Vienna, February 6 – The increasingly widespread view among members of Russia’s intelligentsia that their country cannot move beyond authoritarianism not only precisely mirrors the view of many in the Russian state but represents a major obstacle to the achievement of positive change in the future, according to one of Moscow’s most thoughtful commentators.
In an article in today’s “Novaya gazeta,” Emil Pain says that he fully understands why there is a demand now for such pessimistic views but notes that those who have them typically have failed to recognize why that is so and to recall their very different views only a decade or so ago (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2009/012/17.html).
The head of the Moscow Center for the Study of Xenophobia and the Prevention of Extremism at the Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology, Pain has a long and distinguished record of challenging conventional wisdom on a wide variety of subjects and what is more important of being proved right into almost all cases.
Among the shibboleths of Russian life that he has shown to be false is the notion that there is such a thing as “ethnic crime,” the belief that the influx of non-Russians into Moscow and other cities is behind spread of lawlessness there. As Pain has shown, the evidence, often provided by the very institutions that propound this view, does not support.
Now, he is taking on the perhaps even more widespread conviction that Russia cannot escape its culture or survive without an authoritarian state. That serves the interests of those in power, he points out, but it is ahistorical and dangerously wrong when propounded, admittedly with regret, by members of the Russian intelligentsia.
Pain begins his essay by noting that in Soviet times, many Russians blamed the country’s climate for the chronic shortages of food. Now, even though the climate has not changed, few talk about it, focusing instead on “the so-called cultural determinism” that supposedly makes it impossible for Russia to be anything by an authoritarian empire.
According to Russia’s current rulers, the country’s current “imperial form of rule, which is called ‘sovereign democracy,’” is the product of Russia’s “special path” of historical development about which nothing can be done, however much some in the intelligentsia may regret that fact.
In the view of “the ideologues of [this] new edition of official nationality in Russia,” Pain continues, “the best periods of its history have been connected with despotism,” whereas “all attempts at liberalization and democratization have taken place during periods when the state was weak and the country experiencing crises.”
At a superficial level, of course, this argument may appear convincing. When things are going well, no one thinks about changes, and consequently reforms always occur when the state is weak, something Pain says that sets off “a new cycle of swings of the Russian pendulum, from the strong hand to freedom and then back again.”
Russia’s liberal intellectuals who “angrily reject” the regime’s suggestion that this special path represents “a millennium of the greatness of Russia” are nonetheless quite “ready to accept this very same myth in another form” and view the history of their country as being “a millennium of slavery.”
One can understand why Russians accept this fatalistic view about their past and hence their future at present, Pain says. Making bleak prognostications is profitable: If they turn out to be true, their authors are viewed as visionaries; if they don’t, “no one will take note and all will be happy.”
But he goes on to say that such views now are not so much a manifestation of Russian national culture as “a sign of the times.” In the early 1990s, “during the period of democratic euphoria and massive hopes for a rapid improvement in life,” few talked about older historical and cultural factors that would make that task extremely difficult in the short term.
But in less than two decades, all that has changed, a reflection Pain insists of the fact that “Russia is a pendulum. Everything in it changes quickly,” and among the things that have changed are predictions about the future, views about the past, and about the very possibility of still more change ahead.
The Moscow scholar argues that it is quite clear “why there is no demand for democracy in Russia today but there is a demand for paternalism, fatalism, and their ‘intellectual’ defenders.” But intellectuals, who pride themselves on their ability to think critically, should not fall into that trap.
And if such people simply look around, they will see plenty of reasons for why the idea of “a special path” for Russia is a blind alley. The world crisis “dispelled illusions about Russia as an island of stability.” Indeed, it showed that countries that try to live by the export of raw materials alone are more at risk during crises than are industrial and post-industrial ones.
That is because the fate of such “banana” exporters is more closely tied to the rest of the world than are the others, Pain argues. Moscow’s attempt to act as if this is not the case has ended in disaster, not only leaving the country more impoverished but also more isolated as its actions in Georgia showed.
When oil was 140 dollars a barrel, he says, Russians and the Russian state could ignore this reality for a time. But in Pain’s view, now that prices have fallen, “the resources of Russian authoritarianism and imperialism are close to being exhausted.” Already at present, he writes, “there is no ammunition, there remains only ambition.”
In this interconnected world, every country has to be prepared to play by a common set of rules if it is to succeed and to transform itself periodically in order to move forward. That is what the United States has just done, Pain says, having overcome the “cruelest” racism in the past to elect an African American as its president. And other countries have made similar strides.
Pain says that he can imagine the response of his opponents to this observation: “Yes,” they will say, “they can but our thousand-year old history does not permit change.” And consequently we Russians can have no hope for change and must simply and fatalistically go along.
Not many years ago, some of the very same people, during the earlier swing of the pendulum toward democracy, “did not want to hear about the concept of the thousand-year-old history” of their country. They wanted to blame everything on the Soviet system, and they believed that having rejected that, they could overcome everything and become like the West.
Now, however, they have become pessimists and talk fatalistically about historical cycles of reform and counter reform in Russian history, ignoring the reality that this pattern is hardly unique to Russia and that other countries have been able to use such cycles to move forward rather than assuming that nothing can be done.
But Russians now talk only about cultural limits on the possibility of progress. According to Pain, the economic limits the country has imposed on itself are more important. “For 300 years, Russia has lived by selling its natural resources,” first wood and furs and now oil and gas. Countries doing that back the values of empire because territory is “the main resource.”
“Who says this must be forever?” Pain asks, stressing that for himself, he is “absolutely certain that soon again will come times when in society there will be a demand for change.” What he says he is less certain of is whether Russia’s liberal intellectuals “will be ready to meet [that] with new proposals,” given their willingness to go along with the state and its ideas now.