2 December 2021
by Aleksandr Tsipko
Aleksandr Tsipko is a Russian social philosopher and poltical scientist and chief researcher at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences [Wikipedia]
At the end of December 1991, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially ceased to exist. It is generally considered that the real meaning of great historical upheavals is understood only centuries later. But all this is a beautiful self-deception by people afraid of the truth of their own history. With the death of those who participated in, and created, great historical events, the truth about them also dies. Thank God we are lucky, and many of the creators and witnesses of the events of 1991 are still alive. But the paradox is that the political and intellectual elite of the USSR is in no hurry to leave us their thoughts about the reasons for the death of the creation of Lenin and Trotsky, a creation which existed for more than seventy years. And the reason for this, in my opinion, is both an unwillingness to talk about their own responsibility for the collapse of the USSR and, most importantly, an unwillingness to admit that the main author of this collapse was the Russian people themselves.
The truth about national history, about the causes of national catastrophes, depends not on the distance in time from events but on the moral, intellectual and spiritual health of the ruling elite. Those who believe that the meaning of Russian history lies in the expansion of Russian territory are afraid to admit that in 1991 the country as an empire died once and for all. They are afraid to admit that in fact Russian people do not suffer from any imperial syndrome and, once and for all, they have had enough of this empire.
Those patriots today who say that if there hadn’t been the ‘traitor Gorbachev,’ the USSR would have remained a great power do not know that as early as 1918 Nikolai Berdyaev wrote an article, ‘Russia and Great Russia,’ criticizing what seven decades later Yeltsin was to call the ‘sovereignty of the RSFSR.’ Berdyaev believed Russians have no right to separatism, that they are obliged to sacrifice themselves and their economic wellbeing to preserve a great Russia, for ‘the Russian idea contains suffering as a necessary internal moment,’ and therefore ‘it is better that a suffering Russia, large and poor, exists than a series of prosperous and complacent states named Great Russia, Little Russia, Belarus and other regions, which think of themselves as independent wholes.’ And the paradox is that the enemies of the patriot Berdyaev, namely the Bolsheviks, saved Russia from ‘Great Russian separatism’ and again turned the Russians into the eternally suffering state-forming ethnicity on which was based the Soviet empire.
Seventy years of Soviet history passed and once again the fact that the Russians were tired of empire became plain and once again the eternally impoverished and poor Russians said we were tired of feeding the Caucasus, the Baltics, and Ukraine. But this time, being tired of empire coincided with being tired of the Soviet mobilization economy, which could do everything but provide the main things necessary for life – daily bread and what is essential for a comfortable life. The Soviet Union, which possessed half the black earth of the world, was unable to produce enough grain for bread or for livestock fodder.
However, personally, I am not today concerned about the reasons for the collapse of the USSR. The answer is for all to see. The more important question is why the political elite in Russia today does not want to recognise the truth about what we call ‘the Great Power of the USSR,’ to see that in many respects Soviet Russia was just as backward a country as Tsarist Russia. The inability to abandon the myth of the Russian Great Power, that we are supposedly one of the centres of modern civilization, prevents us from bringing our foreign policy into line with our capabilities and with the long-term interests of the Russian people who are still suffering from perpetual poverty. Surely the cost to the Russian people of the claims of the ideologues of the ‘Russian Spring’ of 2014, to again bring the Russian lands together, are evident for all to see? But nevertheless, Vladislav Surkov, who was one of the architects of the ‘Russian Spring,’ despite everything urges us to once again to return to the policy of expanding Russian territory. But nobody needs this empire, the rebirth of which Surkov dreams about. Not the Russians, not the peoples of the Caucasus, and especially not the peoples of the Baltics. And today, when Russia has become the main enemy of Ukraine, all talk of reviving the empire is sheer nonsense and violates all logic and facts.
In my view, all this territorial-power approach to our history bears within itself a kind of deep distrust of the Russian people. It turns out that the Russian people should have no joys or values other than enthusiasm for the vast expanse of their country. There is much here of the so-called ‘Russian idea,’ according to which, as Nikolai Berdyaev said, the Russians were created to suffer and sacrifice their lives for the sake of the endless expansion of Russian territory.
To be fair, Surkov himself does not oppose the values of territory and power to those of freedom, human life, the right to freedom of religion, etc. But there is another much more radical view of these things. I listened attentively to a lecture on YouTube by Andrei Shchadrin, an associate professor at Moscow State University, on the causes of the collapse of the USSR. For this historian, patriotism involves both condemning Gorbachev as the traitor who destroyed the USSR and justifying the Stalinist Terror as a means of preserving the Soviet mobilization economy and Soviet statehood. What was important in this for me was to see a historian who believes that the mobilization model of the Soviet economy corresponds to the ‘deep psychology’ of the Russian people, who holds that Russianness involves not only suffering, but also a rejection of freedom. He believes that Russianness is forced labour, that Russianness is incompatible with valuing human life. In the view of this historian, the Stalinist mobilizational economic model, based on state coercion of labour and protected by the all-powerful state security agencies, is a paradise for Russian people. The historian Andrei Shchadrin believes the tragedy of the Russian people to be that the leaders of the Communist Party, who came to power after Stalin, abandoned both his methods of forced labour, and, most importantly, the supreme role of Stalin’s NKVD over all spheres of public life.
And all this suggests that Russia today is suffering not only from a loss of desire to draw the necessary lessons from the collapse of the USSR, but also from a loss of humanity, the loss of a moral approach to its own history. It already sounds like a platitude that our main problem is we have not condemned, at the level of the state, the crimes of Bolshevism and the Bolshevik era. But our problem also lies in the fact that we are pushing the country towards spiritual degradation with our interpretation of Soviet history, where the value of the state displaces all the fundamental human values of freedom and human life.
Why was there the terrible catastrophe at the Listvyazhnaya mine? It’s all very simple. The miners covered the monitors, which showed methane content in the air, with their gloves. They received extremely low wages from 20 to 30 thousand roubles. But if they were to act on the basis of the monitors’ readings they would simply have to interrupt their work and so lose money. What lies behind these risks? It’s very simple. Human life for us, as it has always been in Russia, has no value.
However, in my view, the desire to subordinate our foreign policy to what Surkov calls the ‘existential meaning of Russian history,’ in other words the expansion of Russian territory, is also the equivalent of suicide. The ‘Russian Spring’ of 2014 turned Russia into a besieged fortress, into an enemy of modern European civilization. Sanctions and the West’s reluctance to invest in our economy led to a decline in production, an increase in the number of people living in poverty. Imagine what will happen if, in the current situation, someone listens to Vladislav Surkov and starts expanding Russian territory, for example, by annexing the entire Donbass to Russia?! The problem is not only that we will provoke new sanctions that will strangle our economy, but also that we will cause even greater alienation from Russia in the rest of the world. These are, of course, fantasies like the belief that the impending crisis in Ukraine will cause two million Ukrainians to run to Russia. As we have seen, none of the migrants who came to Belarus in order to reach Europe, and are now being forced to return home, are longing to stay in Russia, even for a short while.
But the most terrible thing is that a country, for which the main purpose of existence remains the expansion of territory, is absolutely unnecessary. Not only for my generation, which is departing, but also for the new Russia. We must finally realise the truth. A Russia, which is ‘not the West,’ which is ready to make wars in the name of territorial expansion, is not needed by our future, by the talented, gifted part of our younger generation. And for that reason it is time to learn the lessons from the collapse of the USSR. The Russian Empire has died once and for all. The point of our existence is not to expand our territory but to create worthy living conditions for free Russian people.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove