The year of free will-y


In the first chapter of The Master and Margarita,  the eminent editor and director of MASSOLIT, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz and the poet Bezdomniy meet the devil, who has come to 1930s Moscow to see if the hype is as advertised.

The devil, in the shape of a well-heeled foreign historian with an unplacable accent (“Am I German? Yes I suppose you could say that..”), tricks them into a arguing about whether people have free will. New communists Berlioz and Bezdomniy argue fevrishly that they do. The devil comes back with, “Yes, man is mortal, but that would be only half the trouble. The worst of it is that he’s sometimes unexpectedly mortal—there’s the trick!” He proceeds to try and reasonably convince Bezdomniy and Berlioz that the devil exists and human free will doesn’t without revealing who he is, but is sadly unable to.

The Russian preoccupation with free will is a long-standing tradition that has always stemmed from the government doing whatever the hell it wanted (i.e. conscription), combined with the heady influence of the Orthodox Church in various degrees and intensities over the centuries. This  was only exacerbated by the almost complete lack of choice during the Soviet era.

It’s an argument my dad and I have often, spurred by this Mashina Vremeni song, Talk on a Train, about two passengers on a train who are so bored they have no choice but to talk to each other. One argues that we have free will, and are free to take the train wherever we want. The other says, yes, we can take the train, but the tracks have to be laid for it, implying that the only paths we can take are those that have been pushed at us by a higher power. The whole man plans and God laughs kind of deal.

This obsession with free will and fate is not an American character trait. God is a hands-off free enterprise kind-of-guy in America. Mark Twain wrote once that “No man that has ever lived has done a thing to please God–primarily. It was done to please himself, then God next.”

I used to also believe this, that everything I wanted to do, short of becoming an astronaut, or my dream career from when I was five, a horse groomer, was open to me, and that any obstacles that were in my way, I could overcome.

But as I’ve watched the pardon and release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the members of Pussy Riot over the past several days, I’ve come to understand that there is always someone watching over our fate, and that the course of our lives can be broken at will, with the flick of a hand.

Khodorkovsky mentioned at a recent press interview, his first after ten years in prison for entering politics against Putin’s wishes, that he was woken at 2 am in the Siberian winter, not told where he was going, and, shoved into a Tupalev, after which he got his foreign passport, and flew to Germany.

Only halfway through this whole situation did he start to understand what was going on. This morning, two members of Pussy Riot, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were released from jail. Previously, Tolkonnikova had vanished into the bowels of hell after attempting a hunger strike. No one knew where she was for a month.

It is easy to feel aghast at the depths Putin has gone to to assert his power, and to feel sorry for these people, who will become rightly lionized in the media for their actions. They come from a country where, as they say, “Everything changes in 20 minutes and nothing changes in 200 years.” They are the nails, and they get hammered down.  It is harder to understand the extent to which the entire population is at-will to the President (or Prime Minister, depending on the year.)

It is even harder still to watch this all happen from America and gloat, as we used to be able to. “What a savage country,” we always said. “Why can’t everyone just have democracy?” We have no reason to feel superior anymore, because we have the NSA, something Putin salivates in his dreams to.

We are not political prisoners. There is no way we can ever compare our situation to theirs. But where does the gentle slope away from the high ideal of democracy start,and when do we realize that we’re like Wil E. Coyote? We look down, but we’re not even on a cliff anymore, we’re in the air.

We are not at Russia levels yet in America. But even Russia was not always at Russia levels, yet. In 1917, for several months, Russia was a true representative democracy before it collapsed to Bolshevism.

What is a Russia level? It’s hard to say. But we’re for sure not at America levels anymore. Do you really have free fate when you know all your hopes and dreams (not to mention watch you watching YouTube in your underwear) are being collected, to be possibly incorrectly identified in an algorithm against you? Can you really do anything, go anywhere, when you dread every trip out of the country because of the TSA? When you are afraid to write certain things? “Manuscripts never burn,” Bulgakov wrote, and now, thanks to ample cold storage, neither do our chat logs.

Is it that I’m older and more cynical? Maybe America and the West have always been like this. Or is it that we are entering a new age, where we have more in common with the world-weary Woland than with fresh, optimistic, post-Revolutionary Berlioz and Bezdomniy? (It should be noted that Berlioz falls in front of a tram and is decapitated, and Bezdomniy becomes a raving lunatic while the Devil gets to hold elaborate dinner-parties with imported caviar, so if the Devil is currently in DC, I want to know which restaurants he’s booking OpenTable reservations at. )

That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with this year (and it’s safe to say that I don’t have an answer.)  As I sit here in the waning days of 2013, scratching my head, scanning headlines, I can only hope that America doesn’t fundamentally change to the point where we are unexpectedly mortal. But, as with everything else, that’s not in my hands.