When it comes to Russia, political news overshadows everything else, especially with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia is a big, complicated country where people are still dealing with the implications of the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the clearest signs of fundamental change in Russia is one that may sound strange to Americans: The Russians are discovering their bodies.
If you want to understand what this means, you can forget all that bombastic rhetoric about “scientific Communism” that Soviet leaders loved so much, and think of Lenin, Stalin, and their followers as imposing a neo-monastic regime on Russia. What Lenin did was very much like what the Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran, for example. That’s why the Bolsheviks forbade display of the body, and presentations of love and romance in books and movies.
So when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Russians discovered their bodies after generations of repression. A Russian blogger said it well recently when he commented that for the first time in Russian history the government said to the people, “Sleep with whoever you want.” This was a truly revolutionary change, far more revolutionary in its way than what happened in 1917.
This change is what people miss when they see pictures of Vladimir Putin with his shirt off, and think that he’s just another narcissistic dictator. But think about that for a minute. Did Saddam Hussein ever pose for a picture without a shirt on ? No-it’s unimaginable. For all his talk of Russian tradition, and for all his use of Russian history to justify his aggressive actions in the Crimea, Putin’s display of his body, like his martial arts practice, marks a decisive change from Soviet attitudes.
Putin’s first name is Vladimir, for which the diminutive form ‘Volodya” can used by close friends and family. But of course dictators don’t have close friends and family, so no one calls him “Volodya”-at least in public, and probably not in private, either. There is, however, another famous Russian for whom a diminutive is used, and whose life and career also help us understand how Russians are discovering their bodies.
This is the tennis player Maria Sharapova, and Russian girls admire her the way American girls used to admire soccer player Mia Hamm. When Sharapova is winning, as she often is, girls yell something at her that says more than they know: “Masha, ty nasha.”
What they’re doing here is using “Masha,” the diminutive of “Mariya,” because she is a woman and a role model, unlike Putin. The girls also use “ty,” familiar form of “you,” which is the equivalent of “du” in German, and ‘tou” in French. This is all tied together with ‘nasha,” or “ours.”
What Sharapova’s fans are saying literally is “Masha, you are ours. ” “Masha, you are one of us,” But it’s also more than the adulation that great athletes receive everywhere. Sharapova’s fans are also saying, “You make us proud to be Russians. You are ours because through you we can also be rich and famous and graceful.” In the past Russians never felt like this about athletes.
So who are Vladimir Putin and Maria Sharapova, and what do they tell us about Russia today? The most obvious thing is that for better or worse they represent the way Russia has broken with the Soviet past. Putin cannot, or-more likely-will not talk about his career in the KGB, what the KGB did, and how it created his understanding of the world in which he is now a major player.
And what about that other player, “Masha,” as the girls call her? Well, Masha’s past is also awkward for Russians, although in a different way. People recognized early on that young Masha, when she really was called Masha, was a sports prodigy, so she and her father managed to make their way to Bradenton, Florida, the site of the legendary Bolleterri Sports Academy, which has produced other tennis superstars such as Andre Agassi and Monica Seles.
So when the girls say, “Masha, you are ours,” they are claiming her for Russia-reclaiming her, one might say. They wouldn’t want to admit it, but they are claiming her, not for what they and the other Russians are, but for what they might have been if they too had been lucky enough to grow up in Bradenton, Florida, and not in Saratov or Omsk. By joyously claiming her as one of their own, the Russians are in effect acknowledging that she couldn’t be who she is, and do what she does, without her American past.
So what do these two people, Vladimir and Masha, so different as personalities, yet so alike in their problematic pasts, tell us about Russia today?
Like Vladimir and Masha, the Russians today are a people without what Henry James memorably called “a useable past.” As a wise man once said, “Those who do not study the past are condemned to relive it.” This is exactly what is happening in Russia today. The Russians still have not come to terms with the horrors of Stalinism, and thus in a very short time have reverted to a society very much like the pre-revolutionary Russia, in which oligarchs receive a very large percent of the nation’s income.
When a society is dissociated from its past, for whatever reason, its members are left to rely on themselves, and ultimately on their bodies. The display of the body, which Putin practices, and the use of the body to make a great career, which is what Sharapova is doing, tell us more about the situation in Russia today than they know.