Conformism and Conformists

For about thirty years Pavel Palazhchenko has been Mikhail Gorbachev’s interpreter. He is in charge of the Gorbachev Foundation’s press office in Moscow and accompanies Mr. Gorbachev on his foreign travels. Previously, in the 1970s, he had worked as a simultaneous translator at the United Nations and then had translated for the Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. He often posts essays on Facebook, and has allowed us to publish this one.

By Pavel Palazhchenko

When I read Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist over again, I find myself looking both at our generation, when we mostly lived under conformism, and at the younger generation today.

Of course, they have more choices than we used to have, but I have the impression that they too will run into circumstances like the ones that many of us encountered.

The very title of the Moravia’s book is somewhat misleading. In essence, it is not about conformism per se but rather about its extreme form; and it has mainly to do with a person who had begun as a “basic conformist” and later developed into a murderer.

Moravia portrays it astonishingly. Bertolucci’s screen version of the title is oversaturated with Freudian and sexual motifs, but in the novel itself, although these are still present, they are limited and do not distract from the main line and underlying idea.

According to Moravia (and I accept his view) conformism is primarily a person’s way of behaving in an authoritarian or to­talitarian country. The subtle distinctions between the former and latter types of regime are often tricky and the nov­el is not about those differences anyway.

In principle it is possible to choose a different way of conduct and adhere to it. Yet it is difficult. Most members of society, the people who lack a tendency towards reflection, simply adopt conformism by default.

A need to rationalize

Those who take a more thoughtful view of their own existence, however, find a need to rationalize conformism, and it is here that things become really interesting.

What kind of reasoning will it be? Will it be a justification of the person himself, of the society, of the state, or of everything altogether? How far will an individual carry his conformism? And what will be its outcome?

One could write a philosophical treatise on this subject, though in my own opinion it would be less intriguing than a good novel that leaves it up to the reader himself to contemplate these difficult matters and to come to his or her own conclusions. And such a novel was written by Alberto Moravia.

Within our generation many have traveled the distance from sincere illusions and faith in the Soviet system to a more or less considered rejection of it, and beyond—to conformism, alienation, and indifference.

Few people chose to fight the system, mainly because it appeared—and it was indeed—if not eternal, at least well equipped for survival.

As far as I remember, practically all of the people I had to deal with in the sixties and the seventies of the last century assumed that this system would last beyond our lifetimes.

On that assumption, some chose emigration (though that option was not available to most of us) and the rest had to consider how to build their own lives within the USSR.

I personally got rid of any illusions about the “just” and “advanced nature” of the Soviet state from early on, probably before age of fourteen. It is hard to say what the most influential factor was, but I think it was my reading of high-quality literature.

Our family subscribed to the magazines Noviy Mir (New World), _Moskva (Moscow) and Yunost’ (Youth). Of course those publications were censored but I noticed that, as a rule, the books and articles that were critical toward the Soviet system were written well while the ones justifying it and underscoring its stability were practically all badly done. Although I did not fully realize it,_ that became the strongest argument to me._

Perhaps another reason was that my grandmother had spent six years in the labor camps and came back with her health ruined, even if still not quite free of dogmas and illusions (she did, however, retain the peculiar democratic spirit that was typical of pre-Revolutionary era Bolsheviks).

In my particular case, anyway, it was initially the “stylistic” discords and not the ideological ones that were foremost. These reservations impelled me to take a critical view of things, and my observations of real life led me to conclude that we lived in a police state. One day I revealed that conclusion to my mother. She was horrified and exclaimed, “That’s going too far!” However, she did not start an argument with me, in part because—unlike my grandmother—she was not prone to disputes, especially political ones.

Recently I reread the diaries of my teenage years, and they reaffirmed my op­inion that I had kept my critical views toward the “system” throughout high school and into my early university years.

My own evolution toward conformism began later and was probably inevitable, considering the profile of the college that I attended as well as my life plans.

The Institute of Foreign Languages and especially its Department of Trans­lation were deemed “ideological institutions.” I think that the Comm­unist authorities meant this in a defensive rather than an offensive sense. Just think of it: The very study of foreign languages, the reading of literature (methodically filtered yet impossible to purge completely due to the limits of the censorship), movies, interacting with individuals of other nationalities, and the trips abroad—all that would make us susceptible to Western impacts. In our case, the authorities wanted not so much to make us the “soldiers of the ideological front” but, rather, to fence out influences that they deemed unwholesome.

Even in that “defensive” mode, I think they did not quite succeed. The dominating mood of the general student body was pro-Western, although some tried harder than others to keep it secret.

What pressed the interpreter students toward conformism had more to do with their career and life pros­pects. For most students, options were limited: the Ministry of Defense and secret service agencies (this route was, in one form or another, open to all), teaching (this would be offered to a few), employment as an interpreter in the state-owned economic and propaganda struc­­­tures, and—almost nonexistent at that time—freelancing.

Depending on the system

Predominantly, the person would be dependent on the system, on the state. And as such this inevitably influences the mindset.

Sometimes this can lead to a horrific dissonance, as was witnessed by the end of the 1980s when enthusiastic propagandists of the regime turned into its hostile opponents. But more often than not and willy-nilly, completely or partially, individuals adapt their behavior first, and their mentality afterwards, to the requirements of the powers that be.

I got the lucky number—I was admitted to the group of simultaneous interpreters at the United Nations Language training Course. The situation was that the translators of written texts were recruited from the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs and from institutions of a special kind such as the University of Friendship of Nations, while interpreters were almost exclusively drawn from the institutes of foreign languages—our level of proficiency was higher, and no additional require­ments were imposed on us except the obvious one: apparent loyalty.

I was in the fifth year of college when the mechanism of adaptation and conformism started to work, although the “stylistic discords” were of course still there.

In any case, at that time, at least for me personally, it was almost impossible to “depend upon the tsar” (the state) and at the same time completely withhold myself from respecting it, understanding it, and subsequently drawing closer to it.

Also, exactly at that period—two years after the shocking invasion of the Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia—there arose some secondary illusions about the possibility of humanizing the regime.

The treaties with the United States and West Germany were signed; some timid attempts at economic reform were initiated by Prime Minister Kosygin (though they were soon stifled), and—what was most important—“re-Stalin­ization” did not materialize as the Soviet intelligentsia of the sixties had feared.

It became easy to convince oneself that the state of affairs was not as bad as it might have been. In addition, the pressure from the Communist Party-controlled state was relatively gentle.

In any case, if I can judge it from my own point of view, most of us, including myself, were not dragged forcibly beyond the line where events could take place resembling those described in Moravia’s novel.

In general the Soviet regime of those years was relatively “vegetarian,” not vicious, and reluctant to take risks or make menacing moves. Mostly it was oriented to the status quo. And that helped to get adapted to it.

My five-year stint in New York, when I worked for the Secretariat of the UN from November 1974 to December 1979, coincided with the period of crash­ing hopes and illusions. The reg­ime became “rotten” slowly but steadily.

That word was still sometimes applied by our propaganda machine toward the West (which, to be honest, was not in its best phase). Yet “rotten” was a more apt description of what was going within Soviet reality.

Nonetheless, it was next to impossible to resign from the conformist’s position at that moment. Why so? First, because I had my career to think of; and second, because the propaganda wars were ongoing, and not everything spoken and written about our country in America was true. Moreover, even when it happened to be accurate, more often than not it was difficult to acknowledge it.

Indeed, long before us Pushkin took the same position in his letter to Viazemskii, “I, of course, despise the fatherland of mine from the head to the very toes. Nevertheless, it saddens me immensely when a foreigner shares the same view.”

Such a reaction is quite natural and understandable in my opinion. Still, it’s only one step away from such well known works as Anniversary of Borodino and Slanderers of Russia , from which, at present, so many in our society like to quote.

At some point in my life I noticed that my conformism stretched too far. Fair enough. If it happened with such a genius as Pushkin, then is it any wonder a similar reaction takes over an ordinary Soviet citizen?

But, while it seemed possible to justify a lot of things, even the invasion in Afghanistan, the persecution of dissidents, and the pressure exerted on Poland, deep down, somewhere inside the soul, one realized: Something is wrong with it all and I personally am unable to fight for it tooth and nail.

And here can be drawn a vital boundary between the known types of conformists: those who try to see some kind of a rationale in the actions of an authoritarian regime and, thus, if not to validate them completely, then at least to find ways of explaining if not justifying them, and those who, because of either their inability to think matters out or their hypocrisy, readily support by their words and actions anything the regime would do.

“Our affairs are pretty bad but nobody is responsible for that”

But there is more: the difference between those two types and the people who go even further and are ready to act in ways incompatible with human morality. Of course, such moral depravity is not the same as conformism itself; that is why I stated at the outset that the title of Moravia’s novel could be somewhat misleading.

The lives of conformists may turn out differently, according to the long­evity of the regime to which they adapt.

My mother’s brother, uncle Vladimir, was born in 1921 and died in 1977 because of a cancerous tumor in his brain that apparently was the result of a war­time injury. He lived all his life under Soviet rule and was beyond any doubt a conformist. He committed deeds that probably were not atrocious but nevertheless did not make him proud.

The character in the Moravia’s novel had a different fate. The regime that he had served collapsed in 1944, derailing his own life and the existence of his family. However, Moravia, as well as Bertolucci—though his later screen adaptation departs significantly from the novel—are not interested in the whole concept of vengeance or payback for conformism. Marcello dies rather incidentally. (Bertolucci’s Marcello does not even die, and instead the movie elects an open-ended finale with a homo­­erotic motif).

In the novel, the writer’s most important idea is expressed, as strange as it might seem, by the none-too-clever Julia—the main character’s wife. The following conversation takes place between her and Marcello shortly before their deaths:

“Tell me what you are thinking about now.”

“Nothing,” she replied. “I do not think about anything … absolutely … just looking at the landscape.”

“No. What do you think in general?”

“In general? I think that our affairs are pretty bad … but nobody is responsible for that.”

“Perhaps I am guilty?”

“Why you? Nobody has to bear the blame for that! Everybody is right and wrong at the same time … things go badly because they go badly, that’s all.”

The conformists of my generation survived the collapse of the Soviet system and got on through the relatively mild transition into a different political and economic order.

One of the cornerstones of my personal conformism was the belief that the needed changes should begin from the top of the state, starting with the liberalization of the regime, with some kind of “Prague Spring” and attempts to establish “socialism with a human face.”

It did not come true. And as a result, there was born a capitalism with a noticeably inhuman face.

Nonetheless and in spite of everything, this is better than “a war of all against all”—and that could have happened too!—or some other probable versions such as “Ceausescuization” of the regime, or its transformation along the spiritual lines of the “Russian Party,” which frightened me. The publicists of the latter often got their works printed in such magazines as Our Contemporary and _Young Guard during the last decades of the Soviets._

The question is: Will our authorities, evolving pretty fast in a hardline-authoritarian direction, try to impose their “conservative patriotic” ideology upon the newer generations and make it a condition for vertical mobility?

It seems to me that some ideological conformism will be a precondition for a successful career in most cases, including, quite possibly, such a specific area as the profession of a translator.

I have noticed that whereas forty years ago a great majority among my colleagues were inclined to look “to the West,” that is not the case now. Quite a few are rather anti-Western and, clearly, anti-American.

Yet for now it is a product of their own convictions and delusions rather than of coercion by the governing powers. Of course these convictions and delusions did not come from nowhere but from the influence of propaganda, which is omnipresent in our society and which many regard too uncritically. It is my impression that as time goes by, those wielding power will be bending today’s young people to their will more and more, forcing them to follow increasingly strict rules, requirements, and limitations.

The upcoming conformism and the conformists of the newer generations will not be the same as ours. It would be unwise for me to judge or to lecture them. Yet one word of advice needs to be spoken: If it becomes necessary to adapt to the conditions of life and work within the present regime, one must, in my opinion, be fully aware that this regime is neither democratic nor based on the rule of law. Working for it or collaborating with it one may well do some good—but it’s still better not to have too many illusions.

And one must recognize that the very persistence of conformism as a social phenomenon broadcasts this message: “Our affairs are pretty bad …” even though, perhaps, “nobody is responsible for that.”

Pavel Palazhchenko is press officer for the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow.
(Translator: Olga Puzanova)

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2015

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2015, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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