December 11, 2003 by AK
Nothing new on the Eastern front, writes Gabriel Syme at Samizdata (see also his previous entry). What I prize the most about Gabriel’s opinions is his historical-cultural approach, as opposed to a-historical or even anti-historical approaches. However, I don’t agree with all of his assessments: read the comments and judge for yourself. I will only dwell on what I can’t miss.
Gabriel quotes a financial analyst at Aton, a Moscow brokerage: “Yesterday’s election shows what the people actually think: they are stridently nationalist, want wealth redistributed and have little interest in liberal or democratic values.” The Russians are a nation divided, of course: there is a significant underclass (the Lümpenproletariat) that always wants to rob, pillage, divide and get drunk. But let’s model the worldview of a more reasonable Russian, especially as we don’t know how politically active the underclass is. “Stridently nationalist” can equally describe a Japanese patriot or a pro-war, kick-them-towelheads-asses American. I don’t think being stridently nationalist (although I don’t sympathize with the sentiment) prevents one from being a supporter of political freedom. True, many Russians want wealth redistributed, but what wealth? Not the wealth created by the genuinely innovative entrepreneurs since 1991 (e.g., surely not the capital of cell phone companies), but the wealth acquired through an ugly apportioning of the country’s resource base in the 1990s. This is a natural impulse of the honest, as well as the stupid, the needy and the greedy. Russia’s economically naive voters cannot be expected to fully realize that another redistribution will be a disaster. Goodness, when the so-called voucher privatization started in 1993, most people (including your humble servant) didn’t quite realize what a share of stock is!
Finally, the election didn’t prove Russians “have little interest in liberal or democratic values”, as I have tried to argue before; it only showed disappointment with the old standard-bearers and hope that Putin will be able to fix the broken institutions.
Russia’s development is contingent not so much on the majority, but on a sizeable minority of its citizens who, although skeptical to cynical, and despising talk of “values”, want the government to leave them alone. They are ready to support themselves–as business owners or employees–as long as laws are simple, transparent and enforced, taxes are reasonable, and there is a way to peacefully settle disputes. So far, they have been forced to play an elaborate survival game with the government bureaucracy, big business, and various thugs. These people are no liberal namby-pambies, but let’s face it, the are as Western in their values as one can imagine under these circumstances. Perhaps not 21st century Western, but 1900s Western for sure.
Gabriel also writes: “Another quarter of the seats [in the Duma] will be shared by anti-western reactionaries nostalgic for the days of Soviet superpower status.” A reader comments: “Today in Russia, most of the population is hyper nationalist, anti-Western (and especially anti-American)…” (No comment on the truthfulness of the statement; leave it to opinion polls.) In these sentences, “anti-Western” apparently describes not a system of values but, rather, a general perception of the West’s actions towards Russia. Unfortunately, the West has never been particularly friendly to Russia; on the contrary, it has shown hostility at most critical moments. (Else, the Bosphorus would be in Christian hands now.) In particular, the West has done little to channel the post-1991 reforms in the right direction; one can’t help suspecting its leaders are more interested in a Russia that is harmless by virtue of its geographical smallness, economic weakness and political impotence, rather than friendly by virtue of its economic strength and stable democracy. Russians have a right to be dismayed; they feel cheated. In general, the West is very good at giving itself–and its core values–a bad reputation.
As Perry de Havilland remarks, “It is always fascinating to watch as Russia continues its march into global irrelevence.” [Such a noble name doesn’t go well with spelling errors.] Perhaps–just perhaps–global irrelevance and a deeply sunk realization it will never be more important to the globe than Switzerland, would be a boon and blessing for the tired horse that is Russia. But for centuries the essence of Russia’s foreign policy was a struggle for international relevance, and sometimes mere survival. Perhaps Muscovite Russia was history’s blunder from the start; let’s assume not. Still, what an unfortunate location! Look at that sparsely populated country, ravaged by Crimean horsemen every now and then, pushed eastward by the Poles, and cut off the Baltic by the Swedes–Siberia the only way to expand. Watch Moscow czars stubbornly banging on the locked door to the Gulf of Finland, Peter finally succeeding. (Compare Russia’s borders now and in Petrine times,–not a lot of difference.) Authoritarian rule developed largely as a response to these challenges. When they were gone–by Catherine II’s reign–the despotism evolved into a more enlightened monarchy relying on the support of the privileged landed gentry. Poland, by the way, was the opposite extreme: a republic of the gentry, each small, but noble landowner holding veto power in the Diet (Sejm). (Serfs were equally powerless in both countries; Poland also had a Jewish third estate.) Eventually, Poland collapsed and Russia took over; but since then, Poland has come back from the dead–twice.
Other than these minor details, I agree with a reader called Jacob: “They are in a lower stage of economic and social evolution than the West (much lower).” The election only reminded us where we really stand. Patience.
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