Sunday, August 22, 2010

Window on Eurasia: The Middle Class By Itself Won’t Be Russia’s Salvation, Tsipko Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 22 – Many commentators in both Moscow and the West argue that the rise of a middle class will transform Russia into a European-style country, but, according to one of the Russian capital’s most provocative commentators, that notion is “the purest utopia” because it ignores the nature of Russian culture.
Writing in the current issue of “Argumenty i fakty,” Aleksandr Tsipko says that “the average Russian does not have any desire to get involved in public affairs or build civil society” and that the reason for that lies not in the paternalism many profess to see but in “the personal egoism” of Russians who are concerned only about themselves, their families, and close friends.
That is something, Tsipko says, that “our ‘liberals’ do not understand,” even though it is the subject of many of the works of the late émigré and now extremely influential Russian thinker Ivan Ilin and even though anyone who spends time with ordinary Russians will see it at a glance (
Tsipko says that in the village where he has spent the summers for the last 20 years, his “neighbors, former collective farmers, have never united for anything useful in common for their village.” That is because “after 70 years of collective farm experience, the Russian peasant has finally lost the desire to get involved with any cooperative effort.”
Moreover, the residents of that village have little or no interest in political news or the “national programs” Moscow leaders talk about. In their view, Tsipko continues, all of this is “déjà vu” and will do nothing to help them get something like a larger apartment for themselves and their families.
Moscow commentators, he continues, would explain this because over the last decade, “politics has simply died” but will return when politicians like Boris Nemtsov and Gari Kasparov return to television screens. But such people ignore “the deep causes of the crisis of democracy which [Russians] are experiencing.”
That crisis is the product, Tsipko argues, not of any lack of freedom of speech but rather “the different psychology” Russians have in contrast to the other former bloc countries of Eastern Europe. Russians want a solution to all their problems all at once rather than the gradual improvements that democratic politics offers.
To put it most bluntly, Tsipko says, “European democracy cannot take root in a people with the psychology” reflected in Pushkin’s tale of the magic goldfish which promises to fulfill wishes if it is once again allowed to swim free. In that respect, Russians “continue to believe in a miracle,” something politics ultimately fails to deliver.
People like the Russians who have this psychology, he suggests, will display “outbursts of political activity only when faith in miraculous change intensifies,” but then it will fade as people recognize that that faith was misplaced. That happened in Russia in 1917 and again in 1991.
“But today our people,” Tsipko says, “have become wiser, do not believe in a miracle connected with a change in the name of the president, and therefore are indifferent to politics and to the powers that be.” A people with that attitude are not in a position to become the basis of a democratic system.
In the democracies of the West, the populations have a sense of what politics can deliver and what it can’t, and “they know well that the single miracle in life is [their] own mastery” in non-political spheres. But “Soviet power not only destroyed” that possibility but also “destroyed the conditions for the development among Russians of economic and political realism.”
Consequently, “in order to become a successful country, [Russians] need not so much political modernization as lessons in sobriety” because “as long as in Russia Zhirinovsky flourishes as a politician who wins because he promises every woman a healthy and rich husband, we have no hopes.”
“Alas,” Tsipko observes, “liberation from communism did not make the Russian people more sober.” Instead, “all the traditional illnesses of national consciousness have sharpened now” because the miraculous reforms that did take place with Gaidar and Yeltsin had very different and more negative results than they promised.
Overcoming that pattern will not be achieved quickly or simply by the emergence of a middle class, Tsipko concludes. Instead, the entire national culture with regard to the nature of politics will have to be transformed, something that is not a matter of a few years or an increase in the incomes of one part of the population.

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