One of the strategies of “totalitarian” regimes is to have legal regulations (criminal laws) so severe that, if taken literally, EVEREYONE is guilty of something, and then to withdraw from their full enforcement. In this way, the regime can appear merciful (“You see, if we wanted, we could have all of you arrested and condemned, but do not be afraid, we are lenient…”), and at the same time wield a permanent threat to discipline its subjects (“Do not play too much with us, remember that at any moment we can…”). In ex-Yugoslavia, there was the infamous Article 133 of the penal code which could always be invoked to prosecute writers and journalists – it made into a crime any text that presents falsely the achievements of the socialist revolution or that may arouse the tension and discontent among the public for the way it deals with political, social, or other topics… this last category is obviously not only infinitely plastic, but also conveniently self-relating: does the very fact that you are accused by those in power not in itself equal the fact that you “aroused the tension and discontent among the public”? In those years, I remember asking a Slovene politician how does he justify this article; he just smiled and, with a wink, told me: “Well, we have to have some tool to discipline at our will those who annoy us…” This overlapping of potential total culpabilization (whatever you are doing MAY be a crime) and mercy (the fact that you are allowed to lead your life in peace is not a proof or consequence of your innocence, but a proof of the mercy and benevolence, of the “understanding of the realities of life,” of those in power) – “totalitarian” regimes are by definition regimes of mercy, of tolerating violations of the law, since, the way they frame social life, violating the law (bribing, cheating…) is a condition of survival.
The problem during the chaotic post-Soviet years of the Yeltsin rule in Russia could be located at this level: although the legal rules were known (and largely the same as under the Soviet Union), what disintegrated was the complex network of implicit unwritten rules which sustained the entire social edifice. Say, if, in the Soviet Union, you wanted to get a better hospital treatment, a new apartment, if you had a complain against authorities, if you were summoned to a court, if you wanted your child to be accepted in a top school, if a factory manager needed raw materials not delivered on time by the state-contractors, etc.etc., everyone knew what you really had to do, whom to address, whom to bribe, what you can do and what you cannot do. After the collapse of the Soviet power, one of the most frustrating aspects of the daily existence of ordinary people was that these unwritten rules largely got blurred: people simply did not know what to do, how to react, how are you to relate to explicit legal regulations, what can you ignore, where does bribery work, etc. (One of the functions of the organized crime was to provide a kind of ersatz-legality: if you owned a small business and a customer owed you money, you turned to your mafia-protector who dealt with the problem, since the state legal system was inefficient.) The stabilization under the Putin reign mostly amounts to the newly-established transparency of these unwritten rules: now, again, people mostly know how to act in react in the complex cobweb of social interactions.
This is also how one should answer the popular and seemingly convincing reply to all those who worry about torturing prisoners suspected of terror acts: “What’s all the fuss about? The US are now only (half)openly admitting what not only they were doing all the time, but all other states are and were doing all the time – if anything, we have less hypocrisy now…” To this, one should retort with a simple counter-question: “If the high representatives of the US mean only this, why, then, are they telling us this? Why don’t they just silently go on doing it, as they did it till now?”
What is proper to human speech is the irreducible gap between the enunciated content and its act of enunciation: “You say this, but why are you telling me it openly now?” Let us imagine a wife and husband who co-exist with a tacit agreement that they can lead discreet extra-marital affairs; if, all of a sudden, the husband openly tells his wife about an ongoing affair, she will have good reasons to be in panic: “If it is just an affair, why are you telling me this? It must be something more!” The act of publicly reporting on something is never neutral, it affects the reported content itself. Or, a more standard case: we all know that a polite way to say that we found our colleague’s intervention or talk stupid and boring is to say “It was interesting.”; so, if, instead, we tell our colleague openly “It was boring and stupid’”, he would be fully justified to be surprised and to ask: “But if you found it boring and stupid, why did you not simply say that it was interesting?” The unfortunate colleague was right to take the more direct statement as involving something more, not only a comment about the quality of his paper but an attack on his very person.