This question has deep resonance in Russian revolutionary history. It was the title of a nineteenth-century novel by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, in which a young man becomes a revolutionary ascetic, surrendering his personal existence to the greater good of the human race. Lenin borrowed the title for his 1902 pamphlet calling for a vangard of the proletariat: an ascetic elite that would absorb all power to make decisions from and for the workers, yet like the novel’s hero also follow the laws of history rather than personal preference.
Anna Arutunyan, in an article with the same title in Philosophy Now (pay only), notes how passively theoretical the question sounds. Not what must we do? Not what policies ought the government to pursue? For Arutunyan, the lack of agency assumed by the question lies at the heart of Russia’s problems with liberal democracy.
I’m not the first person by far to allege that Russians have a hard time understanding concepts like ‘property’ and ‘privacy.’ While it is well known that Russians don’t have a word for ‘privacy,’ they do have a word for property. But what use is property, which is what managing the material world comes down to, if you can’t use it? Besides avoiding verbs of possession. . . the language currently used in the mass media just up and does away with agency. Forget about the passive tense — in many sentences there isn’t even a subject. “It was decided,” “It was made,” “It was developed,” and my personal favorite, “It was broken.” We neither know who broke the darned thing nor care: if we did, then we would run the risk of answering our favorite question — “what is to be done?” (No agency there, either.)
Russian culture, writes Arutunyan, flows from Orthodox Christianity, in which the spiritual is emphasized at the cost of the material, and forgiveness of human sinfulness is preferred to reformation. In a secular world, this translates to a passion for theory and a corresponding indifference to action. “Face it: the best thing that Russian culture has produced is books. There’s a word for what we do, and it involves the excrement of a a male cow.”
Communists and liberalizers, nationalists and believers, all prefer self-justifying theories to actual success in the world — in part because, deep down, they disbelieve the connection between individual action and either success or failure.
The article is un-Russian in its unpretentiousness. If it has even a shred of truth to it, liberal democracy in Russia is doomed.