"Our history shows that most of the people can be fooled for a very long time. But now all this idiocy is coming into clear contradiction with the fact that we have some level of openness."
Dmitry Rozhkov/Wikimedia Commons
Writer Vladimir Voinovich broke onto the Soviet literary scene in the 1970s with the satirical novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. But as the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union ossified, he soon fell afoul of the authorities. Stripped of his citizenship and expelled from the Soviet Union in 1980, Voinovich settled in Munich and worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Russian Service. In 1986, he published his classic dystopian novel Moscow-2042, which depicts a totalitarian Soviet Union run by a combination of the KGB, the Orthodox Church, and the Communist Party.
For Voinvovich's 80th birthday on September 26, I spoke with the author about how present-day Russia compares to his dark vision of the future.
Did you think that you would see so much of what you predicted in Moscow-2042 already in 2012?
Well, there are only 30 years left until 2042. ... But, to be honest, I didn't expect this. I described a future that I hoped would never happen -- it was not a utopia, but a dystopia. But now reality, it seems, is already exceeding what I wrote then. In my novel, the country is ruled by the KPGB -- the Communist Party of State Security.
And there was an ideological pentagon -- patriotism, security, religion, and so on. I have heard many times that the patriarch is sometimes referred to as Father Zvyozdony [editors' note: Father Zvyozdony was the major general of religious service in "Moscow-2042"].
But the stupidity and vulgarity that are becoming the banner of our times -- no one could have expected that. The most idiotic laws are passed, the most monstrous trials are going on. Take the notorious Pussy Riot case. That exceeded everything that could be written in satire.
Moscow-2042 was published in 1986 -- a time of transition, perestroika. Now many in Russia are speaking of another looming transition. Do you see such a thing coming?
In 1986, perestroika was just getting under way. But already then -- in its very first stages, I viewed it with enormous hope. But, to get back to the novel -- since those times I have begun to think that reality somehow moves in the other direction and, God willing, things won't turn out as they did in my novel.
But then I look and I see -- no, things are unfolding as I imagined them, as if someone didn't want reality to drift too far [from the novel]. I don't consider myself a prophet. But some things really do seem prophetic.
But it wouldn't be right to compare the present with those times because the beginning of perestroika was the beginning of hope. Events now produce a despairing pessimism, though, the kind that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Then can you compare the present with the years before perestroika, when you were expelled from the Soviet Union. Did the hopelessness of those times differ from the current hopelessness?
The situation then, surprisingly, fostered hope. I could see that the Soviet authorities were doing stupid things that would ultimately lead to destruction or to an attempt at renewal, which, in fact, happened in the mid-1980s with the arrival of [Mikhail] Gorbachev. When I left in 1980, I was saying all the time that radical change would begin in the Soviet Union in five years. Maybe I was off by a couple of years, but that isn't important -- I turned out to be pretty correct. If you build your optimism on the expectation of collapse, then I guess you can say the same thing about the present.
Let's take a look at the ideological pentagon of your novel. Populism -- we already have that. Party loyalty -- only about half of what we had back then, but we still have it. Religiosity -- no doubt about that. State security -- well, of course. Vigilance -- we have that. Four and a half out of five. What can we expect going forward, according to Moscow-2042?
I already said that we are once again in a phase when it is possible to make optimistic forecasts based on pessimistic assumptions.
This is because all branches of power are working as one. The Duma writes some laws; the courts try Pussy Riot; the church does its work -- in short, all the social institutions and branches of power are approaching some sort of explosion. That explosion will definitely come because it isn't possible to upset such a large -- and daily growing -- number of people day after day.
Someone once said that you can fool some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time.
That someone was Abraham Lincoln, and he didn't really have Russia in mind.
Yes -- our history shows that most of the people can be fooled for a very long time. But now all this idiocy is coming into clear contradiction with the fact that we have some level of openness: RFE/RL's Russian Service exists, there are some opposition publications, the Internet can't be controlled, although they try to restrict it.
But against this background, it all looks very stupid. A naked person only seems natural in a sauna. When he goes out into the street, people will either laugh at him or stone him.
People often say about you that your predictions were self-fulfilling.
Yes, they have said that. They've even proposed that I write another book -- with an optimistic view of the future. It really does seem that reality is trying to imitate my imaginings -- so if I think up something optimistic, then reality will imitate that.
And do you take such suggestions seriously?
As soon as we finish this interview, I'll start working. I'll write a glorious future -- communist -- and then we'll [see]. ... By the way, in Soviet times they more or less said the same thing -- that writers must depict the glorious future and then people will imitate it and it will be brought about.
The First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
It is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
Psychologists have long debated how flexible someone’s “true” self is.
Almost everyone has something they want to change about their personality. In 2014, a study that traced people’s goals for personality change found that the vast majority of its subjects wanted to be more extraverted, agreeable, emotionally stable, and open to new experiences. A whopping 97 percent said they wished they were more conscientious.
These desires appeared to be rooted in dissatisfaction. People wanted to become more extraverted if they weren’t happy with their sex lives, hobbies, or friendships. They wanted to become more conscientious if they were displeased with their finances or schoolwork. The findings reflect the social psychologist Roy Baumeister’s notion of “crystallization of discontent”: Once people begin to recognize larger patterns of shortcomings in their lives, he contends, they may reshuffle their core values and priorities to justify improving things.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Donald Trump’s Republicans are becoming the party of blue-collar white voters, as college-educated white voters slip away.
The reshaping of the two parties’ coalitions under the blast-force pressure of Donald Trump’s iconoclastic candidacy may reach unprecedented heights in 2016, the first polls released after the GOP convention suggest.
National surveys released on Monday by CBS and CNN/ORC show the gap between the preferences of whites with and without a college education in the 2016 presidential race soaring to a level unmatched in any recent election. In both surveys, Donald Trump has opened a commanding lead over Hillary Clinton among whites without a college degree. But even after Trump’s own convention, the two surveys show him running no better than even, or slightly behind, among whites with at least a four-year degree.
For the party elders, day one of the convention was about scolding the left back together.
Against a restive backdrop, the party’s top lieutenants were forced into the role of prime time peacemakers, tasked with encouraging Democratic unity in a party that has only lately acquiesced to tenuous detente. They did so through a combination of alarmist truth telling—borne from the reality of a Trump-Clinton matchup that has lately gotten tighter—and cold-water scolding about party division—driven equally by frustration and exhaustion.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.