Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Kremlin Reaching to the Past to Inspire the Future

Over the weekend, Vladimir Putin went to the Donskoi monastery to pay homage to some of the luminaries of the "White" movement, laying flowers at the graves of writer Ivan Shmelev, philosopher Ivan Il'in and general Anton Denikin.

In the Spring 2009 issue of Orbis, in a review essay entitled "Russia's Future", I talked about the growing interest in the political philosophy of the White emigres among members of the Kremlin elite, starting with Vladislav Surkov, who in his own essays quotes from Il'in and others.

These White thinkers were not monarchist reactionaries looking to turn back the clock. They accepted that the Bolshevik revolution had happened because of conditions in Russia. What they were interested in was how a post-Soviet Russia of the future might guide itself away from the Soviet past toward a better future.

From the review:
Il’in, for his part, felt that Russia could emerge from the Soviet period by rallying around a “national idea” which, in the words of that leading historian of Russian political thought, S.V. Utechin, could mobilize “chivalrous cadres with will and character, dedicated to the service of the idea of the perfect Russia of the future.” Moreover, this new elite should not waste its time in ideological and philosophical speculation but instead be motivated by a “free and calm patriotic realism” to find a path forward for Russia out of its crises.
Sound familiar?

Nik, I think they are buried at the Sretenski monastery. And Putin supposedly paid for new grave stones.
Nicholas Gvosdev,

It is good to see someone discussing the actual origins of Putin's worldview -- rather than simply reciting mindless mantras like 'once a Chekist, always a Chekist'.

Given the importance of the questions involved, perhaps at some point you could put up a discussion which can be accessed on the web.

In the meantime, some excerpts from an article by Paul Robinson, which appeared in The Spectator back in 2004, may provide illumination for those interested in the relationship of Putin to thinkers like Il'in:.

"While Putin is indeed an autocrat, he is no Red Tsar. He is a typical Soviet radish - red on the outside but white at the core. He is the heir not of Lenin and Trotsky, but of the White officers who fought to save Russia from communism in the civil war of 1917 to 1921…

"If one had to use just two words to sum up the Whites’ beliefs, they would be the same ones that would most usefully categorise those of Vladimir Putin -- nationalism (natsionalizm) and statehood (gosudarstvennost’). The former requires no explanation. Gosudarstvennost’, which will be a term unfamiliar to many, is an idea at the heart of both ‘Whiteness’ and Putinism. The Whites referred to themselves as ‘state-minded people’ (gosudarstvenno-mysliashchie liudi), by which they meant that they placed the highest priority on protecting the interests of the state and enhancing its power and authority…

"Probably the most fundamental tension in Russian politics is that between the concepts of gosudarstvennost’ and its rival obshchestvennost’. The nuances of the latter are difficult to translate, but the term refers to civil society and, roughly speaking, means ‘public opinion’. Liberal commentators regard the state in Russia with suspicion. At the start of the 20th century, they longed for the state to surrender its power to ‘public opinion’. They still do. But supporters of gosudarstvennost’ view supporters of obshchestvennost’ with equal suspicion. They see them as the self-interested representatives of the chattering classes, who, if put into positions of power, will immediately plunge Russia into a state of anarchy in which their beloved liberties will be of no use to them or anybody else. This, the Whites argued, was what the liberals of the provisional government had done in 1917, and this, many now claim, is what free-market democrats such as Yegor Gaidar did to Russia in the early 1990s...

"A weak state can lead to despotism. It is only under the shelter of a state strong enough to protect its subjects from crime or external assault, to create and enforce laws to regulate commerce and industry, and to encourage the arts, education and other social benefits, that a society can prosper, and that the conditions for individual liberty can ever hope to exist.

"This was certainly the view of the two Russian philosophers most closely associated with the White Russian armies, Petr Struve and Ivan Il’in …

"Both men understood that the intelligentsia’s obsession with liberating the people was unleashing forces which would eventually destroy all liberty in Russia. Only an authoritarian government, they decided, could protect individual freedoms in the absence of a political culture that accepted basic ideas such as property rights. A society whose people understood legal rights and duties could successfully govern itself. One that did not must be ruled by a powerful individual, who would educate the people in its legal consciousness until such time as it was fit for self-rule.

"This sounds like a recipe for dictatorship, which indeed it was. But Il’in made a clear distinction between dictatorial rule and totalitarian rule. The latter was ‘godless’, and while the state should be all-powerful in those matters which fell under its competence, it should stay out of other areas, such as a person’s religious beliefs or private life, entirely."

(The full article is at http://www.spectator.co.uk/print/the-magazine/cartoons/11595/putins-might-is-white.thtml.)
But David, acknowleging this would require the Western foreign policy elite accept the existence of a strong Russia, which they will never do. Therefore, marginal Russian politicians finding most of their support from Western op-ed pages and think-tanks who mouth the right words and who would advance Russia's disintegration if in power must be held up by the West as the only legitimate leadership for Russia.

Yes, this means the "reset" will go nowhere. The Russian government simply won't submit to Western swindles and power-grabs, and doing so is the sole Western requirement for good Western-Russian relations.

It may be a case of hope springing eternal, but I would no totally exclude the possibility that rational -- perhaps I should say 'realist' -- counsels will prevail.

I tend to agree with some remarks made by E. Wayne Merry, who was Chief Political Analyst at the U.S. Moscow Embassy from 1990-4, in an interview for the 'Return of the Czar' programme put out by PBS shortly after Putin was elected President:

'In fact, the very worst thing that could happen for American national interests throughout the whole Eurasian land mass is, if Russia were a complete failed state, to have a vacuum of any kind of effective political economic authority over eleven time zones is a prescription for nothing, nothing but trouble. And in the same way that the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburg Empires and other empires created many of the problems throughout the middle east, the Balkans, the third world that we've been dealing with for the past hundred years, the collapse of the Soviet-Russian Empire is going to create many of the problems we and the rest of the world will be dealing with for the next hundred years.'

(See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/yeltsin/interviews/merry.html.)

There have been times when people of liberal inclinations in the United States -- or my own country, Britain -- have had very good reason greatly to fear the power of the Russian state. But since 1989, we have had far more to fear from its weakness. I do not rule out the possibility that this realisation may, eventually, sink in.
It is always good to have hope, but the Western foreign policy elite are deeply set in their ways. It took Napoleon/Kaiser Bill/Hitler going to war with both to arrange the only real Russia-West cooperation that has ever really happened. In the 1930s, the Western foreign policy elite preferred "...Germany and England as two pillars of European peace and buttresses against Communism" to cooperating with Russia before Hitler set off the most titanic war in history.

In the aftermath of that war, I can do no better than Edward Crankshaw:

“Even in Russia, the land of immensities, it means that one in every twelve Russians alive in 1941, one In twelve men, women, and children, has died a violent death, in order that the others might resume their lives with a swing and, if possible, a flourish. And most of those fifteen million were adults.

The survivors will not, of course, forget this. But we seem to have forgotten it. Because now, with this great country shattered, ravaged, and exhausted, with her people strained to the breaking-point, and with her adult manhood more than decimated-now, at this moment, there are many loud voices in the West crying out that another war is coming quickly and that this time the aggressor is Russia. And these voices, which cry out of a depth of imbecility, or ignorance, or unimaginativeness which is truly horrifying to contemplate, are widely believed."

Then we have the 1990s, when the West spent several orders of magnitude more resources hedging against the failure of "FreeMarketDemocraticReform"in Russia than on supporting the success of it. The collossal scale of this disproportion gives rise to grave doubts whether the Western foreign policy elite actually wanted Russia to succeed at it.

I fail to see what has changed about the Western foreign policy elite this time around.

Your pessimism may very well be justified.

However, it is not absolutely out of the question that more and more people may realise that the kinds of illusions of omnipotence and intellectual and moral infallibility that took root in much of the West after 1989 have been leading us into strategic dead ends. And in addition, the current economic crisis gives new salience to the problem of the long-term economic unsustainability of a unilateral U.S. global hegemony.

The reflections of the Singaporean strategic analyst Kishore Mahbubani on the Georgian war struck me as very much to the point at the time, and still do:

'The post cold-war era began on a note of western triumphalism, symbolised by Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History. The title was audacious but it captured the western zeitgeist. History had ended with the triumph of western civilisation. The rest of the world had no choice but to capitulate to the advance of the west.

'In Georgia, Russia has loudly declared that it will no longer capitulate to the west. After two decades of humiliation Russia has decided to snap back. Before long, other forces will do the same. As a result of its overwhelming power, the west has intruded into the geopolitical spaces of other dormant countries. They are no longer dormant, especially in Asia.'

The West, Mahbubani suggested:

'needs to think strategically about the limited options it has. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, western thinkers assumed the west would never need to make geopolitical compromises. It could dictate terms. Now it must recognise reality. The combined western population in North America, the European Union and Australasia is 700m, about 10 per cent of the world’s population. The remaining 90 per cent have gone from being objects of world history to subjects.'

(For the full article, see http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c65798bc-6ec6-11dd-a80a-0000779fd18c,s01=1.html?nclick_check=1)

What Mahbubani went on stress was the central importance of prioritising problems -- quoting Mao Zedong's remark that China 'always had to deal with its primary contradiction and compromise with its secondary contradiction.' And he noted -- aptly in my view -- that 'Russia is not even close to becoming the primary contradiction the west faces.'

Absent in Mahbubani's discussion, however, is what I in common with many others take to be a major and growing problem -- the withering away of the state, and its capture by criminal or semi-criminal groups, in important parts of the world. Such criminal groups will, inevitably, seek to prey not on only on their own countries, but -- in collaboration with our own criminal elements -- on the prosperous West.

Looked at from this perspective, questions arise about some of the downsides of a number of aspects of American and British policy over the past decades: including support for the Afghan muhadejin and the KLA, as well as for 'shock therapy' in the former Soviet Union. I can, for one thing, see no evidence that its advocates ever reflected on the possible implications of the rapid privatisation of much of a vast military, security and police apparatus.

From this perspective, moreover, the virtues of Putin's gosudarstvennost’ loom rather larger than they otherwise might -- and those of obshchestvennost’ seem more uncertain. Moreover, alliances with members of a kleptocratic comprador elite, as a means of gaining control of Russian resources, are liable to seem a dubious expedient for the West, to put it mildly.
Very fine discussion with much of which I agree.

A couple of points:

I think Putin had stated that he admired Stolypin.

In regards to Gaidar: USSR had one of the largest savings rates in the world before Mr. Gaidar and other of his ilk got there and destroyed the savings of tens of millions of people. He & his government fit well within the pattern of the Russian despotism from Peter the Great to Stalin; social engineering mandated from the above.

I think after the collapse of the Peace of Yalta we have had a situation in which US & EU have tried to claim the geopolitical heights; for all their worth. This has been resisted by a number of states including Russia.

The question for US & EU leaders is in the face of gathering resistance to this agenda are they going to continue or are they going to create another Peace of Yalta?
I agree that this is an interesting discussion. I wonder, though, if those who would defend an authoritarian or "White" model for Russia are really describing Russia today. The government is attempting to modernize along essentially Western lines. Russia already has a world class educational system. The top priority of its leaders now is to translate this asset into a more entrepreneurial spirit in the country that gives emphasis to innovation. While reality can always fall short of aims, these goals strike me as inimical to an authoritarian state.

Medvedev and Putin have gone to considerable lengths to stress accountability, digitizing public records, and anything else they can do to penetrate the layers of inertia in Russian public life. They are also shrinking the army. With the goal of Internet access to be as ubiquitous as electrification, the current leaders want to empower the Russian people technically as never before. All of these signs point to a state that realizes it must change and draw the Russian people into its workings and into a modern economy and society. The question is whether the current leadership can succeed.

Looking back to White ideology may be unhelpful, first, because to do so presumes that authoritarian government is effective government, and second, because it suggests that the nationality question isn't settled. Whites and Reds were in agreement to restore the borders of the Tsarist empire as far as possible. Although policies on both sides today could cause boundary disputes to worsen, Russia has no desire to reconquer wholesale the former non-Russian republics and doesn't need to look back to ideas that suggest otherwise.

Defenders of Russia need to defend all of the goals that Russia's leaders are stressing to their own people and not just those related to foreign relations.
Well, David, was it helpful for the US to help Yeltsin set up ways to circumvent the democratically elected Duma simply because they were reluctant to legislate the imposition of the "Washington Consensus" on Russia? How much modernization, or democratization for that matter, did Russia achieve at the peak of Western influence there?

Practically none.

In fact, conditions in Russia deteriorated sharply, and the West couldn't be bothered to say anything other than "stay the course" as the Russian people commenced -dying off-.

This suggests to me that the West has nothing useful to say to Russia about how Russian society should be organized, and should simply leave it to the Russian government.

They give every indication of being much better at it.

"This suggests to me that the West has nothing useful to say to Russia about how Russian society should be organized, and should simply leave it to the Russian government."

I agree that the 1990s were a period in which the West let Russia down. Clearly Russia is now taking from the West what it finds useful, and rejecting what it does not. But the West only knows about what Russia is now rejecting. There is another side to Russia's current development that the West should also know about.
Regarding the politics of the White Russian community, some might find this link of interest:

Seeing how the link didn't go thru in full, if interested go to http://www.wikipedia.org and insert NTS at its search engine.

The stated views of said org. can be fine tuned, while reflecting what NG touched on about White Russian politics not being what has been ignorantly caricatured in some circles. As the linked Wiki piece notes, over the course of time, White Russian political views haven't marched to the exact same tune.
Thank you for this wonderful discussion!

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