Can Russia be “frozen in time”?


During most of its history, the Russian state has proved to be all-powerful, Russian society on the other hand completely powerless. Nevertheless, in recent history the Russian state experienced several serious crises, leading to changes and even revolutions in the balance of power between state and society. These relatively short phases tended to decide the nation’s fate for generations to come. It is during these phases that the foundation for future state structures was laid by partially liberating society from state paternalism. In the following, I would like to focus on three periods in which such developments took place, starting with the gradual erosion of the tsarist system

Leonid Luks is professor of history at the Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt, Bavaria, Germany

For generations Russia has been a divided country. On the one hand certain forces are fascinated by the country’s imperial greatness. At the other end of the political spectrum, however, certain groups value freedom above all else. The constant friction between the two has dominated Russian history since the December revolt of 1825. Even today this conflict is reflected in current dramatic events.

The nationwide protests against the arrest as well as the arbitrary and high-handed sentencing of the most influential critic of the Kremlin, Alexei Navalny, accompanied by the violent suppression of the protests by the Russian authorities, constitute a déjà-vu experience. One cannot help but think recent Russian history is repeating itself. For one thing, this is related to the peculiar way in which Russia has evolved. During most of its history, the Russian state has proved to be all-powerful, Russian society on the other hand completely powerless. Russia has not witnessed the rising autonomy of the social estates or cities, common to the West, which function as a counterweight to national power centres. According to the Russian historian Pavel Milyukov, the social estates in the West created the state, whilst the state in Russia created the estates.

Nevertheless, in recent history the Russian state experienced several serious crises, leading to changes and even revolutions in the balance of power between state and society. These relatively short phases tended to decide the nation’s fate for generations to come. It is during these phases that the foundation for future state structures was laid by partially liberating society from state paternalism. In the following, I would like to focus on certain periods briefly, starting with the gradual erosion of the tsarist system.

1. The Erosion of the Tsarist Regime
The Revolutionary Myth

In the decades spanning the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, Russia was one of the few European countries suffering from spiralling social tensions. In Western and Central Europe such tensions had also occurred, but the revolutionary age had definitely come to an end after the failed revolution of 1848. What a stark contrast with developments in Russia! The events of 1848-49 hardly affected Russia, and so no one was particularly disappointed by the failure of revolutionary ideals to bear fruit there. Whereas many former radicals in the West pinned their hopes for salvation on the idea of the nation, such revolutionary ideals took until the early 20th century to flourish in Russia. The radically minded segment of the educated classes — the revolutionary intelligentsia — viewed any criticism of these ideals as a betrayal, the Russian philosopher Semyon Frank wrote in 1924. To openly profess a belief in political compromises in pre-revolutionary Russia called for an incredible amount of courage.

Russia’s special path towards revolution began shortly after Alexander II ascended the throne, when in 1855 he took over from his despotic father Nicholas I. Thus, it was under the rule of a monarch, who with his reformist achievements introduced a true revolution from above, going down in Russian history as the Liberator Tsar, that the intelligentsia became radicalised. Numerous demands which had been made for generations by critics of Russian autocracy were now fulfilled in quick succession: the liberation of the serfs, the relaxation of censorship, legal reforms, and the establishment of a relatively independent form of rural self-government. Yet all this was dismissed by the intelligentsia. There was no question of their supporting the reforms.

Instead, the intelligentsia aimed to break completely with Russian tradition; they mercilessly destroyed all that was sacrosanct in Russia. Only the simple Russian populace were spared their destructive energies, becoming the object of adoration, for they embodied the good. Any technical terms and cultural institutions beyond the comprehension of the lower classes were considered to be superfluous and were rejected as unseemly:

“For a long time philosophy as an occupation was thought to be almost immoral in our society”, wrote the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev: “Those who delved in philosophical problems were suspected of being indifferent to worker and peasant interests”.

Despite this extreme form of self-denial and radically egalitarian attitudes, the intelligentsia had to face up to the fact that they actually belonged to a privileged, highly educated class, an elite. In the eyes of the peasantry they remained, just like the landowners, part of the hated Europeanized ruling class, whose ideas and language were incomprehensible.

Pobedonostsevs Attempt to ‘Freeze’ Russia in Time

That the lower classes would join forces with the intelligentsia was therefore out of the question, due to the deeply rooted political conservatism of the peasantry. Conservative defenders of Russian autocracy tried to perpetuate this chasm in political interests. They realised that the fate of the regime depended on who won “the soul of the people”. Thus, the conservatives gave up on the intelligentsia. The only way to deal with them was to use heavy-handed repression. At all costs the lower classes had to be prevented from going down the same road as some of the elite. As a result, the conservatives felt it was necessary to preserve the worldview of Old Russia, in which the peasants still lived, and protect it against inner corruption. Such a course of action was promoted by Konstantin Pobedonostsev — one of the most influential advisors of the last two tsars. In the years 1880-1905 he served as director general of the Holy Synod — the highest institution within the Russian Orthodox Church. Pobedonostsev was convinced that, in contrast to the intelligentsia, the Russian lower classes were absolutely loyal to the tsar and that this loyalty constituted the most important pillar of the autocracy. To ensure that the traditional worldview of the lower classes survived the infiltration of the modern age, Pobedonostsev attempted to isolate the Russian peasantry from modern ideas, and especially any ideas originating in the West. Simple folk should not be imparted any abstract knowledge, according to the director general of the Holy Synod. This would only cause confusion and increase individual dissatisfaction in society, reinforcing individualist and selfish behaviour. Education should focus on elementary knowledge and practical skills. In his energetically extended system of parish schools Pobedonostsev endeavoured to fulfil his educational concept. The result led to the lower classes being permanently patronised by both secular and church authorities.

Yet, the Russian lower classes so revered by the conservative statesman for propping up the autocracy ended up constituting its greatest threat. Fifty years later, the turn of the century saw Russian workers and peasantry join the intelligentsia movement. The long battle between the opposition and the autocracy for the “soul of the people” was to be decided in the opposition’s favour.

One of the reasons for Pobedonostsev’s failure was that his aim to “freeze” Russia in time did not receive the backing of the entire Petersburg cabinet. Here Pobedonostsev encountered powerful opponents who wanted to use quite different, in fact the complete opposite, methods to stamp out the revolutionary menace. They included the minister of finance Sergei Witte, who did not share the conservatives’ fear of the future. He regarded Russia as a nation with infinite resources but in need of fundamental modernisation. Only then could it maintain its status as a great power and solve urgent social problems. However, Witte’s vision of a modern, powerful Russia failed to gain the support of any major social class.

The October Manifesto issued by Nicholas II in 1905 and its Consequences

In view of its complete isolation from the country, the tsarist autocracy could not be upheld in its previous form. It had to enter a compromise with Russian society. The manifesto issued by the tsar on 17 October 1905 promised citizens basic rights and the convocation of a parliament. This ended the unlimited autocracy of old. In April 1906 Russia was granted a constitution: the first in its history. The 1905 revolution deemed a failure by the Left actually created quite promising prerequisites for society to gradually shake off the fetters of state paternalism. These initial signs of an organised civil society towards the end of the tsarist monarchy are almost surprising, considering the preponderance of state power compared to the role of society throughout Russian history.

All these developments only affected the Russian educated elite, but not the lower classes. The latter showed little interest in the political aims of the Europeanized upper classes. Even after the constitution was passed, the Russian peasantry, making up the overwhelming majority of the population, was not interested in establishing the rule of law in Russia but concentrated on the agricultural issue, which they felt had yet to be resolved. The people dreamt of expropriating the landowners entirely, of the ‘black redistribution of land’, and therefore refused to accept the inviolability of private property, as guaranteed in Article 77 of the constitution.

World War I merely strengthened the centrifugal powers and exacerbated social friction. No wonder that the tsarist regime proved to be the weakest link in the chain of European belligerent powers involved in World War I and was the first to collapse under the challenges of the war.

2. The Dawn of Soviet Power
The Deceptive Stability of Brezhnevism

Roughly sixty years later, the Bolshevist system, established on the debris of the tsarist regime and the floundering ‘first’ Russian democracy, began to gradually fall apart. Ironically, this happened at a time when the communist imperium was considered to be rock-solid and basically invincible. In the 1970s a long-sought military and strategic parity had finally been reached with the U.S. as well as the confirmation of the post-war order at the CSCE conference in Helsinki, i.e. the Iron Curtain dividing western democracies from Eastern Europe.

Within the Soviet imperium too, the ruling elite under the Brezhnev crew (Leonid Brezhnev was First Secretary or General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party from 1964 to 1982) seemed to hold a permanent grip on power. The civil rights movement that had arisen in the 1960s practically stopped existing at the end of the 70s.

Exiling Andrei Sacharov in January 1980 − Sacharov being the unifying figure within the movement − was symbolic. Yet the stability of the Brezhnev regime was misleading.

From an economic and technological perspective, Russia was falling behind the West. The hyper-centralised structures of the planned economy served to exacerbate the inflexible, old-fashioned bureaucracy and ossified regime. Any attempts to promote an innovative spirit were stifled. These phenomena stopped economic growth in its tracks. Slowly but surely, the existing system was losing its ability to motivate the population to honour communist ideals, since no one during this period of stagnation, as the Brezhnev era was later called, took communist values seriously: neither the rulers nor the ruled. At first, only few western observers recognised that the stability of the communist regime was at risk. On the contrary, several assumed that the modern age was making communism increasingly technocratic and pragmatic and thus more like modern western industrial societies. This led to the birth of the convergence theory. Its advocates, however, missed the point that communist regimes were ideocracies. The communist regimes were based on sophisticated ideological systems that constantly had adapt to new requirements. Thus, radical change to the system was inevitable, and yet, the ruling bureaucracy was terrified of change. No other leadership in Moscow incorporated the principle of status-quo to such an extent as the Brezhnev Politbureau.

What was symbolic of the party oligarchy’s fear of ground-breaking change to the system was that the eastern superpower in the first half of the 80s was led by three decrepit old men, who spent more time fighting their illnesses than governing the country. Not until two elderly statesmen, appointed after Brezhnev’s death, had been tried out, did the Politbureau dare elect someone from a younger generation: its youngest member, Michail Gorbachev, who was 54 at the time.

Contradictions in Gorbachev’s Programme

The aims of the Gorbachev programme were revealed early on. Like previous reformers, Gorbachev envisaged a modern, economically powerful Russia or Soviet Union. His programme was remarkably technocratic. Above all, the party focused on finding solutions for current and future tasks. Its criticism was mainly restricted to the system’s economic failures and bureaucratic excesses. Such criticism was unlikely to impress Soviet citizens, however, as they had been used to the airing of similar grievances since Lenin. Even disciplinary campaigns held nothing new, and Russian citizens knew exactly how to deal with, i.e. avoid, them. Traditional Soviet disciplinary campaigns were hardly suitable ways to revitalize the country and prepare it for the future. The Gorbachev team recognized this however after a short time. The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in April 1986 certainly accelerated the rethinking process. It was not until after the catastrophe revealed the truly desolate conditions created by the Soviet system that the Perestroika programme began to take on a new shape. Again, this involved ad hoc decisions by a government well aware of their significance and consequences, including the revolutionary decision by Gorbachev to address the public directly and ask the population to monitor and exert continuous pressure on the party apparatus, which was reluctant to carry out reform.

Authorities and taboos were no longer set in stone, Gorbachev announced in 1987, thereby sending the country into a sort of truth-searching frenzy. Nevertheless, he naively hoped that the iconoclasm he had initiated would remain subject to party control. For it now became apparent that the communist idea had become just as discredited in the eyes of the majority as the tsarist ideas at the beginning of the 20th century. The attempt by dogmatic communists to use violence to turn back the wheel on 19 August 1991 was a dismal failure, despite the fact that the dogmatic sector controlled almost all the levers of power unopposed, and their democratic opponents, led by Boris Yeltsin, were defenseless. In the end, the conflict between the unpopular power and the powerless popularity of Yeltsin and Co led to the latter’s victory.

3. The Erosion of the ‘Second’ Russian Democracy

But only about two years later, the victorious Russian democrats ruined their chances. What made the idea of democracy fall into public disfavour was the national trauma linked to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the painful economic shock therapy, which virtually slashed living standards by 50%, and the exacerbating conflict between the state president and the Supreme Soviet. This came to a head with the armed clashes in the Russian capital in October 1993. Both in the East and West parallels were drawn between the Weimar Republic and post-Soviet Russia. Like the Weimar Republic, many associated the post-Soviet democracy of the 90s with the implosion of the state’s hegemonic position, brought on by the loss of territory and economic decline. The vacuum resulting from the lack of a worldview was now filled by the Putin system and its emphasis on law and order, accompanied by a modest rise in the standard of living owing to the (temporary) high fossil fuel prices.

4. The Putin System Crisis
Colour Revolutions in the Post-Soviet Bloc

At first, Putin’s ‘guided democracy’ concept was quite popular throughout the nation. However, one aspect was not taken into account: the fact that in a guided democracy the ruling groups escape any kind of political control, and this may endanger a country considerably. This became very clear after the successful ‘colour revolutions’ in the post-Soviet countries (Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine in 2004 and in 2013-14). Tougher domestic policies in Russia were directly linked to the Kremlin leadership’s fears of similar developments occurring at home. Thus, the radicalisation of policies on Ukraine, leading to the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the massive support for separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine, only partially reflected Russian rulers’ imperial desires. What was of far more importance in this instance were Moscow’s considerations of a domestic political nature. The ‘Euromaidan’ victory shocked Moscow supporters of a guided democracy to the core. They realised that the rise of democracy in a country with such close historical, cultural and linguistic ties to Russia would not halt at the Ukrainian border. Consequently, every effort was made to divide and destabilise Ukraine.

Boris Nemtsovs Prediction

The national euphoria that gripped Russia straight after the Crimean annexation in March 2014 seemed to prop up the Moscow regime, which had become quite shaky at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 (mass protests occurring against the rigged Duma elections in December 2011). The oppositional newspaper “Novaja Gazeta” called it a ‘patriotic tsunami’. Obviously, the situation was too good to last, as Boris Nemtsov (murdered on 27 February, 2015) predicted early on. In April 2014 he said in an interview for “Novaja Gazeta”:

“(By annexing the Crimean pensinsula) Putin has achieved a tactical success … His ratings have now reached dizzy heights … Yet strategically, he has lost everything”.

According to Nemtsov, the results would be devastating.

Nemtsov’s prediction was to come true very rapidly. The consequences of the Krim annexation were indeed very serious. First of all, the international isolation of Russia should be mentioned. This was particularly evident at the UN plenary at the end of March in 2014, when member states voted on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Apart from Russia, only 10 states voted for the incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation. 100 states were against it and 58 states abstained. Furthermore, the growing East-West confrontation was and still is quite a headache for the Kremlin. One reason for this is the economic imbalance among the major powers. According to Moscow historian Alexei Kiva in November 2017: “Russia’s share of global GDP is 1.5-2%, compared to 20% in the USA and 20% in the EU.”

Not only are Russia’s isolation in the world at large and her costly confrontation with the West major causes of concern to the Kremlin leadership, but so is the fact that the Crimea topic, which was still popular only a few years ago, have just about stopped playing any role to speak of in the current domestic conflict. The mass protests, mentioned in the introduction, against the arbitrary arrest and sentencing of Alexei Navalny clearly show that “Putin has lost the plot”, as Michael Thumann says in the German ZEIT newspaper.

Russia’s Totalitarian Inheritance

Will these protests change Russia fundamentally? Anti-government Russian authors diverge on this question. “We now live in a different country”, wrote Leonid Gosman, one of the most prominent opposition politicians, in “Novaya Gazeta” at the end of January. He was reflecting on the consequences of the latest mass protests. By contrast, Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada Centre, the opinion poll institute, critical of the government, is more sceptical. On 3 February he posted the following on the “Liberalnaya missiya” website:

“The tiny minority that makes up the protesters … (cannot) change the basic structure of the relationship between the state and the population. As long as this issue… is not thoroughly analysed, as it has been in the case of German National Socialism, no protest movement will be able to change a society. (Change can only occur) if a society is able to face up to and come to terms with its totalitarian past”.

In his comparison between the ways in which the Germans and the Russians deal with their respective pasts, Gudkov has, however, forgotten one significant aspect. The fact that West Germany was able to establish a highly stable, democratic system on German soil, after the unprecedented breach of civilisation from 1933 to 1945, was entirely due to the Marshall Plan and to aid provided by other states in the free world. Moreover, the Federal Republic’s gradual integration into the economic, and political and security structures of the West was vital. The pro-West groups in post-Soviet Russia still dominating the political hierarchy in the early 90s also strove for closer ties with the West. Nevertheless, the vision of ‘Europe as a common home’ that had inspired Soviet/Russian reformers ever since Gorbachev initiated Perestroika was never realised. Instead, Russia has dealt with its totalitarian inheritance under very different circumstances to those in Germany. It explains why the second Russian democracy established in 1991 was replaced by Vladimir Putin’s guided democracy only 9 years later. At this point in time, the guided democracy system is also embroiled in a spiralling crisis. How it will end is open to speculation.

English translation from the German Text “Laesst sich Russland einfrieren?” (DieKolumnisten, February 17, 2021). Translated by Elizabeth Rogans

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