I was born in Russia at the dawn of the Brezhnev era, and Brezhnev died when I was a senior in high school.
At the time, Russia and Ukraine were part of the same country. War between them — which many now fear is imminent — was unimaginable. My friends and I read books about Ukraine’s anti-Nazi underground fighters, as boys read books about knights or pirates. Any wars were always “out there” — a long time ago or far, far away.
The world of my childhood was quiet and secure. There were no unemployed, beggars or homeless — or maybe I just never met them. There was no Coca-Cola or McDonald’s — but no one was starving, either. Of course, the TV and newspapers were filled with state propaganda, but we tuned it out, the way our children tune out annoying ads.
The world of my Soviet childhood didn’t look like a totalitarian dystopia or the threshold of a gulag. It was just boring.
Go to school. Attend university. Get a secure job. Retire. Die. No challenges, no surprises. No risk, no violence, no sex. It was difficult to become a loser, and impossible to be a winner.
Really, I hated it all. I sensed a big lie. I was sure that there was hidden terror under the surface of everyday life. There had to exist zones of violence and chaos — I knew this even before I heard about the prison camps and political repression.
And then Brezhnev died and the chaos I had always suspected rose to the surface. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the ’90s became a frightening decade of gangsters, corruption and poverty. But I was triumphant; about the chaos and the violence, I had been right all along.
My generation, which had been on its way to living the boring lives of state employees, was enchanted. An underground punk group sang, “We left our melancholy in the past to turn Moscow into Beirut!” and a young journalist, commenting on the bloody conflicts in October 1993 that followed Yeltsin’s attempt to dissolve the legislature, marveled, “I had never expected to see Russian tanks shoot at the Russian Parliament!” There was excitement underlying his words, witness to the challenges and the surprises of a new reality.
In the ’90s, we discovered that Russian history is cyclical. A phase of boring bureaucracy is replaced by a phase of chaos and violence. So Stalin came to power after the Russian Civil War, and Brezhnev’s boring ’70s replaced the dramatic ’60s.
Bureaucracy promises imperial power and a stable life. The cost is repression and lies.
Anarchy promises freedom and opportunity. The cost is violence and fear.
By the end of the ’90s, many of us regretted the excitement we had once felt. Everyone was tired of anarchy. Even teenagers had come to appreciate family values and stability. This mood helped Vladimir V. Putin rocket to power in the Kremlin. He resurrected the Soviet culture of our childhoods, with old hymns and state propaganda on TV. Of course, political repression and persecution soon followed.
Brezhnev had been the head of the Soviet Union for 18 years. Mr. Putin has ruled Russia for nearly 15. It’s time to turn the wheel of Russian history once again. The anti-Putin rallies of 2011-12 were the first reminder of this; the Ukrainian Maidan revolution was the second. My guess is that Mr. Putin’s sincere fear of this cycle is one of the reasons for the current war.
Like any repressive regime, Mr. Putin’s knows how to create autonomous zones of violence. The main lawless zone during his reign has been the Caucasus, especially Chechnya, where civilians, journalists and human rights defenders have been kidnapped and killed throughout the last 20 years. Mr. Putin used any manifestation of violence to strengthen his own power. Thus, after the Beslan terrorist attack in 2004, Mr. Putin eliminated direct elections for the office of governor (including governor of Moscow), essentially giving himself control over the appointments.
Chaos at the margins can make a repressive system stronger. However, the system has to up the ante in order to maintain itself. This time, the zone of lawlessness is bigger than ever. Instead of risking his own Maidan revolution in Red Square, Mr. Putin has exported Russia’s Chechnya-style chaos to the southeast of Ukraine, turning Donbass into Beirut or Gaza. Everyone who lusts for action and violence now has a place to kill and to die.
Perhaps the people of Donbass, members of the Ukrainian military and even the passengers of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were killed to save Mr. Putin’s Russia from a new stage of anarchy.
It’s easy to imagine the teenage boy today who hates official lies and boredom the way I did. He watches TV and reads on the Internet about heroic Russian rebels, and he is excited. He glimpses the challenges and the surprises of a new reality.
Now I repeat, like the marveling journalist in 1993, “I had never expected to see a Russian rocket shooting a Malaysian plane out of the sky above Donbass!” However, I feel only sorrow. This new turn of the wheel doesn’t excite me. Once was enough.
Now I see that the choice between boredom and chaos is only the tool that corrupt rulers use to save their regimes. I hope that Russia can escape from this deadly cycle in time to avoid new victims, inside and outside.
Sergey Kuznetsov is the author of the novel Butterfly Skin.