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Update the software of the Russian soul?

Government attempts to modernise Russia are doomed because the Russian mindset remains stuck in an unchanging peasant mentality, laments film-director Andrei Konchalovsky. No change will be possible without reloading our spiritual software, but do we want to change?

‘It’s much more difficult to discern the problem than to find the solution. The former demands imagination, while the latter just demands know-how.’

J.D. Bernal

This article is based on a lecture I gave at the international symposium ‘Culture, Cultural Change and Economic Development’. Participants included world-renowned Russian and foreign academic economists, sociologists, and culturologists and included some Nobel Prize winners. Needless to say, for me it was a revelation to meet my idols, my teachers in the world of culturology: the American Lawrence E. Harrison and the Argentinian Mariano Grondona. I owe a great debt to them for my own understanding of the destiny of my country and, of course, to the works of the late Samuel P. Huntington. The very fact that outstanding scholars were in Moscow to discuss the influence of our national mentality on Russia’s economic and political development was in itself quite an event, and it happened thanks to the efforts and persistence of our remarkable economist, the director of the Higher School of Economics, Evgenii Yasin. It was good to be there if only because I knew I could learn so much and later pass it off as my own!

Trinity Rublev

Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Trinity

Andrei Konchalovsky: Few doubt that religion is one of the determining factors in forming the national culture and mentality.

To make my lecture clearer, and aim it at a wider readership, I have reworked it here and there. We can start with the title of the conference, because the concept of ‘culture’ is understood differently by different people. Just what is ‘culture’? It’s often understood as the creations of art and literature, or the manners of an educated person. But it goes far beyond that. The French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, who studied the American mindset in the mid-nineteenth century, defined it with the word ‘mores’. He wrote (and I quote from memory): ‘Mores enable a people to extract profit from even the most unfavourable climatic conditions and the most atrocious laws. No constitution will be safeguarded if the mores of the people oppose it.’

Lawrence Harrison spent twenty years in the countries of Latin America trying to get to the bottom of why those countries were developing, economically and politically, so slowly. He wrote: ‘We have to acknowledge that the word “culture” is quite diffuse and ambiguous, but if we examine those aspects of culture which have an influence on the economic, political, and social behaviour of peoples, then the meaning of that concept becomes more precise. Culture is a logically connected system of values, attitudes and institutions which influences all aspects of personal and collective behaviour.’ So culture is a system of values and convictions which are indispensable for a person of a given culture; culture is an ethical code, a mindset, mores… We more often use the concept of ‘national characteristics’. Culture is shaped by so many factors: geography, space, religion, history, size of population, climate, and so on. In my opinion, how any national culture comes to be shaped is as constrained and gradual as the emergence of an ecological system. It’s the same set of elements in which nature, in its unhurried way, achieves creation, all based on a stratification of circumstances. And, of course, we are dealing with Pascal’s ‘thinking reed’ – man, so religion is of primary significance in forming the ethics and culture of a given nation.

Harrison needed many years of unremitting work in Latin America to work out which values and attitudes in Iberian culture slowed up progress and economic prosperity. He came to the conclusion that some cultures not only opposed progress, but actually stifled it (he had Haiti in mind). He resolved to establish what the cultural forces were which favoured or suppressed the development of man’s creative capacities. He uncovered four basic factors determining whether a given culture was closed or open to new tendencies, whether it was inert or dynamic:

1: The radius of trust.

‘An ability to identify oneself with other members of society, to “co-experience”, to take pleasure in the success of another person and be disappointed by their failure – such is trust. In most backward countries the radius of trust is on the whole restricted to the family circle. Whatever is beyond that circle usually evokes indifference, even hostility. Nepotism and other forms of corruption are usually typical of such types of society...’  Does that bring anywhere to mind? Do similarities with anywhere strike you? Let’s go on...

2: The severity of the moral code.

Religion is the usual source of the ethical and moral system. According to Judeo-Christian morality man is responsible to God for his actions, whether in his relations with people or his work. But the extent of the responsibility in different religions is different. It may or may not be possible to redeem infringements of the moral code. So in different cultures individual responsibility can be very different.

3. The exercise of authority.

‘In Latin America authority is traditionally conceived as “licence”, a right to enrichment... If such a stereotype seems offensive and unfounded to anyone, he should just give a thought to how the typical president of a Latin-American state leaves his post an extremely rich man...’. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

4. Attitude to work, innovation, wealth.

People in backward countries treat work as an obligation. They work in order to live. In ‘dynamic’ countries people live in order to work. Innovation is perceived as a threat to the reigning stability, as some sort of heresy. The attitude to wealth is based on the false conception that wealth exists in an immutable quantity, which is just redistributed. Consequently, the economic prosperity of someone else is perceived as depriving you of a bite at the apple. Your neighbour’s success is a threat to your own wellbeing. In a dynamic culture wealth is understood as a constantly increasing quantity, enhanced by work, and so excludes the very phenomenon of redistribution.

I was literally shaken to the core by these discoveries of Harrison’s when I discovered them about ten years ago. But I experienced an even greater shock when Harrison introduced me to the works of the Argentinian sociologist Grondona, where he had elaborated his own typology of cultural values, rooted in the mindset of Latin-American peasants. He had independently come to conclusions which largely coincided with Harrison’s and called his system the ‘typology of peasant consciousness’. It is no surprise that the ethical code of the peasantry, which dates from the dawn of human civilisation, should be shared by all the peoples of the world. But subsequently, under the influence of the most varied circumstances (wars, migrations, the climate, population, and, of course, religions), this code began to evolve at different rates, and here and there simply ground to a halt in the early Middle Ages.

The Grondona-Harrison system may be projected on to Russian culture and so highlight those psychological attitudes which we would do well to set aside if we wish to evolve. Disdain for the law, the unruly character of authority, people’s reluctance to work for each other’s mutual benefit, passivity in the face of difficulties, the absence of civic consciousness, and the extremely selfish pursuit of one’s personal interests – these are the principal features of peasant consciousness. Of course, such unpleasant problems may also be encountered in other countries, such as America or Sweden. But, in Russia, as in Latin America and Africa, the four factors given above are utterly crucial and play an immense rôle in putting a brake on the development of society.

I think that the term ‘peasant culture’ confuses, in spite of its historical status. Many people perceive this term incorrectly. Even Evgenii Yasin, when I called Russia a country with a peasant mindset, intervened and declared that the majority of the Russian population now lives in towns. But that’s just it: the peasant ethic lives on in Russia, as it does in some other countries, dictating the behaviour not only of people who live in the countryside, but of those who work in factories, banks and even Parliament or the Kremlin! We may forget our peasant ancestors, though still profess the same values, at the very least the principle of exclusive trust in those close to us, preferably our relations...

So, an analysis of fundamental values also allows us to determine to what extent that mentality is capable of being receptive to what is new, and of improving itself. This is precisely the tool, so I thought, which might help us get to the bottom of the Russian national ethical code and get a grip on a roadmap to reforms of our national consciousness. And it was with the intention of hearing some revelations on this interesting subject that I went to the conference.

It is cause for regret that Evgenii Yasin’s Higher School of Economics is perhaps the only academic organisation in Russia to give serious thought to the problems which could cast light on the reasons for the failure of every effort by the Russian authorities to set the country on the path to modernisation. Since these attempts have been going on for the last three hundred years, I am struck that the Russian government has still not understood that a scientific study of the Russian mindset is needed and overdue. Do we not need a scientific explanation at the very least for the question why almost no Russians have any desire to participate in building their society?  We need a scientific explanation for why in Russia the nation and the state are still two separate entities and why the Russian regards the state as transcendental.  

Depressing as it may be, the Marxist Plekhanov’s idea that democracy was impossible in early nineteenth-century Russia because there were no historical preconditions for its development remains utterly topical even now.

Here’s how one African scholar characterised the situation in his country: ‘Our hardware is democratic, but the software we have is authoritarian.’ I can apply this directly to Russia. What can we do with our software?  It needs updating.  We need programmers and I’d hoped to meet them at the conference. Mariano Grondona’s typology clarified much in my mind. Most comforting for me was the conclusion that, given all the diversity in national cultures, all nations with an inert consciousness have something in common, and that for the moment a peasant consciousness still dominates in most countries. It was somehow reassuring: ‘Thank goodness we’re not the only ones left!’

The values and beliefs of an inert consciousness determine the politics and economics of an inert country, but they also influence more global processes. This may be clearly observed in the European Union. Don’t you think that the European Union, carried away by the idea of creating a Single Europe with a single market, currency, and economic rules, has to its surprise come up against an astonishing fact, which today somehow threatens the unity of the union? What has emerged is that some countries are different from others in their understanding of the economic discipline which was devolved on to them from Brussels. The crisis in Greece, the possible coming crisis in Spain and in other countries clearly indicate that ethical values in different European countries are anything but uniform. I shan’t be surprised if there are similar problems in Bulgaria or Romania and the question then arises of narrowing the Eurozone, and thus also the fall of ‘Greater Europe’. I even risk asserting that Václav Klaus was prescient when he came out against the unification of Europe, something which aroused the ire of President Barroso and led to unprecedented pressure from Brussels.

But it seems to me hardly fortuitous that Greece belongs to the Orthodox Christian tradition.

Few doubt that religion is one of the determining factors in forming the national culture and mentality. But few acknowledge that the continuing domination of peasant consciousness in the countries of South-eastern Europe and Russia can be explained by their Byzantine inheritance.   In the countries of Eastern Christianity the bourgeoisie, as a political and economic class, began to take shape five centuries later than in Western Europe. Comparing the features of the three main Christian religions in Europe, in accordance with the Human Development Index of the United Nations (the most developed country = 1, the most backward = 162), the indicators are as follows:

Protestant countries:   9.2

Catholic countries:     17.4

Orthodox countries:   62.6

The figures are persuasive. It struck me that some problems in our country were linked to the flexible ethical code of Orthodoxy. For instance, the idea that sin in Orthodoxy may be redeemed by repentance and confession in church. The Orthodox God is very kind: He forgives a lot, if we sincerely repent through confession. It is not for nothing that the Eastern Church has no conception of ‘mortal sin’, given anyone who committed one would unavoidably be deprived of God’s grace and burn in Hell. If first-grade students are asked whether they would prefer a kind teacher or a strict one, they certainly go for a kind one – that way they can misbehave! In this connection Lev Tolstoy wrote: ‘In the regular forgiving of sins at confession I see a harmful deceit which only serves to encourage immorality and destroys the fear of sinning.’ Is this not the root of the lax attitude to the law?  Breaking it brings no punishment from God or Caesar for a person of the Orthodox faith. But there are differences between Orthodox countries. In Greece more tolerance may be observed towards people of other confessions and towards the priest’s way of life. For example, in Greece a priest may play football, or share a service with a Catholic priest, etc. Why are the Greeks different? Why do Orthodox Slavs think differently from Catholics?

Of course, the climate and history are significant, but I feel that the main reason lies in how Eastern dogma was disseminated.

During the first millennium the evolution of Christianity was inseparable from the great traditions of philosophy: the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus were well known and the question as to whether the theologian should think or not simply didn’t arise.

The works of the church fathers Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great and other holy people we revere clearly show that they knew both Greek and Latin and were utterly at home with abstract philosophical concepts. The theological schools in the early days of Christianity taught not just languages, but dialectics, scholasticism, rhetoric, not to mention geometry, astronomy, and even music too. The theological milieu might well be considered to have constituted the intellectual élite of Europe, even after the schism of Christianity. But the translation of the Bible into Slavonic by Cyril and Methodius, even given the colossal humanistic significance of that presentation of learning to the broad masses, had one vital shortcoming. Greek and Latin remained out of reach, along with the whole invaluable set of scientific tools. Those languages providing the key to the wisdom of the ancient world were practically unknown in Rus [the original name for Russia, ed.]. This isolated Rus from the great European traditions of Graeco-Roman scholasticism, from the critical interpretation of any idea, including the religious. In Rus people had no conception of the political and legal culture of classical antiquity. This isolation from classical and medieval theological and philosophical thought largely contributed to the further schism of the Christian world. As the historians Karatsuba, Kurukin, and Sokolov write in their book ‘Choosing One’s History’ (2005): ‘Rus failed to take account of the experience of Western European scholasticism, the experience of open theological discussion. The sign of authentic piety in Rus came to be “unreasoning reason” (“Do not dare to have an opinion”, “Do not read many books, lest you fall into heresy”).’


Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky  ‘Byzantine influence brought us great blessings, but also one serious shortcoming."

In this connection the eminent Russian historian Klyuchevsky wrote: ‘Byzantine influence brought us great blessings, but also one serious shortcoming. The essence of this shortcoming was the excess of the Byzantine influence. For centuries Greek, and then Russian, priests schooled us to believe, to believe in everything and to believe everyone. This was very good, because then... in those ages faith was the sole power which could create a reasonable moral communal life.  What was not good was that alongside this we were forbidden to think; and this was not good particularly because, as was already the case, we had no particular inclination to think. We were put on our guard against the misuse of thought before we even knew how to use it. Time and again we were told: Believe, but do not philosophise. We began to fear thought, as we had feared sin, before we knew how to think; we began to fear inquisitive reason, as a tempter, before inquisitiveness was awakened in us. So when we encountered an alien thought, we took it on faith. We transformed scientific truths into dogma, scientific authorities became fetishes for us, the Christian temple of science became for us a heathen temple of scientific superstitions and prejudices. We free-thought in the way of the Old Believers, we used Voltaire à la Avvakum... [priest who led the Old Believer schism, ed]. The content of the thought changed, but the method of thinking remained the same. Under Byzantine influence we were serfs of an alien faith; under Western European influence we became serfs of an alien thought. (Thought without ethics is folly; ethics without thought is fanaticism)…’ The great Klyuchevsky!

He touched on the very nerve of the Russian mindset: HOW WE THINK! Faith without thought is doomed to fanaticism. An intolerance of heterodoxy. Numerous examples from the history of Russia confirm that an intolerance of innovation is rooted in its very innards.

Everything said by Klyuchevsky and others in no way denies the great spiritual value of Russian Orthodoxy.  Klyuchevsky himself was a believer, but as a thinking man he analysed those aspects of the Russian mentality, which to him seemed deficient, and sought an explanation for them. In any event, the first step towards getting rid of the causes of the inertia of our culture is to identify them. Orthodoxy as a shaping element of Russian culture  was and remains the principal spiritual source of the Russian view of the world; nothing has been able to eradicate it from Russian consciousness,  however much revolutionary reformers had recourse to fire and the sword to force the people to give it up. But evolution is a characteristic feature of all life:  it cannot be stopped, it can only be slowed down. A degree of ‘re-evaluation’ of the Orthodox value system is unavoidable for the sake of the vitality of this life-giving teaching.

Naturally, my reflections do not claim to be scientific arguments. This rather simplified presentation, if we take it to its logical conclusion, might seem amateurish. But even if some regard it as superficial, the proposed approach does suggest a point of view, a base for whoever wishes to REFLECT and COMPARE, in readiness for a perhaps more thorough study.

Nevertheless, appraising the rôle of Orthodoxy in the development of Russia is an explosive issue. It risks provoking an outburst of indignation, an unhealthy wave of resentment, and a latent, slumbering feeling of inferiority. So, unwilling to touch on a painful subject, economists and politicians prefer not to reflect on the influence of cultural and religious values on the evolution of society. They prefer to refer to unsuccessful policy decisions, poor rulers, the fragility of social institutions, or inadequate civil society, all of which allows them to ‘wrap’ the politically incorrect problem in cotton wool. But the acceleration of the process is a historical inevitability:  this will in the end make people pause to think what it is we have inherited deep down in our culture which is putting the brakes on the evolution of our society.


Russia is an ‘enigma’ not only for the West – we all know the expression ‘crazy Russians’ – it’s an ‘enigma’ for Russians themselves; and the pity is we don’t try to decipher it. I am not aware of a single institution which might have been commissioned by the government to study the typology of the Russian mindset. Or which might be doing it for practical reasons, just to have an idea of how the people might react to one or another step taken by the Government.

I should very much like to have meaningful answers to many questions relating to Russia. Here are three of them.

First, why is it that since the 14th century no bourgeois consciousness has developed in Russia? Why did no middle class appear after perestroika? The middle class isn’t the size of your shopping basket, it isn’t your ‘Mercedes’, it isn’t your villa in Monaco. The middle class is a view of the world formed by economic independence from authority and, consequently, the creation of a party for political independence.

Another tricky question: why is it so dangerous to serve in the army in peacetime Russia? There have been more deaths in the Russian army in peacetime than in Iraq and Afghanistan taken together throughout the most recent military campaigns. Why?

Russian Army

Andrei Konchalovsky: „Why is it so dangerous to serve in the army in peacetime Russia?”

And, thirdly, an utterly simple question: why can Russians build a rocket and send it off into space, but not make a decent car?

There’s a popular Russian comedy film: ‘Peculiarities of the National Hunt’. People who have seen it can doubtless imagine a series of similar films: ‘The Characteristics of Russian Banking’ or ‘The Characteristics of Russian Automobile Construction’.

Something is preventing us from creating the simplest things of good quality. But incredibly complicated things?  No problem!

If we pause to think about the profound links, the causes and effects, when searching for answers to such varied questions, we might stumble across one general cause. An answer to the last question will be quite simple: if the rocket didn’t fly, then someone would be severely punished. At other times he would have been shot. What does this mean?

This means that in areas of STATE IMPORTANCE there is a lofty system of PERSONAL responsibility. As our great writer Chekhov wrote in ‘Sakhalin Island’: ‘If it stinks in the loo, and if you can’t get a life because of all the thieving going on, then everyone is guilty, i.e. no one is guilty’. ‘No one’ is guilty, because there just is no concept of individual responsibility.

So: (1) a narrow circle of trust; (2) the absence of any feeling of personal responsibility; (3) no fear of breaking the law – these are just several typological national features which define the everyday life of the Russian. This ‘system’ of ours still prevails today, and I simply don’t know when we’ll rid ourselves of it. I remember an old, now legendary, story about Tvardovsky, who wanted to publish ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his magazine ‘The New World’ – at the time he was editor-in-chief. At that time, in 1962, this was such a revolutionary step that Tvardovsky, without a doubt, could not have proceeded with publication without the permission of the Central Committee of the Party. He went to see the Cultural Department of the Central Committee, where the head, Chernoutsan, read the story and replied: ‘That’s great! But there’ – and he pointed upstairs – ‘we won’t be understood.’ Tvardovsky took the story and went off to Lebedev, Khrushchev’s cultural assistant. He read it and said: ‘A fantastic talent! But there’ - and he pointed at the ceiling – ‘we won’t be understood.’ Tvardovsky then set off with the story to Suslov, the principal ideologist of the country. Suslov read it and said: ‘Fine! But there’ – and he pointed at the ceiling – ‘we won’t be understood.’ Tvardovsky got a meeting with Khrushchev, to whom his assistant Lebedev had already read ‘Ivan Denisovich’. Khrushchev called Tvardovsky in and said to him: ‘Yes, I consider that this is a powerful piece of work, very much so. But I’m afraid that they’ – and he pointed downstairs – ‘they won’t understand us.’ In other words, we’re all, from ‘bottom’ to ‘top’, utterly hostages of this system.

So I think that the most complex problem faced by the Russian government is one of trying to inculcate into Russian society an individual and a collective feeling of responsibility.

I am convinced that Russian ‘national characteristics’ conceal not only constructive latent forces, but also destructive ones.  These may have an even more profound influence on the course of events in Russia than the actions of external forces, be they the U.S.A, China, or globalisation.

I am also convinced that we will not be able to create a civic society if we do not decipher at least at a superficial level the ethical attitudes, convictions and priorities of the Russian mind, which are putting a brake on the development of Russia.

Nonetheless, I have not lost hope that it will be possible to isolate one basic ethical principle, some sort of ‘philosophical stone’, the precursor to most of the subsequent connections. Catching Grondona in a corridor, I asked him that question. I asked him whether he didn’t think the underlying principle of a dynamic culture was Man’s individual responsibility to God.  Such a principle had, after all, generated what is known as the alienation of (self-) consciousness, and consequently a whole series of new qualities – a broad circle of trust, identification of self with the problems of others, a high requirement on the quality of one’s work, etc.  I really wanted to hear someone’s views on this. So I caught up with Grondona in a corridor and asked him the question. Alas, Grondona got away with the polite phrase ‘Very interesting’ and shot off into the Gents – understandable, as the sessions and the papers were pretty long!

Incidentally, most of the papers devoted to Russia concentrated on problems expressed in figures, illustrations, and in comparisons between Russia and other more successful countries. I don’t mean that the presentations were somehow of no consequence, quite the contrary, they were full of information, useful and well argued. But I got the impression that none of the Russian scholars ascribed any significance to the Grondona-Harrison typology of cultural features, something I would call the Mendeleev Table of culturology.  At least I didn’t hear a single reference to this unique methodological tool.

Of the presentations by Russian economists I was impressed by Yasin, Lebedeva, and Tatarko’s paper. Here, and in others, the rather sad state of the Russian mindset, still way behind the social consciousness of advanced democratic countries, was convincingly demonstrated. But there were no recommendations for action. Indeed, at the conference there was not a single piece of effective, practical, even mistaken advice, which might answer the question, ‘What do we have to do to push Russian consciousness on to the path of development?’ Every time I asked this question, some sort of amorphous politically correct response was mumbled, e.g. ‘We must become more responsible’, or ‘Until we understand, we can’t...’, etc. I had to take the floor and say that if we were to generalise what had been said in all the papers about Russia, then we would have the sense of a gathering of doctors stating with regret that the patient was dangerously ill but, instead of designating a course of treatment, declaring that it would be quite good if he recovered. ‘We all know that!’, I felt like exclaiming. But, my dear scholars – what sort of treatment? Where’s the medicine?!

When Nadezhda Lebedeva came out with the familiar truth that Russia has a very strong hierarchical system, I asked for the nth time what steps she would suggest to get rid of this blemish? Honestly, I’d have been glad to hear a sincere ‘I don’t know!’ Instead the much-respected Evgenii Yasin declared that the best ‘medicine’ for hierarchy was democracy. To my question as to how democracy might actually come into being in Russia, Yasin replied, ‘Wait, it won’t be long!’ Such a thought from the lips of a respected economist stupefied me. I was struck by how differently we all understand the concept of ‘democracy’ and, indeed, by the tenacity of the typically Russian liberal dream that democracy is nearby, just around the corner! Professor Yasin added that Russia’s problem is that its rulers want to be tyrants, that they all demand an instant vertical system of power, and that this is a great shortcoming. In this too I observed a pernicious tendency to choose between the desirable and the undesirable, ignoring the objective presence of the possible and the impossible.

Now, this is an important question: is democracy cause or effect? If Evgenii Yasin considers that democracy will produce a new mindset and the hierarchy will disappear, then what forces does he think will establish this democracy in Russia?  We could just as successfully switch the concepts round and say that the best medicine for authoritarianism is equality of rights and the absence of hierarchy. I think this is a tragic delusion. Democracy cannot be the cause; democracy is the result of fundamental typological values evolving in the mindset of a people, values which will awaken in that people a longing for a civic society, and, in the final analysis, for democracy.  To sum up, we can say that Russia’s leading intellectuals, sociologists and economists have an insufficient understanding of which elements of culture will help us realise how culture influences progress. Essentially they were unprepared to hammer out measures which will contribute to change.

The English scholar John N. Gray, famous for his disdain for political correctness, wrote: ‘In the twenty-first century the world is full of the grandiose ruins of the unrealised utopias of the twentieth century. Surely we are not going to start constructing another beautiful illusion?’

It’s interesting that now, when the whole financial system of the liberal world has collapsed, John Gray’s thoughts sound particularly sobering. For instance, Gray argues that if humanity’s scientific knowledge is cumulative, i.e. constantly renews itself and grows, then human ethics do not progress; further, that if science constantly broadens the bounds of our knowledge of the surrounding world and arms man with the ability to transform nature, then human ethics are still as they were three thousand years ago. The ethical progress made in one generation, argues Gray, may be lost in the next. This is a very profound idea. Humanity expands its technical and scientific abilities, perfects its means of communication, aspiring to refashion the world, but human ethics don’t change. Man is just as afraid of starvation, poverty, degradation and death as his forefathers were. In the space of a few hours modern man can be transformed into a pitiful, trembling creature, an animal. You don’t need to be an inmate of Abu Ghraib, it’s enough to be a warder there - the photos of American soldiers maltreating their prisoners are direct proof of that. John Gray argues that any civilisation reaches its peak and then decays. We have an obligation always to bear this in mind and it seems to me that in this sense liberals are endeavouring to avoid politically incorrect doubts because they prefer to hold on to illusions which set their consciousness and their awareness at rest.

I’m now going to come out with another politically incorrect idea. The brilliant and paradoxical sociologist Alexander Zinoviev argued that our discussions of the development of society are governed by an outdated twentieth-century concept.  This concept is based on the conviction that by trial and error humanity moves towards a democratic model of society which is as it were unavoidable. After the fall of the ‘socialist camp’, Fukuyama was even upset that he had written about the end of history. But actually, a new process is already underway in the world. In various countries there is a slow, but steady fusion of three ruling élites: the political, the financial and the media. Of course, the monopolisation by the authorities of the information and media space proceeds with varying degrees of openness.

In Russia the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of authority have fused into one monolithic institution. But the result of these processes is that the part played by ruling elites in the construction of social systems is more important than ever before. In various societies we have the formation of a conglomerate which Alexander Zinoviev called a ‘superpower’. He wrote: ‘The world is entering a post-democratic era.   Civic democracy is being limited in both developing and developed countries. The world is moving from the level of society to that of “supersociety” and the influence of the conglomerate in power on the historical process has naturally become stronger.’  Zinoviev even asserts that we are entering an era of ‘planned history’. I can already see ironic smiles on readers’ faces, but, there we are, what I’m trying to do today is add fuel to the bonfire of your imagination. If for a moment we suppose that these assertions are not groundless, then we can imagine that the ‘superpower’ may require a scientific understanding of reality, which is impossible without understanding the cultural code of its country. And if we soberly look that reality in the eyes, we can say that the rôle of culturology is to assist the superpower if it realises that reforming the national consciousness is absolutely essential, to give it tools to undertake the analysis.

I can’t be sure that my opinion on this matter will never change. But I am sure that over the next 20 or 30 years my doubts will not become outdated, if only because they will be a reminder of mistakes made in the past and a warning against new ones. So, maybe here in Russia we should try to understand the system of values, which our people share, and stop striving towards the liberal philosophy of the West. Don’t you think it’s better to rely on our own philosophy, rather than on one borrowed from someone else? A philosophy that will concur with the spirit and mentality of our people, with their history, their attitude to life and natural way of living. I would call this philosophy “Realistic conservatism”.

Andrei Konchalovsky, Itogi magazine

I often wonder whether it’s possible to work out how we can at the very least inculcate the concept of Individual Anonymous Responsibility into our Russian consciousness. From the point of view of a behaviourist psychologist, responsibility is the consequence of a fear of breaking the law since breaking it leads to punishment. Anyone who has worked in the U.S.A. knows what dread a call from the Internal Revenue Service arouses in an ordinary American. However paradoxical, this dread, this conscious refusal to break the law is also a basic constituent of freedom. After all, it makes no difference whether you fear God’s punishment or the state legal system, what is important is that you don’t break the law – that’s where freedom begins.

I often think about how many components and how many centuries it took for history to forge one or another national ethics or mentality. The stability of these formations may be uniquely akin to the stability of the ecosystem. The ecosystem cannot be reversed, it can only be destroyed. In this sense new levels of knowledge or politics are needed if we are to try and influence such subtle and simultaneously stable formations, e.g. the ecosystem, or the national consciousness.

Attempting to change the national culture using jackboot tactics leads to the opposite result – the culture puts up a successful resistance. Examples of this are Iraq and Afghanistan. I have been saying for a long time that George W. Bush may quite rightly be called a Bolshevik, because the methods he used were in no way different from those used by Stalin and Mao. It is naïve to try and change the national consciousness with bayonets and decrees. It is as naïve as burning wooden idols in order to convert people to another faith, or shaving beards to make men Europeans. These mechanical means are like medieval science. But now we are living in a much more surprising world, where the laws of physics are constantly being enriched, and the laws of mechanics, thanks to nanotechnologies, are revealing new horizons using any of the many chemical elements, thereby upsetting all the usual ideas of the physical qualities of these elements. We live in a time when medicine is on the threshold of great discoveries, of prolonging life, and when genetic discoveries are revealing new and very subtle mechanisms to control the human organism and organic life. We live in a time when we are beginning to understand that the ecology of the planet is fragile, but that this powerful structure is resisting the activities of man on the Earth.

We are, however, still far from understanding what subtle non-linear thinking tools we need in order to influence our national culture. I am reminded of something said by the Puerto Rican culturologist Teodore Moscoso, who worked for twenty years in Latin America (quoted in one of his books by Lawrence Harrison): ‘The case of Latin America is so complex; it is so difficult to find a way out, here there is so much grief, there are so many dangers for people and for the whole world, that it is possible, without exaggeration, to talk of the torments of Purgatory. The longer I live, the more I understand: just as one man cannot save another if the other does not have the will to save himself, so one country, even with the best intentions, cannot save another, however hard it may try, if that country does not have the desire to save itself.’

Russia does not yet seem to have the desire to save itself; we are looking for guilty parties everywhere but in our culture. A grandiose task like CHANGING THE NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS will only be possible if Russian political, intellectual, and other social leaders realise that many of our traditional values are hindering the creation of a society headed for democracy and social justice. If all we have are outsiders’ attempts to realise these recommendations, be they foreign advisers or a foreign state, those attempts are doomed to failure.

Einstein was once asked what helped him to discover his revolutionary laws of physics. ‘That’s very simple,’ the scientist replied, ‘I simply listened to the voice of nature.’ ‘If it were that simple,’ they objected, ‘then many people could have discovered the theory of relativity.’ ‘Yes, that’s so,’ Einstein replied. ‘But nature’s voice is very soft, and my hearing is very fine...’

If only humanity could acquire that perfect pitch so that it could hear the cosmic whisper of nature, which created all national characteristics. If we hear this voice, we shall understand how to help countries with an inert consciousness to open themselves up to new vistas, to prosperity and to equality.


Andrei Konchalovsky delivered his essay at the Samuel P. Huntington Memorial Symposium on Culture, Cultural Change and Economic Development which took place In Moscow at the State University Higher School of Economics on May 24-26, 2010. The event was organized in coordination with the Cultural Change Institute (Prof. Lawrence Harrison) and the Higher School of Economics (Prof. Evgeny Yasin). The Symposium was a follow-up to the 1999 «Cultural Values and Human Progress» Symposium at Harvard, which was co-organized by Prof. Samuel Huntington and Prof. Lawrence Harrison.

About the author

Andrei Konchalovsky is theatre and film director and scriptwriter. His films are known and loved in Russia and other countries and have received numerous awards from various international film festivals.

Read On

Robert Service, Russia: Experiment with a People, Harvard University Press, 2006, 432 pages

Peter Reddaway, Dmitri Glinski , The Tragedy of Russia's Reforms: Market Bolshevism Against Democracy, United States Institute of Peace, 2001, 768 pages

Andrzej Walicki, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture, Yale University Press, 2006240 pages

Richard Pipes, Property and Freedom, Vintage, 2000, 352 pages

More On

Andrei Konchalovsky


Theatre and film director and scriptwriter; a National Artist of Russia; a member of Russia’s National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His films are known and loved in Russia and other countries and have received numerous awards from various international film festivals. Films include The First Teacher, The Story of Asya Klyachina,  Siberiada and The Speckled Hen. His most popular Hollywood releases are Maria's Lovers, Runaway Train based on a script by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and Tango & Cash, starring Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell. Andrei Konchalovsky has written 33 film scripts and made 25 films. He has worked as a stage director in Russia, France, Italy and Poland. He is the brother of film director and actor Nikita Mikhalkov and the son of poet Sergei Mikhalkov. He has written over 100 sparkling and trenchant essays and 6 books.  

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