This article makes a great argument: The notoriously annoying, time-consuming registration process that looms over so many aspects of life in Russia is merely an extension of serfdom. It is, in fact, desperately difficult to escape the striking continuities between the old Russian Imperial system, especially under Nikolai I, and what is currently afoot in Russia. Critics at the time (okay, certain Decembrists) pointed to a wretched stagnation in trade and a hobbling of the economy. Check. There was a similar stagnation, many felt, in cultural life and the arts. Oh double, triple check! And most Russians are still bound by paper and bureaucracy to their place of residence, unable to move to new areas in search of work without major, extended hassles.
There is another, subtler stream that keeps coming to mind, as I consider this era and the early 19th century: eccentrics. No, wait! Hear me out.
First, though, go put a bird on it.
Our current American preciousness, the “hipster” handmade quirkiness for quirks’ sake, reminds me an awful lot of the Russian obsession in the first third of the 19th century with eccentrics, oddballs, and weirdos. The man who married a gypsy singer because she paid his gambling debt. The woman who never rose before midnight, and pissed off Balzac by sending for him late at night. As a Soviet biographer of Mikhail Lunin noted, one of the few sites of protest for Russian aristocrats dissatisfied with relentless autocracy was dress and conduct. Laugh a little wildly! Wear really, really big epaulettes. Hang around with artists and actors and make your serfs wear chitons. Collect bronzes or something. You know, put a (rich Russian) bird on it.
Does this limited sphere of expression flow from our condition as subjects of a blossoming oligarchy in the US (Russians have been enjoying this nasty shift for a decade already)? Are we so damn precious because we can’t think of anything else that would free us from our unfortunately chains? To adopt the ways of the eccentric, or the worship of eccentrics, is to love the most feeble of rebellions.
Serfdom may still haunt Russia’s administrative structure, just as slavery haunts America’s economic and political realms. Will any of us–Russians, Americans–ever be free?