Vienna, March 24 – Many in Moscow and the West assume that Russia is at risk of a political upheaval because the regime there is no longer in a position to buy the people off with petro-dollars, but that assumption reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Russian social compact, a leading Russian commentator says.
In an essay in “Vzglyad” yesterday, Leonid Radzikhovsky says that the social compact which exists in Russia now as in the past is based not on the trade off of rights for goods, as may be the case elsewhere, but rather on the fear by both sides that instability would threaten not only national well-being but possibly national survival (www.vz.ru/columns/2009/3/23/267439.html).
Even in other countries, he suggests, the notion that people are ready to sacrifice their rights to the state in exchange for economic well-being and will revolt if the government fails to provide it is overstated. Even in today’s severe economic crisis, the Moscow commentator says, “there are no signs in Europe of an 1848 or even of a 1968.”
In most cases, he argues, “the chief stabilizer is open political activity within a legal framework.” But in Russia, “our system is completely different, although it employs (for conspiracy!) the very same words,” an arrangement which includes the kaleidoscopic assertion that with Russians everything is exactly the same and at the same time entirely different.
This pattern has deep roots in Russian history and reflects a decision on the part of all those not intensely involved in political issues to focus on “their personal affairs and only on them” and to view politics as something alien to and apart from them and yet to see leaders as “symbiotically” involved in the survival of the state.
To this arrangement, Radzikhovsky says, a European would react with surprise: “They are DEPRIVING you (the people) of the rights to judge and decide and you (the people) nonetheless are still willing to support this arrangement!” But a Russian, he suggests, would understand the situation instantly, seeing it was being “a question of words.”
For the Russian it is not about deprivation, it is about “RELIEVING” the individual and society “of responsibility … and of the work involved in judging and deciding.” And as an example, to Radzikhovsky quotes Saltykov-Shchedrin’s observation that “the energy of the actions of fools opposes the energy of inaction.”
“The energy of societal inaction is the foundation of [the Russian] State,” he continues. “Therefore firmly or shakily, we stand by it.” Indeed, he says, “individualism (in individual affairs) plus humble fatalism (in common affairs) equals the ethnic Russian or better civic Russia (everyone in Russia, regardless of nationality acts that way) social-political SYSTEM.”
Given that set of attitudes – and Radzikhovsky insists that they can be called “sobornost,” “collectivism,” “apoliticalness,” or “alienation” – the relationship of those in power and everyone else is fundamentally different. Those in power have “a DIFFERENT function” and serve as “a shepherd” to the society.
Such a system, of course, has a dangerous tendency: the absolute power of the state in such circumstances tends to “corrupt absolutely, “both those who rule and those who are ruled.” But there is “a still more dangerous alternative: the absolute lack of rights on the part of the government and the absence of power [which can also] corrupt the people absolutely.”
The way out of this vicious circle would be a government with “LIMITED POWER,” but in Russia that has never been known and is not unknown now. “And with that is connected the completely SPECIAL role of the government in Russia,” one that is reflected in the very different attitude people have toward criticizing the government.
In most countries, Radzikhovsky continues, government is viewed as “only a superstructure’ over society” and thus as something from whose change the society does not think will change society. Consequently, any criticism of the powers that be for [such a] society is secure.”
But for Russians, “as is well known to all,” the picture is “different.” That is because criticism raises the question of leadership change, and “in the course of all Russian history up through today the main political question has not been resolved.” That is the question of the creation of mechanisms for a peaceful, regular and lawful change of the highest levels of power.”
Those in power, of course, “exploit this: destroy the powers that be and you will destroy Russia! This is a big EXAGGERATION. But it is only an EXAGGERATION” because the problematic situation it reflects is not invented but quite real. Russia has not succeeded in dividing “the powers that be” and “the country” just as it has not split power and property.
Consequently, the deference the population shows to the rulers is not so much “a slavish instinct” as an instinct for national SELF-PRESERVATION,” Radzikhovsky suggests, arguing that it rests on the notion that the powers and the population are linked together in “a biological symbiosis” whose violation by either side could lead to the death of the whole.
Thus “the real social compact [in Russia] is much more serious. It is not a trade off of independent sides,” and it is not about well-being “but about survival.” In this situation, the population will remain far more willing to defer to those in power because “the people DO NOT WANT” to do anything but “to AVOID being the opposite of humble.”
Understood in this way, Radzikhovsky concludes, the social compact in Russia has not yet been violated sufficiently to cause a revolt, especially given how great fears remain of “chaos.” And he reminds his readers that “one cannot free people externally more than they are ready for that internally.”