You don’t have to be a trained anthropologist to notice that this society is inhabited by cruel misanthropes who treat politeness and compassion with about as much disdain as the French treat fidelity.
There are the active manifestations of this cruelty, the ones that we all notice every day – a metro door needlessly pinged back in your face, some surly bitch snarling at you as if you just murdered her firstborn simply because the product you asked for is out of stock. But then there are also the passive manifestations of cruelty – the abject lack of compassion when someone sees a freezing babushka, a bleeding tramp or a policeman giving a Chechen a good beating. Those scenes that would have a small crowd of people rushing up to help in a civilized country, but here provoke no interest from anyone. Indeed, I sometimes worry that if I were to have a heart attack and collapse on the street, it would be a couple of weeks before any passers by even noticed.
Of course, there are rational, non-Russophobic explanations for this total lack of compassion. We could point to the atomization of society that happened in the Soviet period, or postulate some other highfalutin sociological theory. Or we could take the traditional, Western press style explanation. As the super-rich oligarchs spend $15 million of their stolen oil money on a bottle on special diamond-infused champagne, just down the road, Valentina, 56, has to eat her own head just to survive. This is the reality of Putin’s new Russia. In this world, where the lot of the average Russian is as miserable as The Guardian would have us believe, Russians simply don’t have time to have compassion for other people’s woes – they have too many of their own.
But I think there’s another explanation behind Russians’ tolerance of cruelty: They fucking love it.
That’s right. The closer you look, the more you realize that the reaction to cruelty and suffering round here is not apathy – it’s sheer enjoyment. There is nothing that your average Russian loves more than to see a vulnerable creature writhing in pain.
I started thinking about this when I took the metro home the other day, late at night when there were few people using it. There was a wizened old lady who hobbled into the carriage a couple of doors down from where I was sitting, hunched over and carrying a couple of large plastic bags full of God knows what. This wasn’t one of the attack-dog babushkas, the kind that elbow you in the face so they can barge off the train before you; this was a genuinely frail old woman, who by the looks of it didn’t have much longer to live. As she got on, she stumbled on a wet patch, probably residue from a can of dirty booze that someone had inadvertently dropped on the floor in a drunken stupor. The babushka slid over, the bags dropped to the floor. As the doors began to close, she began to get up, but her arms couldn’t hold her, and as she was halfway up, she fell again.
I got up and jogged over to help her up, and noticed two girls sitting together, probably in their early twenties, each quaffing a can of Jaguar alcopops. They were transfixed by the scene, but far from provoking tears or horror, they were giggling away. After I had helped the woman up and sat her down, I looked back at them, and they were whispering to themselves and grinning like idiots still. Unbelievable. I mean, this was genuine heart-wrenching stuff, a real mortality-hits-home moment, watching what should have been a dignified old woman scramble around like a dying fish on the floor of a filthy metro carriage. And these two Russian girls, they were absolutely loving it!
The thing is, Russians are indoctrinated on cruelty from an early age. Just take that fun-for-all-the-family entertainment venue, the circus, where every day, in two venues across Moscow, more than 3,000 Russians bring their young kids to have an evening out. Now, I’m no vegetarian animal rights activist – in fact, I hate animals, and regard anyone who owns a pet with heightened suspicion. But while I don’t want to spend time stroking and cooing with animals, I don’t particularly enjoy seeing them abused either.