Starting from scratch: A year after the Soviet coup attempt, Communism has given way to chaos. Part of Russia's problem is a past that offers no foundation upon which to build a state, says Richard Pipes

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Russia is not the only country that faces formidable difficulties trying to extricate itself from the rubble of destruction wreaked by totalitarianism - destruction that is perhaps even more devastating spiritually than materially. But its difficulties are in some respects unique, for unlike post-Nazi Germany or post- Communist Poland, it has no indigenous model to which to revert.

Not that pre-revolutionary Russia was an entirely negative phenomenon. In the last decade of tsarism, the country experienced impressive development in virtually every sphere of life. There were parliamentary institutions: even if circumscribed in their competence and often ignored by the Crown, they participated in legislation and provided a forum to criticise the monarchy.

The judicial system established in 1864 bears comparison with those of Western Europe. Censorship was abolished and freedom of association guaranteed. Illiteracy was on the decline: in 1913 three- quarters of army recruits could read and write. Industrial production showed steady growth, as did agricultural yields: late imperial Russia had the world's fifth-largest economy, leading in petroleum production and cereals exports.

Political and legal progress, however, affected a minority of the population. Eighty per cent of the Russian Empire was peasantry which lived in a world of its own, untouched by Westernisation. When the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 and proceeded to eliminate politically, and often physically, the previous elite, they quickly found that their social revolution was also a cultural revolution. They were faced with tens of millions of peasants steeped in a non-Western and even anti-Western mentality. The deliberate demolition of the structure of imperial Russia had the unanticipated effect of bringing to the surface the culture of medieval Muscovy, which had survived intact under the veneer of modernisation.

The achievement of imperial Russia has been so destroyed by 70 years of Communism that it survives only as a vague memory. It cannot be restored and it cannot serve as a model. Contemporary Russia's legacy is that of the 16th and 17th centuries: the heritage of autocratic politics, serfdom and a disrespect for law and private property characteristic of Russia before Peter the Great (1672 to 1725) - all of which Communist rule further strengthened in popular consciousness.

Because the Russian state did not grow out of society but was imposed on it, the population has always viewed it as an alien and hostile force, which took taxes and recruits but gave nothing in return. Its only positive function was to conquer agricultural land from neighbouring countries. A government that failed to expand was worse than useless. Nothing did more to discredit tsarism in the eyes of its subjects than the unbroken succession of military and diplomatic defeats that began with the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) and ended with the loss of Poland to Germany in the First World War.

The notion that the state belongs to its citizens is alien to the overwhelming majority of Russians. If the government is strong and brutal it must be obeyed; but if it is weak and humane it can be ignored. It is readily appreciated what formidable obstacles confront Russia's democratic leaders as they try to inculcate in their people a sense of citizenship.

Tsarism, enforcing an extreme form of absolutism, did not until 1906 allow its subjects to form independent associations, since these could impinge on its prerogatives. The Communist regime prohibited them for much the same reason. Russia has thus always suffered from poorly developed mediating institutions to provide a buffer between the individual and government and make for stability: political parties, trade unions, independent churches. History has accustomed the Russian to confront the state on his or her own; it is an unequal contest that he not unnaturally seeks to avoid by withdrawing into a private world, thereby escaping the responsibilities of citizenship.

The legacy of the past weighs no less heavily on the country's economic life. The burgeoning market economy in the final decades of tsarism cannot obscure the fact that the capitalist sector was an island in an ocean of largely self-sufficient rural households. The peasants of Great Russia, descendants of serfs, had a poorly developed sense of private property and law. They lived mostly in communes, which held title to the land and distributed it to them in the form of temporary allotments. The communal ethos insisted on equality.

Communal peasants disliked peasant-proprietors even more than landlords: in 1917, the first lands they seized belonged to neighbours who had left the communes. They had no respect for any occupation that did not involve manual labour and recognised as property only assets acquired by personal effort. Law and courts were regarded as instruments that the powerful and rich used for their own benefit. Long before the revolution, responsible Russian statesmen despaired of building a stable, modern society on such primitive foundations. Seventy years of Communism have done nothing to ease the problem.

One more legacy of the past requires emphasis, and that is the imperial mentality. Because of its geographic location in the centre of Eurasia, Russia's imperial expansion took a different course from that familiar to Europeans. It acquired colonies not overseas but along its frontiers, with the result that metropolis and empire became territorially indistinguishable. And unlike the West, where the conquest of empires followed the emergence of national states, in Russia the two processes took place concurrently.

For most Russians, educated and uneducated, national identity has been inextricably linked with the notion of empire. The English or the French found it easier to surrender their colonies because they had no doubt who they were. Russians who have always lived among non-Russians, whose national state was at the same time an empire, are bewildered by the loss of their imperial possessions.

These possessions also served as compensation for the feeling of inferiority vis- a-vis the West. As a Russian boasts in a Lermontov poem, 'Yes, I am a slave, but slave of the tsar of the universe.'

They have been deprived of this psychic compensation with the dissolution a year ago of the Soviet Union.

For these reasons, members of the Russian establishment, including quite a few democrats, find it hard to accept the loss of territories acquired during centuries of conquest. Generals have been quoted saying they do not recognise the separation of the republics, and expect Russian troops to continue occupying them. It is even more ominous that an important politician such as Yevgeny Ambartsumov, chairman of the Committee of International Affairs of the Russian parliament, has called for a Russian Monroe doctrine to ensure the political and military 'stability' of the entire territory of what was the Soviet Union. That is a recipe for civil war, casualties of which will be not only the independence of the republics but Russian freedom.

Ordinary citizens, by contrast, seem to have little pride left in being Russian. I was struck by an exchange recently with a Moscow taxi driver who, hearing me say to a companion that the present-day problems of St Petersburg were the fault of Peter the Great for having founded his capital in such an inhospitable place, interjected: 'He has much more to account for. He beat the Swedes. If he let himself be defeated, we would be living under Sweden today.'

The imperialism of the military and political elite and the self-deprecation of the man in the street, antithetic as they may appear, have this in common: they assume one must either dominate others or be dominated by them, and are equally devoid of self-confident patriotism.

The only constructive legacy that history has bequeathed is Russia's culture, crowned by a magnificent literature. It owes its survival to Lenin, who, determined to destroy all that he had seized, made an exception for culture because, holding the Russian masses in low esteem, he considered them incapable of creating one themselves.

As a result, even in the darkest days of Stalinism Russians had access to Pushkin, Tolstoy or Chekhov, writers who rejected everything that Communism represented.

For the educated it was a source of solace and pride (although for the mass of readers it holds little interest: once censorship was lifted, they turned to Agatha Christie, Russia's best-selling author). But neither literature nor music nor painting can help build a new political and economic order. Quite the contrary; they are safety valves, a refuge from harsh reality, with its problems and responsibilities.

From all that has been said, it should be evident how uncommonly rocky is Russia's path. The best of the historic heritage has been uprooted; left are attitudes and habits incompatible with the kind of 'normal' life to which most Russians aspire. It follows that Russia cannot reconstruct but must build from scratch.

The task would be difficult enough if it did not have to be accomplished under conditions of severe economic hardship. Concern about the future tends to be subordinated to present exigencies, and the field is open to demagogues who exploit popular unhappiness by painting seductive pictures of secure life in the prison house of restored Communism.

But Russia is unlikely to take this road because it seems to have undergone a psychological transformation. The past is no longer a reliable guide to its future. Like other societies traumatised by suffering, such as the Jews who founded Israel; or by humiliating defeat, such as the Japanese; it is striking out in new directions. Because Russia inflicted its miseries largely on itself, the need to alter course is felt with particular keenness.

Several examples can be cited. Boris Yeltsin is the first democratically elected head of state in seven centuries of Russian history. The current trial in Moscow of both the Communist Party and President Yeltsin's decree outlawing it, is the first instance in Russia of government having to submit to an independent judiciary. In the economic realm, there is an outburst of private initiative not adequately appreciated abroad. True, much of it is speculative and most of the profits end up in foreign bank accounts. But the entrepreneurial spirit is powerfully in evidence and there is no reason why, once legal safeguards for property exist, it should not assume productive forms.

Like a forest devastated by a fire, to the casual observer Russia is still largely ashes and charred tree trunks. But on the blackened soil one can already discern green sprouts from which a fresh forest may some day emerge. One can say with some confidence it will be a new growth, quite different from the one it is replacing.

The author is Baird Professor of History at Harvard University and was director of East European and Soviet Affairs on the US National Security Council (1981-82). His most recent book is 'The Russian Revolution' (Harvill, 1990).

(Photograph omitted)

Comments