Dying Unneeded: The Cultural Context of the Russian Mortality Crisis
"I saw nothing barbarous about these people. On the contrary their forms have something elegant and gentle which one does not find anywhere else".The character of this people is that they fear neither fatigue nor physical suffering; there is both patience and activity in this nation, gaiety and melancholy. One sees the most striking contrasts united in them and this presages great things, for ordinarily it is only superior beings who possess opposing qualities; masses are, for the most part, gray."
-Madame de Stael on her trip to Russia in 1812 (1)
"Even for her people, Russia refuses to submit. This is how she charms and this is how she frustrates. She is never completely known and always retains her ability to surprise, in both pleasant and unpleasant ways." (Parsons, p. 7)
Though I have read several books over the past year on Russia that have been tremendously informative, ethnographer Michelle Parsons' Dying Unneeded has achieved something special. Special in that it provides the reader with an empathetic window into Russian triumphs and struggles post-WWII, especially during the "shock therapy" period of the 1990s.
The book is deeply sad at times, but the reader does not walk away simply feeling sorry for Russians, something this proud people likely wouldn't want. In addition to the sadness, one also comes away with a glimpse of what gives the Russian people their character and resilience as well as their mystique.
Geography and history in the form of a harsh climate and constant invasions from all directions have created a people with great stamina and endurance.
It's no surprise then that Russia has been a source of great literature. In terms of historical experience and culture, it has all the necessary ingredients for great storytelling: tragedy, struggle, paradox and a sense of the absurd (i.e. humor). And most Russians, as cited in the interviews and surveys used for Parsons' book, seem to be keenly aware of this.
The sense of the absurd involves getting things done within Russia's still cumbersome bureaucracy and the use of connections, which outsiders often perceive as "corruption" but in actuality has a more complex cultural history. A harsh bureaucracy to maintain order along with tribute paying and exploitation of connections goes back to the state system imposed by the Mongols in the 13th century.
As one of Parson's Russian acquaintances stated: "It is impossible for you Westerners to understand our lives"trying to understand us rationally. Russian reality is based on absurdisms -- economic, social, even scientific. All our life is based on absurdity, impossibility. Russian daily life is simply absurd and preposterous. " (Parsons, p. 7)
Space, Order & Freedom in the Soviet Union & Post-Soviet Russia
The theme of paradox -- which seems to underscore most people's observations of Russia and its people, regardless of the time period -- was reflected most in this book by the author's elaboration of the historical and cultural relationship between space and order and its implications for social connection.
"Older Muscovites were often nostalgic for Soviet order because it ordered social connections. People's positions vis--vis the Soviet state influenced what people could give to other people -- the ways they could be soulful and needed. Work was the principle means by which Soviet citizens were ordered by the state. At work, Russians had personal connections and access to resources and services. Someone in the Soviet bureaucracy could arrange permission to build a dacha. A friendly butcher could set aside a good cut of meat. A test proctor could help a student pass an entrance examination. Collectively, people often circumvented the state, but they depended on the state to do that. Order here refers to both the order of the state and the order of social relations because they are mutually constitutive." (Parsons, p. 12)
Furthermore, the push back required to circumvent both the material and non-material limits of the state in order to get various needs met -- utilizing those essential social connections -- produced a sense of freedom.
"The paradox of space and order -- the unbound and bound quality of social relations in Soviet society -- resolves into the even higher-order concept of freedom. For these elderly Muscovites, freedom was not always compromised by the Soviet state. In some cases the constraint of the Soviet state heightened a sense of freedom. As people using their connections, collectively pushed against the limits of the state, and as those limits bent back or gave way, they experienced a sense of freedom." (Parsons, p. 12)