13 November 2022
by Viktor Kogan-Yasny
A Turning Point in the Development of Russian Society
In Russia there is a whole series of obstacles in the way of the development of society which are leading to ‘catastrophic’ scenarios for the future, especially when the West, taken as a whole, is in a state of ideological decline.
The political culture of Russian citizens has remained stuck in 1991 and, in comparison to that time, has even deteriorated. It has lost many elements of the rationality of those years without creating new forms, and has lost a number of important ‘taboos.’ Not even a minimally new political culture or institutional system, in comparison with the late Soviet era, has been created.
Instead, a system of ‘hands-on’ control has reigned over everything from property matters to foreign policy, national security and military affairs, and the same thing has happened with the courts, the Investigative Committee, law and order, elections at all levels, and ‘civil society’ structures … Enormous progress in technical education and huge technological breakthroughs. which have changed the face of industry and daily life, have had no effect on social development and have failed to help Russian society escape its provinciality and considerable isolation from the rest of the world. Moreover, that rather narrow segment of society, which has created a monopoly for itself of every aspect of this ‘hands-on’ control, is fundamentally suspicious of the impact of globalization, of those manifestations of technological progress that are accessible to the general public and to breakthroughs in mass education.
In terms of highly important details, the Russian bureaucracy has turned out to be the heir, not of the bureaucracy of the late USSR with its ‘European tendencies,’ but of the Stalinist model of the provincial RSFSR.
There is one particular but important nuance in the institutional ‘evolution’ of post-Soviet Russia, which, in my opinion, has contributed very clearly to inhibiting the development of civil society institutions. This is the significant restriction ‘accidentally and with the best intentions’ in the numbers (and also powers) of parliamentarians that came about as a result of the constitution introduced in 1993. Four hundred and fifty deputies in the State Duma for the whole of Russia is a very small number of representatives, effectively putting a brake on feedback between ordinary citizens and the political ‘summit.’ For ordinary people, for businesses, and for bureaucracy, such a number is a signal that the Duma is the ‘golden club,’ with no connection with citizens, not in fact any kind of parliament, a place that you ‘can’t easily get into’ and where they ‘live the good life’ – which means that, while this body should be used in so far as possible, in general it is better to ‘stay far away from it’ and certainly not take responsibility for it because it is ‘far away and high up.’
There are fewer incentives to strive for humane and just institutions in contemporary Russia than there were in late Soviet times, because, among other things, the fate of the contemporary Russian, unlike that of the Soviet person, appears to depend little on social change and seems to be determined primarily in terms of individualistic strivings rather than social collaboration. And the fact that such a view of things often turns out to be illusory has not made it any less widespread.
The ‘concordat’ of the Soviet post-war period (1945-88) between the Soviet state and the Russian Orthodox Church allowed the latter a fairly stable organizational existence so long as it kept within its own ‘church boundaries’ in exchange for ‘patriotic activities’ supporting the anti-Western activities of the CPSU and actively sought out points of ideological contact between some ‘Orthodox ideologists’ and part of the Soviet officialdom on the grounds of anti-Westernism, in the spirit of adapting conservative ideas of the late 19th century. In contemporary Russia this has developed into an active transformation of a significant part of organised Russian Orthodoxy from an engagement in the deeds and the practice of faith into an ideology of conservative behaviour and a conservative state with all the rigidity characteristic of such an ideology, as well as duplicity and a verbal affirmation of what does not and cannot exist in real life. The education of conscience and personal responsibility is replaced by its exact opposite: a perversely misunderstood ‘obedience’ to a form of one-man rule and simple discipline, under which the ‘senior’ is always responsible for everything, while the ‘junior’ simply follows orders. (And, by the way, at times it seems that this part of the Russian Orthodox Church has copied the ideas and models of behaviour of conservative Protestants from the American South.)
I do not want to touch here on the economic misfortunes of the time when Russian reforms were being attempted. The analysis of these deeply mistaken policies, devoid of historical justice and implemented by those who considered themselves reformers, has been given by professionals in their works (the most accessible can be found in the writings of Grigory Yavlinsky). For me, the question remains from those times as to the mutual interaction of politics proper and economic decisions. And there is another question: to what extent did the ‘liberal reformers’ act as politicians who personally and actively contributed to the formation of a new authoritarian model? I have no straightforward answers. Historians will probably figure out what transpired as a matter of historical record: where lay the balance between the wills and attitudes of various figures in the structures of power? What part was played by the ‘momentum of events’? What political intrigue created this or that point of no return? And so on and so forth.
The current political and social situation in Russia cannot be described in terms of an accidental seizure of power by one man who dictates his will to everyone and decides all questions without referring to anyone else (which in no way absolves him of responsibility for the decisions he takes). But nor can it be described as a result of the ‘will of the people,’ whether as a generalised mass or a collective of citizens, united by imperial or any other impulses of aggression. This is a system of organised bureaucracy and a society that is dependent on it, characterized not just by the impossibility of balanced development, but by a conscious rejection of it, by stagnation, by ‘separation’ from the rest of the world in the interests of the beneficiaries of this state of affairs. Such a system has no internal resources to avoid stagnation and to transition to peaceful, creative development. You can talk a lot about what should be done to achieve such a transformation, but within the existing framework, any such talk will have no target audience: there will be no interest in such developments in principle, so long as the idea of ‘separateness’ remains predominant.
Russia’s ‘separateness’ is not only a thing of its own creation and its own problem. It is a problem for the whole world. There is no hiding from Russia as long as it exists. A sudden catastrophic breakdown in Russia, if it happens, is hardly likely to be an event limited in terms of political space and time. The West and its political culturehas not had the resources to enable it to protect itself – and Russia – from the development of circumstances that have arisen over the past thirty years. The leading political ‘soft power’ of the late twentieth century has proved unprepared for the dangers of the turbulent decades that have ensued. Russian stagnation proved in practice a far more difficult political test for Western political life than competition with the late Soviet Union.
Treating Russia as an inconvenience, a periphery and a resource of opportunities of an exclusively ‘extensive’ and extra-institutional nature has proven to be a short-sighted dead-end, as have all the prevailing simplifications about the problems of the Russian political system that reduce them merely to a question of personalities. Fundamentally, the West could find no arguments to defend the values that underpinned its post-World War II structure.
This means that all those who do not want to perish under the pressure of problems given reality by the country that occupies an eighth part of the globe should jointly search for a solution, for arguments and approaches.
What is needed is for there to develop in Russia a long-term, peaceful civilization, based on respect for internationally recognized borders, inviolability of the individual, freedom of opinion, free and fair elections, feedback between government and citizens, an independent, just and fair court system, armed forces and law enforcement agencies that are accountable to citizens and protect them, the protection of property and the ability for the country’s citizens to enjoy opportunities for personal development in free communication with the rest of the world.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove