Streetwise Professor

March 11, 2009

Russophobia, Revisited

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:42 pm

Last summer, I wrote a post on Russophobia.  One of the main themes of that essay is that the worship of state power was inimical to human freedom and human development:

This credo contrasts starkly with the political philosophy that has dominated Russian thought from the rise of the patrimonial state to the very present. Throughout Russian history, the individual residing in the territory ruled by Tsar, Commissar, or latterly, President has been more subject than citizen. The government did not serve the individual, the individual served the government. It was not a government of the people, by the people, and for the people; it was a people of the state, ruled by the state, to be used for the state’s ends. The role of the state was not to serve the people; it was the role of the people to serve the state.

Today Paul Goble discusses a recent article by Denis Dagrunsky that makes a closely related point:

In his commentary on Osovtsov’s article, Dragunsky argues that this “conversation [about the potential of Putin’s departure] is extraordinarily important – but not as a scenario but rather as a symptom” of where Russia is now, obsessively and almost “monarchically” concerned with Putin and his regime rather than with more fundamental difficulties that country faces now as in the past.  

There is an assumption behind Osovtsov’s analysis just as there was behind the actions of those who overthrew Nicholas II that the elimination of one man would be sufficient to “solve” Russia’s problems. But as subsequent events showed, the oppressive “paternalism” that had informed the tsars continued unabated or even worse under the Soviets.

“In place of the tsar came Lenin,” Dragunsky points out, and to extend the analogy, “if V.V. Putin suddenly were to leave his post and become a private person, just about nothing in the structure and functioning of the regime would change,” however much those who talk about his departure believe it would usher in the promised land.  

Why should Russians expect, he asks rhetorically, that “the departure of one man would mean such radical and invariably positive changes” – especially since even with his exit there would “remains hundreds if not thousands of people from his command who would continue to occupy key positions in the center and in the regions, in politics and in business?

In democratic countries, the call for replacing one president with another means, Dragunsky points out, that “we will hold elections and vote for a more acceptable person.” But those in Russia who shout “Down with Putin!” are in fact saying something with an entirely different meaning.

What they want, he suggests, is the dismissal of the prime minister “first” and only after that happens, the holding of “genuinely free elections [and] the reform of the entire state administration, the entire economy, politics and culture. And then we [Russians] shall begin to live.”  

But Dragunsky continues, the only possible guarantor of such transformations could be the Lord God. And in this way, he says, “political messianism before our eyes is being converted into the entirely ordinary kind,” a reflection of the difficulties the opposition has in thinking about Russia or the government as separate things.

“Let the Russia of the future be conceived however you like – imperial or national, federal or unitary, post-industrial or information, even nano-technology. But just not prime ministerial or presidential,” Dragunsky insists. “It is time at long last to think about the leadership separately from the society as a whole” and thus move beyond “messianic fantasies.”

Dragunsky’s point is important but perhaps in a way that he does not entirely recognize: the reality that many Russians have not yet made that distinction between the state and the country likely guarantees that future changes will involve the kind of radical discontinuities that the country has experienced rather than the more evolutionary change many have hoped for. [Emphasis mine.]

I think Goble’s last point is the essential one.  Partly for historical and ideological reasons, partly as the result of relentless propaganda, many Russophiles (and the Slavophiles) identify the state and the narod as an organic whole; and assert that the state is the embodiment of the Russian people (all the while, ironically, desiring to limit or deny altogether the ability of the people to influence let alone control the state’s actions.)  This failure to delineate separate spheres for the individual and the state, and the tendency to concede, and often celebrate, the interests of the individual to those of the state, is what I find so objectionable about Russian political life, thought, and history.  

It is also, I believe in agreement with Goble, one of the factors that makes Russia particularly prone to “radical discontinuities” (a euphemism for revolution, civil war, terror, and chaos).  The state’s arrogation of all powers tends to lead to situations in which its intrusions on the lives and property of its subjects become intolerable, and the lack of institutions that facilitate accommodation of the state to society’s demands, tends to make conflict more likely.  Indeed, the very mindset that the state is the people leads to inherent internal contradictions that tend to culminate in violence and repression.  In a system dominated by this mindset, any opposition is tantamount to treason.  In most times, this encourages sullen apathy.  But when strains become too acute, it can explode into near-anarchistic violence.  

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  1. There has been a support site for Svetlana Bakhmina, the young mother and Yukos lawyer denied parole, circulating for months in the Russian blogosphere which is an insight to your theme. Her well publicized situation, debated on Russian tv, is grossly unfair and truly repulsive. I look at it from time to time to see how many more signatures have been slowly added, now past 94,000. Imagine what the numbers would be in the US or EU. What is fascinatiing is the comments which are few and with far too many of them grovelling and pleading for Medvedev’s merciful intervention. Most of the comments are for intervention on humanitarian grounds, few rage at the judicial system that destroyed her life. Even more fascinating is that the subscribers are Russia’s more sophisticated and better educated which is depressing.

    Russia is a very flawed culture is my opinion, as flawed as anything you see in Africa and the ME. Normalicy to most Russians is pathology to most westerners and I see nothing past Putin that will change that. Time isn’t on their side with their pitiful demographic decline.

    Comment by penny — March 12, 2009 @ 10:19 am

  2. Penny, the idea of petitioning the tsar in Russia goes way back. One could petition the tsar for something bad that a nobleman did, and and the “good” tsar would “make it right.”

    But it seems to me, in view of what SWP has pointed out, that Bakhmina’s plight is hopeless. Is there a “bad” nobleman somewhere to point the finger at, so that “tsar” Medvedev can make himself look good?

    Raging at a “bad” nobleman is one thing. Raging at an entire judicial system – well, that would call into question not only the judicial system, but everything else. And one certainly can’t have that – in Russia.

    Bribery would probably be more effective. Sad, but true.

    Comment by elmer — March 12, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

  3. Well said, elmer. My point in using Bakhmina’s situation/site was as much to demonstrate how paltry and pathetic is the level of civil engagement and understanding of democracy by, and mind you those responding are the better educated, Russians.

    She was moved to a Moscow prison when the new Khodorkovsky show trial opened most likely to be coerced into giving false testimony against him. Here’s a woman who was nothing but an innocent pawn when she was arrested with two little boys at home and now has a new baby born in prison. Her situation is so grotesque and the general public response is so symbolic of Russian cruelty with each other, passivity and willful ignorance.

    You are right, she is a hopeless cause.

    Comment by penny — March 12, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  4. […] Professor writes about “the worship of state power” in Russia. Cancel this […]

    Pingback by Global Voices Online » Russia: State vs Individual — March 13, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

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