20.01.23 Analytics


An interview with the collective Kuchera as an alternative probe into public opinion

Kirill Rogov
Director of Re: Russia
Yuri Dud's interview with Oscar Kuchera sparked outrage as well as confusion among liberal Russian society. This expression of indignation is a mistake. Dud has made an extremely important contribution to today's public debate. He gave us a stylised version of a conversation between a Russian liberal and an ordinary Russian, a typical citizen of a large Russian city.

A Caricature of an 'Everyman' 

Of course, Kuchera is neither your average Russian nor an everyman. He is a showman and a businessman; he understands the role that he plays within the conversation and has an excellent sense of drama. Just as he feels he has found his place and niche in Russia. He earns a decent amount of money by taking on the role of someone who is ‘for our guys’ and ‘anti-West’. At the same time, Kuchera is a professional craftsman of the average, everyday Russian discourse as a showman who hosts a number of radio and TV shows. He's a retransmitter as well as a successful entrepreneur. Getting this discourse right, adhering to its constraints — this is his trade, the skill upon which he has built his career. And his role in his conversation with Dud is shaped by these professional intuitions. We do not care about Kuchera or his gyms. We are interested in his rhetoric, the ideas he repeats like a broken record, his tricks, and conceptual frameworks. 

So, what does this caricature of the Russian everyman look like, and what can we learn about him? He is not an unrestrained vatnik (a pejorative used in Russia and other post-Soviet states for steadfast jingoistic followers of propaganda from the Russian government). He is not calling for war and death in the name of Russian exceptionalism or geopolitical dominance. His children attend a prestigious Moscow school and a relatively liberal university. And these are not merely facts from Kuchera's biography; they carry weight in the eyes of his audience. Though his offspring are not in England or the United States, as is common among very wealthy Russians, they are well-off. And this is a sign of his success in life. 

He, this stylised version of an ordinary Russian, this ‘collective Kuchera,’ is organically contradictory above all. A collection of disparate values, opportunistic considerations, and calculations. He watches conspiracy theories on YouTube (‘covid, there has to be a reason behind it’) sent to him by his wife, who at the same time puts pressure on him to leave and gives birth to a child in the United States so the child can be American. 

However, pointing out the lack of logic and general incoherence of these perceptions and prejudices will not force him to abandon his worldview. His worldview is inconsistent, and he finds the consistency of views boasted about by the ‘liberal Dud’ repellant and repulsive. To him, it appears to be a ruse, a ruse designed to embarrass him and force him into a vulnerable position. He sees logic and consistency as a tool of superiority, a source of potential power over himself. 

War and the ‘collective Kuchera’ 

It is evident that he does not understand the goals of this war and is not convinced of its necessity. Following official mantras, he explains it through arguments based on a kind of semi-faith, and he is all too aware of the flaws in the arguments he puts forward. It is thin ice, but that does not mean it is easily breakable. The issue is that he must walk on this very same thin ice in order to avoid drowning. So it is useless to think that you would be doing him any favours by shattering this ice.

At the same time, he periodically strays into segments of anti-war discourse that easily and organically fit into the flow of his reasoning. For instance, when he says he has no idea what victory in this war should look like. Or, when he discusses the need for sympathy for the Russian army: ‘Do you think these guys over there need this war? Certainly, the vast majority of them don't need it.’ 

The divergence between the ‘collective Kuchera’ and the official doctrine, the ‘collective Putin,’ on an evidently fundamental issue strikes us as significant. It is the issue of Russia's annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories. Kuchera has returned to this subject on several occasions, in apparent distress. According to the discourse he is attempting to replicate, the war with Ukraine should be justified as a comparatively just, defensive war. ‘We were attacked’ or ‘were about to be attacked,’ ‘we need to protect Russians in Donbas,’ and so on. This doctrine is undermined by the annexation of Ukrainian territories. ‘Why?’ Kuchera is astounded. ‘I don't get it; I thought this was a clever move to scare, a bargaining chip.’

Behind this lies a significant layer of the Russian everyman’s ideology. It is very simple to explain the aggression against Ukraine by reason of Putin's and most Russians' ‘imperial ambitions,’ which are already widely accepted. The true ideological fabric of Russian prejudice, however, is more complicated. Russia's prevailing thirst for ‘great power’ and understanding of its own exceptionalism and self-sufficiency are diametrically opposed to classical ‘imperialism’ in that they lack a desire for territorial acquisitions. 

Russians have demonstrated not only a lack of desire for territorial gains, but rather a fear of them in all opinion polls over the last few years and decades,. Whether the issue is the incorporation of Georgian separatist territories, eastern Ukrainian regions, or even Belarus into Russia, 20-25% of respondents support it, while 70% are clearly opposed. In its most common, generalised form, the idea of Russian greatness is usually mixed with a strong isolationist complex. 'Do you think we don't have enough of our own problems, that we need to feed someone else?' Kuchera remarks in astonishment. With the exception of Crimea, territorial acquisitions are met with scepticism and deafening resentment. 

The outbreak of the war, as well as its motives and goals, are all shrouded in an unpleasant fog of doubts and inconsistencies. And the 'collective Kuchera' has adopted Putin's doctrine of 'inaccessible rationality'. Because there must be some explanation, right? 'Do you think he's insane?' Kuchera inquires. The bottom line is that this mysterious, poorly understood war is a kind of natural disaster. It already exists, and we are a part of it. And this means that we are simply 'we' on this side of the war. And the interconnectedness of this 'we' is more important than doubting the logic of this war and Putin. 

'Collective Kuchera' and the 'collective West' 

There is, however, a conceptual link between 'collective Kuchera' and 'Putinism' with its pro-war rhetoric. That is anti-Westernism. This is the secret password, the line separating Kuchera from 'Dud's peace'. This is despite the fact that it is far from Putin's ecstasy of geopolitical enmity. It is much more mundane, but it serves as one of the most important markers of identity: 'we' are a kind of not-West. 

This attitude toward the West is based on jealousy and resentment. However, simply being aware of this feeling does not help you to overcome it. As a competitor and a set of doctrines, the West is seen as hostile. The 'collective Kuchera' is sceptical of 'Putin's spiritual bonds' (or 'Skrepy,' a neologism coined by Putin in 2012 to describe an ephemeral set of Russian beliefs that, according to Putin, are central to the concept of Russianness). These bonds are an affront to Kuchera. However, he views the alternative 'Western doctrine' and its proliferation as an even greater threat. 

The way in which the 'collective Kuchera' discusses homosexual relationships is also noteworthy. Homosexuals are generally accepted as part of a discourse that is trending towards a general desire for tolerance as a kind of nonviolent norm. 'Gays, lesbians — no problems at all,' Kuchera says confidently. However, the conflict shifts to the issue of transgender people. Gay people are a part of a reality for the 'collective Kuchera' that he is willing to accept, even boasting about how tolerant he is. However, the 'collective Kuchera' has never personally encountered transgender people or their issues, so empathy is not a factor, shifting the focus to the mythology of enmity. The doctrinaire, totalitarian West is transgender people. A West that sets the rules. And it makes the 'collective Kuchera' nervous. 

At the same time, his acceptance of same-sex relationships as a new norm is significant. In principle, Putin's campaign against LGBTQ+ people, as has been observed frequently, is very likely to transform into definitive recognition of the normative nature of this reality on the next ideological turn of the wheel. For the simple reason that the forces orchestrating this campaign pose a threat to the common man's attempt to live a life free from coercion. They now dictate which books to read and which not to read, as well as which films to watch and which not to watch. They make his world flawed and limited. As a result, they are far more dangerous to his world than any homosexuals. 

The Driver and Stalinist rhetoric 

The 'collective Kuchera' does not understand Putin or the logic of his actions. He possesses an 'inaccessible rationality,' they say. At the same time, Kuchera states unequivocally that he supports the President. The question 'in what?' is answered in a way that throws off the interviewer's trademark composure (because based on their conversation, it is almost certainly not the war and its goals, as these are subjects fraught with doubt and misunderstanding). 'I support his domestic policies, particularly the purges.' Kuchera is referring here to a repressive policy against those 'who are not with us' — the expulsion of functionaries, writers, directors, and activists who oppose the war. Kuchera supports this, although fidgets in his chair as he says it.

And this is an important point, as it contradicts what was written above about the 'collective Kuchera'. Stalinist ideology is spreading throughout Russia. That might be understandable for murderers and lunatics. But then there is Chicherina, who records a monologue in which she promises to 'freeze them out in our Gulag,' and by 'them' she refers to ill-defined 'enemies'. What matters here is the masochistic dream of the gulag, not who the 'enemies' are. The 'purges' are also welcomed by the flamboyant, fashionable, bare-knee Kuchera. 

Of course, what the liberal public remembers as a period of 'mass repression' was also a period of incredible career opportunities and social advancement. Leonid Brezhnev, who had been working as a technical college director because he knew the right person, rose to the position of Second Secretary of the Dnepropetrovsk Regional Communist Party within just five years, as all other potential applicants higher up the career ladder had been shot. And this biography is typical for that time period. As a result, the 'purges' are a powerful social mechanism that serves to unite both the person who unexpectedly rises and the person who dies to make that happen. What is important to us, however, is not the fate of Oscar Kuchera. Rather, the fact that he felt that expressing support for 'purges' is a-okay for the 'collective Kuchera'. This is something important to note about the 'spirit of the times'. 

When explaining the need for 'purges’ to Dud, Kuchera used the metaphor of a car flying down a cliff, with liberals attempting to grab the steering wheel from the driver. Another aspect of the 'collective Kuchera's' conception of the current moment is the understanding of the situation as a car that has lost control. He views himself as the driver who is justifying his actions  according to the need to keep the agitated passenger at bay. Because, if he identified with the passenger in the crazy driver's car, accelerating towards the cliff, the urge to wrench the steering wheel would seem natural to him. And the metaphor would have been turned on its head. However, the 'collective Kuchera' is oblivious to the cliff and has successfully convinced himself that the driver is not insane.