Sunday, December 21, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia Recapitulating Soviet History But More Quickly and with Perhaps a Different End, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 21 – On an accelerated basis, Russia is “recapitulating the path of the USSR but in a ‘soft’ and abbreviated” way, a pattern that suggests the near future could feature “a soft Stalinism,” “neo-Brezhnevism,” and perestroika, but also the third “end” of the Russian state with an ensuing and terrible “time of troubles,” according to a leading Siberian analyst.
Aleksey Mazur, who heads the analytic department of, argues that those who focus on the very near term hope that the current wave of repression will be followed by “the restoration of political freedoms and ‘democracy,’” without recognizing that this repetition will almost certainly prove to be “a farce” (
“Russia is completing its latest historical cycle,” Mazur says, something that could point to the end of the state or of the country or to a new rebirth. Which one of these happens “over the next ten to 15 years” is not something pre-ordained by larger social and political forces but “depends on us,” on the choices that Russians at all levels make.
Mazur then points to what he calls “a small, subjective distinction” between the period ahead and perestroika at the end of Soviet times. “Today,” Mazur says, “it is already obvious that the course of perestroika was defined by the personal qualities of the USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev.”
Had someone else been in office at that time and been prepared to pursue “a tough line, the USSR might have been preserved. And if it had [nonetheless] fallen apart, that might have taken place according to an entirely different scenario, one more like the Yugoslav. In any case, history would have gone in a different direction.”
That makes the current situation different. “Whatever illusions there were about the liberalism of Dmitry Medvedev, today it is evident that there will not be a voluntary liberalization of the regime.” That is because the current ruling elite is convinced that “the collapse of the USSR took place because of the weakness of Gorbachev.”
Not long ago, Mazur recalls, Sergey Shoygu was asked about the similarities and differences between United Russia and the CPSU and said pointedly: “We will not give up power so easily.” Thus, as Beslan and Nord-Ost show, “there will not be negotiations of any ‘neo-perestroika’” from the current rulers.
But to say that is not to answer all questions because a lot depends not only on whether the population will remain relatively passive in the face of the current crisis but also on how the force structures will respond when they realize that they are being sent “not against ‘enemies of the people’ but against the people” as such.
One possibility in that circumstance is that “the OMON will refuse to apply force against the protesters of the kind that would result in victims despite orders to do so.” If that happens, Mazur suggests, then the collapse of the regime could “take place very quickly in the fashion of 1991.”
But another possibility is that “force will be applied” and applied in a very “harsh” manner as happened in 1999. “Who could have predicted [then] that the successor of Yeltsin would not only hold onto power but would rule for the next ten years as a minimum?” Mazur asks rhetorically.
If that were to happen, Mazur says, the current powers that be might remain in office, but the regime would change much as that of the last tsar, Nicholas II, changed after Bloody Sunday in 1905, and would be confronted by a rising tide of strikes, violence, “hatred and the most genuine extremism.”
What would result from all that, Mazur says, is “almost impossible” to predict. But he concludes his essay with a suggestion that if anyone wants to think about Russia’s immediate future, he or she must go even further back into the history of the country than Soviet times or the beginning of the 20th century.
“The historical analogue of Vladimir Putin,” he suggests, “is not Brezhnev or even more Stalin.” Rather he resembles those involved in the two earlier “ends of history” in the Russian past: the collapse of Kievan Rus’ and the rule of Boris Godunov, who reestablished the regime of Ivan the Terrible “in a soft variant.”.
Godunov sent young people to study in the West, “but they did not return” because they did not see a place for themselves under “that regime, in that country, or under that tsar.” According to Mazur, today, the situation is similar, however much the regime talks about change it remains unattractively mired in theft and corruption.
“What came after Godunov,” the commentator notes, “we know well: the Great Time of Troubles, with all against all, and the country an arena for armed adventurists. Out of the fire of chaos, the phoenix of Russia was reborn.” But that was not a given four centuries ago, and it is not a given now.
At present, “many think that the problems of Russia are to be found in the rulers. If we change them, all will be well. But that is not the case,” Mazur insists. Instead, Russia faces a new time of troubles, and the task of its people “is to find or create in itself a healthy basis for the rebirth of the country,” something he implies will be far from easy to do.

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