘What do you do there?’
‘I’m a senior employee.’
A question I ask purely to introduce the person in the article can take ten minutes to get an answer to because not one of the answers I get provides me with any information.
‘I work in IT,’ a man might reply.
‘And what do you do?’
‘I make money from new technology.’
‘What kind of technology?’
‘What kind of educational qualifications do you have?’ I might then ask.
Without fail, the reply comes:
In my case of course, being a foreigner plays a part. I’m foreign and I will never possess the same social knowledge of Russian society as someone who was born here. And by that, I mean all the historical layers affecting communication in Russia, everything from the habit of using abbreviations to the tacit knowledge that means people don’t say things right out. Sentences go unfinished – people will understand what you mean anyway. Much of what is left unsaid will always pass me by.
Over time, though, I’ve realised that it’s a much more complex phenomenon than just that. It’s not just that I’m a foreigner.
When I do interviews and the interviewee doesn’t finish sentences, my Russian photographers often tell me they can explain to me later what the person wanted to say, so as not to annoy him or her. I don’t go along with that any more, though. I insist on asking, even though the photographers find me embarrassing. Because it often turns out that if you really dig deep into something, you might find some surprises, some information that the photographer had no idea of and that couldn’t have been obtained in any way other than stubbornly asking: what do you mean?
I often wonder how many misunderstandings arise not just between foreigners and Russians, but also between Russians, simply because Russians are so convinced that they understand everything without needing to ask.
And I wonder where this conviction comes from. Is it a shield? Something learned from history? In the Soviet era it was often best not to ask too many questions, but the Russia of today is not a totalitarian society. Asking questions is no longer dangerous, yet many still don’t. It’s a sign of weakness, of not having understood. [...]
Word usage is an interesting phenomenon when it comes to communication in Russia. It wasn’t until my Russian got better that I realised that many established concepts – words like ‘loyal’, ‘democracy’, ‘privatisation’, ‘feminism’, ‘sanctions’ and ‘genocide’ – mean something different in Russian.
The term ‘genocide’ was only coined after the Nazis’ systematic extermination of Jews in the second world war. It’s often used in Russia, but not just for actual genocide. It has become a widely accepted way of expressing frustration with being ill treated by a callous state apparatus.
When the retirement age was raised in 2018, critics, with complete seriousness, called the reform a genocide. The retirement age, one of the lowest in Europe, was increased from 55 to 63 for women and from 60 to 65 for men. In a European context, it was highly understandable, but the upset was also understandable. Average life expectancy in Russia is significantly lower than in the West – 43% of Russian men don’t make it to 65.
But still, an increase in the retirement age is hardly comparable to genocide. Yet that’s still what they shouted at demonstrations against the pensions reform: Eto genotsid nashevo naroda, this is a genocide.
The background to this is that the Russian authorities often treat people very unfairly and arbitrarily. People feel as if they’re constantly being tormented and harassed by their decision makers, which is a historical problem stretching back centuries. The word ‘genocide’ is considered a good way of expressing frustration. Not a thought is given to what it actually means.
‘Democracy’ is another word that has taken on a new meaning in Russia. It means government by the people. In Russia, though, it’s often used to describe social justice. A shop with ‘democratic prices’ is the same thing as a discount shop.
‘Democratic’ is also often used as a synonym for something generally good. ‘Democratic countries’ aren’t supposed to have any problems. If, for example, the French authorities send in the police when demonstrators run amok in Paris then they’re hypocrites, as that’s police violence in a democracy! Which means France can’t be as fantastic a democracy as the French claim it is.
Many Russians also equate democracy with a generous welfare state. Democracy is simply a society where everyone has the right to everything for free. Often it’s impossible to explain to them that democracy is in fact a blandly grey system based on general elections and strong institutions – not on good, generous leaders. It comes as no surprise that Russians who emigrate to the West are often very disappointed by the democracy there. They thought they were coming to a system that would give them all they wanted. The slowness of democracies, the fiddliness with which they often operate – and their shortcomings, which are a part of the system because democracy and utopia are two different things – are extremely frustrating for many Russian emigrants.
In Russia, the word ‘loyal’ means showing understanding towards something, not solidarity. ‘Privatisation’ can be used any way you like. When the only remaining example of a Gulag camp in Russia, Perm-36, rebuilt by private activists and historians, was about to be taken over by the state, one of my friends referred to the process as a ‘privatisation’.
‘But it’s the opposite. They’re going to make it a state museum,’ I said.
‘Oh yes. They’re going to destroy it, at any rate.’
For her, the actual meaning of the word didn’t matter. What mattered was how she interpreted it. Like many others, she associated it with the chaotic and often very unfair privatisations of the 1990s.
Since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and the West responded with penalty sanctions, the word ‘sanction’ has changed meaning in Russian debate. When Russians talk about ‘sanctions’ nowadays, they often mean the food boycott – that Russia itself introduced. It’s a proud statement to the West: you can’t crush us, we don’t need your parmesan!
The EU has never punished Russia by stopping parmesan exports, though: it was the Kremlin that blocked food imports from the EU and US in an effort to respond to the sanctions.
When it comes to how words are used, there is simply an enormous tolerance in Russia for changing their meanings on rhetorical grounds. It isn’t considered odd to have a debate where each side is actually talking about different things.
I’m not sure why. Is it because rhetorical skills are so highly prized?
More likely, it’s because political debate isn’t expected to lead anywhere, as Russia doesn’t have democracy and never has. Instead, you focus on sounding good in a debate.
A functioning public discourse requires some kind of consensus on what words and terms mean. No such consensus exists in Russia. Everyone changes the meaning of words whenever they feel like it, to make it suit their own rhetoric. As a result, it’s often unclear what the debate is actually about.
In our small Nordic countries we often complain that we can only talk about one thing at a time. In Russia there are a thousand different conversations, each on its own platform, and no one cares what everyone else is talking about. When from time to time the editors back home want me to write about ‘how Russians are reacting’ to a particular event, the assignment can be impossible to carry out in practice, as there is no shared debate. What is more, issues that for us would come top of the agenda are often considered marginal in Russia, which means that ‘the Russian perspective’ is something you need a magnifying glass to search for.
In other words, it’s not true to say that Russians don’t debate, that everyone just passively accepts orders from above: it’s just that the debate takes place in so many different places that it’s near-impossible to get an overview.
It’s hard to bring about real change if you can’t even make the effort to talk about the same things.
Life in Russia has made me understand why listening is such an important part of democracy.
Rights: the author.
We are grateful to Anna-Lena Laurén and Förlaget for granting permission to publish this translated extract from Sammetsdiktaturen.
Sammetsdiktaturen was reviewed by D.E. Hurford in SBR 2021:2.
Anna-Lena Laurén was named Finland’s Journalist of the Year in 2021 for her unique contribution to journalism about Russia. She also received Sweden’s Stylist of the Year award in 2020. Reviews of her previous works have appeared in SBR 2014:2 and SBR 2016:1.
D.E. Hurford is a translator from Estonian, Finnish, German and Swedish. She lives in Belgium.