Never Out of Now

Earlier this week, I published a post on the Stanford University Press blog, titled ‘Russia’s Tomorrow, Today‘, summarizing some rather impressionistic thoughts from my most recent trip to Moscow. As is often the case with impressionism, the image was a bit blurred, and it has since been communicated to me by friends in and around Memorial that, at least on the face of it, the lawsuit brought against them by the Ministry of Justice may not inexorably lead to the organization’s closure; in fact, there is a good chance that it will not.

But such is the state of affairs in Russia these days that any court case or police investigation leads an observer (or, at least, this observer) to presume the worst. And, contemplating the quality of my own impressions, I returned to the original draft of the text I wrote, which was titled ‘Never Out of Now’ – a play on Timur Kuran’s seminal ‘Now Out of Never’ – and included the following passage:

There is no knowing exactly when that tomorrow will come, or how life will feel when it does, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine an alternative tomorrow.

The political scientist Timur Kuran, in puzzling through the reasons why regimes that seemed so secure and permanent – such as the communist ones in Eastern Europe – could so suddenly and unpredictably collapse, titled his seminal 1991 paper “Now Out of Never”. It is precisely the overwhelming sense that authoritarianism is changeless and immutable, that a regime can never fall, that makes the eventual fall so precipitous, Kuran wrote. When you cannot imagine a future different from the present, you never know how near you might be to tomorrow.

The problem in Russia is now reversed. It is impossible to imagine that the present can continue, and while the future seems blindingly clear, there is no telling when it will arrive. ‘Now out of never’ has become ‘never out of now’, as despair about the future paralyzes and eviscerates the present. What is the value of today, when you know exactly what tomorrow will bring?

That, perhaps, is why it seems so easy to believe that the court hearing on Nov. 17th will lead to Memorial’s closure, and why it seems to hard to believe that it won’t. Still, it’s worth believing. At least for a while.


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