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Putin's Precursors

Putin's Precursors

Mini Teaser: In Russia, Modernization and Westernization are hardly one and the same thing. Persistent attempts to achieve the former while avoiding the latter have been a majpr source of Russian repression.

by Author(s): Laurent Murawiec

Historians explain that for several centuries Russia's elites have been divided between "Westernizers" and "Slavophiles." The former advocate the adoption of Western ways, the latter seek to keep Russia isolated from Europe's decadent and alien traditions. Peter the Great is often depicted as the father figure of the Westernizers, while Ivan the Terrible is credited with inaugurating the long succession of tyrants that fought to safeguard Russia's "soul" against alien encroachment.

But such analysis is inadequate. It fails to account for what has been called "Peter the Great's dilemma": Is it possible to bring an end to Russian barbarism by using barbaric means? Should Peter -- "the awful Emperor", as Pushkin dubbed him -- be considered a Westernizer simply because he created "a window on Europe", or a Slavophile, on account of his frightful brutality?

If Russia has always failed to modernize, if it remains encamped on the outskirts of Europe, it may be that most of its supposed Westernizers were not, and are not, so Western-oriented after all. There are, indeed, modernizers in Russia. A strong tradition in Russian statecraft and in the intelligentsia has espoused modernization -- developing science, technology, industry and education -- but has done so strictly on Russia's terms. According to this tradition, the West's religious and cultural values must not be allowed to contaminate the unchanging essence of Mother Russia, whose hallmarks are Russian Orthodoxy and a powerful, centralized state. In the modern era, the humiliating defeat suffered by Russia in the Crimean War compelled Russian elites to adopt Western hardware in order to build up Russia's infrastructure and her military might, as reflected in Dostoyevsky's elaboration about the need to do so in his Diary of a Writer. But while Western railways, capital and machinery were needed, Western mores and institutions were unwelcome.

It is an article of faith among such modernizers that the Russian state, the standard-bearer of the "Russian Idea", must never allow either Russia's civil society or its economy to develop an autonomous existence. Citizens must be constrained, prevented from organizing themselves spontaneously outside church and state-sanctioned lines. Selfish economic interests will not concern themselves with Russia's destiny, and dominion by the state is essential.

This outlook is partly congruent with the thinking of extreme Slavophiles. Modernizing Russia is not their concern. They are prepared to slow down and even halt altogether Russia's industrial and urban development, lest that development breed Western pestilence. The similarity with Islamic fears of the West is striking: the pure essence of Russia is so fragile that, for all its divine strength, it could easily be contaminated. These ideologues are prepared to go to absurd lengths, and to implement highly counterproductive measures, in order to maintain "purity." Nicholas I in the first half of the nineteenth century, Alexander III in the last quarter of that century, and, in their own ways, Lenin and Stalin embody this current. The Bolshevik leaders slaughtered all the educated classes, preferring the abysmal sloth, incompetence and unproductivity of muzhik graduates of Soviet schools to "bourgeois" engineers: the coarse Bolshevik cadres were bad technicians, but at least they were nashi (ours).

The modernization and Slavophile camps are in many respects distinct and identifiable, but they are not rigidly separated. Countless threads connect them. Dostoyevsky, advocate of modernization though he was, was also a very close collaborator of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, for decades the Procurator of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church and probably the most reactionary figure in modern Russian history. Before he had them slaughtered, Lenin found Menshevik experts useful for performing skilled administrative tasks for which illiterate Bolsheviks were unsuited. Stalin oscillated between the modernizers and the ideologues. He urbanized and industrialized the Motherland, but many of his policies were as irrational and self-defeating as Hitler's insistence on diverting train cars from the front to transport Jews to the death camps.

While authentic "Westernizers" do exist as a third current, all too often modernizers have been deemed to be Westernizers merely on account of their willingness to accept, import and employ Western techniques and artifacts. But a willingness to use Western technology implies no desire to assimilate the substance of what is properly "Western" -- the Judeo-Christian legacy, Greek philosophy, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, critical philosophy. Constitutional government has never lasted long in Russia, and the rule of law has never been established. Modernizers can do without these.

The true Westernizers have seldom numbered more than a handful in each generation. They are a delicate flower that has been able to grow permanent roots in the Russian soil. When a massive project of translating Western classics -- Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Racine -- into Russian was undertaken at the Imperial Lyc ée in Tsarskoe Selo, near Saint Petersburg, at the dawn of the nineteenth century (Alexander Pushkin was among the first pupils), Westernization acquired a real content. Similarly, when Anton Rubinstein established the Music Conservatory and Concert Society in Saint Petersburg (Tchaikovsky was in the first batch of graduates), he introduced Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

But whatever chances existed for a deeper penetration of Western culture were exterminated in the Bolshevik slaughterhouses. Indeed, this minute slice of the intelligentsia was never treated as anything more than an exotic gaggle of potentially dangerous thinkers, to be relegated to the sidelines of Russian society. Sometimes, as a source of reforms, they were visited by the czar's favor. More often than not, they were oppressed. Solzhenitsyn's portrayal of the Gulag katorga (research prison) for scientists, in The First Circle, is a very good metaphor for the condition of the Westernizers throughout Russian history. Russia was ever keen to jail, exile or kill them, but sometimes bestowed upon them the favor of letting them work in its service.

The Marquis de Custine, in his celebrated Empire of the Czar, made the cogent point that only one man was free in Russia, the czar. All others were slaves. The sole exception to that rule, perhaps, was the czar's intelligence service. In 1826 Czar Nicholas I's chief of the "Higher Police", Count Benckendorff, created a "Third Section of His Majesty's Imperial Chancellery." The ukaz of July 3, 1826 named this "the most influential office in all Russia", with Benckendorff outranking all other officials in the government. While it was "a universal and more vigilant system of surveillance", as its chief described it, it was entrusted to an elite of well-connected and educated aristocrats. "It became the central nerve of [the czar's] entire government system."

At its inception, the Third Section undertook an exhaustive study of Russia's condition. The official history of the Ministry of Police reported that its work led to
"the discovery of those aspects of Russian life that, because they did not correspond to contemporary requirements, were now regarded in a negative light by the best and shrewdest minds, and which in the future, albeit distantly, might lead to mass discontent and consequently to the disturbance of public tranquillity."
The Section's first report, in 1827, concluded: "All Russia impatiently awaits changes. . . . The machine requires to be rewound afresh. The keys to this necessity are to be found in Justice and Industry." The 1839 report stated that the Section was "convinced of the necessity, even of the inevitability, of the liberation of the serfs. . . . The spirit of the people is directed towards one aim only -- liberation. . . . Serfdom is a powder-keg laid beneath the state and it is the more dangerous that the Army is composed of these same peasants." This extraordinary analysis the Higher Police had offered without the stimulus that was later to be provided by the jarring shock of defeat in the Crimean War.

Together with its standard function of repression, the intelligence service thus possessed a "socio-analytical" function. It enjoyed an inordinate degree of freedom, available to no other group in the empire. That freedom was not only analytical, but could sometimes extend to policy formulation. A similar "sociological unit" existed in Felix Dzherzinsky's Cheka and in the NKVD of the 1930s, the predecessor organizations of the KGB and today's Federal Security Service. These units included anthropologists and other social scientists.

The acumen and freedom of thought enjoyed by a small, elite part of the secret police did not save either czarism or the Soviet system. Observing the last century of Soviet and Russian history, a pattern is striking: the secret police, while playing its murderous role, has also been a source of innovative thinking, or "modernism" in the specified sense of anti-Western modernization à la russe . But equally striking has been the recurring failure of its undertakings.
In the aftermath of World War II, Lavrenty Beria, the chief of the NKVD, counterposed a "reformist" program to the policy of retrenchment and savage purges identified with the brutish Andrei Zhdanov. After Stalin's death, Beria, both a butcher and the head of the Soviet military's nuclear weapons crash-program, was a contender for the top job. He put forward a decidedly liberal program, proposing to loosen some of the strictures of central planning and to allow a measure of "decentralization." In foreign policy, he proposed an aggiornamento -- no direct confrontation with the West, the neutralization of Germany -- in a way a forerunner of the d étente of the 1970s. But so feared and hated was the butcher side of Beria that he was soon murdered at the behest of a coalition of the Politburo and the military. One of the chief co-conspirators, Nikita Khrushchev, later revived whole aspects of Beria's program, and by the late 1950s his economic plank had resurfaced in the form of the "liberalization" debate around economists Liberman and Trapeznikov, who proposed to loosen central economic controls and introduce incentives to enhance productivity. That period, perhaps the high tide of Soviet "modernity", was an age of technological optimism: Russians could believe, however mistakenly, that they were finally about to enter the modern world. Sputnik, Vostok and Yuri Gagarin seemed to herald a new era.

Khrushchev's ouster in 1964 did not seem to change that. In the early years of the troika that replaced him, Leonid Brezhnev did not steal a march on the super-manager Aleksei Kosygin, who supervised the State Committee for Science and Technology. Kosygin rallied the modern men who wielded slide rules instead of the Chekists' pistols, and sported white lab coats instead of black leather jackets. His backers were the battalions of younger factory managers, planners and technologists who looked beyond iron and steel. Optimize the system, release it from the tyranny of gross output measurements, boost productivity -- these were the catch phrases. But the system was so unwilling to reform itself that Kosygin was neutralized and crushed by the increasingly rotund Brezhnev.
The longer the "era of stagnation" persisted, the greater the pressure became -- as much from outside the Soviet Union as from within. By the late 1970s and the early 1980s, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, one of the more astute Soviet military leaders, and the teams working for him at military think tanks such as the Voroshilov Academy, recognized that a "military-technical revolution" was transforming the American capacity to wage war, allowing NATO to face off and probably beat down anything the Soviet army could field in Europe. AirLand Battle, the high-tech American warfighting doctrine introduced in the early 1980s to defeat the Red Army in Europe, and later Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative were the edges that cut deeply into Soviet self-confidence, leading to the creation of a defense-led lobby for crash-modernization of the Soviet military-industrial complex. KGB chief and later party Secretary-General Yuri Andropov had the KGB protect and probably fund a string of research institutes, in order to "incubate" the work of talented social scientists and economists. There were the thinkers from the Siberian Academy of Sciences, such as Tatiana Zaslavskaya of the Institute of Sociology in Novosibirsk, Abel Aganbegian and his Institute for the Study of Industrial Organizations, and in Moscow Leonid Abalkin and the Institute of Economics. Andropov, as has since become clear, orchestrated an effort to develop a reform program. His ill health alone prevented him from implementing it. The changes he envisioned were gigantic, but they required the energy, authority and time that Andropov lacked.

Gorbachev came to power too late, and whatever he did was always too little and too delayed. He could only haphazardly implement a program that was fundamentally flawed in its conception. The system crashed. Modernization failed, just as the reforms of Czar Alexander II ended in 1883 with his assassination, and just as in 1917, February had been destroyed by October.

The common denominator of all these failed attempts at modernization is that they were implemented from the top down. The centrality of the state -- essential to the "Russian Idea" -- seems to doom all efforts at modernizing Russia. Russia will "catch up" with the West in fifteen years, Vladimir Putin says, but it will do so in its own way. Russia, like so many others these days, claims to have a Third Way -- in its case, the Russian Idea. Unfortunately, on examination it becomes apparent that it is an idea that exemplifies the old urge to achieve modernization while avoiding a commitment to Western values and institutions. Putin himself, with his KGB background, is only too reminiscent of the "Higher Police" approach to change.

Last year, Putin declared that Russia would never become a "second edition of, say, the United States or Great Britain. . . . For Russians, a strong state is not an anomaly, which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a guarantor of order and the initiator and the main driving force of any change." But the state is not Russia's mainstay, it is Russia's curse. If Putin has his way, Moscow will appoint provincial governors directly and voters will be cut out of the process. True, some oligarchs and free-wheeling operatives will probably be reined in and their unlimited license to loot will be curtailed. But that will only mean that the state will reassert its monopoly over racketeering.

Elena Bonner, Sakharov's widow, has characterized the beginning of the Putin era as "a new stage in the establishment of a modernized Stalinism." Whether things will get as bad as that may be debated, but it is more than likely that the freedoms enjoyed by Russians in the last decade -- the right to be informed, to establish free associations, to have a genuine choice in elections -- will be seriously curtailed. Russia will not wake up from its imperial dream of greatness; rather, it will pump resources into reviving that illusion, and will tailor its foreign policy accordingly. This will impair its domestic economic policy, prevent necessary reforms and prolong a disastrous demographic and health care crisis. As a result, Russia will continue as a half-modern, half-archaic hybrid. So long as Russia refuses to Westernize, it will not modernize.

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