Commentary Magazine


Russia's Past, Russia's Future

Russia in the last few years has been a great disappointment to those of us who, after the collapse of the Soviet regime, had expected the country to embark on a slow, probably uneven, but still irreversible course of Westernization. What we had in mind was the path followed, in various ways, by the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary, all of which had also been recently liberated from Communism. What we did not have in mind was what many Russians themselves, in the initial flush of post-Communist euphoria, envisioned: namely, that merely by declaring Russia democratic and market-oriented, they would, in a year or two, transform it into another United States.

In the event, neither scenario has materialized. After an auspicious beginning, Russia has ended up with a nondescript regime that is unable to provide its people either with the prosperity and freedom of capitalist democracy or with the rudimentary social security of mature Communism.

In Russia, this outcome has bred pervasive disillusionment. In the most recent parliamentary elections, the Communists won the largest number of seats. Nearly one-half of the electorate cast ballots for candidates who reject democratization and the market economy, who view the West as an enemy bent on subjugating Russia, and who yearn for a “firm hand.” And now we face the prospect that in the June presidential elections, victory may go to a Communist or a nationalist, between whom there is little to distinguish since both wish to reconquer the lost empire and dismantle the country’s fledgling democratic institutions.

These developments, unwelcome as they are to sympathetic observers, also reveal how very wrong were neo-Slavophiles like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; for them, the whole problem in Russia lay in Marxism, which they saw as a virus brought from the West and lacking roots in Russia’s own past. Yet while it is true that Marxist theory was imported from the West, it is no less true that Marxism in practice, as a system of government, acquired in Russia a uniquely despotic character. In Western countries, Marxism, once in power in the guise of social democracy, evolved into the democratic welfare state; in Russia, as in the majority of third-world countries that adopted Marxism, it produced totalitarianism.

Clearly, these two different fates of the same ideology suggest that Russia’s political culture is inhospitable to the political as well as the economic institutions of the West, and prone to reshape Western ideas in a spirit hostile to the principles of civil society. Until Russians become aware of what they have to change in their own culture, it is unlikely they can become a “normal” society, a condition to which most of them aspire.

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What, then, are the elements in their historical heritage that have inured Russians to Westernization and made them vulnerable to anti-Western demagoguery?

The explanation that comes most readily to mind is national character: the Russians are intrinsically distinct, a people cast from a different mold from Englishmen, Frenchmen, or Swedes. But this answer must be rejected. In the late Middle Ages, Russia consisted of two states. One was centered on Moscow, the other on Novgorod, a prosperous commercial city-state which, through the agency of the Hanseatic League, carried on extensive trade with Northern Europe. Its commercial culture encouraged the emergence of democratic institutions that paralleled and in some respects even surpassed those of the contemporary West.

Novgorod was a republic whose princes were elected and, before assuming office, had to swear an oath to uphold charters that strictly circumscribed their powers. Other chief officials, too, were elected. The property of citizens enjoyed protection from unlawful seizure. Laws were issued by a popular assembly, the veche (a counterpart of the Anglo-Saxon folkmoot), in which every freeman could participate. The Russian city-state closely resembled the self-governing communes of medieval Europe which contributed so much to the evolution of liberty and the rule of law in the West.

Unfortunately for Russia, in the late 15th century Novgorod was conquered by the autocratic Moscow state, which abolished the veche, confiscated all landed properties on behalf of the Muscovite czar, and deported its elite by the thousands to the interior of Russia. Still, although Novgorod did not survive into the modern era, its very existence demonstrates that Russians are not constitutionally averse to Westernization.

This is corroborated as well by modern Russian culture. Russia’s great literature of the past two centuries, along with its music and art, has been strongly influenced by the West and, in turn, readily absorbed by the West. Surely no one would regard Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, or Chekhov, Tchaikowsky or Stravinsky, Kandinsky or Chagall as anything but Western.

We thus confront a conundrum: a country which borders on Europe, which is inhabited by people who physically resemble Europeans, which for the past three centuries has insisted on being regarded as part of Europe, and which has shown both in its political and in its cultural life the ability to be European, nevertheless has found it next to impossible to build a social and political regime that is based on the European model. Why should this be so?

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Here, a brief digression is in order. In what follows, my assumption is that Western institutions and practices are the standard by which Russia (and, by extrapolation, other non-Western societies) should be judged. Such an assumption is quite unpopular these days, for it recalls the self-serving arguments used by Westerners at the height of their imperial expansion to justify the subjugation and even the enslavement of other races. The notion of the racial superiority of Europeans, especially Nordic Europeans (“Aryans”), which reached its infamous fulfillment in the Holocaust, has been thoroughly discredited, and rightly so. But in reaction, we have swung to the opposite extreme. In American colleges the politically-correct view today is that of “multiculturalism,” a fuzzy neologism which treats all cultures as of equal merit—and Western culture as, if anything, inferior because of the unique devastation it has allegedly inflicted on humanity and the natural environment.

In atoning for the racist attitudes of the past, today’s fashionable doctrine suffers from drawbacks of its own, not the least of which is hypocrisy. We have abandoned the notion that non-Europeans are savages, or in any way inferior to us, but we persist in judging other societies by our own, Western standards. When the Iranian head of state ordered faithful Muslims to kill a novelist for allegedly insulting Muhammad, our leading “progressive” writers were outraged, even though the order might well have been in keeping with Islamic law. We object to practices which relegate women in the third world to an inferior status and in some African societies to physical mutilation, even though, again, such practices conform to local cultural traditions. These and numerous other examples suggest that much of what passes for “multiculturalism,” with its attendant denigration of the West, is a pose, inspired in part by guilt, in part by self-hatred.

Holding up Western culture as the model for the contemporary world does not, in fact, imply racial superiority. For various reasons, Europe was the first continent to develop the institutions which are the foundations of modern life—the legal systems and administrative practices, the science and technology, the means of information and transport, the movement of people, capital, and goods which, in combination, relentlessly integrate the world into a single community. Modernity and Westernization are, for all practical purposes, one and the same thing. A list of the countries enjoying the highest per-capita income today closely matches the roll of countries that have gone farthest in adopting Western ways. Conversely, the poorest countries are those which, for one reason or another, have not followed this path.

Russia is no exception to the rule. Its ingrained anti-Westernism attests to an inability to adjust to the modern world, and spells poverty and regression. The theory formulated by 19th-century Slavophiles—that Russia must follow its own “separate” path—has been amply demonstrated to be a recipe for disaster. This does not deter Gennadi Zyuganov, the head of Russia’s Communist party and a leading contender in this year’s presidential race, from demanding that the world acknowledge “our equal right to follow our own path in accordance with our traditions and conditions.” But it is not clear concretely what this “own path” is—that is, exactly which “traditions” Russia should follow and which “conditions” it should adjust to—and in any case no one denies Russians this “right.” The question, in light of the experience of the past 78 years, is where it is likely to lead.

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Why does Russia find it so difficult to adopt the Western model, even as several Asian countries, in every respect farther removed from Europe, have done so with great success? The explanation lies partly in subjective and partly in objective factors: in a psychologically rooted aversion, reinforced by the legacy of history.

Russia’s persistent anti-Westernism is traceable, first and foremost, to its religious heritage. The depth of religious feeling in the Russian population at large has long been a matter of controversy, for Russian religiosity is to an uncommon degree permeated by superstition and magic. But it is indisputable that for hundreds of years the vast majority of the Russian people—and especially the peasantry, which made up 80 percent of the population—paid faithful obeisance to icons, scrupulously observed the church’s fasts and holidays, and, when literate, read religious books. In many respects, therefore, until the Communist anti-religious campaign got into high gear in the 1930’s, most Russians continued to live in the Middle Ages, untouched by the Western secular culture that was dominant among the educated elite.

Although it may not be immediately apparent, a close causal link exists between the religion which Russians profess and their attitude toward the West. In the eyes of Orthodox Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestantism have always been deviant religions, polluted by pagan classicism and philosophical rationalism. The strength of this view is evidenced by the fact that after the Turks had conquered Constantinople in 1453 and liquidated the Byzantine empire—the center of Christian Orthodoxy—Russian clergymen justified the calamity as divine punishment for Byzantium’s attempt a century earlier to enter into a union with Rome. Following the collapse of Byzantium and the Ottoman occupation of the Balkan peninsula, Muscovite czardom remained, for all practical purposes, the world’s only Orthodox Christian state. This meant that from the middle of the 15th century on, Orthodoxy became identified with Russianness, turning into a national religion.

This synthesis of religion and nationality—by contrast, Catholicism and Protestantism were, and remain to this day, transnational faiths—had far-reaching effects. The hostility of the Orthodox Church toward the Western branches of Christianity became in time secularized. Just as Orthodoxy deemed itself irreconcilable with Western Christianity, so the Russian nation came to perceive itself as incompatible with the West. But since Russians did not feel any affinity with those of their neighbors who professed Eastern creeds—Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism—they began to think of themselves as unique.

Historians have long noted how the Bolsheviks, for all their militant atheism, unwittingly played on these emotions in launching the Third International and proclaiming Moscow the capital of world Communism. In so doing, they were following in the footsteps of 16th-century Russian clerics who, after the fall of Constantinople, had proclaimed the country’s capital the Third and ultimate “Rome.”

In an age when science and ideology have replaced religion as intellectual and moral guides, it may seem far-fetched to seek roots of political attitudes in religious antecedents. But secularism is a very recent phenomenon, and many of our beliefs, even if couched in scientific and ideological terms, on closer scrutiny turn out to be rooted in religious faith. The millions of Russians who applaud demagogues denouncing the “corrupt” and “corrupting” West unknowingly replicate attitudes which originated centuries ago among the Orthodox hierarchy and from there spread to the population at large.

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If these are some of the attitudes which inhibit Russians from benefiting from Western experience and modernization, there are also institutional obstacles impeding change—in fact, a bewildering variety of them. At their head, I would place the tardy and short-lived acquaintance with private property.

We in the West tend to treat the notion of private property as a law of nature, guaranteeing that the goods and rights which we possess are ours to keep and enjoy. We defend these goods and rights not only from our fellow-citizens but from the state as well: we firmly believe that the government must not tax us without the consent of our representatives or lay its hands on our property except with due compensation. In reality, though, it took a long time and many bitter conflicts for these “natural” and self-evident principles to establish themselves in our culture. The constitutional history of England, the country that gave the world parliamentary democracy, is filled with struggles between the people and the crown over the latter’s encroachments, mainly through arbitrary taxation, on its subjects’ properties.

These struggles ended in the triumph of popular sovereignty, in England and elsewhere. The notion that property included physical assets as well as life and liberty, popularized by John Locke and transplanted from England to the United States, exercised considerable influence on the continent as well. Throughout Europe, even in countries living under absolutist regimes, it was considered a truism that kings ruled but did not own: a popular formula taken from the Roman philosopher Seneca held that “unto kings belongs the power of all things, and unto individual men, property.” Violations of this principle were perceived as a hallmark of tyranny.

This whole complex of ideas was foreign to Russia. The Muscovite crown treated the entire realm as its property and all secular landowners as the czar’s tenants-in-chief, who held their estates at his mercy and on condition of faithful service. Sovereignty subsumed ownership of the land and its people. This kind of regime, designated “patrimonial” by the German sociologist Max Weber, survived intact in Russia to the end of the 18th century and in some respects until the beginning of the 20th. Unconditional private ownership of land, the main form of productive wealth, came only in 1785 with Catherine the Great’s “Charter of the Nobility,” and even then was confined to the gentry; peasants continued to cultivate the soil belonging either to the state or to the landlords. For the peasantry, ownership of land became a theoretical possibility only in 1861, and a realistic one only in 1906, that is, almost within living memory. Then, after a few decades, private possession of land was abolished by Stalin’s collectivization measures.

The absence of private property in land has exerted a profound influence on every facet of Russia’s history. In England, kings convened parliaments because custom forbade the imposition of direct taxes without their subjects’ approval; the more money the crown needed, usually to cover the costs of ceaseless wars, the more authority it had to concede to the House of Commons. The great constitutional crisis of the 17th century, which resulted in the permanent shift of legislative power from the crown to the Commons, was essentially decided by the latter’s control of the purse strings.

In Russia, by contrast, the czars had no need to convoke representative bodies because they owned everything. The so-called Land Assemblies, which some historians like to compare to Western parliaments, were nothing of the kind—they had no fiscal powers and merely endorsed decisions taken by the Kremlin. Czarist absolutism thus reigned supreme, taking on much more onerous forms than any of its Western counterparts which were effectively constrained by the existence of and respect for private property. It could maintain itself until the early 20th century in large measure because it was fiscally self-sufficient.

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Property has played a role in history not only as a restraint on the exercise of political power. It is no less responsible for instituting the regime of law in place of the primitive rule of men. Property and law have always been closely linked: one of the defining qualities of ownership is the right to exclude others from unauthorized use of a person’s assets. In the words of C. B. Macpherson, “What distinguishes property from mere momentary possession is that property is a claim that will be enforced by society or the state, by customs or convention or law.” Thus property posits common or statutory law and all that goes with them. “Property and law are born together and must die together,” wrote Jeremy Bentham nearly two centuries ago. “Before the laws there was no property; take away the laws, all property ceases.”

The intimate relationship between these two institutions explains the remarkable role played by members of the legal profession in the political evolution of England and other English-speaking nations where property was most fully developed. From Sir John Fortescue in the 15th century onward, English jurists have been the supreme arbiters of their country’s unwritten constitution. It is they who established the principle, central to modern democracy, that law is superior to both sovereign and subject.

No such evolution occurred in Russia. There, the absence of private property hindered the emergence of legal institutions: disputes over landed estates, which in England in the 17th century constituted the bulk of the cases tried by the courts, were resolved in Russia by administrative fiat. Suffice it to note that independent courts, and the legal profession to serve them, made their debut in Russia as late as 1864, the age of railroads and telegraphs. At no time in Russia’s history were its jurists asked their opinions on the constitutionality of the government’s actions. Suits between citizens and the state were unknown. Even in today’s post-Communist Russia, attempts to bring the government to trial on charges of unconstitutional behavior have been singularly unsuccessful.

A word must be said in this connection about serfdom, not the least harmful legacy of patrimonialism. Bondage, of course, was known in Western Europe as well, but there it was a feature of feudalism and disappeared at the close of the Middle Ages. In Russia, which had no feudalism, it was a feature of absolutism, and emerged only at the dawn of the early modern era, in the 16th and 17th centuries; it was abolished in 1861. Since the crown required all Russian landlords to render personal service, primarily in the armed forces, and yet lacked money to compensate them with adequate salaries, it had to devise other means of supporting them. In a country rich in land but short of hands to cultivate it, this took the form of an assured labor force of peasants tied to the land.

Serfdom was thus a corollary of the gentry’s compulsory state service. While not analogous to slavery, it shared some of slavery’s worst features: the serf, too, lacked legal rights, including property rights. Not unlike slavery, serfdom inculcated in the peasant a contempt for law and property and a spirit of sullen resistance to all authority. What could the state mean to him when all it did was exact taxes and recruits, giving nothing in return? Serfdom further prevented the Russian peasant from developing a sense of patriotism, for how could he feel anything in common with either the officials or the landlords who treated him like chattel?

The most harmful legacy of Russia’s past may well lie here. Its people were given no opportunity to develop either respect for property and law, or a sense of belonging to a national community. They were taught to obey when there was no choice and to rebel when there was: the one thing they were not taught was the responsibilities and the benefits of citizenship.

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Maintaining the most extreme forms of absolutism to the very dawn of the contemporary age, the Russian state rested not on a popular mandate but on force. Because of the highly inequitable distribution of civil rights among its subjects, it could not even appeal to national sentiments. Russia’s impressive record of resistance to foreign invaders must not be confused with patriotism, for the driving motive here was loathing of foreigners rather than affinity with one’s compatriots, and feelings tended to evaporate as soon as Russians were called upon to fight outside their borders.

A government that rests on force must, by the logic of its situation, give its people constant proof of its might. One of the ways to do this is by territorial acquisition. Others have built empires, but no country has expanded so relentlessly and held on so tenaciously to its conquests as has Russia. By my calculation, in the 150 years between the middle of the 16th century and the end of the 17th, the Muscovite state year after year acquired territory equivalent in area to modern-day Holland.

True, most of these territories consisted of barren wastes, but even so, their incorporation exerted a powerful influence on the psyche of Russians, enabling them to boast that even if they were not the richest or the most civilized country in the world, they were indisputably the largest. The poet Michael Lermontov, writing at the time Russian armies were conquering the Caucasus, has a Russian tell a Muslim native of the mountains that once he comes under the czar’s rule he will proudly say, “Yes, I am a slave, but a slave of the czar of the universe.”

Russia’s expansionism and the militarism that made it possible had, once again, their parallels in the West, but in Russia the notion of great-power status acquired a very special significance. Both the monarchy and its Communist successor legitimized their authority by projecting an image of invincible power. What better way to inculcate among their own people the sense of futility of resistance than to show that the whole world feared Russia?

There thus arose an intimate link between Russia’s status as a great power and its internal stability. One of the principal reasons for the collapse of czarism in 1917, rarely mentioned by scholars captive to the class-war theory of history, is the steady decline of the monarchy’s claim to great-power status as a result of military defeat in the Crimean war of 1854-56, the diplomatic setback following the Balkan war of 1877-78, the debacle in the conflict with Japan in 1904-05, and finally the repeated thrashing at the hands of the Germans in World War I. As a consequence of these humiliations, the monarchy, in the eyes of its subjects, lost the “mandate of heaven,” and all the more so since it also proved itself unable to cope with radical terrorism on its home territory.

This historic legacy explains why, of all the empires that have dissolved since World War II, none has had such a difficult time adjusting to decolonization as Russia. Great Britain, whose empire once encircled the globe, made a quick accommodation to its loss, as did France, Portugal, and the other European powers to theirs. For them, colonial possessions, while a source of pride and possibly profit, were not factors making for self-identity. England, for one, had developed a strong sense of nationhood by the 16th century, before it acquired significant overseas territories.

In Russia, however, the sense of ethnic identity was always indissolubly linked with empire, and its loss has produced bewilderment and anguish. Indeed, nothing so much troubles many Russians today, not even the decline in their living standards or the prevalence of crime, and nothing so lowers in their eyes the prestige of their government, as the precipitous loss of great-power status. A superpower under Communism, a peer of the United States, their country is now, they feel, treated like a third-world nation, the humble recipient of Western largesse. A great deal of the appeal of the red-brown (Communist-Fascist) coalition derives precisely from its promise to restore to Russia the status of a respected—that is, feared—world power.

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Thus far Russia’s past. What about Russia’s? future?

The sense of isolation and uniqueness bequeathed by Orthodox Christianity unfortunately survives. Present-day Russians still feel themselves to be outsiders, a nation sui generis, belonging neither to Europe nor to Asia. There is a great deal of paranoia about foreigners, who, whatever their own private rivalries may be, are thought to be united in a hostile bloc determined somehow to “get” Russia. According to recent polls, for example, 60 percent of Russians believe that the Western powers are offering economic advice (and, presumably, aid) for the purpose of weakening the country.

To illustrate this widespread attitude, let me relate a personal incident. A few years ago I happened to be at a conference in Switzerland where one of the participants was a Russian official of cabinet rank. During lunch, flanked by two Russian ambassadors, he complained that foreign powers were conspiring to bar his country’s access to international markets. As evidence, he adduced the fact that in the previous year Russia had purchased 600,000 cars from Japan, while Japan imported only 20,000 cars from Russia. The difference in quality between Russian and Japanese cars apparently eluded him, as did the fierce competition between Japanese and American automakers, and American complaints about the closed Japanese market. All he saw was “them” ganging up on “us.”

Irrational as such suspicions are, the sense of being hemmed in by an unfriendly Western world is very real. Paranoia in Russia feeds on itself, seeking and finding confirmation in everything that happens—emphatically including the recent Western decision to expand NATO up to the very borders of the former Soviet Union. This move has aroused the deepest anxieties in Russians, corroborating their belief that, even after embracing democracy and the market economy, they are regarded as pariahs, unworthy of full membership in the community of nations. I know no Russian, regardless of political orientation, who favors it. To the contrary, NATO’s projected expansion plays directly into the hands of the nationalists who exploit fears of the West to argue that Russia must reconstruct the empire and rebuild the military in order to hold its own in an unfriendly world.

If these are some of the factors that cloud the prospects in international relations, Russia faces no less extraordinary difficulties at home in making the transition from totalitarianism to democracy, and from a command economy to one based on the market. After all, democracy and a market economy, the distinctive features of modernity, rest on private property and, its corollary, the rule of law; as we have seen, neither has deep roots in Russia’s culture.

The past five years have witnessed frenetic seizures of assets previously monopolized by the Communist party and, since its dissolution, up for grabs. But these seizures, which really amount to theft of public property, and which have largely benefited the old Communist apparatus itself, have so far not enhanced respect for private ownership. For one thing, the assets have been acquired by extra-legal means. For another, the new owners of real estate and industrial enterprises tend to dispose of them for dollars, which they export and deposit in foreign banks. “Privatization” of this kind brings little benefit to the Russian economy and only reinforces the prevalent view that capitalism equals speculation and profiteering.

There are, to be sure, positive aspects even to this process. The transfer of the nation’s wealth from the state into private hands is proceeding apace: perhaps as much as three-quarters of the Gross Domestic Product of Russia today emanates from the private sector. This means that the state no longer controls the economy and cannot use it as a weapon of social control. Furthermore, every owner of property has a vested interest in the rule of law to die extent that it serves his advantage; for even if he has obtained his wealth unlawfully, he relies on the law to safeguard it for him. It may well be that Boris Yeltsin and the reformers with whom he surrounded himself until his recent lurch to the Right knowingly promoted privatization in order to raise insuperable obstacles to a restoration of Communism.

In the meantime, however, the new order borders on anarchy. Russian governments have traditionally denied their people the right to interfere in affairs of state. Politics has meant administration, and law has represented an administrative device rather than a principle superior alike to sovereign and subject and binding on both. As a result, whenever the Russian state has lacked the physical power to enforce its directives, it has become virtually impotent.

This is what has happened since 1991. The legislature has no influence on Kremlin decisions; its votes are at best indicators of the public mood. The Duma, the lower house of parliament, consists of singularly irresponsible politicians whose main occupation is to provide an outlet for personal and public frustrations. Not long ago, in total disregard of constitutional norms, a substantial majority of Duma deputies voted to annul the accord, signed in late 1991 by Russia’s President, which dissolved the Soviet Union and granted independence to its constituent republics. This is roughly equivalent to the British House of Commons declaring Canada or India dependencies of England and subject to its laws.

Present-day Russia is not so much a single, integrated state as a congeries of 89 quasi-sovereign baronies, regions formally bound to Moscow but in reality concerned principally with their own parochial interests. The governors, most of them appointed by the President but occasionally elected by their constituents, act like satraps, obeying commands of the center only to the extent that it suits them. Governors who enjoy strong local popularity have been known to defy Moscow’s orders to resign.

One sometimes gains the impression that about the only effective authority left to Moscow is financial, through the allocation of subsidies to the provinces—one of the few sources of control still available to the center—the borrowing of money abroad, and the printing of bank notes. The Kremlin also controls much television programming, a power it uses to promote the interests of the incumbent president. Otherwise, though, the Russian government can hardly be said to exist. Government decrees are largely ignored by a populace which, to the extent that it recognizes any higher power, looks to the provincial authorities. Witness the inability of President Yeltsin even to control his armed forces: his solemn pledge, personally given on television at the end of March, that Russian troops would forthwith cease combat operations in Chechnya seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

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Altogether the political situation in Russia closely resembles that prevailing in the period between the abdication of the czar in February 1917 and the Bolshevik coup the following October—with the important difference that Russia today is not at war, and that utopian fantasies no longer captivate either the intelligentsia or the masses. But again, as in the field of economics, the picture is not all bleak. The present government is the first in the entire history of Russia to enjoy a popular mandate: the incumbent President was chosen by a popular vote and the constitution was approved by a nationwide referendum. Such legitimacy has no precedent in a country where authority was traditionally acquired not by consent but by virtue either of inheritance or of a coup d’état. At long last, Russians have been offered the opportunity to build a viable democratic system.

Whether they are capable of taking advantage of this opportunity, time alone will show. Many Russians believe that no matter who wins the presidential election, Yeltsin will hold on to office. Public-opinion polls conducted in the first three months of this year reveal a curious contradiction: each month, more voters say they will cast ballots for the Communist leader Zyuganov, and yet at the same time, in similarly growing numbers, they express the conviction that Yeltsin will continue as Russia’s head of state.

The doubts about Russia’s future that remain are largely owing to the political inexperience of the Russian people. Under Communism, “elections” were pageants which required 99 percent of the voters to certify their delight with the status quo. Before Communism, the last time Russia had genuine multiparty elections was in November 1917, when 44 million men and women twenty years of age and older cast ballots for the Constituent Assembly. This means that in 1991, when the next free elections took place, only those citizens ninety-four years of age or older had had any experience with freely choosing candidates, parties, and platforms.

An inexperienced electorate tends to swing wildly. Contemporary Russians expect their head of state to be a magician; they are prepared to entrust him with unlimited power, so long as he uses it to solve all their problems, quickly and painlessly. Since there are no miracles in life, disenchantment invariably sets in. This happened in the late 1980’s under Mikhail Gorbachev, whose popularity plummeted when perestroika did not fulfill its promises; it has happened again under Yeltsin; and it would indubitably happen under Zyuganov should he be elected.

Sooner or later—I fear it will be later rather than sooner—Russians will come to realize that there are no rapid fixes to their difficulties, and that ahead of them lies the arduous task of building a modern state and a modern economy from the bottom up. Until then, we will confront an electorate so unseasoned, so naive, that, if we are to believe the polls, one out of ten voters wants to award the presidency to a buffoon and brawler by the name of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the author of a political treatise entitled Spit on the West.

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Given all this, finally, how great is the danger of a restoration of Communism and of a Communist empire? If the Communists were to win the presidential election, could they turn back the clock?

The formal program of the Communist party sounds innocuous enough, being modeled on Western social-democratic platforms. It specifically disavows any desire to implement the fundamental principle of Communism—namely, the abolition of private property. But there are indications that this formal program only camouflages the Communists’ true intent. In Russian political jargon it represents the “program minimum,” the immediately realizable agenda behind which lurks the ultimate objective, the “program maximum.”

A law on economic reform, recently drafted by the Communist faction in the Duma, sheds light on what that maximal program is in the economic sphere. The law would give the state a greatly enhanced role in managing the economy and impose strict regulations on private enterprise. Land ownership would be outlawed, prices regulated, and foreign investments rigorously controlled. The whole economy would once again be subjected to a plan. As for the political intentions of the Communist party, these have not yet been spelled out, but it is safe to assume that here, too, it takes the past as a model.

Unquestionably, a Communist victory would cause severe dislocations in Russia’s economy: rampant inflation, massive hoarding, a decrease and possibly suspension of foreign investments. But a reversion to Communism seems to me highly unlikely. Communism was not merely an ideology. It was a complex phenomenon composed of various interlocking institutions, including one-party rule, police terror, state monopoly of productive wealth, total control of publications and education, repression of religious faiths, and so on; it atomized society, depriving people of the right to form independent associations of even the most harmless kind.

It took the Communists two decades, from 1917 to 1937, to impose this regime on Russia: twenty years of revolution, civil war, collectivization, and massacres euphemistically labeled “purges.” It is inconceivable that any Russian government would have the capacity once again to subjugate society in this manner. And even if the older generation, conditioned to submission, could be brought back into the totalitarian fold, younger Russians under thirty-five, who according to all evidence are extremely skeptical of every ideology, will not be readily reharnessed in state service. One can only imagine the resistance that would greet such an attempt from the class of new proprietors, among them a high proportion of ex-Communist functionaries, who surely would not surrender their recent gains, whether legitimate or ill-gotten, without a fight.

Nor is a milder form of Communism feasible. A Communist regime must be of one piece: it cannot tolerate even limited private property or free opinion. In the late 1980’s we witnessed the swift collapse of Soviet Communism as a result of Gorbachev’s futile effort to revitalize a moribund economy by injecting a measure of freedom into the system. There is no reason to believe that another attempt to combine Communism with elements of capitalism will be more successful.

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The chances Are, Therefore, that no matter who wins the forthcoming elections, Russia will have to muddle along for a long time under a regime of pseudo-democracy and quasi-capitalism. The worst of the realistic scenarios appears to be an authoritarian government that will liquidate political rivalries and rule by decree while tolerating considerable economic and even intellectual freedom. The model may be General Pinochet’s Chile, which today has quite a few Russian admirers. Such a regime would very likely form a transition to democracy rather than to neo-totalitarianism.

The empire, too, is unlikely to be reconstituted, despite widespread nostalgia for it. The experience of Western imperial powers indicates that once colonies have been granted independence, there is no return to the past. Each emancipated colony evolves its own elites with a keen interest in perpetuating the powers and privileges gained from independence; clerks who have become ministers, sergeants who have become generals, are not likely to accept timidly a demotion to their former rank. The economy changes, too, with the pattern of exports and imports shifting focus from the onetime metropolis to other countries. These considerations suggest that only naked force could restore the separated republics to Moscow’s hegemony. This force Russia lacks, as has been evidenced by its inability to subdue minuscule Chechnya.

True, by a combination of economic carrots and sticks, as well as by exploiting discontents among Russian minorities living in the “near abroad,” Moscow might bring the separated republics into a closer union. But it is difficult to see how the empire itself can be restored. It would require an effort of no less monumental dimensions than the restoration of Communism.

In sum, there are reasons for cautious optimism. The burden of history does weigh heavily; but it only slows Russia’s progress, it does not condemn the country to immobility, let alone regression. My own hopes rest on the assumption that Russia, a country aspiring to the status of a respected world power, will not want to opt out of the 21st century.

About the Author

Richard Pipes is professor of history emeritus at Harvard and the author most recently of Russian Conservatism and Its Critics (Yale).




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