Commentary Magazine

Russia's Chance

When in 1917 the Russian empire exploded in revolution, the writer V.V. Rozanov observed with astonishment that his country had “wilted in two days. At the very most three. . . . It is amazing how she suddenly fell apart, all of her, down to particles, to pieces. . . . And what remained? Strange to say, nothing. A base people remained.”

A similar disintegration has occurred in our day. It had happened earlier still, at the end of the 16th century, when the reigning Rurik dynasty died without issue and Russia plunged into the Time of Troubles. Now, for the third time in Russian history, the breakdown of state authority has brought about the dissolution of society.

This is a remarkable phenomenon. Revolutions normally result in the replacement of one government by another; in Russia, and there only, do they cause a collapse of organized life. To explain this peculiarity of its history, one must say a few words about Russia’s political system—a system which has shown a remarkable ability to survive changes in the forms of government and in official ideology.

As it evolved since the 14th century, the Russian state was distinguished less by absolutism—common to much of early modern Europe—than by a distinctive type of unlimited authority that combined sovereignty with ownership. Under the “patrimonial” regime, the state molded society and gave it its sense of identity. A country ruled in this manner held together only as long as government was firm and decisive; the instant it weakened, society fell apart. This is what happened during the Time of Troubles, then in 1917 after the abdication of Nicholas II, and again in 1990-91, following the dissolution of the Communist party, the true government of the “Soviet” state.

Western opinion has had difficulty grasping this fact because it viewed the Soviet Union as a state organized along familiar lines, with government and citizenry coexisting in a certain balance. To be sure, Russia was moving toward a regime of this sort in the final decades of czarism, but the process was disrupted by the Revolution. After October 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power, Russia was thrown back to the political practices of the 16th and 17th centuries. Whatever its theoretical claims and propagandistic slogans, the Communist regime in fact enforced in the most extreme form the principles of Muscovite “patrimonialism,” depriving the citizenry of all rights, notably the right to form independent organizations and to own property. By shifting all political authority and property to the state, the Communist regime eliminated every semblance of an equilibrium between government and society.

When in the mid-1980’s the Communist leadership decided to dilute its absolute authority and bring society into a limited partnership in order to help it overcome worrisome symptoms of political and economic stagnation, it found to its dismay that there was no society and hence no partner. There were only millions of atomized individuals—some alienated and angry, the majority indifferent—whom 70 years of Communism had taught to take care of themselves and leave public affairs to their betters.

Trained to respond to signals from above, Soviet citizens in no time sensed that central authority had weakened and could no longer enforce its commands. Fear, the main instrument of Communist control, weakened and then disappeared. Emboldened, they took advantage of the regime’s predicament to compensate for 70 years of deprivation. Instead of rushing to the government’s help, they proceeded to pay it back in kind, atomizing it as it had atomized them.



The result has been a gigantic implosion. Since 1985, the Communist state and the economy which it had claimed as its own have come under massive assault from a population whom it had robbed of any sense of shared interest. The population’s objective is not so much to improve or replace existing institutions as to destroy them.

For this reason, the recent events cannot properly be called a “revolution.” The word that best describes them is duvan, a term of Turkish origin used by the Cossacks to designate the division of spoils acquired in raids on Persian and Turkish settlements. The Soviet Union is being systematically “duvanized”—that is, taken apart and distributed among ex-Communist organizations, republican and local governments, state enterprises, crime gangs, and, last but not least, individual citizens. There is hardly any public authority or national economy left; the little that remains survives by inertia. This is why all plans of reform, political as well as economic, have come to naught. There simply is no mechanism to translate ideas into policies.

In the political realm, authority has either dissolved or become paralyzed. The central Soviet government had ceased functioning long before it was officially dissolved, and it is far from evident that the powers which it lost have devolved upon the republican governments that have taken its place. In the smaller republics—Georgia and Moldova, for instance—where the population fears Russian interference, nationalism supplies a certain measure of political cohesion. This also holds true of Ukraine. But in Russia, the largest republic by far, accounting for one-half of the population and 70 percent of the industrial production of what used to be the Soviet Union, the sense of national solidarity is still weakly developed: what there is of it finds outlets mainly in xenophobia. Time will tell whether the new president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, can translate his popularity into effective command. So far, the signs have not been encouraging: here more than in any of the successor states, the duvan is doing its destructive work.

The collapse of the political system has inevitably led to a breakdown of the national economy. To cover mounting deficits, the Russian government has been emitting banknotes at a pace determined only by the capacity of the printing presses. The ruble is losing value at a rate of 2 to 3 percent a week. As always under conditions of hyperinflation, people shun the national currency. Those who can, resort to dollars; those who cannot, hoard goods. To a large extent, the economy of the country is being reduced to barter transactions involving countless, statistically untraceable private exchanges of goods and services. The reversion to such primitive practices has had a fatal effect on industrial productivity, since managers can no longer count on the delivery of parts and raw materials. It has also adversely affected the distribution of foodstuffs, the producers of which refuse to sell for depreciating rubles, or if they do sell, demand dollar-equivalent ruble prices which place them out of the reach of most citizens.

Nearly 200 years ago, the historian Nicholas Karamzin said that if he were asked to answer in one word the question “What goes on in Russia?” he would have to respond: kradut—“thieving.” This is truer today than ever. Communist officials dispose of the assets of the party, and, it is rumored, salt away the proceeds in foreign banks. Managers appropriate the output of their enterprises: those in the oil-producing Tiumen region, for example, are reported to have struck deals with Japan to trade oil for cars. Food produced by state farms is channeled to the private market. So is foreign aid.

We are thus witnessing a catastrophic—though in the case of Russia, not unprecedented—disintegration of political and economic cohesion. Totalitarianism is yielding to its antithesis, anarchy. Watching this development, one is reminded of the lament of Alexander Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government after the overthrow of the czar in 1917, who was in turn overthrown by the Bolsheviks:

The word “revolution” is quite inapplicable to what happened in Russia [in February 1917]. A whole world of national and political relationships sank to the bottom, and at once all existing political and tactical programs, however bold and well conceived, appeared hanging aimlessly and uselessly in space.



If Russia were not a giant spread across two continents and equipped with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, its destiny would be mainly material for intellectual speculation. But things being what they are, its fate has to be of abiding concern to the rest of the world. Even without its colonial dependencies, Russia has 150 million people inhabiting a vast territory that extends from the Baltic to the Pacific; its geopolitical position alone ensures it a major role in international politics.

Writing two years ago, I suggested that Gorbachev’s Soviet Union faced two alternatives: “breakdown” or “crackdown.”1 These still appear to be the most likely options and they are not mutually exclusive: the breakdown is under way, the crackdown has been attempted and failed but it may recur. The least likely possibility is an orderly, gradual transition to democracy and the free market which Western governments hope for and have made a precondition of aid.

In the past, Russian Times of Troubles have been followed by a reimposition of authoritarian rule. Precedent suggests that the current turmoil may be similarly resolved. Such also is the expectation of the Russian intelligentsia. But the past is not an invariable guide. The trauma that Russia suffered under Communist rule was so devastating, and it so transformed the nation’s psyche, that precedent may no longer hold.

There does exist in Russia a constituency eager for the return of a “firm hand.” It is made up of the two extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum: the previously privileged elite, resentful of the loss of power and entitlements; and the poor, most affected by the collapse of the subsidized consumer economy.

These two constitute a potentially dangerous bloc, but as the failed coup of August 1991 has shown, they do not command the allegiance of that broad and large middle class which has neither lost privileges nor suffered the most severe destitution. Opinion polls indicate that the majority of Russians pine for “normalcy,” which they equate with political and economic Westernization. In China, the Old Guard has been able to beat down pro-Western forces because there 80 percent of the population are peasants who lead largely self-sufficient lives and have little interest in politics. In the Russian Republic, where three out of four inhabitants reside in cities, the level of political awareness is much higher and the prospects of an old-fashioned dictatorship extinguishing the liberated spirit of independence correspondingly dimmer.

One can, of course, envisage a more competent power grab than the absurd putsch of last August, especially if the food situation in the cities were to deteriorate still further. What one cannot envisage is a coalition of generals and ex-Communist officials—the only conceivable leaders of such a coup—governing Russia more effectively than they did in the past, when they were in charge and with their ineptitude brought the country to its current predicament. Russia can no longer be governed without cooperation between rulers and ruled and hence without some sort of an institutionalized equilibrium between state and society.

Another alternative to dictatorship, at least as likely and considerably more attractive, frightens those foreign statesmen who tend to assign the highest priority to stability. It is the continuing disintegration of the country’s political and economic structures to the point where nothing remains of Communism’s legacy.

One aspect of this process is virtually completed: the Soviet empire has been shattered. Any attempt to reconstruct it would require massive military intervention, but Moscow simply does not dispose of a force either sufficiently large or sufficiently reliable to carry out a campaign of colonial reconquest. Russian soldiers have demonstrated in the past their unwillingness to fight the insurgent nations of the Caucasus; compelling them to fight against republican national guards would probably result in a civil war which no dictatorship could survive.

The empire’s break-up was inevitable in the sense that in the era of general decolonization, history could not have been expected to make an exception for the Russian empire. It was quixotic, therefore, for President Bush to lecture the Ukrainians on the advantages of freedom under Russian rule. It was also plainly absurd for an official of his administration—the administration of a country born of colonial revolution—to insist that Washington does not recognize unilateral declarations of independence.



One can appreciate the bureaucrats’ nostalgia for the old days when deals could be struck with the Politburo and the central ministries binding on the whole country, when Moscow paid its debts on time, and Soviet nuclear weapons were in “reliable” hands. (As an unidentified Washington official confided to the New York Times, “There is real concern here about the consequences of the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union.”) But those times are gone beyond hope of recall. The dissolution of the Communist party ensured the break-up of the empire, since the party was the cement that had kept it together. The quicker, therefore, that the West grants the new republics formal diplomatic recognition the better. The standard used should not be adherence to democratic principles. Desirable as that may be, it was not the condition for recognizing Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China. The criterion for recognition should be the traditional test of the government of a given country exercising effective authority over its territory.

There is not much chance that the Commonwealth put together in late 1991 will survive for any length of time. It is a makeshift arrangement whose creators had little idea of what they were doing. The only union still feasible is an economic association like the European Community, under which genuinely sovereign nations with complementary economies engage in multilateral trade. But for such an association to become reality, Moscow must give up, in thought and deed, all claim on the republics. This is proving difficult. The imperialist mentality remains rooted in the Russian psyche, even in democratic circles, for it is historically closely linked to the idea of Russian nationhood. Some of Yeltsin’s remarks concerning the necessity of adjusting Russia’s frontiers with Ukraine and Kazakhstan give grounds for anxiety, since any such “adjustments” would be wholly to Russia’s advantage. Nor is the cause of a peaceful transition from empire to a free community of sovereign nations helped by signals from Washington that it prefers stable unity to unstable diversity.

Why is it desirable for Russia to keep on disintegrating until nothing remains of its institutional structures? Because this is the only way of ridding the country of its patrimonial mentality and the Communist cadres which embody it. This kind of radical surgery is a prerequisite for any genuine progress.

Although outlawed and formally divested of authority, the Communist apparatus is still very much alive. It owes its survival to the fact that under a regime which endowed it with a political monopoly, it alone had had the opportunity to acquire administrative skills. This is one reason why the democratic intelligentsia has not been able to replace it. But the old apparatus also manages to hold on because the intelligentsia, its main rival, can be stirred into action only when resisting. Like Russian society at large, the intelligentsia is defined by the state, which in its case means defiance of state authority rather than the assumption of governmental responsibility. One of the disappointments of recent years has been the inability or unwillingness of the intelligentsia to make the transition from individual dissidence to collective leadership. In this respect, 1991 distressingly resembles 1917.

Hence the anomaly of the present situation: Communism has been abolished and the country is committed to democracy, and yet the civil service remains largely and the military command exclusively in the hands of one-time Communists. The Russian countryside and the smaller cities are run by the same people who had been in charge under Brezhnev. It is an apparatus without a head but with all the other organs intact and functioning. These people no longer receive orders from the Central Committee of the party, but years of dressage have conditioned them to know instinctively what is expected of them. Like czarist and Soviet bureaucrats, these apparatchiki view society as an enemy; they despise democracy in all its manifestations; they hate and fear the West as the source of subversive ideas. From habit, they conform outwardly, but at the same time manage systematically to thwart public initiatives. This holds especially true of the KGB whose tentacles still penetrate everywhere.2

For Russia to move toward normalcy, this apparatus must be extirpated. Unreconciled to their demotion, bitter and vengeful, the old functionaries would be the first to jump on the bandwagon should Russia veer to the Right and once again take the road leading to dictatorship. Despite their support of the August putsch, they have not been fired. They are sticks of kindling wood, awaiting an arsonist willing to set the country aflame so as to emerge as its savior.3



Russia now has a unique chance to build a state from the bottom up and in the process rid itself of the legacy of patrimonialism. Such reconstruction will necessarily be destabilizing, at any rate for a time. It is a risk worth taking since, as the fate of post-Ceausescu Romania has shown, “stabilization” of an unreformed Communist regime leads to the preservation in situ of the old ruling elite. Over the long run, the creation of a state based on a social consensus will enhance Russia’s stability because it will preclude political crises from turning into social cataclysms.

For 700 years, Russia’s political system has been structured vertically, with shafts of state authority sunk into society to serve as stabilizers. It was a mechanical contraption, awesome and seemingly indestructible when intact but worse than useless once the pillars supporting it rotted. The social fabric was all warp and no woof. The country’s foremost need now is to create a network of lateral bonds linking individuals and groups with one another, independently of the state, thereby giving society the cohesion to balance the government and the ability to step in at times of severe political crisis. For this to happen in a country with Russia’s traditions, people have to unlearn waiting for orders from above. They must be thrown onto their own devices and forced to organize in order to survive.

Creating a political regime that is organic in nature rather than mechanical will not be simple for many reasons, not the least of them being the mistrust which Communism, the easier to rule its subjects, deliberately sowed among them. Russians are unusually—abnormally—suspicious of one another and of anyone in authority. This mistrust, which has become an instinct, having been the surest guarantor of survival under Communism, must be overcome if a better political system is to emerge. It will require at least one generation, possibly more. It cannot be taught: confidence in fellow citizens, the basis of civil society, comes only from experience.

What has been said of politics applies also to economics. As the centralized national economy falls apart, a new one, of necessity, arises to take its place. Of necessity, since Russians are not about to lie down and perish of malnutrition and the cold because the government can no longer supply them with food and fuel. Already a primitive barter economy is emerging from the ruins of the socialist order, and alongside it, even certain more advanced forms of economic activity such as commodity exchanges.

If a free market is to become a reality, it is far more likely to grow from these seedlings than from the “regulated market” once envisioned by Gorbachev and the Communist reformers. For all the hardships it will cause while Russia and its one-time dependencies are in transition, the collapse of the central economy is, therefore, to be welcomed as a prerequisite to a more efficient system of production and distribution.

Russians, who tend to swing between extremes of boastfulness and humility, are at present in a self-deprecatory mood. They view themselves as a historic failure and desperately seek models abroad. They would like to be like the United States or, better yet, Sweden, which they admire for its ability to combine democracy, prosperity, and social equality. But these foreign models are inapplicable to a country with the peculiar history and political traditions of Russia. This is a task that has to be worked out at home. The sooner Russians are compelled by circumstances to fend for themselves, the quicker will they develop a political and economic system suited to their own conditions and culture.

It may be objected that the only such system is autocracy. And indeed, it is undeniably true that throughout its history Russia has had autocratic regimes which sacrificed individual rights to collective security. Such regimes, however, were the product not of an innate incapacity for self-rule but rather of inadequately developed social and political institutions that made arbitrary authority the only alternative to something even worse, namely anarchy. Should such institutions be given a chance to mature—and this can happen only under conditions of moderate adversity—there is no reason Russians should not come up with a political and economic order more in tune with the requirements of modernity.



It follows from all this that there are no quick solutions to the Russian tragedy. The country must overcome the legacies of 75 years of Communism and of centuries of czar-ism, whose central institutions were autocracy and serfdom.

Foreign powers can play only a limited role in this process of healing. A sharp debate is under way in the West on the extent and nature of the economic assistance which the industrial democracies should render the successor states of the Soviet Union. One school of thought wants massive aid tied to far-reaching reforms and demilitarization. Another opposes such aid on the grounds that it would only delay reform, serving as a life-support system to a dying old regime. The arguments of the second group are more convincing. The conditions under which the United States extended Marshall Plan aid to Western Europe after World War II were fundamentally different from those prevailing today in countries extricating themselves from the devastations of Communism. Then Europe was physically ruined but it had the people with skills as well as the institutions needed to rebuild the economy. In Russia, by contrast, the physical plant is (relatively) intact, but the skills and institutions are missing. The injection of tons of hard currency would do no more than sustain the status quo.

Such considerations apart, the sheer magnitude of the task of rebuilding the Soviet economy with foreign capital renders it utopian. West Germany expects in the next three years to spend $250 billion in government funds to rehabilitate its eastern half. To this sum must be added hundreds of billions of private capital which will be invested there by West Germans. Now the former German Democratic Republic, with a population one-seventeenth that of the Soviet Union and one-eighth that of Russia, had the most advanced economy in the Communist bloc. To match this effort, Russia would require capital infusions amounting to trillions of dollars. Such sums are nowhere available.

There do exist, however, other, more modest forms of assistance. One is know-how, especially managerial skills, always the Achilles heel of Russian organizations, along with the techniques of running municipal government, the courts, banks. Secondly, emergency aid can be extended in the form of food and medicines to tide the country over the most difficult period ahead when the risks of social disorder due to shortages are the greatest. Herbert Hoover showed in 1921-22 how such aid could be delivered to Russia swiftly and efficiently.

But it is absurd for the West to make such assistance conditional on reforms which, under present conditions, no one can carry out. The aid should be given promptly, generously, and without strings to keep the amount of distress at a moderate level. Finally, it will certainly be necessary for the West to help Moscow reschedule its external debt, since a default would have very deleterious consequences for all countries concerned.



How eerily silent in the face of this catastrophe is the Sovietological community which for years has been assuring the world that the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc were solid and popular and, for all their obvious shortcomings, able to teach us a thing or two about social justice. What thoughts cross the minds of the “revisionist” historians who depicted Lenin as the leader of a genuine popular revolution and the father of the country, as they look at photographs showing his monuments razed by furious, truly revolutionary crowds and his severed head dangling from the wrecker’s noose?

An analysis of the profession’s failure to foresee anything that has happened deserves to be undertaken not only to shame it, but to learn from its mistakes. These had several causes. One was intellectual vanity. With the overwhelming majority of ordinary Americans hostile to Communism, the expert was inclined to take a contrarian view, to argue that reality was different or, at the very least, more “complex.” For what would be the point of being an expert if one knew no more than the untutored masses?

To qualify as an expert one also had to travel to the Communist bloc, and this required the kind of access which totalitarian governments granted only foreigners whom it considered friendly. I heard not a few Sovietologists speak privately of the Soviet regime in terms of utmost contempt, but they never dared to do so in public. By their public silence they became accomplices in the Big Lie.

But the failure of the profession was also and perhaps most of all due to a “social-scientese” methodology which ignored history, literature, witnesses’ testimonies, and all else that could not be explained in sociological jargon and buttressed with statistics. Playing scientists, they developed “models” which assumed that all states and societies were fundamentally identical because they were called upon to perform identical functions. Being imponderable and hence unquantifiable, the peculiar features of national culture escaped their attention. So, too, did the moral dimension of human activity inasmuch as scientific inquiry was expected to be “value-free.” Human suffering was an irrelevant factor.

The fate of the Sovietological profession, which constitutes only one regiment in the army of social “scientists,” should serve as a warning. Science in our day enjoys well-deserved prestige, but its methods cannot be applied to human affairs. Unlike atoms and cells, human beings have values and goals which science is incapable of analyzing because they never stand still and never recur. They are, therefore, the proper province of the humanities, and best studied by the methods of history, literature, and the arts.

They are at sea now, the Soviet experts, confounded by irrefutable realities and abandoned by a regime whose claims to being progressive and democratic they once helped to bolster. They remind one of the 18th-century French adventurer, a contemporary of Dr. Johnson’s, George Psalmanazar. Claiming to come from Formosa, he devised a Formosan alphabet and language, an accomplishment that earned him an invitation to Oxford. Psalmanazar also wrote historical and geographical descriptions of his alleged homeland. They became international best-sellers even though everything in them was invented. A group of young Oxford missionaries trained on his manuals traveled to Formosa only to discover that nothing they had been taught bore any relationship to reality. A good part of the “Sovietological” literature of the past 30 years has served us a Psalmanazarian Soviet Union: not totally invented, perhaps, but sufficiently deceptive to cause widespread disbelief once the true state of affairs was revealed.

And so, one fine day, the Communist regimes vanished in a puff of smoke. And what remained? A tormented people who the Sovietologists had not even noticed were there.


1 COMMENTARY, March 1990.

2 The KGB has recently been abolished. But as with many other structural changes announced by Moscow it is difficult to make out whether this one is real, since immediately a new institution has sprung up to take its place. Its formal name is AFB, the Russian acronym for Agency of Federal Security.

3 This is not to suggest that all one-time Communist civil servants should be dismissed, since many of them possess irreplaceable skills. It is the network of Communist organizations, still very much intact, and the interlocking relationship between them and other state institutions, that need to be broken up.

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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