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Protests and the badly ground flour of Russian history

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Intellectuals are excited that this winter’s protests are a sign Russia could finally be turning into a democratic state. Andrei Konchalovsky urges them to look back into the country’s past and see how far Russians still must travel to become normal Europeans. The protesters must show caution, he argues, or risk the kind of bloodshed that has accompanied other attempts to modernise the country.

Andrei Konchalovsky
8 February 2012

“Russia has not yet ground that flour from which a Socialist pie can be baked.” This remark by the Russian Marxist Georgy Plekhanov (1856-1918) seems to me as relevant to Russia today as it was when he made it, and I’ll explain why.

Plekhanov was warning the Bolsheviks that seizing power would have tragic consequences for Russia. Plekhanov was trying to convince them that their plans for modernising Russian society could end up in bloody dictatorship. And today, at a moment of reawakening for socially minded sections of society, Plekhanov’s prophecy is of particular relevance.

'Russia is not yet ready for a democratic transformation of society. And to develop a strategy we need a dispassionate analysis of what sort of society exists in Russia today and to what extent it differs from that of a century, or even three centuries, ago.'

Opposition calls to take the Kremlin, overthrow our current rulers and create a new, government echo, in effect, Vladimir Lenin’s plan “to seize power and use it like Archimedes’ lever, to compensate for a lack of civilisation and culture and enable Russia to catch up with more advanced countries”.

The mass protests in Moscow and other cities since the rigged parliamentary elections have created an impression of aroused public consciousness. But this is a mere illusion.

Take Moscow, with its population of 15 million (some sources suggest that it is more like 18-20 million). Let’s assume that 100,000 turned out for the rally; that’s less than one percent of the city, and half of those were people working in the public sector, who would not even dream of being independent of the Kremlin. And then think about that as a proportion of the country as a whole.

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Russian peasants: the backbone of the modern Russian
society, according to the author.

Another factor of relevance today: according to research by the Institute of Sociology, only 19 percent of households own computers, including just six percent of the poorest households. Only 42.3 out of every thousand Russians are active internet users. This is a clear indication that internet penetration is very low in Russia, and that its influence on current political developments has obviously been exaggerated. The figures show that a catastrophically large majority of the population has no understanding of the burgeoning reform movement.

What is to be done? I think it is essential to look the truth fearlessly in the eye and admit that Plekhanov’s warnings are still relevant today. Russia is not yet ready for a democratic transformation of society. And to develop a strategy we need a dispassionate analysis of what sort of society exists in Russia today and to what extent it differs from that of a century, or even three centuries, ago.

The American cultural historian Richard Pipes, in an article analysing the state of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, listed several factors contributing to Russia’s developmental lag: the adoption of Christianity from Byzantium rather than from Rome; the cultural impact of the Mongol invasion; the weakness of the state resulting from the vast areas of conquered territories and so on.

I have discussed the Russian mentality more than once, and indeed cited Pipes’ work. But today, with a growing mood among the public and revived hopes among many for the establishment of a democratic state, I would like to look at some specific aspects of Russian history.

So, what has the phrase “Russian civilisation” meant throughout the centuries, and what does it mean today?

Alexei Kara-Murza, in his book The New Barbarism as a Problem of Russian Civilisation, wrote: “Russian civilisation was constructed like a “military camp”, when direct material production (carried out by the labouring classes) was subjugated to a system of distribution of life’s necessities to members of the “service class” (i.e. oprichniks, gendarmes, judges, Interior Ministry officers, mobsters - AK) thus ensuring the defence, leadership and spiritual integration of society”.

In other words, the fruits of the workingman’s labour were taken from him and reallocated. This is what is known as “the corporate distribution system”.

This means that it is not so important what is produced and how it is produced. What is important is how it is distributed. This is what we mean by a barbaric society. So why did the philosopher Sergei Solovyov consider such a society barbaric?

In his article The Chickens of Peter the Great (1861) he asked the question: “what is a barbaric society and what is a civilised society? What is the essential difference between them?” He answered it thus: “the defining feature of barbarism is a desire not to do anything, or to do as little as possible, and to live off the fruits of other men’s labour, to force others to work for you”.

In contrast to this society there is another, more highly developed society, where the individual strives to develop useful qualities in himself.

Everyone, naturally, would like to know at what point a society moves from barbarism to civilisation. Solovyov’s answer is: “society moves out of a state of barbarism when it recognises and fosters a need for honest and free labour; a desire to live off one’s own labour, and not the labour of others; through labour the individual grows in moral strength and society becomes richer and stronger”.

This would appear to be an obvious truth, but tell me: have you ever seen the owner of a Russian restaurant working in its kitchens, or a mine owner doing a shift in his own mine? I haven’t either. These businessmen usually confine their activity to their traditional role of emptying the till and checking for theft by the staff. What is this, if not barbarism?

In Europe, on the contrary, it is common to find business owners working in their own companies, demonstrating what might be called their “individual ability”.

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Pyotr Struve was a distinguished Russian philosopher.
Once a Marxist, he disliked Russian Communism
and joined the White movement after the revolution.

Pyotr Struve, a Marxist and opponent of Lenin, once defined an individual’s level of civilisation as the growth of his or her productivity, which he called “individual ability” in contrast to the barbarism of the “parasitic individual”.

Struve formulated this concept thus: “individual ability is the sum total of certain spiritual qualities: moderation, self-possession, conscientiousness, frugality. A society bent on progress can be built only on the concept of individual ability, as the basis and measure of all social relations”.

The growth of a person’s individual ability is therefore a process of moving from barbarism to civilisation, and this principle leads to certain individuals being raised above others who are less active and fosters competition between individuals, which creates the necessary differentiation of society.

The desire of the individual to develop his or her own abilities and productivity is a feature of life in Western society, which is based on individualism. The Russian peasant’s consciousness, however, has always been community-based. The individual was mercilessly repressed, hence his irresponsibility and tendency to become a parasite. This is the theme of my film Kurochka Ryaba. Many people, watching the film, came to the conclusion that I hated or despised Russia. And my articles often cause the same reaction. But, my friends, all I do is allude to our classics, and remind you of what is written there.

For example, Vasily Klyuchevsky wrote: “Russia has no average talents or run-of-the-mill artists; instead, there are lonely geniuses and millions of useless people. The geniuses cannot achieve anything because they have no apprentices, and there’s nothing that can be done with the millions because they have no masters. The first are useless because they are too few; the second helpless because they are too many”.

Not for the first time are Russia’s rulers trying to modernise our people, and achieving nothing. Some mystical obstacles stand in the way of our country’s development. It will take much to overcome them, starting at the very least with an understanding of the fact that these are objective problems that no one can ignore.

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A scene from Andrei Konchalovsky's 'Kurochka Ryaba',
which addresses Russian peasant consciousness.

It was precisely the communal Russians’ tendency towards being parasites that the Bolsheviks exploited to foment hatred of the kulak and the bourgeois with their cry of “Rob the Robbers!”

Struve wrote:the idea of individual ability disappeared completely in the Russian Revolution. It was submerged in the idea of the equality of irresponsible individuals. The idea of individual lack of responsibility is the direct opposite of the idea of individual ability. I demand this or that, whether or not my individual actions can justify this demand”.

Does this philosophy not sound familiar?

“The more advanced a society,” wrote Sergei Solovyov, “the stronger its orientation towards work; the weaker a society, the stronger the desire of its members to live off other people’s work.”

And he continued: “our Russia was weak precisely because of this inherent barbaric principle, the principle of inertia that led to the desire to live off others’ work, and that was in turn maintained by this desire”.

He went on to say: “symptoms of this barbarisation were evident in all aspects of social life: in the woeful condition of the rural population, in the poverty of the cities, in the absence of industry, in the paucity of trade, in the omnipresence of serfdom, in the habit of men of substance to surround themselves with crowds of people to serve their private needs”.

One could argue that these features are still typical of our society. The lives of Russians today continue to reflect their consciousness. They are still, at heart, the same Russian peasants with the same archaic values, and not just in the villages.

The principle, that “it is not so important what is produced and how it is produced. What is important is how it is distributed” is still current today. And not just in the sticks: all over the country “service” people aid and abet the bandits who prey on defenceless working people. Everyone knows that there is no way out. Our power structures are hand in glove with the criminal world. What is this but medieval barbarism?

'The lives of Russians today continue to reflect their consciousness. They are still, at heart, the same Russian peasants with the same archaic values, and not just in the villages.'

This archaic peasant consciousness is the ultimate cause of Russia’s weakness and what differentiates it from Europe. In some ways life in Russia over the centuries has more in common with colonial Africa.

The socialist writer Sergey Kondulukov analyses this process as follows: “the productive power of such capitalist countries as England and France depended to a large, if not principle, extent, on the exploitation of their overseas colonies. For England the chief colony was India; for France it was countries in Africa. The exploitation of these territories was the main source of development of England’s and France’s productive power. Russia had no such colonies, at any rate in an obvious sense. On the other hand, it had an enormous peasant class. 75 percent of the population of pre-revolutionary Russia were peasants.”

Kondulukov equates the enormous mass of Russian peasantry exploited by the aristocracy to the African continent exploited by Europe.

And certainly Russia could be regarded as a huge continent with a barbaric population consisting of a benighted peasant mass, out of which rose “foreign” islands of Europeanised civilisation in the shape of aristocrats and officials, for whom the thoughts and emotions of the simple peasant were alien and incomprehensible.

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Some thinkers have suggested that Russia continues
to exploit a colony within its own borders — where
the peasantry is the colony and aristocrats and
govenment officials — the colonizers.

Tolstoy, for example, wrote with some pride in his foreword to one version of War and Peace: “I could never work out what the watchman was thinking as he stood by his box, or what a market trader was thinking and feeling as he urged passers-by to buy his braces and ties… and so on. I can no more understand this than I can understand what a cow thinks when she is being milked or a horse when it is transporting a barrel… I myself belong to the upper classes, to high society, and I love it”.

Plekhanov noted that: “Europeanised Russian “society” could be likened to a European colony living among barbarians. That would be quite an accurate comparison. But the only way to improve the lot of this foreign colony abandoned amidst Russian barbarians would be to Europeanise the barbarians themselves”.

Unfortunately, this Europeanisation did not take place, despite the efforts of Peter the Great and his grandson Paul. Kondulukov wrote further: “it was the exploitation of the peasant class that allowed the development, first of Russian capitalism, and later, after the October Revolution, of Russian Authoritarian Socialism”.

And today we have the same social consciousness, the legacy of ancient Rus, the same slave mentality that never received any private property or political independence from the all-powerful sovereign, the Khan-Tsar.

Kondulukov, in his book Karl Marx, Achievements and Errors, wrote: “Lenin, and later Stalin, in their attempts to build socialism, constantly came up against the Marxian formula – the life of a society determines its consciousness. They tried to circumvent it… But people did not have a new social consciousness. They had the same old consciousness, that merely reflected their own way of life and that of the class to which they belonged, and not Marx’s theoretical constructs”.

And now we once again have individual social groups demanding social justice, greater democracy and so on. This revival of political activity has been welcomed by democratically inclined politicians as the emergence of a middle class, as a hopeful sign of activism among the protesters. For all my positive feelings towards the green shoots of a public movement, I feel the need to share with you my doubts about the aims and, especially, the scale, of this phenomenon.

What is this middle class: a bourgeoisie, or something else? Is it an economic or a political category? What percentage of the population is accounted for by this group?

Yevgeny Yasin wrote in a blog on the Ekho Moskvy radio station’s web site of the pleasure he takes in reading statistics about the growth of China’s urban demographic.

“In Russia a similar process of industrialisation took place between 1921 and 1990. Somewhere in the middle of the 1960s the number of city dwellers overtook the rural population. At the end of the Civil War 80 percent of Russians lived in villages. One third of the population moved to towns within 40 years, a gigantic change,” he wrote.

'Today we have the same social consciousness, the legacy of ancient Rus, the same slave mentality that never received any private property or political independence from the all-powerful sovereign, the Khan-Tsar.'

“Russia has just been through parliamentary elections in which the majority of voters, three quarters of them from towns and cities, expressed their wish to live in a democratic system that would allow the possibility of a change of government. This has happened twice in the last 20 years, despite the assumption of many “thinkers” that the peoples of Russia are conditioned by their mind-set to accept subjugation and the sanctification of power. This has turned out to be far from the truth.”   

Yasin’s ironic attitude to conservative “thinkers” is understandable, but I would suggest that his optimism about the growth of the middle classes is premature.

The expectation from radical democrats that a new middle class is emerging and is capable of taking on the reform of the system, and that this process has begun, is illusory. One only has to look at the figures in the 2011 edition of Russian Society as It Is.

Research by the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology shows that 59 percent of Russians live in poverty. Russia’s middle class, as defined by European standards, comprises a mere six to eight percent of the population. Yasin, and indeed Yulia Latynina, forget that half of this so-called middle class consists of people who work in the public sector and who therefore lack political independence, a defining feature of being middle class. 

“The specific character of the Russian middle class presents a serious problem,” wrote the blogger Bog-Odin, “since it may determine a lower level of autonomy from the structures of power, and aspects of consciousness and behaviour. This is a defining characteristic of the structural positioning of the middle class in Russia which distinguishes its make-up from that of the middle class in the West.”

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A change from the peasant routine does not necessarily
mean a shift in mentality. Did the people's way of
thinking really change as a result of rapid urbanization
of the 20th Century in Russia? Photo CC: Alex Zelenko

Yasin claims that only people living off the land have a peasant mentality. It never ceases to amaze me how such an eminent intellectual can believe that when a peasant moves from a village to a city his mind-set changes to that of an urban dweller.

As for China, one mustn’t forget that the ethical code of the Chinese peasant, with at its centre the continuing importance of care for children and the elderly and the primacy of society over the individual, lies at the core of every social class in Chinese society. This is very different from the enormous gulf between the Russian communal mentality and that of the intellectual or technocrat.  

Russia’s recent history shows that the movement of enormous peasant masses into the cities does not necessarily turn them into city people or citizens. A change in place of residence does not mean a change in mentality; in fact, it may even exacerbate the negative aspects of the peasant mentality. I would like to briefly examine this phenomenon: the emergence of negative traits in the peasant who lives in a city.

The city, as a collection of people mostly unknown to one another, is anonymous. The “lumpenisation” of the Russian peasantry, fleeing en masse from their villages into the cities after the Revolution, introduced the peasant to this previously unknown to him state of anonymity. In the village everyone knew everyone else; no one was a stranger. The wholesale migration to the city of a mass of people whose consciousness had not undergone the education in legal awareness of the centuries-old European town-dweller class, created this unaccustomed state of anonymity for them, and turned them without difficulty into a criminal element that exploited this situation for gain. Criminality does not necessarily manifest itself in violence against people. It may be just a question of using peasant cunning to infringe some rule or another (remember the constant destruction of landowners’ forests and crops), the breaking of a law, a quick rouble made out of an unknown neighbour or an anonymous state (the famous freeloading!). In short, this was the kind of behaviour that a law-abiding European city dweller would not permit himself. Does this not explain why Russians, in a predominantly peasant country, did not demonstrate this criminal mentality while they lived in villages?

In the village, with no anonymity, they always knew who was a thief, who a poacher, who a too merry widow. The new lumpen prole acquired the anonymity of the city. If a Western psychologist were to get inside the head of a Russian, he would be amazed at his subject’s motives and actions: the fact that a Russian will happily break any rule and collaborate with criminals, for money or to secure his own safety. Something that seems normal and natural to a Russian may suggest a criminal mentality to a Western mind. And this mentality is characteristic of all Russians, from a lift operator to the President of the Constitutional Court!

I am therefore convinced that in the eyes of contemporary European legal science, the Russian mindset is barbarically anachronistic, and, you could say, criminal.

Imagine the expression on the face of Elizabeth Gloster, the London High Court Judge, when Roman Abramovich answered the question “Why did you not pay tax on your excess profits?” by saying “It didn’t make any sense”.

To sum up: I would just like to express my hope that a serious study of Russian society as it is today will help the newly-emerging middle class acquire what I would call historical forbearance.   

I understand impatience, I welcome the wish to act straight away, but let’s not forget the tragic consequences that are inevitable when “the cork is broken and the wine needs to be drunk”. The lives of Lenin and Che Guevara are only too obvious examples of what happens.     

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