Political visions gone awry cannot alone account for the crises that threaten to engulf the Russians as they approach the 21st century. As they once again grapple with the dilemmas of backwardness that have plagued them for so long, Russian policymakers must continue to struggle against a thousand years of history, almost all of which point away from democracy and offer little precedent for building a nation ruled by law. Modern-day Russia’s defects are legion. Looked at in historical perspective, they form a crushing burden that no Russian leader has yet managed to overcome.
The corruption that cripples Russia from top to bottom today has antecedents dating back to at least the 15th century, when high officials “fed”—to use the old Russian term—upon the people they governed in the czar’s name. When Russia developed more Western forms of government 250 years later, “feeding” took on new and more modern forms that led one of Peter the Great’s favorites to confess (at the beginning of the 18th century) that “we all steal, but some of us do so on a bigger scale than others.” That crude truth has run like a red thread through Russia’s history ever since. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 merely gave some of the nation’s workers and peasants access to the long-standing perquisites of their fallen rulers.
No matter how firmly Marxist-Leninist ideology insisted that the People owned the means of production, Soviet citizens divided their everyday world into “them” and “us” and had no compunctions about stealing from the former to satisfy their needs, wants, comforts, or greed. The quantities of meat sold out the back door of restaurants, merchandise stolen from store shelves, and spare parts pilfered from the workplace led Stephen Cohen in the mid-1980’s to estimate that at least 15 percent of the Soviet GNP was generated by the Black Market, or, as the Russians say, na levo, “on the left.” The legalization of small-scale private enterprise during the year or two before the Soviet Union collapsed pushed that percentage much higher. In an economy where the demand for goods and services exceeded regular sources of supply, planners during the last days of the Gorbachev era could not allocate enough raw materials to satisfy the needs of this new private sector without gutting the sources that supplied vital state industries. When soaring demand exhausted the quantities of resources set aside for private enterprises, supplements pilfered from the workplace became the main additional source of supply.
The pervasive unconcern of bureaucrats at all levels of national life has stirred deep cynicism throughout Russia’s modern history. “What will happen if the Soviet Union takes over the Middle East?” one Russian asked—only half in jest—in 1973. The answer in those days: “No one knows, but in 25 years there will be a shortage of sand!” During the Gorbachev era, latter-day Soviet humorists defined capitalism as “the exploitation of man by man.” “Under socialism,” they added with the same bitter cynicism, “the process is entirely the other way around.”
Nowadays, such cynicism continues to isolate ordinary Russians from their government and the infrastructure of the communities in which they live. Because national prestige and national interest did not engage the attention of the average man or woman on the street during the Soviet era, most Russians dismissed their leaders’ actions in the international arena as politika, a process of which they did not feel a part and with which they had little concern.
Because rulers and officials have traditionally dominated the nation’s political process, the Russians have also expected them to take responsibility for problems that are dealt with by local communities in more democratic societies. For centuries Russia’s leaders and officials have seen the people, their lives, and their property as a national resource for carrying out policies that have been decided upon far away from the people and places to which they were destined to apply.
The monolithic Bolshevik Party that emerged from the chaos of Russia’s revolution and civil war monopolized politics and defined the Soviet Union’s course. The party did not follow popularly approved policies, nor did it pursue popularly chosen goals. And, since the party set the course, it also took the credit. The party—the party of Lenin—implemented collectivization at the end of the 1920’s, launched a crash program of industrialization in the 1930’s, defeated the armies of fascist Germany in the 1940’s, rebuilt the Soviet Union in the 1950’s, and led the way into outer space in the 1960’s.
Especially during the Stalin era, the all-knowing, all-seeing party imposed its will from above. Elevated and isolated, it required neither citizens’ participation in shaping policy nor their consent for carrying it out. The people identified the party with “them,” and a whole world of material shortages and spiritual deprivation stood between “them” and “us” in the experience of the average Soviet man or woman. The instruments of political authority that were so frequently exercised in an abusive, tyrannical fashion were held by “them.” Because “they” could ruin the average Russian with a word or a telephone call, the politics of survival dictated that “we” ought to attract as little notice from “them” as possible.
In the 1930’s, the party’s absolute authority enabled it to change direction at will in the name of following the policies envisioned by Lenin and interpreted by Stalin. Always, the party remained the constant in a system that had no effective way of replacing its leaders short of death or disgrace, and one sees the remnants of this dark heritage in the arrests of Rutskoi and Khasbulatov for opposing Yeltsin’s illegal dissolution of parliament. In the old days, the party claimed to know the best way to build communism, and it became its task to set the Soviet Union back on course whenever the deviations of misguided, discredited leaders (according to the party’s later explanations) put it onto the wrong path. The party therefore required dutiful, obedient subjects. It did not want responsible, politically active citizens.
Such absolutism denied most Soviet citizens a part in the political processes of their nation and freed them from taking any personal responsibility for the shortcomings of Soviet life. But Yeltsin’s destruction of the party means that average Russians must accept some of the blame for the crises that now beset them, and they are therefore seeking to resurrect old scapegoats and find new ones. That is a major reason for the wave of anti-Semitism now sweeping across a land in which more violence was directed against jews during the century before the Holocaust than in any other country in the Western world.
Although Jews are the most obvious scapegoats in Russia’s historical experience, they are by no means the only ones. Other nationalities now blame the Russians for the abuse they endured as subjects of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and antagonisms that have deep historical roots lie beneath the wave of anti-Russian sentiment that is rising in the newly independent states to Russia’s south and west.
Because too many of these peoples have defined themselves in terms of standing against something, some group, or some one, conflict lies at the very root of their self-image. Christian Armenians have never eared for Muslim Azeris, and they have also had their differences with Christian Georgians and Muslim Turks. That dislike is heartily reciprocated, just as it is among scores of other groups who live within Russia and along its borders. Nor are the Russians themselves without the stain of gross intolerance, for they have rarely treated any of the nationalities who came under their control very well. The ethnic and religious conflicts stemming from this mistreatment have only grown more bitter with time. Today, Russia almost certainly is a more explosive powder keg of nationality conflicts than any of its former political rivals.
In the West, statesmen, officials, and presidents all have to answer to their nations’ citizens for their failures, but the matter of fixing—and accepting—responsibility remains far more difficult to resolve in Russia. Without the respect for the law that a society in which men and women are expected to take responsibility for themselves and their communities engenders, the question of assigning responsibility continues to be confused by the phenomenon of absolute power arbitrarily applied from above. The Russians call this proizvol, and it has been a part of their history since the Middle Ages.
During the days when czars ruled the lands of Muscovy, their subjects looked to Moscow for rewards and favors, just as they looked to St. Petersburg when Russia’s emperors and empresses began to rule from the new capital that Peter the Great built as a “Window on the West.” Soviet citizens viewed Moscow in similar terms from the moment Lenin established his revolutionary government there in 1918. A phone call from Moscow—even the rumor of such a call—could raise Soviet citizens to unexpected heights, just as it could destroy careers, shatter dreams, and send loyal men and women to prison. Law always held a lesser place in such transactions. Not the force of law impartially applied, but proizvol—the arbitrary authority that party officials applied in a capricious manner—shaped Soviet citizens’ lives between I9I7 and 1991. It is unsurprising that Yeltsin had no compunctions about attacking the Russian parliament in October, or that there is widespread support for Zhirinovsky’s call to hold the law in contempt in order to restore the Russian Empire.
Throughout much of their history the Russians have thought it right, proper, and even preferable for the law to take second place to the arbitrary authority of rulers and officials. Between 1648 and 1830, the Russians had no up-to-date corpus of written law to which they could refer, and the true law therefore became what the men and women who wielded power declared it to be. proizvol tempered by tradition and the needs of the moment thus assumed the force of law in the minds of men and women whose history had conditioned them to obey authority imposed from above.
Even after the Great Reforms of the 1860’s made it possible to argue the law in the courts of the Russian Empire, the popular mind continued to look to the emperor to make exceptions for anyone who found the law’s restrictions inconvenient. At the beginning of the 20th century, the emperor’s personal chancellery received 70,000 petitions every year, each of which began with the apology that, “had it been permissible under the law, I should never have taken it upon myself to trouble His Imperial Majesty.” Russians thus looked to their emperor to act outside the law right up until the February Revolution of 1917.
The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 destroyed the traditions that had limited the use of proizvol to deal with such eases in centuries past. Because a word or a gesture by the right person at the right time m the right place could offset a lifetime of frustration and failure, hopeful Soviet men and women looked for the magic connection—the elusive single contact—that would elevate them above their comrades and open wide the doors to success. Every ambitious Russian therefore looked for a patron, a protector whose arbitrary intervention could make right the injustices that the Soviet system arbitrarily imposed. Now, it is not hard to imagine Russians taking that view one step further and seeing in Zhirinovsky the protector whose capricious use of power can redress the loss of prestige that their nation has suffered in the international arena since the beginning of the Gorbachev era.
Although the capricious poison of proizvol infected Soviet life at every level, it served as a vital safety valve in a society in which all men and women found themselves at the mercy of their rulers. The Soviet system thus permitted each and every one of its people to exercise a measure of proizvol in some way at some point: waiters could refuse to seat customers in a restaurant full of empty tables, taxi drivers could refuse to pick up passengers at a taxi stand, and cloakroom attendants could refuse to hang up visitors’ coats, thereby denying them access to the officials or offices that the building contained—all were parts of that process. In that way, the most humble Soviet man or woman could find some compensation (or revenge) for the proizvol that the system inflicted upon him or her.
While Europeans were experiencing the Industrial Revolution during the first two-thirds of the 19th century, modernization and progress in Russia remained the responsibility of a government that assumed the obligation to provide the services needed by dependent subjects living in the modern world. Partly to escape that burden in the 1860’s, the Emperor Alexander II and a handful of enlightened officials implemented the Great Reforms that attempted to limit proizvol, guide Russia along the path taken by the West, and bring a true society of citizens into being. As the Russians began to develop a sense of their collective destiny during this so-called Great Reform era, they began to put nation ahead of sovereign for the first time in their history. By the early years of the 20th century, “Russia” and “czar” had ceased to be synonymous in the minds of Russians, and larger numbers of them were beginning to envision a future shaped by precepts that stood at odds with those embraced by their sovereign.
Men and women who thought of themselves as citizens first and loyal subjects second also resisted the monolithic politics of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and were driven into exile or killed during the Civil War of 1918-1921. Without them, the Soviet Union that took shape in 1922 was no more able to create a citizen society than had been the Muscovites whom Peter the Great had driven into the modern world 200 years before. Peter’s Muscovites could not even imagine a world in which they would accept civic responsibility; Soviet men and women of the 1920’s and 1930’s simply surrendered their newly acquired responsibilities as citizens to the Bolshevik Party.
When Peter the Great set out to transform Russia into a great power at the beginning of the 18th century, he took the science and technology needed to do so from the West, Europeans occupied key positions in Russia throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and later on, Americans joined them in building Russia’s railroads, opening up her natural resources, and developing her industry. Major George Whistler, father of the famous painter and builder of the Baltimore and Ohio and Western Massachusetts railways, helped to build Russia’s first railroads; the Englishman John Hughes developed Krivoi Rog and the Donbass; and Sweden’s Alfred Nobel played a major part in bringing the Baku oil fields into production.
Such Western advisors brought not only advanced technology but new ideas that threatened the survival of Russia’s autocratic government. Whether Peter’s successors thought of their empire as part of the West (as did Catherine the Great and Alexander I) or apart from it (as did most of their successors), all agreed that Russians’ access to the West had to be limited by censorship, secret police, and the widespread restriction of civil rights. The main justification for this policy was to maintain the military strength that made Russia one of Europe’s greatest powers, and all other considerations had to be subordinated to that end.
Because Russia has never had any claim to great power status other than her military might, her rulers have been more sensitive about minor defeats than have the leaders of the United States or the nations of Western Europe. The technological backwardness that the Soviet failure in Afghanistan demonstrated so conclusively therefore led Gorbachev to seek wider access to Western technology, just as Peter the Great had done at the beginning of the 18th century. Yet the forces of history and international politics that drove Gorbachev toward the West also created the problem that slowed his program for reform. In a country without a tradition of open political opposition, passive resistance by citizens who refused to change with the times imposed a powerful brake on progress. Like his predecessors, Gorbachev found that the Russians did not adapt easily to new political and economic courses. Now Yeltsin has learned that lesson too. Clearly, some of the votes that helped to win seats for the followers of Zhirinovsky and the former communists in Russia’s recent election were cast to protest Yeltsin’s readiness to ignore the social and economic pains that his policies are inflicting upon Russians.
During the three-quarters of the century in which they ruled Russia, Soviet planners’ preference for short-range (and short-sighted) solutions to long-standing problems created a massive array of unresolved domestic crises that Russia now has to face. Substandard construction, mediocre health care, poor transport facilities, and ineffective institutions of local government all stand as major barriers to progress. The Armenian earthquake disaster was not merely a product of corrupt officials’ efforts to grow rich by cutting corners on construction in a few cities. It marked the beginning of a vast future crisis stemming from an economic vision that emphasized present accomplishments (often for propaganda purposes) at the expense of long-term national well-being.
Anyone who has lived and worked in the old Soviet Union knows the terrifying dimensions of the construction crisis that threatens to overwhelm the Russians. Apartment and office buildings built without structural steel on crumbling foundations after World War II cannot be repaired but will have to be rebuilt. Subway tunnels that have been cut too close to street surfaces, highways without proper roadbeds, pipelines that have been improperly laid and shoddily welded, and scores of similar failings all compound a coming crisis, the ramifications of which have yet to be fully perceived. Beyond that, the nation which must rely entirely upon its military strength to maintain its status as a great power has yet to produce the full range of technology needed for the weapons that will shape the contours of warfare at the beginning of the 21st century, not to mention the fact that it lacks the facilities needed to turn the world’s richest collection of natural resources into desperately needed manufactured goods. This is what makes Zhirinovsky’s wild-eyed promises so popular with Russian listeners. Unable to develop effectively their own resources, it is easier for Russians to imagine seizing those that are already developed beyond their frontiers.
The leaders of a nation in which surgical patients suffer the highest rate of infection in the industrialized world, whose factories cannot produce effective contraceptives, and whose citizens endure a perpetual scarcity of soap—not to mention the widely reported shortages of fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat—will have to face difficult choices in establishing priorities for the years ahead. Survival must come first, but a struggle for survival has been a part of the Soviet experience ever since the Bolshevik Revolution. Indeed, the manner in which Soviet leaders approached that struggle helped to bring on the crisis Russians now face. Trying to survive until tomorrow, the Soviet Union’s leaders lived too long for today. Now senseless pollution, wasted resources, a chronically unproductive labor force, and widespread contamination of the environment produced by more than half a century of Soviet recklessness threaten to overwhelm a country that has neither the wealth nor the technology to repair the damage.
Although born and grown to middle age in a world of crisis, Russia’s leaders in the years ahead will confront very different problems than they have in the past. Whether they, with a centuries-long tradition of information control, corruption, and bureaucratic bungling can engage the talents of a talented people on a truly national scale and educate them in the complex forms of modern-day communications and technology remains to be seen. It will require enormous energy, unprecedented ideological flexibility, and political genius to accomplish these tasks, and it is still not clear what groups in Russian society might carry them out.
How such a transformation will be accomplished—or if it will be accomplished, in fact—will shape the Russians’ response to the massive tangle of problems that only now are beginning to appear. In centuries past, their response to similar crises has been to turn to the West for the technology needed to strengthen their defenses. Then, as soon as those borrowings made it feasible to do so, they sought to prevent the culture and political processes of the West from following the technology they had acquired. If the Russians do not escape the burden of their history, that pattern will repeat itself.
The shape of Russia’s future therefore depends much less upon whether Yeltsin remains in office than on whether the arbitrary absolutism of proizvol can be made to give way to the lawful use of power. For that to happen, Russian men and women will have to become more involved in making the policy decisions that will shape their future. If the burden of their history prevents them from venturing into the minefields of democratic politics that the eradication of proizvol would create, Russia’s leaders may turn once again to the course that has served them so poorly in the past. That would mean perpetuating proizvol, abdicating the civic responsibilities that Russian citizens are only now beginning to take up, and returning to Russia’s long-standing pattern of crisis management and reform imposed from above. Looked at in the starkest terms, that is what Zhirinovsky’s strong showing in Russia’s recent election may indeed promise. If so, Russia of the 21st century will be what she has always been: a nation ruled from above by leaders who see their people as a national resource to be exploited for personal gain and international aggrandizement.
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