Monday, December 28, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Cultural Dilemma – ‘The Higher the Red Banner, the Lower the Russian Tricolor’

Paul Goble

New York, December 28 – Russia today finds itself in a cultural trap: the only past it can easily restore – the Soviet -- is one that precludes democratic modernization and the only external source of support for that future – the West – is something that Moscow increasingly defines itself as something it is opposed to, according to a leading Moscow political analyst.
Consequently, Svatoslav Kaspe argues in the current issue of “Rossiya v globalnoy politike,” Russia faces a far more difficult set of challenges in redefining its political culture and hence its political future than do the countries of Eastern Europe on the one hand or even the post-Soviet states on the other (
Most of the post-Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the Baltic region were able to make the democratic transition many expected for all the countries of Eurasia because they had a relatively full “package” of resources – including both a desire to restore something that had been taken from them and a willingness of the West to include them again within its ranks.
Post-Soviet countries like Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, had few such advantages, Kaspe continues, and consequently fewer successes. And countries in Central Asia had even fewer, but they did have one: the communist system was more congruent with local cultures than elsewhere and the post-Soviet leaders were less interested in moving away from it.
The situation with regard to values and the democratic transition in Russia, however, was entirely different, Kaspe argues. Russia lacked both an immediate in terms of the living memory of elites and thus usable past to restore – the tsarist or provisional government pasts were too far away – and politicians prepared to play the role of Ataturks.
That means, he continues, meant not only that Russia was not in a position to effectively “play the role of a donor of values for others” but also that it could not define itself with the help of either a useful past or the West. Instead, Kaspe argues, it was caught between a past that it could not easily escape and a future that the restoration of that past precluded.
Consequently, in Russia unlike in Eastern Europe or the Baltic countries, Kaspe continues, there was insufficient demand for the creation of democracy, and that political system, like any other, will not be created and supported unless it serves broader values and reflects popular demands.
Indeed, Kaspe points out, “the Soviet [inheritance] is too close, and its energy is still not exhausted – dead bodies as is well known are capable of having a strong impact on the living. But this leads to a dead end,” one in which the past holds the present in its power and prevents the future from being born.
Put in simplest terms, Kaspe argues, “the rehabilitation of the Soviet past is directly proportional to the disavowing of the Russian present and future: the higher the Red Banner is raised, the lower the [Russian] tricolor falls,” a situation which permits of no intermediary decisions in the cultural sphere.
More broadly, he says, “contemporary Russian statehood derives from the fall of Soviet power, partially completed in the regime of self-liquidation and partially as a result of a conscious uprising against it,” a contradiction that post-Soviet Russian leaders, all of whom have a Soviet past, have not been able to resolve.
The closest analogue to the Russian situation, albeit one with disturbing implications, Kaspe argues, “is the experience of the so-called ‘peoples’ democracies’ of the second half of the 1940s which quickly degenerated into something entirely undemocratic,” albeit in that case as the result of external force.
“An independent reproduction of the same scenarios by Russia would mean that history is capable not only of irony but also of an evil sarcasm,” the Moscow analyst argues, something that no one who cares about where Russia is now or where it might be in the future can possibly want to see.
The only way out, he suggests, will be the creation of “a political-cultural synthesis” in which Russians make a clear decision about the values on which the Russian political nation is based, something they have not yet done and that will not be easy for them to do, even though it is the only way Russia can hope to make the “democratic transition” so many have hoped for.

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