ETHIC DILEMMAS IN THE IVORY TOWER

How the fight for animal testing made the scientific community more transparent

On the day that changed his life forever, Ruben calmly entered the laboratory of the Werner Reichardt Centre at Tübingen University to conduct a research experiment on a rat. There was the familiar buzzing sound of the dimmer switch as the fluorescent tubes flickered on. The white light illuminated the white benchtop where the white-coated rat calmly ground its teeth. A little plastic mask covered the gnashing sound as the anesthetic gas sedated the rat. Scalpel in hand, Ruben started the surgery. But a few minutes later a piece of equipment started to malfunction, reducing the amount of gas being delivered. Wiggling its foot, the rat started waking up. As the procedure dictates in case of unexpected reactions of the animal, Ruben immediately stopped the experiment and killed the rat. “That’s when I decided to abandon animal experiments”, says Ruben. It wasn’t that his position on animal testing had changed: “Unless we agree on only using the medicines that we already have, experiments are the only way to test drugs’ safety before they enter the market.” Ruben stopped because he simply couldn’t stand the stress of doing it himself.

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The image of a researcher troubled by ethical dilemmas runs counter to that of scientists as éminencses grises whose pure focus exempt them from moral considerations. “The prominent ideology is that science doesn’t have anything to do with ethics. But in the case of animal testing the moral implications are obvious”, explains Bernard Rollin, American philosopher and author of a number of influential books that made him a world-leading scholar in animal rights.“ A bewildering array of scandals, such as that over fume tests on monkeys commissioned by Volkswagen, raised massive societal concern that overcame this artificial separation.” Eventually, part of the scientific community understood that it had to break the silence and make an effort to explain what happens in their laboratories and why. Massive animal rights protests made it very clear.

 

One such protest saw models parading with makeup that hadn’t been tested on animals as other mixed with the audience, their naked bodies painted in cruelty-free makeup. She was dressed in white from head to toe; her skin a russet, golden-brown; her upturned eyes black waxy marbles. After the last brush of scarlet lycopene lipstick, the model hugged a white bunny and carried it down the catwalk. This was 2000 in Portugal. Animal rights movements in Europe were making headlines after launching several synchronized and centrally coordinated protests across the continent. “Science must save lives without using lives”, says Maria do Céu Sampaio, who organized the demonstration. She is dressed in a cable-knit lambswool sweater over a blue velvet shirt, which gives a friendly touch to her professional look. Her confident and passionate tone contrasts with the weary gaze of someone who has spent more than 40 years fighting for animal rights. “Animals are not a useful resource to be exploited for our own advantage; they should undergo experiments only when they serve the purpose of saving lives.” In 2013, under growing public pressure and after assessing the availability of alternative methods, the European Commission imposed a marketing and testing ban on every cosmetic involving animal testing.

 

“It is a perfect storm”, reasons Rollin. “On one side the scientific community doesn’t address ethics anywhere near as much as they should; on the other the public has growing ethical concerns. Clashes are inevitable.” Rollin has personally tested this ideological barrier. In 1985 he wrote the federal laws requiring control of pain in laboratory animals “under vicious opposition from the scientific community”. On another occasion, the scientists from the University of Edinburg who cloned the sheep Dolly asked for his advice to prepare the public for the announcement. Some of the ethical issues he warned about were not addressed and so shocked society. “The problem is that the scientific community has completely failed to attempt to educate the public. Many still believe that people and dinosaurs lived at the same time!” But it’s in the interest of everyone to engage in a more open debate. ”Success, freedom and autonomy are tied to accord with social ethics”, says Rollin. In order to avoid inadequate regulations being pushed forward by ethical concerns, scientists must break out of their ivory tower. Internet has helped to breach some ideological walls.

 

I went from congresses to hashtag!” laughs Giuliano Grignaschi, a researcher at the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research. Grignaschi is not your typical scientist. His slender body of a track and field athlete leaves a strong clue of his previous career as a 400-meter sprinter. Only when he registered as a conscientious objector from serving the Air Force Academy and was assigned to community services, Grignaschi found that sport and science have a lot in common. “Improving, improving, improving. That’s the key in both cases.” After twenty years of laboratory research, his profound love for animals made him the head of the animal care unit with the task of supervising the correct application of the procedures on all animal experiments. “While the internet has greatly contributed to galvanizing a legitimate curiosity in scientific research, it has also misinformed the public”, he explains. “Because the scientific community was too reserved on animal testing, the only information found online was produced by well-intentioned, but misinformed activists.“ Grignaschi recognizes that animal rights groups had the merit of engaging public interest, but one side of the story was missing. Science’s widening disconnection from society has brought exaggerations and imbalance.

 

A few years ago the situation started to change. Grignaschi – fifty years old – opened his first Twitter account and learned to condense useful scientific information into 140 characters. His experience reflects a wider trend. In the digital era, the success of every company and institution is closely tied to public opinion. While Youtube videos shot covertly in laboratories have damaged the reputation of many companies, brands like The Body Shop have been wildly successful by totally disavowing such testing. “Research is not enough”, says Grignaschi, “a good scientist needs to be a good communicator as well.” But could such a change damage science by shifting the focus away from research? “Absolutely not. Real progress cannot be achieved at odds with ethics.” On the contrary, when quickly accumulating pressure for change encounters a major scientific challenge, innovation can make the fortune of a company. Such was the case for TissUse, a Berlin startup company which products can reduce the need for animal testing.

 

Yellow strips of tissue-infused silicon pump blood to three chambers the size of a screw head which house living cell cultures. The humble chunk of see-through material looks like a supercompact VHS which film snapped off the reel, but it actually simulates the activity of human organs. They call it human-on-a-chip technology – and it’s not science fiction. “Since the invention of the first human simulation in 1991, the goal has been to simulate the activity of human organs. What we want is to reproduce you and me on a chip, without us feeling any pain”, explains Uwe Marx, founder and CEO. “All you need to do is give us a sample and we will be able to simulate all your organs.” Technologies like this are a rare example of a limited array of alternatives to animal experiments that have emerged in the last few years. “But although they are very promising, organ-on-a-chip platforms can only offer an indication of what the real result on a living being would be”, explains Dario Padovan, president of Pro-test Italia, an association active across Europe in favor of continued animal testing to support scientific research. “The complexity of a full organism capable of feeling emotions and with a real psychological life cannot be tested with a simulation”, he explains. The same reason that makes animal testing morally disturbing also renders their use irreplaceable.

 

Two years after he left animal experiments, Ruben reached the same conclusion. He realized that no computer simulation could give him the answers he was looking for. “My whole field of research is useless if I don’t combine it with animal experiments.” Says Ruben. Today he works with zebrafish; a two-millimeter long, half-millimeter wide fish that has the rare feature of a transparent pigmentation. This allows scientists to study its brain without the need for surgery. “We often harm the fish in other ways, but even simply keeping it still while the noisy machine is at work can expose the animal to a lot of stress”, says Ruben. He pulls an elastic net of sugar gel into the water and drops it onto a fish. Its strings are so vicious that the tiny animal doesn’t notice it has swum into it. Its tail keeps flicking left and right, but the fish is not going anywhere. Ruben looks into the microscope, through the water and skin, directly into its brain.

 

The opening up of a part of the scientific community about animal testing is a positive event. According to Grignaschi and Rollin, such a reconnection can be beneficial for society as a whole and help fight a widespread anti-intellectualism in fields like vaccination and global warming. But the contrast with ethics is unavoidable. “It never gets easy”, says Ruben. “No one cares about my fish. But if you saw them growing up under the microscope, if you saw them breaking their eggs and swam free for the first time, you would care about them too.” He switches off the microscope and cleans the gel off the fish. The tiny creature swims away and mingles back in the shoal.

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HOW TO REPLACE A GUN WITHOUT LOSING A FRIEND

The replacement of Germany's standard rifle highlights a close relationship between the German Government and the country's biggest arm manufacturer

The same company that was publicly denounced over the accuracy of the G36 – Germany’s military standard rifle – will provide the replacing gun. It may not be official yet, but no one expects otherwise. That’s because the relationship between​ ​Heckler & Koch (H&K)​ and the German government has deepened over the years. And although both have a lot to gain from their collaboration, such a close bond raises concerns for a democratic country.

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HOW IT ALL STARTED

 

H&K initially designed the HK G36 for the requirements of the the German armed forces in the early 1990s. Both profit from their close relationship, and are accustomed to working with each other for many years. H&K produced the G36 to be used in Central Europe, under conditions completely different from those found in Afghanistan – where it eventually ended up.​ ​Ten years later, reports​ started to emerge that the rifles tended to heat up and decrease in accuracy during continuous fire as well as under heated temperatures.

 

The blame was put on the composite polymer that was used to make specific parts of the lightweight rifle. Heckler & Koch took the German government to court in an effort to clear its name of any wrongdoing. H&K stated that the G36 rifles used by the German army comply with the specifications they had agreed upon in their supply contract. Their compliance was confirmed by the court and H&K was vindicated: the actual problem was in the German army’s requirements. After extensive laboratory testing, the Defense Minister decided to advertise for bids to replace the G36 with a rifle capable of working reliably anywhere in the world. Ironically, that’s tantamount to a new influx of funds for H&K (should it win) – and a sign of a shift in Germany’s foreign policy.

 

 

THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE REPLACEMENT

 

What to do with 180,000 guns that Germans are not supposed to shoot with anymore, Germany? That’s a question everybody dealing with this topic will ask himself sooner or later, but seemingly nobody has a definitive answer to. One major driving force to bring about this costly change is the Bundeswehr demanding a rifle that can be used ​anywhere.​ Jürgen Grässlin has no doubt the Defense Ministry is not going to make the same mistake twice and will order a gun which functions even under extreme climatic conditions: “In 1995/96, nobody expected to go to war in Afghanistan,” he recounts. “Today, they think globally, literally ​globally​, and that’s why the gun has to work under any climatic circumstances, whether cold or hot, arctic or desert regions”.

 

Defending the country is actually the Bundeswehr’s sole intended legal purpose, according to the German constitution, which was designed after World War II. In this millennium, that has included operations in remote countries like​ ​Mali and​ ​Afghanistan​. “Due to international treaties, defending the home country took a backseat and thereby, all kinds of international operations – with or without a UN Mandate, with or without application of​ ​Article 5​ of the NATO Treaty – went down. We’ve been on that path”, the lawyer Rothbauer explains.

 

When the Bundeswehr is finally equipped with its new assault rifle in a few years, its global capacity certainly will be improved – independently from Germany’s geopolitical aspirations when the time comes. At this point in time, though, it is even more interesting to focus on what leads to Heckler & Koch producing the next standard assault rifle of the Bundeswehr, rather than the consequences of getting rid of the old one. As Jürgen Grässlin put it: “The only question left is ​when​ Heckler & Koch is ready to deliver. There could be another delay of a few months, if not a year. But there is no doubt in my mind ​who​ will come out on top. The winner is Heckler & Koch!” How could anyone be so sure of the outcome of an open invitation to tender? It seems that Heckler & Koch and the German government need each other to such an extent, that it makes any other outcome extremely unlikely.

 

 

WHY THE GERMAN GOVERNMENT NEEDS H&K

 

The Bundeswehr has been using H&K small arms since its inception. “All the small arms of the German armed forces, for a very, very long time until today are almost completely made by Heckler & Koch,​ ​from the pistol up to the machine guns​”, Thomas Wiegold explains. Jürgen Grässlin agrees that the generals basically argue that “these are our weapons and our soldiers are trained to use those”, as it is supposedly also easier to handle a new H&K gun if one has been trained with an older model, as opposed to a new rifle by a different manufacturer. Old habits die hard.

 

Nevertheless, there are more factors contributing to the German government’s attraction to H&K. For one, the company located in Oberndorf in the Black Forest is German, which is crucial for the effectiveness of the​ ​Merkel Doctrine​. If H&K was to go out of business, Germany’s ability to send (i.e. allow exports of) small arms instead of troops to support allies in global conflict would be hampered. In Grässlin’s opinion, this is as true for H&K as it is for other defense contractors: “Heckler & Koch,​ ​Rheinmetall​,​ ​Airbus​ and​ ​Krauss-Maffei Wegmann​ will be protected by any means necessary. That’s how bluntly I would put it.”

 

Grässlin remarks that “in other [defense] projects, they like to say ‘We have to think European’ or ‘We have to expedite cooperation’ – why then be so nationalist when it comes to assault rifles? That’s a bit strange.” This raises the question if implicitly limiting the competitors to German manufacturers is not necessarily conducive to ensuring to procure the best new assault rifle possible. “I’m a pacifist, but if you think about it from a defense politics point of view – ‘We purchase the best weapon, under financially optimized circumstances’ – then it does not automatically have to be Heckler & Koch”, declares Grässlin.

 

So, to what extent does the government really need H&K? “Sometimes you get the impression they have the fear that if Heckler & Koch didn’t exist anymore, who would be the in-country solution for small arms? Where you know you’re always number one of the customers, get preferred treatment and don’t have to line up somewhere in the USA?”, says Wiegold. If those fears are real and the existing relationship is highly valued, it may be the driving factor of the German government preferring their next generation of assault rifles to be produced by H&K as well.

 

 

WHY H&K NEEDS THE GERMAN GOVERNMENT

 

A major shift in foreign policy can significantly impact H&K’s business dynamics. This was the case in 2013, when the​ ​German government pledged​ to reduce the amount of arms export, while restricting them significantly for countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, as well as other non-NATO countries. This shift was a major blow to H&K’s reputation, and it impacted their overall earnings; the company’s net sales went down from €202 million in 2016, to €182 million the following year.

 

Winning the deal for the next standard assault rifle would not only improve chances of becoming financially healthy in the foreseeable future, it would also pave the way for​ ​H&K’s survival​, which could pay off its debt and restore its​ ​damaged reputation​. The ongoing bid for 120,000 rifles, for which Jürgen Grässlin estimates that it alone would not save H&K, but “including follow-up orders, along with additional purchases from other NATO members, […] H&K will be financially sound for the next 20-30 years”.

 

Over the years, H&K has earned its presence as a small arms manufacturer around the world, no matter the difficulties that came their way. Nevertheless, they still need to preserve their brand’s reputation. By keeping their home country’s armed forces as their main and primary client, this would only play to their advantage. As Thomas Wiegold highlighted, ”H&K has a worldwide market, of course; but to have your home country’s armed forces as a primary customer also gives the company a certain reputation”.

 

 

TOO CLOSE OF A RELATIONSHIP?

 

The relationship between H&K and its number one client, the German government, is long-standing and therefore rather close – but is it too close? Closer than would be legally or morally sound? It depends on whom you ask. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind, however, that the relationship is “pretty close”, as Thomas Wiegold puts it. Leading H&K expert and critic Jürgen Grässlin goes as far as calling the “structures working in favor of Heckler & Koch at the​ ​BMVg​” nothing less than “downright mafia-like”.

Nobody could dispute the closeness between H&K employees and officials working for the German government, namely the ministry of defense or one of its departments, like the federal procurement office. According to one of Holger Rothbauer’s clients, a former high-ranking employee at H&K, people involved in procurement of small arms for the Bundeswehr on both sides know each other very well – “It’s a familiar atmosphere”. Some officials are basically assigned to deal exclusively with H&K. Others even have changed sides over time, meaning former H&K employees have joined that department of the ministry. “There has been a little​ ​scandal​, because one employee openly complained about the wheeling and dealing there with Heckler & Koch and then got harassed so much, he quit his job”, Rothbauer remembers.

 

The invitation to tender for the Bundeswehr’s next standard assault rifle has to be pan-European by law – which is also intended to prevent corruption, as the pool of competitors is theoretically widened. However, the specified requirements to win this bid are not public. Manufacturers have to apply, be approved to partake and only then get the whole list of​ ​161​ requirements. Theoretically, all existing small arms manufacturers could join the bid. Nonetheless, Jürgen Grässlin suspects these requirements to favor a German manufacturer: “The BMVg incorporated certain requirements, basically hurdles, in the invitation to tender, for example that no parts can be made in the US.” This would automatically exclude some manufacturers who partially produce in the United States , which of course all US companies do, as well as others (“​ITAR​-free”).

 

This practice is nothing unusual and happens both ways, according to Thomas Wiegold. It is a measure of trying to stay independent from other countries, both in terms of production and the ability to export those weapons. “Do you want to send a political signal? Do you want to keep control? It’s not quite clear and in the end, you don’t know whether you really will succeed in getting a rifle which is 100% German-made without any parts and components from other countries”, assesses Wiegold. Most weapon systems in the western world are dependent on other countries.

American-German competitor​ ​SIG Sauer​ has dropped out of the bid,​ ​as has Rheinmetall​, which had teamed up with Austrian manufacturer Steyr​ ​Mannlicher. As Thomas Wiegold reported​, SIG Sauer’s CEO Franz von Stauffenberg went as far as calling it an unfair competition, “because Heckler & Koch is the only company contesting which has the necessary amount of NATO ammunition to test all the specimens of new weapons, according to the requirements of the Bundeswehr”, Wiegold recalls. Steyr Mannlicher does not have enough ammunition either, although nobody wants to talk about why they dropped out, he told us. This is not H&K’s fault, but it certainly boosts their chances, as they are the only serious German contestant left.

 

 

SO WHAT?

 

H&K and the BMVg have a lot to gain from their relationship, otherwise they would maintain it despite all the controversies that it raises. But that is not the point. What matters is that such a connection remains beneficial for the citizens of a democratic state. If different arms manufacturers had a more concrete chance of getting the deal, they would probably invest into trying to win the bid. More competition could yield a better rifle at a lower price.

 

Money aside, pacifists warn that the more weapons are sold, the more people will be killed. In reality, this correlation may be more complex than it seems, yet a close relationship between the German government and a privately owned arms manufacturer remains controversial. H&K’s interests may fall even within those of the government, but the marketing-driven logic of a private gun manufactuerer is ultimately at odds with the values of a democratic country. Transparent processes, independent decision making, and the availability of alternatives are fundamental to guarantee the correct functioning of public offices, namely to serve the interest of the many against private gains.

 

Christian Caurla

Dalia Gazah

Jonathan Walker

Lorenzo Cervantes

Mutwakil Omran

 

Due to “the small size of their press office” that is currently “dealing with a high number of press enquiries”, Heckler & Koch declined to comment. The Ministry of Defense was also unavailable for comment at the time of our investigation.

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WHY COMEDIANS GO INTO POLITICS?

The perspective of German comedian Nico Semsrott sheds a light on the crisis of the German left.

His worn out black sneakers foot-tap on the creaky wood floor of the Mehringhof Theater’s backstage in Kreuzberg. The tiny place is furnished with two old leather sofas, a small fridge and no desk. Up on the wall, a modern-looking clock from Ikea sings out of tune in the otherwise vintage room. Its regular ticking punctuates the murmur of some two hundred people waiting for him. Nico Semsrott, a German stand-up comedian and slam poet, sits with his notes on his knees, trying for the last time to memorize all the jokes he has prepared for the night. He glances up at the clock, in seven minutes he walks in. He folds the notes back in his pocket and wends his way to the stage.

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If you were to observe a professional public speaker such as a comedian or a politician before a performance, you would likely see them engaging in a series of basic warm-up exercises. They are fundamental to “place the voice in the mask” and to loosen the muscles. Not Nico. He simply stands behind the black curtains cleaning his thin squared glasses. Even more surprising, since Nico is both a comedian and a politician. And he is in good company. Many other entertainers like him animate today’s politics. The party founded by former comedian Beppe Grillo vies for power after Italian election. Jan Böhmermann’s “poem” on Erdogan caused a political crisis between Germany and Turkey. Russell Brand campaigned for the labor party in the UK’s last elections. But why are comedians going into politics? “Because politicians are going into satire”, explains Nico with a smile “this is one of the jokes I forgot to use tonight”.

 

Semsrott’s party shocked German public opinion with controversial posters reading: “a Nazi could be hanging here”. They raised public funding by selling money. They snuck into thirty one Facebook groups followed by AfD’s supporters and kicked out the administrators shortly before the elections. Their program includes re-erecting the Berlin wall, and their leader, Martin Sonneborn, now sits in the European Parliament. In a country famous for its political stability and which just opted for a second consecutive edition of a “große koalition”, such initiatives are even more surprising. But in an age of hardening political divisions, the use of satire for political purposes should not come as a surprise. “Irony describes a kind of antidote to firmly ideological thinking”, says Matthew Stratton, author of The Politics of Irony in American Modernism, who has long studied the interaction between these two fields. Not only is political satire one of the most popular genres in the field, but the linguistic devices typically mastered by comedians can be employed in politics.

 

Perhaps we’re in a period that needs to control politics by means other than the ‘fourth estate’. And since irony functions by implying the opposite of what it says, it can also be used to put politicians on the front line, hence becoming a powerful weapon in the protesters’ arsenal. As a result, comedians often do a better job than journalists in covering ideologically oriented statements. “Journalism has its rules, and for a reason. But the engagement of satire can be beneficial for the system” Paul Hockenos, a Berlin-based journalist and political analyst, defends the profession’s role, but agrees that the newsrooms’ tendency to look for scoops as a mean of reaching bigger audiences can promote fake news and defeat the purpose of informing the public opinion. Comedians, on the other side, can just call bullshit and make fun of it.

 

Moreover, irony can even become a form of political rebellion. “The underlying idea behind improvisation is that the truth is funny”, explains Noah Telson, founder of Comedy Café Berlin, a major hub for improvisers in the city. He was a politically engaged teenager who grew up in New York State and spent much of his time in marches and protests against the war during the Bush administration. He then moved to theatre and tried to merge these two interests. “I am an improviser, but there is something political about it. If you break down how ‘improv’ works, it’s built on the same premises as political rebellion. It’s an exercise in subversive behavior. It’s all about taking an idea and flipping it on its head to show how false or ridiculous it actually is.”

 

Nico Semsrott’s performances confirm this theory. Many of his jokes are intended to mock the German far right. He bases them on true events that he reads in the newspapers or chooses from his life. Every year he adds 20 to 30 minutes. This time he is also including a slideshow. But PowerPoint is famous for working fine only until you need it. After one last intimidating glance at the VGA cable connecting his old, dusty laptop to the projector, stiff and wary, on the alert for banana skins, Nico goes on stage.

A big round of applause welcomes him. Against the white screen behind him, Nico looks like a black ink sketch quickly made in illustrator by Wes Anderson’s storyboarders. Everything is perfectly symmetrical. He hardly moves. His arms hang along his body, like puppets that softly dangle at the slightest vibration of his voice. Dipped in the flat tone of the speech, the audience sits on the edge of the chair, eyes wide open, looking out for hidden jokes. Around the hall, a dozen posters reflect the green light of the emergency exit signal in an otherwise pitch-dark room. It may look improvised, but Nico knows exactly where he is going and plays with his audience like a musician with his instrument. He has been in the business of confronting politicians for a long time. But only recently did he enter politics. Why?

 

“Because I am a disillusioned social democrats”, explains Nico. “I don’t feel represented by the SPD because they work against the poor and the young. Schröder did the most horrible things to the social system.” The relative decline of the social democrats in a country with a relatively healthy political and economic situation is intriguing, but it also offers a unique perspective on the reasons behind the political disillusionment that is driving comedians into politics. It is tempting to see irony as an inherently progressive tool that comes in handy when going against populism. After all, there is no such a thing as a conservative John Stewart, and ironic posts are killing it on Facebook. But Stratton dismisses such a debate as a timeworn academic ritual of linguistic experts. “Can irony be used to dismiss populism? Sure. Can irony be used to generate and support populism? Sure. In the American context the so-called alt-right has generated a great deal of online enthusiasm for its tenets through a kind of ironic distancing from certain narratives as a means of embracing them. For example, promulgating openly racist memes but defending their use as ironic or humorous.”

 

Moreover, ironic statements don’t offer any practical answer. For example, the Die Partie manifesto pledges to “further complicate the German tax system so that large companies can no longer find money-saving loopholes”. Therefore, It is clear that its use cannot represent a solution. “It’s not good for the discussion. It’s not good for the debate – admits Nico – but that’s not the point. It’s a reaction.” Although Die Partie doesn’t have a significant political weight yet, their growth is noteworthy. Disillusioned by the SPD and scared by the rise of the right, they represent a stress indicator of the left. “There should always be serious politicians, but perhaps the situation is so desperate that I will be drawn more and more into politics”.  Nico speaks hesitantly; his eyes wander around the ceiling looking for the right words. His statements are obscure and dense in meaning, a mongrel mouthful of rage and hope. “This is my enemy: the radicalization and simplification of every aspect of our life. The whole social media works on yes and no – thumbs up or down. But there is so much more! Irony unveils the ambivalence. It’s the tool of the powerless. An act of defense. A call for help.”

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A VERY UNPREDICTABLE PAST

100 years after the Revolution, a revisited analysis of the fall of the Soviet Union can explain the reemergence of a totalitarian Russia

Inspired by the greatest aspirations of humankind, the Russian Revolution produced one of the cruelest regimes in history. The euphoria sparked by its sudden collapse suggested a decisive win for democracy that some notable scholars even identified with the end of History. But just as the dreams that animated the Revolution have not vanished, so the ghost of tyranny still haunts Russia. In many ways, a close examination of the end of the last European empire can help understand the reemergence of totalitarianism.

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As Boris Kolonitsky has put it, Russia has “a very unpredictable past” that still casts a deep shadow on today’s society. Compare Moscow Red Square on August 20, 1991, with the same plaza last November 7, 2017, on the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In the first case, tens of thousands of ordinary Muscovites stranded in front of Soviet tanks ready to die for democratic principles. They contributed to stop the August Coup, an attempt by high-level Soviet officials to take control of the country from Soviet President and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Eighteen years later that plaza is almost empty. But although the celebrations for the anniversary of the Revolution were kept at a minimum level, today’s Russia bares many resemblances with the old authoritarian regime.

Just as most sovietologists failed to predict the collapse of the USSR, so the euphoria that this event generated runs counter with the reemergence of totalitarianism in Russia. As a result, the discipline has been through “regular bouts of soul-searching” that have made it the subject of a vast intellectual dissection. While some experts put an emphasis on the impact brought by Regan’s policies, others preferred to focus on internal factors, such as the unresolved national identity issue, the contradictions implicit in the regime’s ideology or its economic problems. Although all of these reasons offer valuable explanations to the fall of the empire, they fail to account for the return of a totalitarian Russia. A more complete analysis needs to take into consideration the political and economical reforms known as perestroika. While their introduction was a major cause for the fall of the Soviet Empire, their insufficient pursuit accounts for the reemergence of tyranny in Russia.

 

 

Achievements of the Soviet Union

 

The Soviet Union’s economic achievements are impressive in their own terms. The 40-year long antagonism between the US and the USSR that trapped the world into a doomsday nightmare “has created an environment in which the social and political system of the major adversaries have been stereotyped in the popular imagination” as sovietologist David Lane put it. But besides the suspect and fear with which the USSR has been regarded, it also sparked interest and outright admiration in the West. As Lane points out, “rather than hostility, there has always been ambivalence to the Soviet Union”. George Orwell’s dystopia 1984 only offers a partial symbol of its imagery in the eyes of a Western citizen; Aldous Huxley’s utopia Brave New World depicts a different perception of communism that was also popular at the time.

Over the course of few years, Russia moved from a backward country to a world superpower. In the Tsar era, its immense land-mass and large population had granted the country a role on the world stage, but its underdeveloped economy had condemned it to a weak relation to the world’s dominant powers. At the end of World War 2, just 28 years after the Revolution, the Soviet Union was one pole of a bipolar world. It was the second country to develop the atomic bomb and the first to launch a satellite into space. It was leader in many areas of science and technology. Its athletes and artists were among the most appreciated in the world and its citizens enjoyed rights they never had before. The USSR granted free access to education, full employment, and since 1918 it also became the first country where the right to health became a constitutional right. Moreover, despite the rapid industrialization achieved, working conditions significantly improved. The number of hours worked per week fell from 47.8 in 1955 to 40.5 in 1985, while the number of holidays rose from 18.5 in 1958 to 22 in 1983.

 

 

“They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”

 

All these achievements were possible only due to the constant economic development of the Soviet Union, but after sixty years of stable growth, the pace of the economy slowed. The set in of stagnation in the Soviet Union has been at the center of a large debate. The most appointed causes include decreasing work performance and labor discipline; wrong policies in key sectors such as oil-production and rail-transportation; indirect effects of the West’s economic slow-down after 1973; and Ronal Regan bolstering US defense which induced the USSR to overstep in military spending – a mechanism known as security dilemma Although all these factors played a role, especially relevant for the interest of this paper is Aslund’s analysis on the structural flaws of the Soviet’s economy, as they help explain why Gorbachev’s attempt to reform it failed.

According to the prominent Russian scholar Anders Aslund, the planned economic system allowed the country to achieve rapid industrialization and militarization, but crippled the system in the long run. As even the US National Security Council conceded, the communist model had proven ability to carry backward countries speedily through the crisis of industrialization. But although the system was suited to transform a backward country into Stalin’s war machine, it failed to equip it for the challenges of the modernization it achieved.

One of the main features of the communist model was the centralized allocation of all resources, which proved particularly efficient in quickly redirecting supplies. Stalin embraced the idea of unbalanced growth and systematically allocated disproportionate resources to strategic industries. Consequently, the Soviet Union boasted a strong steel industry, immense military spending and high-level scientific research, but lacked in entrepreneurship, service economy, efficient retail distribution and advanced agricultural techniques. This produced serious distortions in the economy. Furthermore, the rise of information technology seriously challenged the rigid centralized system because “its hierarchical command structure could not handle small enterprises or entrepreneurship, which new technology required”, according to Aslund.

Another fundamental problem of the communist regime was its poor labor performance. Its elite structure, as well as the regime of terror it employed, granted the Soviet leaders strong control at the expense of competence. As 1969 Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik noted, because work performance was subordinated to obedience in the Soviet promotion system, “officials were more prone to promote those less competent than themselves”, explains Aslund. Moreover, since all the resources were directed to boost industrial growth and to cover military expenditure, wages and private consumption were held back, leaving workers without any incentive to work more. The state-elite failed to reckon with the development of their own people. The same system that granted full employment also encouraged waste and low productivity. A saying developed “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.

 

 

From Uskoreniye to Perestroika

 

The socialist model of economy kept bringing growth to the Soviet Union until its dismantle. Although official Soviet statistics were always believed to be tweaked upwards, its economic growth is uncontroversial. Even according to Western estimates, from 1950 to 1977 the gross national product of the regime incremented on a more or less steady pace of 4.83 per cent, constantly higher than that of the United States. Only from 1975 the economy entered a slow-down period. From 1975 to 1980 the Soviet Union’s economy grew 2.6 percent; from 1980 to 1985 it grew 1.8 percent. Although worrisome, this data alone failed to explain the urge for a radical reform of the system. As Kangaspuro, Nikula and Stodolsky point out in a prominent study of the Soviet empire, “the Soviet Union had passed through several more serious crises in its history including World War 2, forced collectivization and the Stalinist purges”. The period of stagnation did not endanger the survival of the society, but it weakened its position in the Cold War bipolar system. In this context, the Soviet Union was still behind the US economy, “and hence it was particularly sensitive to any trend that had negative consequences on its ability to keep up with the leading power”, they highlight.

From the very beginning the race with the West was set in economic terms. Rather than their differences, stressing the similarities between capitalism and communism can shed a light on the dynamics of the competition that pushed the reforms. Both the systems aimed at achieving material prosperity. Although, socialist theoreticians envisioned a form of society superior to the class-ridden imperialist powers they always maintained that an economic system must ultimately be judged by how effective it was at advancing living standards. Therefore, growing rates were essential to prove communism’s superiority (and to sustain the immense defense burden). When the expectations generated in the 1960s were not fulfilled and the gap with their rival stopped shrinking and started widening, the long ignored problems of the system loomed even larger. As scholar Michael Dobbs noted, “the durability of communism and the speed with which it collapsed were two sides of the same coin”.

Gorbachev’s reforms did not start with an attempt to reconstruct the system, but rather to improve it. The dominant concept in 1985-1986 was uskoreniye (acceleration). His stated goal was to strengthen and rationalize the Soviet economy in order to secure its dominant role in the world. Only when these policies obtained little success did Gorbachev decide to push further the renewal with a series of policy reforms known as perestroika (reconstruction). But rather than in economics, the first significant changes happened in the realm of culture and freedom of thought thanks to a new “openness” in the public debate known as glasnost.

 

 

Glasnost

        

Just as Lenin ignored the results of the election for the constituent assembly in 1928 on the grounds that the interests of the revolution stood higher than ‘bourgeois democracy’, so did he then profess the duty to “escape from the freedom of a press dependent on capital”. Soviet mass media were expected to perform goal-oriented communication that would serve as a tool in the hands of the Bolshevik Party’s effort to create a new world order. As the revolutionary dissident Victor Serge noted, “every revolutionary government is by its very nature conservative and retrograde. When Stalin came to power he inherited the tradition of manipulating human memory, and came closest to perfecting it. The Kremlin propaganda machine created a fiction to weave into the vast fabric of ideology and official history that sustained the regime and its empire. It took history so seriously that it created a massive bureaucracy to control it. Two institutions served this goal: the Central Committee’s Department of Agitation and Propaganda, or Agitrop, whose goal was to spread an explicitly political message to the public; and the Glavit, which functioned as the censorship agency.

When Gorbachev declared that “the time had come to fill in the ‘blank spots’ of history” he had not lost faith in what he called “the rightness of the socialist cause”, nor did he plan to abolish this control system. Besides, although he regarded the democratization of the institution as an end in itself, glasnost was also instrumental to achieve the economic reform. Gorbachev believed that perestroika could not succeed if the population remained passive and fearful. He hoped to mobilize the social energy to overcome the natural resistance to significant change and gain support against the skepticism in the Party. But glasnost was a double-edged sword.

As noted by journalist David Remnick, a clear pattern guided the unfolding of events: “once the regime eased up enough to permit a full scale examination of Soviet past, radical change was inevitable”. Long banned books, novels and movies uncovered the crimes of the regime. The horror of the gulags was unveiled, Stalin was compared to Hitler on national television, and the Friendship of the Peoples proved to be based on dominance and mass murder. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact shocked the people of the Baltic States, and the Polish learned the truth about the massacres in the forests of Kalinin, Katyn and Starobelsk. As “the lion of history roared in”, wrote Remnick, it became clear that Gorbachev’s conviction that “the nationalities issue has been resolved in our country” was the party’s most suicidal illusion.

Although glasnost played a decisive role in bringing the empire to its knees, the collapse of the Soviet Union does not coincide with a Russian vergangenheitsbewältigung. As philosopher Grigory Pomerants explained, “the entre country [was] in a state of mass disorientation”. The nearly unbearable shock caused by glasnost unleashed “a fearful sense that the country had lost its way and was sprinting hell-bent for oblivion” says Remnick. Under the avalanche of history, many preferred to escape the pain of remembering.

Angela Stent, one of today’s most influential sovietologists, compares Russia’s effort to come to terms with its past to that undertaken by post-Nazi Germany. According to Stent, the cultivation of historical thought requires time and patience because “centuries of empire [leaves] a far-reaching psychological legacy that cannot be discarded overnight”. Both the countries had to undertake this process, but whereas Germany could count on a net of strong international relationships that tied it to a democratic system and to a long period of stable economic growth, after the fall of the regime, Russia faced isolation and decline. Glasnost ended with the collapse of the USSR, when the transition to a capitalist system sparked the growth of a significant opposition movement; too early to allow for a ruthless assessment of the past.

 

 

Perestroika

 

Perestroika broke the ideological shell of the Soviet Union. From a theoretical point of view, it benefited from broad support. As Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s chief adviser on reform, put it, “the ideas contained in perestroika are so high that is practically impossible to speak against them”. But although it was a shared opinion that the system designed during the Stalin period was no longer appropriate, the embracement of open-market policies was raising some eyebrows. Gorbachev was accused to sit between two stools. On one side he was maintaining some of the traditional rhetoric of Marxism-Leninism by repeatedly declaring the superiority of communism to capitalism. But on the other, the tenor of his reforms had been imprinted from the western model. Eventually, the ideological clash became obvious and the old rhetoric was delegitimized.

The reforms contradicted socialism’s claim of superiority. The opening towards capitalism-style policies “legitimized not only the market economy but also democracy and international contacts”, says Aslund. Contrary to opinion, “real socialism was no social welfare state”, and when the superior living standards of western citizens became clear, the mood in the country stirred in favor of market economy and privatization. A country that had been concerned for a long time with the export of the Revolution suddenly worried about the import of a Western economy. As author Michael Dobbs put it, many “faced the question: why drive a Volga when you could be driving a Mercedes?”. But few understood that in the short run the transition would have brought to the Soviet Union “the inefficiencies associated with both the market and the plan” explains Lane. Seventy years of communism nurtured a people accustomed to a different set of values than those of a western citizen, as well as an economic system incompatible with capitalism.

From a cultural point of view, communism disregarded individualistic values such as independence and self-reliance. A people accustomed to enjoy full employment, universal welfare and free education are unlikely to give their wholehearted support to the sort of neo-liberal economic model now being pushed by Western advisers. And although “markets under capitalism may generate wealth, they do not fulfill other forms of well-being: loyalty, friendship, community, love, cultural services, and public provision in general” continues Lane. Consequently, just three years after the fall of the USSR, when the economy went from stagnation to detraction, the general opinion was reversed in favor of a planned system.

From a macro-economic point of view, the nationalization of all properties, the annihilation of the civil society and the elimination of a market economy were poison pills left behind by the communists to make sure that their destruction of capitalism was irreversible. In order to achieve this, the transition had to be completed thoroughly and rapidly. A simple observation confirms this theory: among the ex-USSR countries, only those that acted early and in a radical fashion (e.g. Poland and Hungary) have moved to a solid democratic state and a fully functional market economy. Where the reforms have been brought forward gradually or partially they have either led to a reestablishment of state despotism (e.g. Belarus and Turkmenistan) or to a rent-seeking state (e.g. Russia and Ukraine). The slower the reform process was, the more time rent-seekers had to exploit the opportunities arisen from the transition and to invest their return in politics to perpetuate their rents. Gradual reforms amounted to partial reforms.

 

 

An accent of hope

 

The Soviet Union succeeded in its ambition of creating a different society. It achieved rapid industrialization, a significant improvement in living standards and contended the US for world dominance. But the same features that granted its rapid growth for over sixty years eventually petrified the system and led to its stagnation. Soviet leaders decided that a change was needed in order to keep up the economic, technological and military race with the West. After the failure of a first round of limited economic reforms, Gorbachev decided to implement a more radical reconstruction of the system. In order to overcome the resistances in its own party, he lifted some of the restrictions imposed by the Kremlin’s rigid control system. While this triggered an open debate and a radical assessment of the regime’s crimes, it also decreased Gorbachev’s power. The introduction of western-style economic reforms further delegitimized the communist rule and worsened the economy. While glasnost and perestroika contributed to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, their insufficient pursuit also account for the reemergence of tyranny in Russia.

The vast dissertation around the causes for failure of the Soviet Union show that the debate is still open to more interpretation on what produced its ultimate collapse. My analysis did not aim at formulating a new theory, but rather at using existing findings to stress the role played by Gorbachev’s reforms. The results of this paper also further consolidate the link between the causes for failure of the regime and the resurgence of tyranny in Russia. This paper also does not provide a formal assessment of data related to the impact of perestroika, but rather rely on the authoritative reports of other scholars. This approach had the advantage of bringing together different perspectives on the collapse of the Soviet Union, while maintaining a precise angle on the examination. For example, rather than the differences between the two systems, this analysis stressed the importance of their similarities for understanding what pushed the Soviet leaders towards western-style economic reforms.

The Russian Revolution defined much of the 20th century. The collapse of the empire it produced is so significant that it prompts a philosophical essay of history itself. From one side, the corruption by Soviet practice of the Revolution’s dreams, as well as the resurgence of tyranny after the democratic protests in the August days, reminds one of Hegel’s prophecy: “the one thing we learn from history is that no one learns anything from history”. On the other, Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” stresses the importance of a retentive assessment of history for human progress. The insufficient pursuit of perestroika and glasnost explains the reemergence of tyranny. But the role they played in bringing down one of the cruelest regimes in human history and the democratic movements they triggered can leave Russian observers with an accent of hope.

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A SELF-DECEPTED TEENAGER AT THE END OF THE WEST

An occasionally ostentatious, but always honest memoir

I was twenty-one then, drained in my bed at 7:43 am as the alarm sounded from across the room, inside the cupboard, on the highest shelf – a strategy I adopted to force myself to wake up. Three minutes to stop the loud buzzing sound, eight to shower, three to heat up three slices of toast and squeeze two oranges while listening to the news. Six minutes to enjoy breakfast so I could start studying at 8 am. Last weeks before my graduation date – feeling like an octopus on roller skates.

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Still on my bad, the alarm still buzzing, eyes wide open as if the sound had pulled me back from the underworld, I grabbed my phone. A long message from Natalie. Quite too long actually. Sent at 3 am, not a good sign. I scanned through it trying to understand what happened. She was rambling, but the meaning was clear. I stopped the alarm: I was awake.

Out of my window, Viale Monza was already congested. Clerks’ cars and Supermarket’s trucks were stirring up the pollution and fog of another grey day in Milan. Soon it would have rained. I dropped my phone, ignored my schedule, and went out jogging. The constant pace of my steps, the rhythmic sound of my breath, and the refreshing rain weaved my thoughts with an illusion of peace and progress. Natalie betrayed and left me. Tough luck. I had things do to, I would have not slowed down. I would have graduated, become a movie director, and then forgot about her too.

Looking back, I see that those are the days that reshaped my character. Teenagers break their hearts easily, like they didn’t care. But the first time it hits them they become more careful, and this moderates their idealism. Thank God I was proud enough to remain half-blinded! People forget how important self-deception is. Lonely and confused, I would have never kept running without some lies. Natalie might have had my heart, I kept telling myself, but never an answer to all those messages that she never sent.

 

Meanwhile, the next weeks – the busiest of my life – would have been a marathon on Ramadan. Besides finishing my thesis, in order to graduate in time I had to pass four exams – one every month – and to get to a proficient level in Spanish from scratch. Despite my strong motivation, something kept me from fully dedicate myself to my studies. I would spend hours scrolling through old pictures. One especially was often calling my attention.

Riccione 2010, the slightly sulfuric smell of the seashore mixed with that of fried fish from the canopies. Flip flops, a volleyball, and nine friends at the beach looking at the camera they auto timed at ten seconds to have a photo of all of them together – that’s how you did it before the selfie era. Looking at that picture three years later helped me forget about the cold and humid temperatures of Milan. But it also made me a bit nostalgic. That was our last holiday all together, right before we started university. Interestingly, it was also the summer before the financial crisis hit the Italian market, suddenly turning us into the perfect candidates for the so-called “thousand-euro generation” club. No registry needed to be part of this group; the trouble was in fact to leave it.

As youth unemployment reached fifty percent, TV and newspapers started to tell the plights of overqualified Italians living hand to mouth on just one thousand euro a month. They called us the “the lost generation”. So arrogant, I thought. Speak for yourself, I am not lost at all. In fact, I plan to leave this country altogether. I have a fresh degree and a few hundred euros saved from my bartending, that shall be enough to buy myself a good airline ticket and an opportunity elsewhere.

I starred at the picture for a few more seconds, wondering why all my friends were still here. We all grew up together, but I was always the most unsettled. I scrolled down before closing the laptop and posed my eyes on the capture under the photo. It simply read: “Us”.

 

 

One year later, after I finally managed to finish my university, I was looking at the same picture from a computer screen in Los Angeles. Shortly after my graduation I found an internship in an American postproduction company. After six months the internship turned into a job, and after a year my company filed the application to give me a permanent working Visa in the US. It looked like my hard work had finally bought me an exit ticket from the infamous “one-thousand generation” club. Then my phone rang; the boss wanted to see me.

“It’s not easy to say this. But I want you to know that we did everything we could.”

I never liked Michelle’s office. It was too dark. It had no window and three sides of the room’s wall were painted on a dark brown color. On the forth side was a glass wall with a glass door. Why the human resources office resembled so much an interrogation room is something that never occurred to me. Shoulders against the glass, looking at the big blond woman through the diffused light of her lamp desk, I felt observed and guilty.

“Teddy, come here!” Polina, my landlady, came back home from work with her big black dog just after I finished dinner, and found me sitting on the table, dangling my legs for who knows how long. Teddy brought me over a gigantic tree branch it had been resolutely dragging all the way from the park to play with me, but I wasn’t in the mood for engaging activities.

“How was your day?” Asked me Polina while she was spreading some butter on a piece of bread.

“’Alright. Or maybe a bit weird.”

“Why?”

“They told me I can’t stay.”

“What?” She asked alarmed raising her thin long Russian eyebrows.

“The deadline for sending my Visa application was yesterday. My company was paying a lawyer to file all the documents, but only today they found out that his office was shut down for I don’t know which fraud. The trouble is that he just didn’t send the documents.”

“Seriously? And what happens now?”

“I have sixty days to leave the US.”

Polina offered to go through all the legal technicalities try to find a loophole. I gently declined.

“How do you feel?”

“I honestly don’t feel anything. I guess it will hit me later.”

The day after I was still fine. Two days after I felt the obligation of acting angry at my boss. As days went by, I also tried to be sad or disillusioned, but to this day I still don’t regret it.

 

 

Thinking about it, my experience in the land of opportunity was doomed from the start. I had the first hint about it when my company asked me to open an American bank account to which they could transfer my tiny salary. Not that I had any bureaucratic issue. I drove to the closest mall, walked into a certain Chase bank, and ten minutes later I was already done. The unpleasant déjà vu hit me while I was unwrapping my new credit card. Still on the driveway, reaching on my pocket for the keys, I turned the envelope and there I read it: “Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.”

He cut his credit card in half, tore up his documents, and burned his money. He had terrible adventures in remote places, left profound memories in every person he met, and hitchhiked his way up to Alaska, where he died for food poisoning. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young Californian of a privileged upbringing, who, only a few days after graduating with full marks from Emory University, got rid of all his possessions, donated his saving to charity, and he started to travel. On the road. The world remembers him because his story became a bestseller book and a movie that captured the young generation’s desire for a big sod off to the modern capitalist world.

Looking at my shiny credit card, I wondered what my personal hero would have thought about me. How could I open an account in the same bank that caused the 2008 financial crisis that almost bankrupted my country? I put the credit card in my wallet and drove back to the office trying to not think about it.

 

 

Pennette Vodka and Salmone, some weed on a colorful glass pipe, sex on the sofa, with her two small dogs looking at us, then some pennette again. For a while, the discussion buzzed this way and that, incoherent, confused, like a wasp caught between a double-panned window. Then she suddenly said: “I think you should stop laughing and start taking me seriously”.

“What do you mean?”

“I am serious, it’s something that I am willing to do.”

Monica was a friend of a friend. I only saw her three times in my life, but things moved pretty quickly between us: that night she asked me to marry her. Quite some chutzpah for someone I just met! All I knew about her is that she was a thirty-something psychologist from Hungary, who moved to America to study and temporarily married a friend to get a Visa. I guessed she liked me, but her offer to marry me, and to give me the same opportunity that she enjoyed, had more to do with her past than with me. Funny how psychologists can never solve their psychosis.

“Well, thanks for the offer,” I finally said, feeling like a fish out of water, “but I don’t know if I want to stay.” A pause of dramatic silence. “I don’t care. I did everything I could, I played by the rules, and now I am not so interested anymore.”

My relationship with Los Angeles ended that day, stoned on a couch in Sherman Oaks, busy turning down nicely a marriage offer from a friend I hardly knew. I felt like Los Angeles was being quite a bitch with me, like in one of those toxic relationships that don’t want to finish. First, the city dumps me like it didn’t matter, and then it has second thoughts and it presents me with the opportunity to get together again. But it was too late. After thirteen months spent killing myself to fit in that city, I was now feeling liberated.

 

 

The morning after, on my way back from Monica’s place, I noticed a group of people protesting against the use of public sprinklers. Too few millimeters of water in too many days: this was everyday news in Los Angeles 2014; officials were even advising to skip showers whenever possible. California was drying out, and I didn’t care. Old, rusty and with holes on its roof, my car wasn’t made for rain – I only paid it 800 dollars anyway. True, I never enjoyed driving around on forty-plus degrees without AC, but at least at home, I was fine. The big Eucalyptus in the middle of my backyard further contributed to my alienation from everyone else’s problems.

It was a big old tree that stood gorgeous right next to Hollywood Boulevard, the last of its kind in this city. Its big leaves overshadowed the house and kept it cool all year long. A few years back, my landlady Polina considered selling her house. Inspectors came over and gave her a generous offer, but when they told her that they would have had to turn down the three in order to construct a new apartment building, she immediately changed her mind. Polina was a constant source of inspiration for me. She was a beautiful and strong Russian woman who lived in the US for most of her life, but who disliked both the Russians and the Americans. An ex-model, photographer, and film producer, she was now working as an acupuncturist.

Next door was living my colleague Jeremy, a forty-something New York Jewish with a past as the guitar player of a rock band, and a difficult present as a constantly broke motion graphic artist. His personality was the unbalanced mix of strong social values, a bright mind, and absolutely no filter. He loved to complain about ‘merica to whoever would listen, but never superficially, always with the passion of a betrayed lover.

The first time I walked into the office he said: “Jesus, now they send the interns in the graphics department too?”. Fast forward 3 months and he is ordering a round of Don Julio Tequila after another sixteen-hours working day together.

“This is the best around, you know?” He said.

“Not really, I don’t like Tequila.”

“Of course, because you only buy shitty cheap shots. Do they even pay you at the office?”

“Mark gives me one hundred bucks a week off the books”, I said.

“Can you bring home the bacon with that?”

“Dude, it’s LA, of course I can’t. I have been eating salad and rise for the last five months.”

“Motherfuckers!” he cursed downing the shot of tequila with a wince. “But why do you work so much then?”

“I don’t really know. I guess I want this job.”

“Jesus. Let’s have a second round. Put away that money, kid, I pay.”

 

Jeremy was right, good tequila is a different kettle of fish. I miss talking with him, waiting for him to prepare his morning espresso, and driving to work together. I miss Teddy, my landlady’s giant black dog who sounded like a dragon but behaved like a poppy. My rollerblades, because only in Los Angeles people don’t look at you weirdly when you use them. A ten dollar haircut at Supercuts every two weeks. Rock climbing with my friend Josh. My license plate, all I had left of my beloved Ford Escort 1991 after the car accident. Premiere Pro, the buggy editing software on which I spent most of my days. Nivea Baby Cream to fight California’s ridiculously dry weather. Broccoli, swordfish, and dark chocolate – in this order. Catie’s big blue eyes. I even miss the second time I shaved my hair – also the second time I immediately regretted doing it. I miss the abandoned couches that people leave on Los Angeles’ streets. They look so lonely and amiss, like solitary children who got too old too quickly. But most importantly, I miss cheap Oreos for breakfast.

 

And Oreos it was again, this time for lunch, in a gas station just next Route 101. Then off again on the potholed highway surrounded by dried shrubs and fat cactus. Hands on the driving wheel in brown leather, windows open, the salty breeze from the ocean. And then the crash, the exhaust system rattling off, and the awful smell of something burning.

That Saturday I was coming back from the last shooting for my company after another seventy-hours working week. I was dead tired, I had five cookies for lunch and I was driving on forty degrees without AC. I don’t know if I passed out or if I simply fell asleep, all I remember is that I hit the BMW in front of me at sixty miles per hour. That woke me up. I crumbled out of my car with a big bruise on my chest. The guy in front of me was fine but wanted to call an ambulance for me. I refused because my insurance did not cover the 500-dollar bill. We exchanged the details, he drove away, and I called a friend to pick me up. That’s when I noticed that the radio in my car was still on. My favorite song.

 

“I was scared of dentists and the dark/ I was scared of pretty girls and starting conversations.”

 

While the proudly emptiest song ever written hypnotized the world with the uncompromising superficiality of its invented world – gangam – and the perverted ex-Disney alumni Miley Cyrus swung naked on a wrecking ball, I came up with a theory. By applying the Pareto principle to the world, I reached the conclusion that eighty percent of the people were stupid. I know, quite optimistic.

No thanks, only an ukulele for me. Vance Joy’s Riptide was all I needed. A stream of consciousness that accumulates mysterious details; a series of small, personal facts a million times more complex than Beyoncé’s best make up. To be sure, I was crazy too, but in a different way. After that car accident I had trouble breathing for more than two months, but that did not stop me from saving the 500 bucks on the ambulance to produce my own movie.

 

 

As soon as I recovered from the accident I went to Malibu beach, my favorite spot in California, for a last day at the ocean. Two miles are a long way if you are running on the beach; all those little muscles in the palms of your feet work overtime in the sand. That’s why I learned to leave my old Ford Escort not farther than one mile from Point Mugu, Hollywood B-movies most photographed cliff that marks the western end of the Malibu Coast. Accustomed as I was to go jogging next to the fetid waters of Milan’s canals, I never regretted moving to Los Angeles when I was at the beach.

That day I felt very well and I didn’t want to go back to my car after only one mile of running. So, once I reached Point Mugu, where the coast simply ends on a bunch of insurmountable rocks, I dug a hole next to one of the only trees in the beech, I buried my keys and my phone, and I started to swim. In my mind the plan was easy, I would have swum around the rocks and kept running on the other side. It didn’t even occur to me that the other end of the cliff could have been more than one hundred meters away. Worse yet, once you start swimming you can’t go back, or the big waves of the ocean will surely smash you against the sharp rocks of the cliff.

So there I was, dead tired off the coast of Malibu, trying to stay afloat while I am desperately looking for a solution. Then all of a sudden something slimy touched my foot. It was obviously some seaweed, but in my mind I had no doubt: there was a shark. All my fatigue disappeared and I swam like crazy until I reached the other side of the cliff.

Face on the sand, breathing heavily with my eyes closed, it took me a while to realize what a terrible smell there was. Disgusted, I opened my eyes and I saw one of the most surprising spectacles of my life. Hundreds of seals laid in front of me, sleeping on the sun or fighting for the best spot on a cliff. Clearly, very few people had been stupid enough to reach that side of the coast, making it a perfect spot for those beautiful and stinky animals. Starring at that uncontaminated spot of land with my nose pinched, I thought that this was a good summary of my experience in California. A catch 22. A hard journey that brought me to something dangerous and smelly, but also unexpected and beautiful. It was time to go back.

 

Back to where it all started, thirteen months before, when I was stuck on my desk with my red luggage next to me. Outside is windy, my dad waits for me in the car, ready to drive me to the airport where I will take a thirteen-hour flight to Los Angeles. But I just can’t move. I keep looking at that picture of a sunny day with my friends in Riccione. I know this is the last chance I have to change my mind, to say that I don’t want to go, that I want to stay here with my friends and my family. Then I click on the picture, and I realize that it’s actually a video. Someone must have pressed the wrong button so that instead of auto timing the camera to take a picture after ten seconds, it took a ten seconds video of us getting ready for a shot that never happened. And it was beautiful. Trapped in those seconds that were never supposed to be remembered, you could have a glance at what we truly were, with our real smiles and our real expressions.

I played those seconds on repeat until that constant loop lodged in my head like the most pleasant earworm. Secured in my memory, those moments would have never vanished. We would have always been there, in that beach, together, redoing the same things over and over. A place of no choices to take, no challenges to face, no dreams to follow. I closed my laptop and head over to the car.

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