Part One Are we not slaves?
I Russia's rulers behave like a government of occupation. So why do the people support them uncritically?
In recent months we have witnessed a series of actions from the Russian government that seem at first glance paradoxical. I will list some of the most important:
- for the first time since the withdrawal
of the Soviet army from Afghanistan, Russian armed forces began and ended a
"real" (not "cold") war" outside
Russia (in Georgia);
- for the first time since the collapse
of the USSR, strategic bombers and ships of the Russian armed forces and navy
have been sent to Latin America.
- the return to "cold war" rhetoric has
reached the point where the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs used obscene
expressions when talking with a foreign (British) colleague
- Russian ships stationed in Sevastopol
fought in the Black Sea against Georgia, in defiance of the Ukrainian
president's ban on deploying them without informing Ukraine;
- Prime Minister Putin played the atomic
blackmail card against the Czech Republic and Poland, using that "special" KGB way
of his, loaded and enigmatic.
- with the blatant and increasing polarisation
in the material wealth of the Russian population, the military budget has been
increased by almost 30%;
- the President of Russia welcomed the election of the new US President with a promise that he would station rockets in the Kaliningrad Oblast which would threaten America's European allies.
These things seem paradoxical. After all, we're living in a nuclear age.
None of these events fit into the contemporary picture. Yet they can all be explained unparadoxically. However, in my opinion, this explanation will be even gloomier and more alarming than the "apparent paradoxes", the reality which is, as it were, shrouded in mist.
Take a look at what is happening before our very eyes. Take a good, hard look at it - realistically, rationally, in its historical context. If you do that, you start thinking you've gone mad, or at least that you're well on the way to it.
If these thoughts seem altogether too terrifying or strange, if you're so confident of your mental state that you can dismiss them, then what you what you are feeling will be no less terrible. For you will be feeling the void enveloping you.
A government of occupation
It is not an absolute void, of course. Here and there, however rarely, you can still find people who see things more or less as you do. For me, they are like shining lights. I try to take a steer from them in the darkness.
But even then the feeling of emptiness remains. For it has more than one cause. The problem is not just the government. If this were the case, then the darkness could at least partly be dispelled by understanding - even the grimmest actions of the authorities can at least be understood. However, even once you've done that you can't dispel that feeling of emptiness, because you don't know what to do with your understanding.
If you think things through properly, if you interpret them rigorously, the government's behaviour can only really be explained as alienated from its people. It is a government of occupation, a "Golden Horde" that is illegitimate and criminal as well.
Even when you are quite sure, even when your ideas are well-founded and supported by the facts, where do you turn to with this understanding? Obvious, you would think: you turn not to the government, but to the people.
II Understanding the terrible enthusiasm of the masses
But turning to the people only makes the emptiness worse. For the emptiness is coming from there too, from those "masses" at whom the grim actions of the authorities are directed. Those "masses" are not just putting up with the actions of the authorities in silence. They have started supporting them enthusiastically, as they did in the 1930s.
What makes matters worse is that it has happened before, this enthusiastic response of the masses to being manipulated and ridden roughshod over: it happened before the First World War and immediately after it. Then, the people and the Bolsheviks were so close that it is still not clear who gave whom more support and who was directing whom. But we do more or less know what the result of this coming together was. We know that it was lasting and fatal for both sides - vis the year 1991.
At the same time, we also know that the Russian people has never regarded the state as "a friend", and the normal response to state coercion has always been cunning, wiles, and finding ways around the law. While appearing to toe the line and be submissive, the people have always kept a clenched fist in their pockets. These outward signs of submissiveness and obedience were regarded (and still are) as a predisposition for patient endurance, and this habit can, if we wish, be interpreted as the people's support for the government.
At the moment Putin and his president appear to enjoy universal support. As the slogan, doggedly and regrettably repeated in Russia goes: "The people and the government are one". What this means is that neither the government nor the people have a modern, rational understanding of what either one or the other. It is not just the government that is questionable in this respect, but the people too. They have not yet started playing an active role in their own history. They remain a mass, a crowd. It's only in the last 18-20 years that the amorphous, atomized Russian-Soviet mass has started to become structured. But alas, the result is not the development of a civil society, but of something more like criminal clans.
Some may find this concept upsetting. They'll be inclined to conclude that "with your ideas about the people, you're never going to get through to them". I understand this. That's why I say that we're facing the void here too.
Over many centuries, our people have endured sufferings which, as Karamzin put it, "you have to be villainous to endure". Hence the cunning, wiles and dual morality. But at the end of the 18th century, Karamzin was not to know that for the Russian people the greatest sufferings and the most morally corrupting consequences were yet to come.
From time to time we rose up against intolerable sufferings and the government. Once a century, with Razin, Pugachev or Lenin we celebrated our "wild freedom". Then we put our clenched fist back in our pockets and returned to our customary brutish existence.
Some people regarded these uprisings, joyfully or cynically, as an awakening. But in their sufferings, reckless protests, and savage anger, our people remained and remain a mass. A crowd that is worthy of sympathy and quiet sorrow, a crowd that is sometimes terrifying and loathsome. This is why the only people who have been able to get through to them in their usual state of unconsciousness, their permanent readiness for rebellion have been Lenin and Stalin, then Yeltsin and Putin. Who knows,perhaps in the near future someone like Zhirinovsky and Limonov may be able to do so too?
III The intelligentsia, as unfree today as in the past
The feeling of emptiness only gets worse when you try and get to grips with the views held by our creative and other intelligentsia, when you try and make out its voice and civic position.
This permits of many variations, and here and there, rarely, a few shining lights. For me, for example, one of them today is the film director Alexei German. But they are like lights in the darkness, in the biblical sense: the light either breaks through the darkness, or the darkness swallows it. This is what has happened in our history, alas, and in our time. The emptiness became even worse after the murders of Dmitry Kholodov, LarisaYudina, Galina Starovoitova, Sergei Yushenkov, Anna Politkovskaya and Magomed Evloev, after Andrei Piontkovsky was charged with "extremism" and Mikhail Beketov was brutally beaten up.
The emptiness gets even worse if you try and listen to our contemporary intellectuals not so much as individuals, but collectively, as the distinct voice of a particular "ethnos", or ethnic group. In short, our intellectuals today (except for a handful of outstanding people) are on the side of the government, not of the wider population. In my view this is the main reason why the population are still merely "the population", and have not become a "people".
If anything, the feeling of emptiness emanating from our intelligentsia gets worse when you consider the tradition of the last hundred years or more. This is something which it is not done to discuss out loud or to write about it as something that really exists and is understood down to the last detail. Thus the very problem of "the tradition of the Russian intelligentsia", vanishes into the void, enveloped in darkness.
This is not accident. This too can be explained.
IV Imperial expansion versus freedom: co-opting the elite
I'm talking about the traditional attitude to power of the Russian intelligentsia before 1917. This attitude stems from the fact that in one Russia two cultures have co-existed and confronted one another.
These two cultures were so different socially as well as spiritually that in the 18th century they even spoke different languages. So complete was the mutual incomprehension between them that throughout their history Russian intellectuals (and even the finest of our ‘liberal' Russian intelligentsia), were doing more than merely helping to build Russian power. Generally, they were on the side of the government, rather than the people.
What's more, the government they were helping to build was essentially autocratic, if not despotic. This explains why the Enlightenment has left so slight a trace on our national traditions of power.
If you look at the larger picture of Russian history, then the reasons why the Russian intelligentsia is as it is becomes far clearer. Ever since the 15th century, when Moscow started to build its Orthodox empire, the priority has been territorial expansion, without regard for the effect of this on the country's internal development. As the empire was expanding in very straitened economic conditions, the effect was of a progressive movement from freedom towards slavery: the last juice had to be squeezed out of the population by force.
This is every bit as true today. This absence of change has become an oppressive national problem, becoming a defining feature of Russianness in all its aspects, including the ascendancy of the state and the oppression of the individual.
This tradition of the intelligentsia backing the government is realized in the traditional split in the Russian spirit between freedom and empire, between the Russian will and Russian power.
Our renowned historian, philosopher and journalist Georgy Fedotov put it even more distinctly. According to him, after Pushkin "the gulf between empire and freedom in the Russian conscience became irrevocable. <...> Those who built or supported the empire drove out freedom, while those who fought for freedom destroyed the empire. The monarchic state could not withstand this suicidal disunity of spirit and force. The collapse of imperial Russia was primarily the consequence of this inner cancer that ate it up from the inside".
With the help of Georgy Fedotov, (who lived through the revolution and the world wars of the 20th century), I would like to return to the contemporary problem of "empire - freedom - personality". How is it being resolved today intellectually and in practice? Let us look at those people who, by virtue of their professions, embody the thinking and the spirit of Russia, and to determine its future now, in the 21st century.
I repeat: merely to consider this question will cast you willy-nilly into the void. For you find very few people in sympathy with your ideas. The government has already destroyed many of those who are.
The dominant voice, the social stance of enlightened, intellectual Russia, our "thinking class", is fully attuned to the position of our present government. Writers, scientists, theatre people and film directors, printed and electronic media journalists, university professors and the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church do not merely put up with the government silently and passively. They justify and support it. They resort to theoretical investigations, historical traditions, and their own understanding of moral values to try and rationalize its actions.
V Today's intelligentsia: the chorus of support
We could cite long lists of books and newspaper articles by way of confirmation. We could point to virtually the whole television broadcasting network, and to the school and university textbooks recently approved by the government. I will take just one (special) issue: "Five centuries of empire" in the magazine Expert on 31 December 2007. This magazine has recently become a kind of barometer for way that the governing class is thinking, and the intellectual elite that serves it.
The editorial article "The complex fate of empire" casts serious doubt on Russia's democratic prospects: "This form of rule is generally very vulnerable and unstable, and if there is no consensus in society that the country needs democracy, then it is impossible in principle. It is unrealistic to support a democratic regime if large and influential groups in society have the goal of destroying it".
This would all be very well - one can of course doubt whether democracy is suitable for Russia... If it weren't for the fact that what is offered as an alternative is not only doubtful, but also at the very least alarming.
From an article in the same issue, "Russia to the pessimists": "Territorial expansion has dominated Russia's view of world development. But there is no need to feel apologetic about this. We should be no less proud of the great nation that was built by our ancestors than the Swiss are of their watches, the French of their cuisine or the Italians of Renaissance art. And just as these achievements of other nations are not just a cause for pride, but a source of income, Russia's expanses, with their countless wealth and strategic positions, are paying themselves off for us today a hundredfold.
"The same can be said about our ability to live in harmony with our neighbours, and if necessary to fight them.
"This goes too for our ability to impose our own political culture, and the art of studying a foreign culture and accepting it as one's own.
"Russia has accepted everyone who wanted to become a part of it, everyone who was prepared to serve it.
"This is what freedom means for Russia's subjects. If for a Polish gentleman it lay in the right not to obey, if for an English lord it lay in the right to control the way his taxes were used, for a Russian nobleman freedom was expressed through his ability to take part in the great task of building the empire. Judge for yourself who had more freedom - the Pole whose disobedience, whose arrogance did not really matter to anyone or the Russian, whose readiness to serve made him the co-creator of world history?"
These are the guideline values, this is the world view of today's Russian intellectuals as expressed ideologically in the magazine Expert. The same motive runs through all the domestic and international policies of the Russian government. For all of them, the condition of freedom "in the grand historical scheme of things" is the GULAG, and Russia's great contribution to world civilization, compared with all other countries, is its imperial essence, the result of five centuries of expansion.
How the Russian nobleman became enslaved
Of course we should not be apologizing for the territorial expansion of the past. Our history is in itself neither a source of pride nor shame. We need to consider it, and to understand it. Each individual, and society as a whole, finds themselves and their identity in our ongoing efforts to find meaning in the events of the past,
If we're strictly faithful to the facts, we're forced to the conclusion that in his readiness to serve the empire and help build it, the Russian nobleman was expressing not his freedom, but his servility.
At the end of the 15th century, when Ivan III needed a large standing army to protect the large state and conquer new territories, but had no money to support it, they came up with a solution. The cavalry was formed, on the basis of conditional land ownership. These soldiers of the cavalry became the first group of noblemen to be enslaved. They were given land, but deprived of the right to choose. They could not change the landowner whom they had to serve. They could not do anything at their own discretion. They could only serve their owner. Some time later, they were given peasants too, and they enslaved these peasants, just as they themselves had been enslaved.
The Russian nobleman thus became doubly constrained: from the top by the obligation to serve the state, and from the bottom by the need to serve at the expense of the serfs, at the expense of "baptized property", as they were called at the time. This is not a matter that calls for judgment, or justification.
Today's "patriotically engaged" intellectuals have "no choice"
But the claim that "for the Russian nobleman, freedom was expressed in the readiness to serve, in the ability to take part in the great building of the empire" can be seen as the kind of key that unlocks the particular attitude to the past, and to Russian historical traditions, of those intellectuals grouped around the magazine "Expert". They think of themselves as "nationally concerned" and "patriotically engaged", but they also claim to be innovative and strictly scientific. "In order to develop a common view on history," reads their editorial, "we need a new, non-ideological approach. Of course, we cannot completely do away with the influence of ideology in studying the history of the country - the creation of a "canonic version", even with all possible variations, is impossible without a certain ideological position. But biased politicization is completely unacceptable."
If you think through to their logical conclusion some of the events which I described as paradoxes at the beginning of this article, they reveal a reality that is not just frightening, but terrifying. Before, you felt as if you were sinking into a void, as if no one understood, or seemed capable of reacting adequately. Now instead you see a vision. The outline of Putin's achievement rears up in front of you, the edifice he has created with his domestic and international politics. All you can say about this structure is that you don't want to believe your eyes.
The Nazism of Hitler and Stalin, we should note, were also not seen immediately, and their danger was felt when it was already too late - and furthermore, they have still not been felt by everyone, and not to the end.
The particular issue of Expert magazine quoted here is just one of many indicators. It gives you an idea of the extent of Putin's strategy of returning to the policies of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Another indicator, an embodiment of the "canonical version" of Russia history, was the mass publication of that school textbook.
The authors of "Expert", who claim to be taking a strict scientific approach that does not allow biased politicization, write: "the history of the Russian Empire is not so different from the history of other European empires. In many ways it was even more humane. But in any case, Russia had no choice whether to be an empire or a ‘normal European democratic nation'. There was a choice whether to be an empire or a colony."
The statement that "it was even more humane" should be left on the authors' conscience, especially if one remembers that the history of the Russian empire does not end in 1917.
The statement that "there was no choice" should also be left on the authors' conscience. Our entire life - for every person, for every country - is a constant, never-ending choice. Understanding the meaning of history involves finding an answer as to why this particular choice was made, and not another that was equally possible.
But let us imagine that even after analyzing all the arguments "for" and "against" a choice, using all the rules of a "strict scientific approach" and without "biased politicization", we come to the conclusion that yes, there "was no choice". Does this mean that we need to continue the path which we took to reach the present? Not forgetting that the intermediary points on this path were 1917, 1991 and 2008.
To judge by everything that is happening in the country, by the direction state thinking is taking, the consensus seems to be that we must continue on this path.
Russia's choice today
Russia is once more facing a choice: the Horde-Byzantine political policy of rule, the traditional Russian geopolitics, the Soviet messiahship, the all-consuming corruption and Putin's purge of the Russian political space - all of which can be seen quite clearly in the reality that surrounds us. Or...
I'm not sure that we have the time to think about any alternatives. Let alone putting them into practice.
Russia's war against Georgia marks the moment when two lines in our history crossed. In the short-term perspective, over the last 8-10 years, we have seen: the liquidation of elections, the court system and of independent media and political parties. We have seen the castration of legislative power. We have seen the law-enforcement bodies becoming repressive and criminal. We have seen rampant corruption, led from the top. We have seen sensational unsolved murders, and the deterioration of relations with neighboring (and not only neighboring) countries.
Then there is the very long term perspective. The war against Georgia is another episode in the wars of annexation that have continued for centuries. These have been aggravated by similar wars of non-liberation within the country.
VI The wheel of history turns full circle: returning to "the Russian path"
At the point where these two lines cross modern Russia returns full circle, to the Russian and Soviet path. We should talk briefly about what exactly we mean by these concepts... What creates this path, this repetition, this constantly changing permanency? I will only point out what are perhaps the most important components of this concept: Russia's geographical position and the size of its territory; the characteristics of its land and soil; the density, composition and dynamics of the population, and finally the nature of Russian power.
These are merely the objective, material, "substantial" and institutional elements which make up this "path", however. Lacking in spiritual content, they are dead in themselves, and cannot give rise to any repetition or rotation. Just as important, if not more so for this "path" are its spiritual elements: the Russian Orthodox church, the Messiah-complex and expansionism, the habits of a people and their ideology. All these elements taken together intertwine, interact, and change (sometimes beyond recognition) to create this "Russian path" to which we seem to have returned today.
"The Russian path"
When we talk of a "return", we mean that several times before - or at least once - we left the place that we are returning to. This applies to an ordinary return. But here we are not talking about an "ordinary" return, but a return "Russian style". In this country, it seems, we can only "sort of" return. In fact, "returning" in the Russian sense means to find ourselves once more in a place which, if we look carefully, we find we never even left.
As in any other history, there have been countless regressions in our history: from reforms to counter-reforms, from times of change to "stagnation", from "frosts" to "thaws".
But we have kept following the same path, the same direction. In fact, it's the path we have been on for 500 years. Chaadaev and Berdyaev called it not so much a progression as a blundering round the circle of history. Several times Russia, in the course of its historical movement, found itself at a crossroads. At these moments it looked as if we could have left the well-trodden path and taken the other.
In fact, the history of Russia as a united state began at one of these crossroads. The historian Alexander Zimin has given us the wonderful image of a "Knight at the crossroads", who could have come from a divided Rus' to a freer Russia. But the "knight" did not have the strength to break free from the constraints (the coercion of authority and submission of the people), which already had society in its thrall. He kept on the same road - the road of Russian autocracy, then of serfdom. "The Russian path" was the result of the coming together of these two basic components. It was the path of non-freedom.
Part Two 1917
I ‘Building socialism': Russia leaves the beaten track, sets about building the Kingdom of Heaven on earth
However, 1917 is the most eloquent, outstanding example of a turning point in Russian history. We could decide not to discuss the idea and the scope of its implementation in this article. But this would hinder the clarification of our concepts - the ‘return', the ‘path' and the ‘Russian system', as it would of the investigation of full historical responsibility for the return to the ‘Russian path'. This responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the present leadership of Russia and the whole generation of (living) people who blindly support the election of the said leaders.
Unfortunately few people within Russia have any understanding of what actually happened in the Soviet Union in the course of the process later universally called ‘building socialism'. Such understanding as there is is imperfect.
It was not so much a turning aside, more a great exodus off the beaten track. Russia not only took a new path, but severed all connections with the past which had formed her. Everything was razed to the ground and the track itself was rooted up.
The scale and concept of the attack were extremely ambitious. Changes to the social structure entailed the inevitable, and apparently quite natural, destruction of some millions of people, and the raising up of millions of others. Everything that at that time made up the national wealth was to be taken away from some and given to others. Schemes for the re-organisation of the social structure and property relations even extended to the idea of refashioning man to ensure the correct and necessary qualities for the realisation of the Plan. Initially this was to be within Russia, and then...we'll see how it goes.
If we jettison the ideological and political verbal accompaniment, it is clear that what was being attempted was the realisation of the Messianic idea of Moscow as the Third Rome with Russia becoming ‘The Kingdom of Heaven' on earth. A monstrous idea, both in scale and in concept.
II Recipe for building socialism: eliminate the human element
Usually when people want to talk about the most terrifying thing that happened in the Soviet Union in the 20th century, they talk about the war and the Stalinist ‘repressions'. The sacrifices offered up by Russians on the altar of their native land are stamped in the collective memory. The victims of the Stalinist ‘repressions' are the millions who were sent to the GULAG or were killed before they reached it, in the course of the ‘peaceful' ‘building of socialism'. These victims are indeed part of the truth. But they are not the whole truth, and perhaps not even the main truth.
For Hitler, the final solution of the ‘Jewish question' was the complete and total annihilation of the Jews.
For Stalin, the final solution of the question of ‘building socialism' was the complete, universal destruction of society as such. Social differentiation developed over the centuries. By the 20th century the Russian social community was made up of peasants, craftsmen, traders, workers and people from the liberal professions. Also merchant guilds, associations of workers and of artisans, church parishes, village communes, and writers' unions. Stalin, continuing Lenin's work, achieved the final solution of the ‘social question': the complete destruction of society throughout the USSR, that living human layer, a kind of human humus.
In its place the ‘party and the government' artificially created a completely different, emasculated Soviet social environment exclusively from civil servants paid according to a state tariff universal for the entire country. The status of the peasant and the artist, the land and the theatre were reduced to one and the same : they all became the property of the state as ‘aggregated resources'. The difference between people and things was only that they belonged in different categories of resources. People were classified as labour, human and administrative resources, and things were classified as material, financial and energy resources. But both groups were only ever resources. Whether in figures or tons, hectares or man-days, they were similarly recorded, planned, stored, distributed, transported, re-settled, and when necessary ear-marked for special tasks.
People had neither the right nor the opportunity to change their place of work of their own volition - each person had a work-book, and being late for work or not showing up was a criminal offence. They had no rights or opportunities to change their place of residence - everyone had a permanent residence card. Peasants - who made up over half the population - had no rights or opportunities at all: they could not even go anywhere for a few days. They had no passports.
Building socialism, to call things by their real names, rather than ‘collectivisation, industrialisation and the cultural revolution' was the implementation of the plan to eliminate the human element completely from the social structure. It was the creation of an artificial Soviet social environment. It was the profound traumatisation of the entire Russian (Soviet) human community.
III Social organization is replaced by crime and corruption
And now let us return to our question. What has greater significance and more dismal consequences: millions of victims killed in the Stalinist terror or even more people who are morally crippled forever?
Before 1917 the Russian social environment was extremely fragile, poorly structured and with no institutions of its own. The main consequence of the destruction of this environment was that it became even more atomized and chaotic: everyone was left to his own devices, on a short leash of complete dependence on the state. The leash of a salary, or rather wages, which you could not live on in the city. In the country instead of a salary there were workday units which provided nothing whatsoever.
Given the lack of rights as a basis for the organisation of society, and man's inextinguishable drive to survive, self-organisation becomes the foundation, or rather the constituent type of connections between people. When normal, naturally evolving forms of social organisation and institutions are destroyed, self-organisation develops quite naturally. It bypasses established prohibitions, and eventually takes the form of total (‘systemic', as people like to repeat unthinkingly) crime and corruption.
By destroying society in the form it had taken in Russia by the 20th century, the builders of socialism brought out the worst in people, and what lies naturally at the bottom of it all - animal instincts and egoism.
IV Moscow the Third Rome: a nation in the grip of mythological thinking
So if what was done in the name of ‘building socialism' was not intended to awake people's animal instincts, then what was the cherished goal? The bright future? Happiness for everyone, the ‘land of milk and honey'? Traditionalism and mythological thinking became not just the bedrock of their consciousness, but its only content.
And what about Stalin - what were his aspirations? Traditionalism and the mythological way of thinking were not unfamiliar to him either. Furthermore, everyone writing about the ideological religiosity that was inherent in Bolshevism, undoubtedly had serious grounds for doing so. It's not even a question of religiosity - like Lenin with his teleological view of the world and his idiosyncratic concepts of Russia's messianic destination.
Stalin's religious ideas were basically Orthodox. His idea of the Soviet Union was the continuation of a line starting in Muscovy, when it had just embarked on building its Orthodox empire. That line ran through the Moscow phase of Tsardom, through the Petersburg Empire, and ended up with Stalin's Soviet Union. Stalin was very familiar with the ideas of the Russian autocrats. He knew how they saw the future of Russia, how each of them, starting with Ivan III, saw its ‘mission' and ‘destiny'. He was well aware of the projects of Speransky, of Catherine the Great's ‘Greek project', Uvarov's formula ‘Orthodoxy - autocracy - nationality', and the grand plans of Alexander II, Witte and Stolypin.
It is no coincidence that all these constructs contain the idea of ‘Moscow the Third Rome'. Among its objectives it saw Moscow as the saviour of the Christian faith and as the place where the Kingdom of Heaven was realized. The roads to the realization of this goal led through the Balkans, the Bosporus, Constantinople and India.
This idea informs our entire history - or more specifically gives it meaning. It is not for nothing that I link the idea with the vast problem (in light of its consequences) of the destruction of Russian society and the creation of an artificial Soviet social medium in its place.
V A history of foreign policy annexations leads to Stalin's final solution: dependent individuals in place of society
Let me repeat: our entire history is the history of foreign policy annexations in preference to of the development of our own society. There were never sufficient resources for this constant annexation, so the government had to wrest them from the country by force. When you need to extract everything possible, you need not only giant strength. You also have totally to suppress all discontent or resistance. This is the fundamental principle behind the predominance of the state over personality. This is the origin of autocracy, serfdom, the horde, empire...
But where there are social communities - peasants, workers - there is always a basis for resistance. Stalin was the first person in the world to find a comprehensive solution to this problem as well: not to forge a relationship with different social communities, not to enter into any relations with them at all, but simply to destroy them and turn the entire country into a collection of isolated individuals directly and completely dependent on the state. That eliminates any possible need for associations, political parties or trade unions. When the relationship between the state and the individual has been forcibly and arbitrarily established in terms of dominance and submission, the actual need for legal regulation of these relations vanishes. Courts become fundamentally unnecessary, and so do politics.
During the NEP period, Stalin realized that with the people of Russia it would be impossible to make the leap forward (like the ‘great leap forward' of his imitator Mao), which others had taken many decades or even centuries to achieve. It was equally clear to him that a battle with other members of the international community was inevitable: a state obsessed with a messianic idea is unthinkable without confrontation and a decisive clash with other nations. Accordingly, for Stalin the leap was still necessary - at any price, otherwise the state was doomed. He decided that to make this leap, he would replace the people.
The leap was successful. The replacement of the people was later called ‘building socialism'.
I The Magna Carta v Genghis Khan's Great Yasa
The particular character of Russian power is as important as eternal war, militarisation and Orthodoxy. These are the key building blocks of ‘the Russian path'. Our government could write ‘force' on one side of its calling card, and ‘occupation' on the other. For its attitude to the population of its own country is that of a foreign occupier.
This kind of power took many centuries, maybe even many millennia, to establish itself in Rus', then in Russia. There were two different cultures in the vast expanses of our ancestral homeland. There was the Forest culture, a settled way of life, that of the ploughman, and there was the Steppe culture, that of the warrior, the nomadic cattle breeder, the historical phenomenon known as the Golden Horde. Contacts between these very different types of cultures, numerous wars and mutual borrowings from each other, opposition, conspiracies, betrayals, subjugations and conquests initially in Muscovy and then in Russia led eventually to the triumph of one over all the others.
This was the power brought in by the nomadic cattle breeders and warriors. This Horde power is so entangled with our national history that it has become our own. Its defining feature, apart from the words on the calling card, there is only one player - autocratic power, monologue not dialogue, dictatorship not discussion, a complete ignorance of compromise, utter rejection of agreement as a mode of communication. It is Manichaean, lacking in what Nikolai Berdyaev called the ‘culture of the golden mean'.
The divergence of European and Russian cultures, which was much debated by 19th century historians, began much earlier. The different social dynamics of the two cultures are already in evidence in the proto-Russian space when Lithuanian Rus' and Muscovite Rus' were neighbours. That co-existence and rivalry ended with the victory of Muscovy and the creation of a Russia dominated by ‘Horde power'.
These two cultures are quite distinct. One leads to the creation and development over a long period of the freedom of the individual. In the other, the space for the personality to emerge and develop is steadily reduced.
On one side you have the Magna Carta Libertatum (‘Great Charter of Liberties') and the Habeas Corpus Act. On the other, the ‘Great Yasa' of Genghis Khan. The former cultivates personality and society, the latter prioritises the state and other institutions. The social oppositions which stem from this are endless: democracy versus authoritarianism, agreement versus force, dialogue versus monocentrism, consent versus arbitrary decisions, horizontal ties in society versus the vertical of power etc.
The Magna Carta dates from 1214 (i.e. it was signed two decades before Batu Khan invaded Rus'). A whole range of freedoms protects the individual from the state in English law. Government bodies have no recourse to arbitrary arrest and punishment, obloquy, robbery and violence. This determined the agenda of constitutional guarantees, which were the subject of disputes with the monarchy over many centuries. These guarantees found their expression in the symbolic document known as Habeas Corpus.
Genghis Khan published his ‘Great Yasa' in 1206. The code of laws determining the life of the Horde primarily contained a list of punishments for serious crimes. ‘Yasa' literally means ‘ban' in Mongolian.
II Russia looks to the past, Europe to the future
On top of all this, you have the established, governing stereotypes and ways of thinking in Russia. You have a social dynamic which adheres to old values, to the ideals of the past. What we're talking about is a social dynamic which aspires towards the domination of these past ideals over the present and future, both in cultural terms and in social relations. If you put all this together with other archetypal qualities of Russian culture, you might find some sort of explanation for the way the country has turned towards its Russian and Soviet past. You find an explanation that is rooted in the culture, rather than merely pragmatic, limited to the short-term interests of the Putin regime.
Why, for instance, is there no dialogue between Russia and Europe on our common or joint future? Because we have chosen to address completely different realities, and to address them in a completely different way.
Of course, the concerns of Europe people aren't all the same. Nor do they think the same about those concerns, or exclusively about them. If they did, they would have no issues with identity. The European Union has doubled in size in recent years, and its members look at matters differently, particularly when it comes to Turkey, and to the criteria of ‘Europeanness' in general. It is not easy for ‘Old Europe' to accept ‘New Europe' and the process of developing a European Constitution has almost ground to a halt etc.
So what does it mean to say that we are addressing different realities, and in a completely different way?
Above all, Europe is digesting the experience, crisis and lessons of the 20th century: the European revolutions and the collapse of colonial empires, the economic crises, two world wars and local wars, the ‘cold war' and the Caribbean crisis. In other words, Europe's chief preoccupation is how to overcome the confrontations and conflicts of the past. The most important task Europe has set itself is this: how to live together from now on.
Russia, however, cannot get over the end of the 20th century, its own ‘geopolitical catastrophe' and the collapse of the USSR. For us what is most important is to stop the further disintegration of the post-Soviet space (including our own Russian space). We want above all to regain our past status - the ‘leadership' of Russia, but in the modern world.
In other words, Russia, like Europe, is concerned with the realities of the past. But Europe is concerned how to overcome the legacy of its past, to move away from it. Russia, on the other hand, is concerned to return to the ‘world war' situation, to recapitulate it in these new circumstances.
III After five centuries of civil war, only power is left standing
At the beginning of the 21st century, Russia has yet to gain the status of a human community, paradoxical though this sounds.
We have emerged from the horrific experience of the 20th century without a backward glance, without understanding or acknowledgement. This despite the fact that tens of millions of people were forcibly erased from existence (according to some calculations around 100 million!).
We should not be surprised. Despite its vastness, there is no room in Russia to lead an active, independent life in the 21st century. After five centuries of warfare between autocratic power and its own population, Russia has turned into a single space of power.
In these conditions there is no one left to make the journey of self-discovery or recognition. Russians are deprived of independence or personality - they are, indeed, incapable of reflection. The only remaining player is power.
But power is alien to the population. It has only proved able to act, not to be aware of itself and its actions. So, as the only player left, power continues to act, but is guided only by unthinking reason.
At the end of the 20th century, by the will of fate, rather than of anyone in particular, the Soviet regime collapsed. It did so because it was rotten. The Soviet Union was unnaturally unwieldy and had become ungovernable. Russia once more had a historic chance.
The historic turning points and why they terrify Russians
It was historic, because there had never been a civil society or political life in Russia. These things have sometimes appeared in rudimentary form, at turning points in our history, but only as short-term episodes, as possible antitheses to autocracy. But the "Russian system" always regarded them as alien, the precursors of disaster.
The first of these turning points was at the beginning of the 17th century, with the first stirrings of civil society and something vaguely akin to politics. It is no coincidence that this has gone down in Russian history under the name of the "Time of Troubles". That is how it has been since then.
From within the "Russian system", anything which is not the system feels like divine punishment, and uncontrollable. Take Solzhenitsyn, as an example. For him, the political life that began in the late 1980s-early 1990s felt like February 1917. He regarded it with indignation and disgust. Equally, for our "liberals" inside the system today, the most terrifying prospect is truly free elections: the inevitable outcome, according to the "liberals", would be the left coming to power.
In all these examples, civil society and politics inspire fear and alarm for people inside the system. For no one who is part of the System knows how to be free. The circumstances of his life bind him to such an extent that he is completely engulfed. He is not interested in self-awareness, or in trying to understand and rationally define his attitude to the surrounding world.
Part Four Late 1980's - early 1990's Why did Russia blow its latest historic chance?
I Laying the foundations for catastrophe
In the late 1980s- early 1990s there was a chance to break away from the age-old Russian path. We could have broken free of the autocratic matrix that had the country in its grip. But we missed our historic chance. This is no coincidence.
Those taking part in the events of the time failed to take the steps required. They did not even understand what was really happening. The people who came to power with Yeltsin described these events as a "democratic revolution". They described themselves as "democrats" and "liberals". They announced a new era in the country's history. Various legislative documents, including the Constitution enshrined these self-identifications and declarations, gave them official status. Specific steps were taken - mainly in the economic, financial and technological spheres. But the foundations of the social order remained unaffected.
The regime's main props of violence and repression remained intact: the army, the court system, the law-enforcement bodies, political policy, the education system etc. Power was still that of the horde, as in Soviet and pre-Soviet times. It remained independent of the population, uncontrolled by any social forces or institutions, guided only by its own material interests and desire for self-preservation.
Yet everything that was happening was being presented to public opinion as a paradigm shift from Soviet totalitarianism to a democratic state. The new regime's western orientation was announced with pride: Russia was part of the great transition that was taking place in all Central and Eastern European countries to representative democracy, civil society and the market economy.
The actions of the power elite were unthinking. They failed to make sense of events, including the transfer of power from Yeltsin to his successor Putin. In spite of constant declarations of its democratic nature and proclaimed liberal values, the actions of the "elite" were guided solely by the interests of the erstwhile Soviet bureaucracy, which continued to occupy key positions.
Superficially, the "new" "elite" came to power with universal support as a result of nationwide elections. It found itself on the crest of a powerful wave that swept through society during the time of "perestroika". The Russian people, once more caught up in a deep crisis of material hardship and moral suffering, passionately desired to break with the past, and emerge from a state of poverty, empty shops and gloomy everyday life. We took to the streets and squares in a state of universal euphoria, inspired by the coming changes, full of enthusiasm and hope. And we voted for Yeltsin.
But we were no longer the ones calling the tune. The nationwide excitement and universal "expression of will" in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were not the result of conscious actions of socially organised people, nor the embodiment of the will of free people. It was more a ritual movement of the masses, which needed to think together, to shout the same slogans in full view of everyone else. As a crowd (I too was there...) we became a screen behind which the mole of history had long since been digging its deep holes.
Government decisions of great importance were passed one after another. So important were they that the socio-economic, and as it later turned out the entire moral and legal landscape of the USSR changed significantly. But how are we to assess the general economic, political and moral result of these changes? A plus or a complete minus? What makes it complicated is not a lack of clarity. Far from it - it's all too clear. It's just so depressing, even obscene.
Broadly speaking, we are dealing with a movement from very bad to worse. We are talking about the laying down of the foundations of a social order which was complete in the first decade of the 21st century. One which has already taken its place in the world. That place is not just beyond the bounds of crime and the law. It is beyond Good and Evil. The social phenomenon has emerged is fundamentally new, from the point of view of the state, and the economy, the law and morality too.
Millions, even tens of millions of our fellow citizens participated in the creation of this highly orginal social phenomenon. In fact, this is the root of the problem. We thought that the Soviet social environment had tested the limits of depravity. But what emerged between the mid 1980s to the present day proves that perfection knows no bounds. This is not proof of the natural depravity of man. It is merely one more manifestation of the depravity of a society that was purposely deformed - by Stalinism.
Now, after 20 years the error and fundamental inadequacy of the decisions taken becomes apparent. We can see the terrible consequences of the mistakes of those who took such fatal decisions. We consider the causes, the motivation of those decision-makers.
It may be a cliché, but the incompetence of the party and state power, its unwillingness to listen to "highbrow" intellectuals was breathtaking. Yes, the situation was unique. The scale of the crisis was unprecedented. All this is true, and undoubtedly made the decisions taken worse. However, these are probably not the main causes. Very "highbrow", well-educated people did come to power with Yeltsin and took decisions. But the scale and the awful consequences of their errors can be compared with the financial incompetence of the Communist Party nomenklatura in the 1980s. No, the problem was not lack of professionalism.
The reason for the ruinous decisions of the leaders of the time goes back to their simple inability to think. This is, in its turn, one of the important consequences of Stalin's destruction of the society's intellectual humus. During the Stalinist years a special medium was created in place of what had been destroyed. A skilful and very able pleiad of "politically correct" intellectual specialists was formed. They were the ones who took the decisions that had such terrible consequences.
In spite of radical changes in the political scenery, two essential things link the leaders of the 1980s and those of today - legal nihilism and amorality. Salus revolutiae suprema lex. And the "good of the revolution" is something each understands in his own way...However you analyse the decisions and actions of the authorities during this period, these two elements make everything completely clear. The authorities' criminal mindset created the necessary conditions for the criminalisation of the entire social environment.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Russian power and the Russian "thinking class" (together with the "creative intelligentsia" that serves it) have made a historic choice. This choice is a return (not in form, but in essence) to the Russian and Soviet past: where there was no personality, where everything was oppressed by the state, where there was no place for politics, civil society, law, private ownership or freedom.
This will inevitably lead Russia towards another catastrophe, which will probably be its last. Moving towards the past - even to a "bright" past - rather than the future is a fundamentally short-term, doomed strategy.
II Yeltsin and Putin's key blunders
These are my thoughts on the historical responsibility whichYeltsin and Putin arrogated to themselves:
- firstly, urgently needed changes to the Russian and Soviet tradition were deferred. This meant losing the opportunity to get Russia out of its historical rut
- then power and property (including mineral resources), were privatised by the Soviet nomenklatura, their relatives, friends and friends of friends. This laid the foundations for a corporate (oligarchic, patrimonial) state.
- finally, in Putin's time, the ruling circles once again assured us that our state was "special". Without declaring this openly and plainly, they decided that Russia still had a "mission". This entitled it to claim a universal role. So it had to re-establish its influence in the post-Soviet sphere. It had to make common cause with anti-American forces the world over. This strategy - not yet announced, but already a reality - is the only explanation for Russia's recent foreign policy moves.
Here we should make an important reservation: the key difference between the past and present Russian imperialists is that past leaders - probably including Stalin - identified themselves personally with empire. They were the anointed ones or the embodiment of the global Communist idea. Their claim to a global role for Russia was sincere.
But the current rulers are only interested in the "Russian State" as an instrument for stealing - on a national, or even better on a global scale. Their claims to a global role are just a bluff, and they know it. This bluff is intended only to deceive the partner in a poker game. None the less, whether sincere or cynical, the strategy also required a sharp turnaround within the country. The consequences have not yet been acknowledged or calculated, and the whole country will have to pay a steep price for it.
III The post-Soviet mutant: corporation-state + patrimonial state
Here we must once again watch our terminology. It is easy to confuse what has been announced with what is, the actual state of affairs. (Culturologists, speaking of the withdrawal of the viewer and reader into an invented world of film or books use the term "second reality"). There is still a Russia of outward appearances and a Russia of inner realities. I just used the words "strategy" and "turnaround" -as if they represented something real. But this is not the case. And the fact that this is not the case literally affects each one of us.
There was no democratic revolution in 1991. Of course politicians can describe the grandiose collapse of the socio-political monster and their coming to power as a kind of revolution. But there were no democrats or liberals in power in the 1990s. Yeltsin was no democrat, Chubais and Gaidar were no liberals. They and the people with them were the continuation and embodiment of the Soviet nomenklatura.
There was no transition from Russian-Soviet authoritarianism to European democracy either. Instead of the upward movement implied by the word "transition", the decay of the Russian and Soviet system of rule continues. So does the degradation of the artificially created Stalinist social environment - as the work of researchers like those of the Levada Centre demonstrates. The transition to a higher social form and the decay of the existing, outworn one are fundamentally different trajectories. Yet elements from past centuries of Russian history and from the Soviet century all came together in our lives in the "wild 90s".
If we want to understand the key constituents of the post-Soviet social dynamic we must bear in mind that when the Soviet Union collapsed there were no civil society institutions in Russia and none were in the making. There was no recognition that these institutions were lacking, either. This is crucial for an understanding of what ensued.
The institutions of a market economy and private ownership were first tolerated, then (in 1991) legalized. The iron curtain came down and modern socio-economic institutions were installed on top of the traditional political-administrative "Russian system". After that,events unfolded haphazardly, taking the only course open to them: social relations and government institutions became more primitive and archaic.
Today we start to see the main features of this almost twenty-year-long mutation, which combines the uncombinable - a corporation-state and a patrimonial state. By a corporation-state we mean country whose national, social and economic interest are dependent on departmental and corporate interests. The number one priority becomes the private profit of corporate capital, rather than national security, social services or health.
Russia perfectly exemplifies Max Weber's prediction about the patrimonial nature of the state. Our country has become the embodiment of crony capitalism, or "the capitalism of friends and relations". Power is handed down by inheritance. The state machine is held together by ties between friends and relations to a far greater extent than was true in the Soviet period. For our patrimonial civil servants, the main source of income is not their salary, but the income they derive from the personal exploitation of their formal bureaucratic functions.
In the post-Soviet space, the clearest instances of "patrimonial Sultanates", as Max Weber called them, are in Transcaucasia and Central Asia - Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Several of these regimes and dictatorships based on the cult of personality have already declared themselves in power for life.
In Russia, the socio-political pendulum is already moving in that direction. This can be seen in the transfer of power from Yeltsin to Putin. It is clearly revealed in the movements of power between Putin-Medvedev-Putin, as also in recent decisions to extend the legal terms of the president and parliament. There is nothing mysterious about these stratagems. They just demonstrate the determination of those with power and capital to hold onto it.
The same thing is going on at a regional level. If Moscow's mayor Luzhkov or Tatarstan's president Shaimiev suddenly declare the need to hold gubernatorial elections, only someone hopelessly naïve would see this as reflecting a sudden democratic impulse. We know full well what will become of these elections. The only concern of these people is to stay in power for life. They are not going to surrender their property and power. They will hand it over only to their designated successor, preferably only on their deathbed.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this social dynamic is the unique relationship between power and the people. This relationship, the fruit of the whole history of Russian civilization, has reached new extremes in the post-Soviet period. The fact that the security services stand at the very pinnacle of the power pyramid is indicative of a society that is ruled by force.
The relationship between power and the people in Russia is immutably hostile, mutually destructive. That is its key characteristic. The crucial consequence of this fatal connection - to judge by the long-term findings of the Levada Centre - is that the people are capable of adapting to force in any conditions. The population is amoral. This does not mean, of course, that everyone does wicked things every day. But almost everyone is prepared to do such things under certain conditions.
As for the government, which is not remotely subject to control by the population, it has become (or remains) entirely patrimonial. That is to say that, under Putin the state is managed in exactly the way a landowner manages his estate. The government has turned into a tyrannical landowner on a national scale, with trillions in its pocket, and atomic weapons too.
IV The Yeltsin years: liberal ends, Bolshevist means
In the first years after the collapse of the USSR, the reformers who came to power imagined that the old Soviet system would be replaced by a model of the state borrowed from western nations. It was assumed that we would be making the transition to representative democracy and a free market economy.
But in fact, the attitude to those western models was little different from Peter the Great's attitude to Dutch wharfs. Our reformers, like Tsar Peter, saw them as pretty trinkets which could be lifted up and plonked down elsewhere. We failed to appreciate that they were the end result of a long social evolution.
Take Solzhenitsyn, for example. He hated Bolshevism with a passion. He fought it ferociously, thereby earning the profound respect of his contemporaries and the eternal memory of his descendents. He did not appreciate that the GULAG was the result of the long evolution of Russian imperial violence. He paid for his short-sightedness when he received an award from the Chekist Putin and was given a lavish funeral by the successors of the Russian empire.
The reforms failed thanks to the passivity of the Russian population, with its strong dependence on the state, and the weakness of the social and political movements. In order to hold on to power, Yeltsin had to shift his ground. He realized that he needed the support not of the "masses" but of the old "power" blocs.
The crucial structural changes were delayed, because they were clearly unpopular. They never even began, for the same reason. As dissatisfaction grew, violence increased. The parliament building was gunned down in 1993. In 1996, Yeltsin stole his election to a second presidential term. These key events expose Yeltsin's Bolshevism.
V The Putin years - onward to the past
The final confirmation of authoritarian rule came with Putin's eight-year term in office. This was based on the masses' longing for "order" and a return to traditionalism.
Throughout this period, Putin's regime had kept up a relentless attack on the pro-western aspirations of Yeltsin's supporters. They were determined to discredit them. The campaign changed the way the Russian public, which is still fairly traditionalist, saw things. People came to accept that Yeltsin's "democrats" were to blame for the collapse of the USSR and for the drop in people's living standards. The democrats were to blame for the series of crises of the 1990s, and above all for the serious crisis of 1998. Democratic models of political order lost their appeal. Concepts of freedom and human rights were once more relegated to the margins of people's thinking.
Instead, the regime programmed people with the notion of social order, with traditional attitudes to great power superiority, Orthodoxy and militarism. The space where politics and civil society should have been was "purged". Political parties, non-governmental and public organizations, independent television channels, the system of elections, the courts and law-enforcement bodies as autonomous bodies - all these were dissolved.
What remained became part of the power System. The shells of those political parties, the courts, the prosecutor's office, the media and public organizations were turned into something quite different. They became instruments of coercion, repressive bodies, or the means of handling the economic, administrative and financial tasks of various bodies and organizations, banks, insurance company, marketing, political and commercial advertising.
The rudiments of the institutions of a civil society were liquidated in the expectation of a continuous flow of petrodollars. The state doesn't have any great need for people as long as it can focus on raw materials rather than production. If the country has "pipes" and "black gold", the population is just a social burden and a potential danger. The regime thought that they were always going to be able to buy the population off. They did not consider it necessary to establish relations with them through the usual institutions of a developed civil society.
VI "Rising from our knees", reaching a climax, facing the end of Russia
But the financial and economic crisis radically changes an already oppressive situation. It reveals the fragility of the Putin regime's strategy, and his means of governing.
Rather than revenues from oil and gas flowing in as usual, capital is flowing out. Production is dropping, unemployment is growing. Unresolved problems of health, education and housing have been drastically aggravated. With oil prices below the $70 that was allowed for in the budget, the government will have to wring money out of the population, as the reserve fund and the gold supply is not going to last long.
How is the regime going to manage to do this while maintaining its strategy of facing down the West and America? How can the population be controlled, when 40% live in poverty, and 15-20% of this 40% are practically beggars? More than 60% of our fellow citizens live in small towns and villages. It is there, on the social periphery, that paternalistic attitudes are most entrenched. This population is almost totally lacking in the material or spiritual resources, or the social means to change its position and lift itself out of its chronic depression.
This chaotic mass of people is the bedrock of our corruption. This is inevitable, constantly driven back into poverty as it is , swelling the ranks of the unemployed, lacking all political organization, sustained by none of the structures of a civil society.
Corruption is increasing almost exponentially. It dominates almost all sectors of society and all levels of power, including (so we are being told) the highest levels, headed by the president and prime minister. It is one of the most destructive consequences of the lack of structural and functional differentiation in contemporary public life.
Movement means life, as we all know. Today's "God, Tsar and Motherland" personified by Putin asks us to agree that morning gymnastics Russian-style ("rising from our knees" to drums and fanfares) means movement, life. And everyone believes them. They go through the motion of those morning gymnastics. Keeping their clenched fist in their pocket. Ready to beat up anyone who falls down.
But we're going to fall down - and we'll fall down together.
If we go on like this we will very soon bring about the end of the cultural and historical phenomenon that is still known as Russia.
This article was commissioned and first published by Novaya Gazeta