The Constraints of Russian Culture

The Constraints of Russian Culture

Mini Teaser: Democratic impulses, not nearly so rare in the Russian past as we imagine, have been distinctly hostile to competition and enterprise.

by Author(s): Hugh Ragsdale

Russian capitalism and Russian democracy: are they partners, or are they adversaries? American capitalists and democrats naturally assume that their Russian counterparts are partners. Our conception is based on two mistakes. First, democratic impulses are not nearly so rare in the Russian past as we imagine. Second, they have been distinctly hostile to competition and enterprise.

If authoritarianism has been a prominent feature of Russian life under both the czars and the Soviets, so has a populist and egalitarian kind of democracy. There are several examples. Best known was the peasant commune, the mir or obshchina, spontaneous democratic socialism at the grass roots. Ever so often the land belonging to the village commune was redivided in order to provide equality of economic opportunity for each household in the village. Second was the artel, a commercial cooperative operated in the same spirit. Third was that busybody forum which settled domestic disputes in urban housing during Stalin's time, the comradely courts. Fourth was--and still is--the somewhat obscure but fascinatingly provocative criminal society, glimpsed in most of the memoirs from the camps. Fifth, and easy to overlook given their subsequent history, were the impressive Soviets of 1905 and 1917.

Properly perceived, then, democracy was and is alive and well in Russia--but a peculiarly Russian kind of democracy. We have had the tendency to consider Russian democracy, like democracy everywhere in the fairy tale of the global democrats, as naturally progressive. On the contrary, Russian democracy tends to be conservative, socialistic, egalitarian, and cynically fatalistic. Neither under the Russian Empire nor under the Soviets has respect for capitalism, competition, and social and economic differentiation been a part of the popular ethic. Indeed, among the obstacles to the continuation of Russian reform today are the egalitarian and conservative spirit of Russian democracy and the conception that democracy has left them without freedom. It is hard to see, then, how transitions to democracy and capitalism at the same time can proceed successfully in the contemporary Russian Federation.

In fact, the expansion of a democratic dynamic from local politics, where it has been strong, into national politics, where it has been weak, must have a retrograde or even paralytic impact on the course of development there.

This dilemma is familiar to Russians, if not to outsiders. The ŽmigrŽ philosopher Alexander Zinoviev has spoken similarly in Homo Sovieticus and Communism as Reality of the scant Russian taste and capacity for liberal individualism. The gist of his argument is that the fixture of the kollektiv conditions everything, that it is as influential as the super-state or more so, that the authoritarian nature of the communist state derived principally from the kollektiv. Communism, he says, was not the imposition of a form of serfdom by a malevolent conspiracy either of a single dictator or of a coterie of oligarchs. Rather, it was the population's own voluntary self-enserfment. Philip Hanson has called this phenomenon "Totalitarianism from Below." Dominic Lieven of the London School of Slavonic and East European Studies wondered after a recent trip to the Soviet Union "whether Aleksandr Zinoviev wasn't after all right in arguing that the collectivist mentality of Russia found its near-perfect match in the Soviet system." In August of 1990, Gavriil Popov, the mayor of Moscow at the time, warned in an article entitled "The Dangers of Democracy" in the New York Review of Books that the participation of the masses in politics would hinder the cause of economic reform.

The Mind of the Muzhik

Traditional Russian conceptions of democracy, it can be argued, are actually impediments to social and economic modernization. The artel has been characterized as reflecting "acceptance of adversity, mutual reliance, and an ethos of egalitarian collectivism rather than a culture of production and an ethos of corporate gain." The peasant commune operated by the principle of the "toiling norm," i.e., a family was entitled to as much land as it could work relative to the total amount of land available to the commune and the capacity of the other families to work it. When Leo Tolstoy offered to free his serfs years before emancipation, they scratched their heads and declined. When Prime Minister Peter Stolypin in the early twentieth century tried to render the peasantry progressive and enterprising by dissolving the commune, the peasants resisted and ultimately defeated him.

Attitudes of egalitarianism, of dependence on the state, and of envy of anyone who gets ahead go together. They were familiar to Gleb Uspenskii, the nineteenth-century student of the peasant commune (Notes from a Village diary). The two greatest economic reformers of the last emperor, Sergei Witte and Peter Stolypin, were frustrated by the same problem. In the words of Stolypin, "The Russian peasant has a passion for making everyone equal, for reducing everything to a common denominator, and since the masses cannot be raised to the level of the most capable, the most active, and the most intelligent, the best elements must be brought down to the level of understanding and ambition prevailing among the inferior, inert majority."
Russian proverbs tend to corroborate this judgment, bespeaking as they do a cynical attitude toward an unrewarding world. "God is too high, and the czar is far away." "Marry a wife who can read, and she will find all the holidays in the calendar." "The Russian has three strong principles: perhaps, somehow, and never mind."

Comparative folklore suggests the same outlook. The tales of the brothers Grimm were characterized by W. H. Auden as something like morality plays in a different genre. He calls the tales of Hans Christian Andersen "parables." Very different are Russian fairy tales. Two standard characters are Ivan Czarevich (Ivan the Heir) and Ivanushka Durachok (Little Ivan the Little Fool). They appear like two avatars of the same personality. The single asset of Ivanushka Durachok is his foolishness. But in the world of Russian fantasy, as in the philosophy of the Slavophiles, the last shall be first, and foolishness is the invariable elixir of victory for Ivanushka Durachok: providence always rallies to his cause. Ivan Czarevich embarks on what Joseph Campbell would call a quest, and he is assisted by a variety of magical sponsors. They give him wise advice, and he ignores it. Thus he gets ever deeper into trouble. But his good fairies come constantly to his rescue, and so his history exemplifies the triumph of folly, frivolousness, and bad judgment. The moral of these stories would seem to be that there is none. They exemplify rather a strikingly capricious fate. They do not contain any recognizable conception of responsibility. We look in vain for a reliable relationship of cause and effect. Most significantly, they lack the familiar idea that in order to achieve good results, it is necessary to make good efforts.

This state of affairs, however, is entirely natural. The folk mythology of a people must reflect its experience. In fortunate lands of milk and honey, where the homilies of Poor Richard are plausible because they are practical, they also serve to become self-fulfilling. Imagine, by contrast, recommending the idea that a penny saved is a penny earned to the seventeenth-century Russian merchants (gosti), often subjected without warning to the tax known as the "fifth money," i.e., one-fifth of their capital; or to those who lost their savings in Gorbachev's currency reform. Imagine promising the benefits of "early to bed, early to rise" to Stalin's collective farmers. Russians are often said to be risk-averse. If so, it is not remarkable: they have not had a very happy experience with their risks.

The Intelligentsia

The attitudes of the intelligentsia, often so distinct from those of the common people, are comparable in this respect. If we consider what is probably our largest and most authoritative sourcebook of Russian elite self-expression, nineteenth-century fiction, we find there Goncharov's "Oblomov," that symbol of Russian lethargy who required fifty pages to get out of bed; Gogol's "dead souls"; Chekhov characters who describe themselves as "a generation of whimperers and neurasthenics" (consider The Cherry Orchard) and whom he describes as having all the moral force of "walking mildew." Turgenev gave us the name for a category of types known as "superfluous men." He divided all men into either Hamlets or Quixotes, and most of his were Hamlets, as he admitted that he was. The population of Russian fiction is an ironically misogynist society of strong women and weak men.

Consonant with this conception of Russian cultural character is the Russian reaction to Darwinism. Not surprisingly, given the positivist nature of nineteenth-century Russian social science, the pure doctrine as applied strictly to the animal kingdom in Darwin's own work the Russians found quite seductive. They objected vociferously, however, even to Darwin's suggestion that the theory of evolution was simply the application to the entire animal (including human) kingdom of the principles which Thomas Malthus had applied to human population. Social Darwinism, the idea of the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, they found deeply offensive.

The nineteenth-century critic V. V. Rozanov observed long ago that Russians "were made for ideas and feelings, for prayer and music, but not to rule over people." In fact, Russian Orthodoxy appears to play a part in this question. As Max Weber argues, there are two approaches to salvation. The ascetic-ecstatic attitude is world-rejecting, and it is exemplified by the religions of India, of the Kabala, the sufis and dervishes, and the mysticism of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The ascetic-ethical attitude, on the other hand, is world-involved and rationalist. It is exemplified in mainstream Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism, especially, of course, in the Calvinists. It is obvious in which camp the Russian mystical traditions of hesychasm and kenoticism--quietist submissiveness--belong. The chief impulse of the hesychasts was "flight from the world."

The role of Russian Orthodoxy between the defenseless people and the ravaging state is one of near legendary prostration. In Western religion, moral edification comes from moral striving. In Russian Orthodoxy, it comes from innocent suffering. The first saints, Boris and Gleb, are the classic examples. In much the same tradition are the stranniki and the iurodivye, the rootless pilgrims and the fools in Christ of Dostoevsky, Leskov, Solzhenitsyn, Shukshin, and Boris Vasiliev.
However difficult it may be for us to imagine, traditional Russian culture, in both its popular and elite forms, does not find the world to be rational, reliable, even intelligible, as it is presumed to be in the corporate boardroom, in the university, or at the bank.

Freedom from Insecurity

Not only may democracy and the recent economic reforms prove to be incompatible in Russia, but the coming of quasi-democracy has cost the Russians, with the exception of the intelligentsia, their traditional conception of freedom as equality and security.

In the film of the Russian expatriate community at Brighton Beach (Brooklyn) made by the PBS station in Boston early in the 1980s, "The Russians are Here," the émigrés repeat two observations like a constant refrain: "There is too little security in America, and there is too much freedom." It is true that the Russians have been led by Gorbachev and Yeltsin to believe in the superiority of the idea of the market, but their belief is in a pure abstraction, and when they deal with the particulars of the market in the streets, they realize at once that they do not like it. A July 28, 1991 New York Times survey reflects this point. It found that a slight majority of those polled preferred the idea of the market, but only a quarter preferred what the pollsters described as a German or American style of market. We hear daily the complaints of the population about the profiteering of the new co-op businessmen and the complaints of the latter about the complaints of the former, i.e., that they are criminals, Mafiosi, etc. Yeltsin was at one time forced to grant the Moscow city government the power to control prices. The Soviet declaration of the rights of man, passed by the Congress of People's Deputies on September 5, 1991, reflects distinctly socialist values, e.g., the right to work, the right to a sufficient and decent standard of living, the right to an education, the right to proper housing, and the right to free health care.

According to Raymond Aron in Democracy and Totalitarianism (1969), "Liberty in the vocabulary of Montesquieu means above all security, the guarantee that the citizens will be unmolested if they obey the law." This kind of legal security has been conspicuously absent from most of Russian history. From 1730, the nobility began to demand a Rechtsstaat (constitutional state). Catherine II (1762-1796) gave them reason to believe that she might grant one. She did not. The period 1762-1825 was filled with such plans for reform. None was implemented. By the 1860s, the age of the Great Reforms, a legal profession had developed, and it soon exerted real influence in the civil service. After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, however, Alexander III reversed respect for a Western style of legality. Only in 1905 was a legally founded, written constitution published. The climax of legality in the history of Russia was likely reached on April 6, 1906 when Nicholas II was bluntly advised in the State Council that since the October Manifesto of the previous year had promised a constitution and a legislature, the word "unlimited" (neogranichennyi) was no longer an admissible description of monarchical power in Russia. A year later the solemn legality of 1906 was publicly violated by Nicholas and Prime Minister Stolypin when the electoral regime was scrapped--restricted--in a fashion which itself exemplified illegality. When the revolution arrived, all was violence and chaos from 1917 to 1921. At that time, the state, admitting temporary defeat in its efforts to establish a socialist socio-economic order, began to protect private property and private enterprise--the New Economic Policy. In 1928, this whole semi-legal structure was turned on its head in the Five-Year Plan. In 1936, the purges made matters worse.

Still, from the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s, the worst forms of juridical caprice were controlled, and the Soviet Union returned to a vague semblance of a lawful state. The situation was more customary (regular, predictable) than genuinely legal. If the law that prevailed was not the law that was written, at least most of the citizenry understood the parameters of the unwritten law and knew what to expect of it.

That situation has now deteriorated dreadfully for the average Russian citizen. According to contemporary observations, the capitalism developing in Russia today is probably the most rapacious and lawless there ever was. Hence, as ironic as it seems to people of our juridical conceptions, the Russian finds that he has forfeited a lawful regime in Brezhnev's time for an unlawful one today. By reference to the criteria of Montesquieu, he lives more nearly in a Hobbesian state of nature, where life is at best nasty, brutish, and unpleasant, if not yet quite short. At the present time, the kind of liberty represented by social mobility has disappeared in Russia except among those few fortunate and rapacious entrepreneurs lucky enough to live, in the opinion of their victims, at the expense of their fellows. Most Russians are clearly less satisfied with the kind of justice which they experience today than they were in the days of Brezhnev's stagnation (zastoi). An August 1992 Izvestia public-opinion poll found that 69 percent of the people in Moscow would prefer a restoration of the old Soviet Union to the Russian Federation in which they now live.

The new economic insecurity of many Russians reinforces another Russian tradition: the egalitarianism of envy. Anatolii Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg, illustrated this attitude by telling Hedrick Smith the story of God appearing to a Russian peasant, offering to give him anything that he wanted on the understanding that his neighbor would be given twice as much. The peasant agonized and thought and finally said to God: "Put out one of my eyes."
The conclusion to which these observations drive us is the one to which similar considerations drove Theodore von Laue in respect to the Witte industrial reform of the 1890s: no cultural graft, no Head Start program of Western economics, is likely to lead to a revolution of mentalities and thereby to early Russian prosperity. The Russians are caught in a double bind, damned if they do and damned if they don't. A quick economic advance requires massive étatiste intervention, and that is precisely the remedy which has afflicted them with their current malaise. Yet to inaugurate the revolution of attitudes required to make them rational, prudent, and provident by Western standards is an unnatural act of cultural treason. How Russian leaders respond to this dilemma will determine the future of Russia--and, perhaps, not of Russia alone.

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