Streetwise Professor

December 21, 2008

Past as Prologue?

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:49 pm

Many modern historians of Russia, Stephen Blank comes immediately to mind, draw strong parallels between the current trajectory of the Russian state (and sometimes society) and its tsarist and Muscovite predecessors.   I came across this article (based on a chapter in a book) by Thoedore Dalrymple that certainly evokes such comparisons.   It is an essay on the Russian travelogue of the French nobleman, the Marquis de Custine.   Dalrymple focuses on Custine’s discussion of the underlying dishonesty of tsarist society.   In light of recent events, Dalrymple’s (and Custine’s) descriptions of early-19th century Russia resonate today:

Custine grasped that the propensity to deceive and to be (or to pretend to be) deceived lay at the heart of Russia’s evident malaise. The maintenance of despotism depended upon this universal vocation for untruth, because without the fiction that the despotism was necessary, that it conduced to the happiness and well-being of all, and that any alternative would be disastrous, the subject population would cease to be controllable. The inability to speak even the most evident truth perverted all human relationships and institutions. And of course the lie came to be the foundation of all twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, without which they could not survive. “The political system of Russia,” wrote Custine, “could not withstand twenty years of free communication with Western Europe.”

Unlike so many gullible intellectuals of the twentieth century who visited communist countries in the spirit of religious pilgrims, Custine understood only too well both the techniques and the meaning of the attempts to deceive him. “Russian hospitality, bristling with formalities . . . is a polite pretext for hampering the movements of the traveller and limiting his license to observe,” he concluded. “Thanks to this fastidious politeness, the observer cannot visit a place or look at anything without a guide; never being alone he has trouble judging for himself, which is what they want. To enter Russia, you must deposit your free will as well as your passport at the frontier. . . . Would you like to see . . . a hospital? The doctor in charge will escort you. A fortress? The governor will show it to you, or rather, politely conceal it from you. A school, any kind of public establishment? The director, the inspector, will be forewarned of your visit. . . . A building? The architect will take you over all its parts and will, himself, explain everything you have not asked in order to avoid instructing you on the things you are interested in learning.” No wonder, he added, that “the most highly esteemed travellers are those who, the most meekly and for the longest time, allow themselves to be taken in.” No visitor to a communist country could fail to recognize the description.

For the whole elaborate charade of despotism to work, for the pretense that the despotism is both indispensable and conducive to the welfare of all, everyone must appear to believe in it—including the despot himself. The czar, as a consequence, remains trapped in a permanent state of fear and irritation, because he knows that he is not in fact omnipotent, but he cannot acknowledge openly this obvious fact and he cannot permit anyone or anything else to question the pretense on which his authority depends. “Subjecting the world to his supreme commands,” Custine says of him, “he sees in the most insignificant events a shadow of revolt. . . . A fly that buzzes unseasonably . . . humiliates the Czar. The independence of Nature seems to him a bad example.” Any rebellious behavior on the part of the meanest of his subjects assumes a disproportionate importance and must be ferreted out and put down. So the czar, through an army of spies, must keep an eye on everyone. He is “both eagle and insect, soaring above the rest of humanity and at the same time insinuating himself into the fabric of their lives like a termite into wood.” His position compels him to be paranoid: “an Emperor of Russia,” wrote Custine, “would have to be a genius . . . to keep his sanity after twenty years of ruling.” Such, of course, was precisely the problem all communist dictators faced.

“His position compels him to be paranoid.”   “[A]n Emperor or Russia . . . would have to be a genius to keep his sanity after twenty years of ruling.”   Putin’s latest diatribe, and other actions, suggest that the compulsion to paranoia has had its inevitable effect.

If the czar is all-powerful, he is of course responsible for everything: therefore nothing untoward can happen in the country without the imputation of the czar’s ill will. But in that case, how is the imputation of omnipotence to be reconciled with that of perfect benevolence? If something terrible happens to innocent people, either the czar must not be omnipotent or must not be benevolent. The only way to square the circle is to lie oneself and be deceived when others lie in similar fashion: to see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil, even when evil abounds.

For example, shortly after his arrival in Russia, Custine went to the annual festival at the palace of Peterhof, a festival of such magnificence that it took 1,800 servants to light 250,000 lamps for it. Visitors reached the palace by boat from Saint Petersburg, and one boat had sunk in a storm on the way to the festival with the loss of all its passengers and crew. But because “any mishap [in Russia] is treated as an affair of State” in Russia, and because “to lie is to protect the social order, to speak the truth is to destroy the State,” there followed “a silence more terrifying than the disaster itself.” In Russia, people of the highest social class—as were the boat’s passengers—could disappear not only without a trace but without comment. Who in such a country could ever feel safe?

The silence encompassed not only current events, but extended back into history. A Russian nobleman, Prince Peter Koslovsky, had warned Custine before his arrival in Russia that in his country “despotism not only counts ideas and sentiments for nothing, but remakes facts. It wages war on evidence and triumphs in the battle. . . . [The Emperor’s] power is more far-reaching than God’s, for God makes only the future, while the Czar remakes the past.”

[The last remark is particularly apposite, given the government’s attempts to re-write the history books, and rehabilitate Stalin, among other things.]

Custine also noted the profligate expenditure of humanity by the Russian state:

Custine could wring meaning even from stones: a great interpreter of the meaning of architecture, he caught from the buildings and streets of Saint Petersburg another deep glimpse into the Russian soul. The city, to which he did not deny a certain beauty, was to him the physical embodiment of despotism. It was founded as the imperial capital not for the benefit of the Russians, as the natural expression of their economic or social activity, but as a permanent bulwark of the czarist regime in the Baltic against the Swedes. The very selection of the terrain—a freezing swamp—for the construction of a city by the fiat of the czar was an expression of contempt for humanity, for in such a place construction necessarily entailed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men. Custine noted that the stucco that veneered Saint Petersburg’s grandiose government office buildings—”temples erected to clerks,” he called them—was a material peculiarly unsuited to the Russian climate, such that it took thousands of workmen to restore the crumbling stucco in the three-month plastering season every year, large numbers of them meeting death in the process because of the flimsy scaffolding on which they worked. Only where human labor—and life itself—ostentatiously counted for nothing could such a system of building maintenance have been envisaged, let alone tolerated.

This point was brought home to me by something I watched on History International last week–“Building Empires: Russia.”   It presented the histories of myriad gargantuan projects in Russia, and their vast toll in human life.   The irony is that although at one time western Europeans viewed Russia as a land of numberless human hordes, today the country is dying.   In the past–as recently as Soviet times–Russian leaders expended millions of lives with little thought to achieve their vision of derzhavnost. Today the vision lives on but the human means to achieve it are rapidly ebbing away.

Dalrymple’s and Custine’s critical view of the inherent dishonest of despotic/autocratic systems is shared by Richard Pipes.   Pipes’s autobiography, Vixi, emphasizes that the thing that repelled him most when visiting the USSR was the pervasive dishonesty, and its corrosive effect on human relations.

Writing almost 5 years ago, sociologist Vladimir Shlapentokh suggested that despotic dishonesty characterized Putin and Putinism:

Did Putin Lose Contact with Reality?

With Putin’s quasi-ideology, which tries to make the contradictory elements of his ideology plausible, he was forced to hide facts and distort reality. His last presidential address (May 26) was typical in this respect. Putin eliminated the division of power in the country, and took control of the media (according to Freedom House, among 29 countries of the former Soviet block, Russia is in 29th place with respect to its level of democracy). However, in spite of the evident facts, the president has taken the posture of a great champion of democracy, freedom and civil society, while sending a clear signal to the state bureaucracy and media that they should, as in Soviet times, always sort the Kremlin’s statements into real commands and pure propaganda, as well as the declarations related to the public ideology, and those reflecting the Kremlin’s real views. The seasoned Russian bureaucrats, who have not forgotten how to decode Pravda’s editorials, will pay much more attention to the statement that “freedom should be responsible,” or that some nongovernmental organizations are too interested in acquiring money from abroad, which is indeed a sinister signal for the already weak liberal structures in the country. When Putin’s apparatchiks learned in June 2004 that the most liberal program on Russian TV, Leonid Parfenov’s “The other day,” was shutdown under some ridiculous pretext, they saw this as a real message to continue suppressing democracy in the country. Other similar signs included the case of Putin’s youth organization “Moving together,” which declared war on all four of the remaining liberal newspapers. Senator Liudmila Narusova, Putin’s puppet and the wife of the late Anatolii Sobchak, suggested the necessity of censoring the Internet.

The list of blatant falsehoods uttered by Putin probably started in 2001 during his trip to Spain. Responding to a reporter’s question, he said that he was unable to contact the general prosecutor in order to inquire about why the famous oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky had just been arrested. The list of such behaviors had already grown quite long by June 2004. It included statements about the Kremlin’s “neutrality” in the Khodorkovsky affair, about the handling of the terrorist attacks against the Moscow theater in October 2003, the case of Levada’s All Russian Public Opinion Center, and about the “honest” character of the election of the Chechen president Akhmet Kadyrov in 2003.

As the prominent Russian journalist Evgenii Kisilev courageously noted in regard to Putin’s position on the Yukos affair, “there are many cases when the real facts are very different from the president’s words.” Andrei Piantkovsky, another prominent journalist, went even further in describing Putin’s loss of reality. He compared Putin with the ailing Lenin who in 1922 read an issue of Pravda that had been prepared only for him by the members of the Politburo in order to provide the leader with some pleasant news about the country. The diagnosis of Putin as a leader who lost contact with his country has become a popular theme among all Russian journalists who can afford to take a critical stance toward the Kremlin.

His personal initiative to double the GDP by 2010 aroused skeptical comments not only among the Russians (only 10 percent of them believed in the feasibility of this goal), but also among people close to him, including his Minister of Economy German Gref who at the meeting of the government in June refused, as noted in Izvestia, “even to hint at the theoretical possibility of the implementation the president’s wish.” Foreign experts point to many conditions that must be met in order to attain this goal, as suggested by the mission of the IMF, which visited Moscow in June. A Russian newspaper published the conclusion of the mission with the title “The IMF mission hits Putin where it hurts.”

Some of Putin’s subordinates were even more eager to distort reality along the “party line.” Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov declared a plan to replace the contribution of oil production to the GDP growth by three times “in the next few years” by “uncovering sources of economic growth that are based on diversification, strengthening the competitive position of Russian enterprises in domestic and foreign markets, and improving the entrepreneurial climate by stimulating investment, introducing new technology, and organizing ways of doing business.” Even in the giddy days of the first five-year plans, Stalin did not promise to radically change the technological and organizational structure of the economy in “a few years” as Putin’s prime minister did. His promises look like something out of one of Baron Munchausen’s fairytales. In light of Fradkov’s fantasies, it is not amazing that the president, during his meeting with the president of Dagestan in June 2004 on Russian TV, did not utter a single word of skepticism when the president of Dagestan, one of the most impoverished republics in the country, promised to “triple the GDP.” Moreover, Putin remained silent when his agriculture minister declared, also in June, that Chechnya, which has been ravaged by war, “would soon flood the country with grain.” Putin also shows his denial of reality when he avoids in his public speeches the most acute issues that are vehemently discussed in society. In July 2004, for instance, Putin did not say a word about his attitudes toward the government’s decision to monetize the benefits of retired and handicapped people – a move that aroused uproar in the country. Putin also avoided discussion on the topics of the threat of a banking crisis and the conflict with Georgia over Southern Osetia (a Georgian region that proclaimed itself independent).

Putin’s grip on reality fell into question when he exclaimed in May, after viewing the Chechen capital Groznyi from the air, that he had never imagined such destruction left by the war. He also showed some amazement when he visited the sailors’ hostels in the Far East, declaring that he had never guessed that the conditions could be so terrible.

Putin’s own plans as well as the competition among his subordinates to draw his attention with “bold initiatives” and “projects” are reminiscent of the last years of Nikita Khrushchev’s regime when the general secretary suggested the utopian idea of catching up the United States in two or three years in the production of milk and meat. Both then and now, bureaucrats competed with each other to win the favor of the leader by making spectacular promises. As I was told in the mid 1960s by Khrushchev’s son-in-law Alexei Adjubei, the general secretary was once confused when he saw a ridiculous poster, the brainchild of an overzealous party bureaucrat, that read “Let us double the production of milk by four times.”

Putin’s recent disquisitions on the economic crisis strengthen Shlapentokh’s case.

The historical continuity between Custine’s Russia and today’s is dispiriting.   Dalrymple writes:

Custine could prophesy that within two or three generations a violent taclysm would occur that would spell not liberation but a renewed and more terrible form of despotism, for men with souls molded by czarism would have no vocation for freedom.   The trmoil that Russia has experienced in escaping the legacy of communism [Dalrymple was writing in 2000] would not have surprised Custine in the least, nor would he have expected a happy outcome at any time in the future.

Nor, I daresay, would he arrive at a different conclusion today.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Great post, SWP, you’re a classy guy quoting Theodore Dalrymple, an astute commentor on pathological society and their vanities and corruption, especially the Brtit’s decent into stupidity. I love anything he writes. He is archived at City Journal here: for those that are new to him.

    Russians were beasts of burden long before Communism, which suited their culture of collectivism well. These are people, correct me if I’m wrong, that have no vocabulary or concept of “privacy”, no small matter in advancing a western non-tribal society with capitalism and one-man-one-vote as a civic detail. What a contrast to de Tocqueville’s timeless observations of Americans.

    “The political system of Russia,” wrote Custine, “could not withstand twenty years of free communication with Western Europe”….which creates an interesting test now, just what will the Moscow and St. Petersburg folks do, they are the majority of internet users, as Putin’s vice tightens on their window to the real world? Checking on-line petitions to protest Putin’s hijacking of their Constitution circulating websites on popular judging by the pathetic response the answer isn’t pretty(13,000 signatures only in the past say two weeks.)

    Comment by penny — December 22, 2008 @ 7:16 pm

  2. Thanks, Penny–I’m a longtime Dalrymple fan. I detest political correctness, and he is one of its most eloquent and informed critics.

    Always trying to keep it classy;-)

    Re “free communication with Western Europe”–I think Putin is of one mind (on this one issue, anyways) that an extended period of openness would indeed doom his system. He certainly acts as if that is true. I wonder how long the internet will remain (relatively) open in the RF.

    And yes, it is dispiriting in the extreme to observe (a) Russia’s emaciated civil society, and (b) Russia’s historical continuity. Remembering well all the “end of history” rot, and the starry-eyed optimism at the fall of the Wall, I would hope that more people in the US (I’ve given up on W. Europe) would see things for what they are, rather than for what they would wish them to be. Would that I could say that I were more optimistic on this score.

    Thanks for your comments. Have a great holiday–er, I mean Christmas!

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — December 22, 2008 @ 8:05 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress