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Soviet Redux

America, Don’t Succumb to Escapism

Our politics are a shambles, our people divided and distraught. But we must fight the urge to turn away from our nation’s troubles.

Sunbathers on a beach in New York City
Sunbathers on a beach in New York City on June 16

They should have seen the signs. Following years of economic upheaval, public pessimism reigned supreme. The population lost faith in its government. Their leaders seemed old and out of touch. As their political system began to fracture, citizens despaired at the possibility of real social change. Anxiety, depression, and substance abuse soared. Life expectancy at birth began to decline, an unprecedented occurrence in an industrialized country in peacetime.

To cope, Soviet citizens enduring the daily stresses of a failing state turned inward. They called it “internal emigration,” a metaphor for the imagined inner world to which ordinary people could retreat to find solace. This mental relocation took many forms, but for most Soviets, cultivating a fierce spiritual autonomy—through music, literature, poetry, art, foreign language learning, private gardening, or immersing themselves in nature—provided the only respite from the grinding indignities of an aging political bureaucracy insensitive to the needs of the populace.

Today, people in the United States find themselves in a similar position. At ages 81 and 78, the candidates for the 2024 presidential election are the oldest in U.S. history. The insider machinations—like those of a secretive Politburo—that allowed both men to lock up their party’s nominations without true democratic vetting have fueled widespread dissatisfaction.  

Trump is currently ahead in the polls. Mark Esper, Trump’s secretary of defense, has openly stated that the former president represents “a threat to democracy, democracy as we know it, our institutions, our political culture, all those things that make America great and have defined us as, you know, the oldest democracy on this planet.” After Joe Biden’s lackluster first debate performance, and the recent Supreme Court decision granting Trump immunity for official actions taken as president, a resigned ennui permeates online discourse. 

The nihilism seeping into American culture today resembles that which marked the last decade of the Soviet bloc countries. After the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, it took 18 full days before then–Premier Mikhail Gorbachev delivered a national address to explain the disturbing rumors. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S. government officials tried to cope with perceived mask shortages by telling the noble lie that masking was unnecessary. Soon after, President Trump downplayed the pandemic and falsely claimed that a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin offered protection against Covid-19. Both contexts birthed innumerable conspiracy theories.

Trump peddles the biggest conspiracy theory of all: that Democrats stole the 2020 election through massive fraud. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans believe him. This suspicion reflects a larger trend. In 2024, the Pew Research Center found that “trust in the federal government has been consistently low for the last several decades,” with only about one in five Americans saying that “they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always/most of the time.”

We also find deteriorating mental and physical health. According to Gallup, rates of depression in the United States are at an all-time high, with almost a third of adults reporting that they’ve received an official depression diagnosis in their lifetimes. In 2023, about 17.8 percent of Americans said they were currently depressed, up from 10.5 percent in 2015. Alcohol consumption has increased in recent years, partially spurred by the pandemic lockdowns. But even before 2020, U.S. life expectancy at birth had been declining since 2015, in part reflecting what the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton dubbed “deaths of despair.” These include excess deaths from alcoholism, drug overdoses, and suicide, not only for working-class white men but, increasingly, for people of color.

Americans have responded to their feelings of helplessness with their own kind of internal emigration. Frustration at the political sclerosis in Washington has turbocharged escapist trends. Romance and “romantasy” authors like Colleen Hoover and Sarah J. Maas now dominate the fiction bestsellers lists with their uplifting tales of happily-ever-after. “At a time when a lot of us are overwhelmed by outer problems that we can’t really fix, retreating to a world where the main worry is if person A and person B are going to figure out their issues in time to have a fulfilling relationship, while probably not worrying about their president starting a nuclear war, feels pretty dang good,” writes Alex Acks at Book Riot.

Witness also the ubiquitous ethos of self-care. In 2022, the global wellness economy was worth $5.6 trillion, with people losing themselves in yoga retreats, ayahuasca journeys, and mindfulness meditation. Today, millions of Americans have downloaded apps like Calm and Headspace to guide them into some sort of temporary equanimity. “The more frightening the economic outlook and the more floodwaters rise,” Laurie Penny reflects in The Baffler, “the more the public conversation is turning toward individual fulfillment as if in a desperate attempt to make us feel like we still have some control over our lives.”

Faced with a broken two-party system, growing partisan divisions, a deeply politicized Supreme Court ignoring serious charges of ethical misconduct, gerrymandered voting districts, a widely unwanted replay of the 2020 election, and the possible demise of American democracy as we know it, who wouldn’t want to lose themselves in a feel-good beach read during a vinyasa bootcamp at a spa retreat on a remote island? As the poet Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” 

But internal emigration can cultivate the habit of apathy. The very real desire to protect oneself from the pressures of an unjust system promotes disengagement and undermines our cognitive capacities for hope. More importantly, when the system unexpectedly changes, we may be unprepared to fight for a new world. 

Obviously, the challenges facing American democracy differ from those once faced by the authoritarian countries of the Soviet bloc. Talk of democratic collapse might feel like alarmist nonsense. But to those living in the old socialist countries of Eastern Europe, their political system also seemed permanent and unchangeable. My colleague, the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak, explained that for late-Soviet citizens, “Everything was forever until it was no more.” In my own extensive fieldwork in Bulgaria, many men and women born before 1989 told me they never considered that they could live under any other system than socialism.

In his satirical novel The Short End of Sonnenallee, Thomas Brussig captures a similar sentiment through the thoughts of his East German protagonist, Mario. When faced with the idea that the Berlin Wall might one day disappear, Brussig writes, “This was so outrageous to Mario, it was beyond imagining. He could never have formulated the thought that the Wall could just suddenly not be there.” 

Massive political upheavals usually follow seductive promises, and the end of the Cold War dangled the prospect of freedom and prosperity for all. It didn’t turn out that way. Instead, East Europeans suffered through an economic decline longer and deeper than the Great Depression of the 1930s. For most, it brought skyrocketing inequality, grinding poverty, and the transfer of once collectively owned property into the hands of esurient oligarchs. A popular joke in the 1990s was: “What was the worst thing about communism? The thing that came after it.” 

Those who had most successfully cultivated their inner sanctuaries found themselves incredulous at the sudden collapse and the changes that followed. Instead of helping to rebuild their liberated societies, they stood immobilized as carpetbagging outsiders, rapacious criminals, and sometimes corrupt politicians swept in to administer “shock therapy.”

With so many people locked away in their inner sanctums, the transition to democracy and free markets was accomplished quickly and in a decidedly undemocratic way. Anatoly Chubais, the Russian privatization minister between 1992 and 1994, told a Washington, D.C., audience in 1999 that his efforts to transfer public property into private hands was accomplished “Bolshevik-style,” in the face of universal public and governmental opposition. Powerful new elites steamrolled the population because people became too comfortable with the habit of apathy. 

Democracies do die. As more Americans sink into their own internal exiles, we must recall the lessons of the late twentieth century. Political systems can collapse overnight. Self-preserve as much as possible, but still stand ready to resist and shape the new world that emerges. Otherwise, we won’t be laughing in 2032 if someone repeats an old joke: “What was the worst thing about the United States? The thing that came after it.”