Alexei Bayer: What binds Russia together
Russia’s defense minister Sergey Shoygu announced the withdrawal of massed Russian troops from Ukraine’s borders. Whether it is a genuine de-escalation or some kind of tactical retreat it doesn’t really matter: Ukraine will remain in Russia’s sights not only as long as Vladimir Putin and his gang are in power but as long as Russia is constituted as it currently is.
A retired US military officer, who spent much of his career in Germany, once told me that in his view if America ever weakened, Germany would revert to being the aggressive, crude, domineering nation it had been before the Nazis’ defeat in World War II.
This view is shared by many Europeans, and with the departure of the UK from the EU, the fears of a bossy Berlin have intensified. However, this flies in the face of the conventional belief that the new generations of Germans are peaceful, environmentally friendly, and eager to work together with the rest of Europe.
Whichever view is correct, it is undeniable that nation-states, like other complex systems, develop a character of their own that is different from the sum total of their constituent parts and fairly autonomous of them. National character is difficult to change and governments that attempt to go against the grain usually fail.
The Bolsheviks who took power in Russia in a 1917 coup were somehow able to sense its national character and play on it, even though a remarkable number of revolutionaries were Jewish, along with Poles, Latvians, Georgians and others. And the ethnic Russians among them, including Vladimir Lenin, a Russian nobleman, spent many years and even decades abroad. Be that as it may, by the time the Soviet state was established, and certainly when Joseph Stalin asserted his personal power, the Soviet Union had more to do with the Russian national character than with Marxism.
Russia, the core of the Soviet Union, was a medieval autocracy where serfdom had been abolished only half a century before — and by decree from above rather than pressure from below. The mass of its peasantry was united by the solidarity of poverty and powerlessness. Lost in a forested landmass, Russian villages were compact and generally self-sufficient, so that money and commerce played a limited part in the peasant economy. When in the final half of the 19th-century capitalism began to develop and divisions in wealth and status emerged in the lower classes, it sat uneasily with many Russians who had been weaned on the equality of the medieval peasant commune.
The Bolsheviks announced the return of equality and the end of capitalism. They even promised to abolish money. It was an equality of the poor and the powerless, but it was familiar. The communists became a new ruling class and it seemed like a natural order of things that the new rulers had privileges and told the people what to do.
George Orwell got this exactly right in his Animal Farm, portraying pigs as new farmers and revolutionary farm animals as the same old farm animals except now poorly fed on a mismanaged farm.
Instead, the Bolsheviks gave Russians something else — a sense of being special. Russia had always considered itself more pious, more spiritual, and, somehow, more Christian than the rational West. Now, Russians readily abandoned Christianity and embraced an atheist and, literally, iconoclast creed — but one that gave them a “scientific” reason to feel superior to rich developed nations: their country was in the forefront of history, showing the way to others.
Ironically, rather than propelling Russia far into the future the Russian version of Marxism rolled back the economic, social, and political reforms of the previous half-century and plunged the country back into its pre-modern, neo-feudal past.
What the Bolsheviks got wrong was to stress material well-being. Communism was supposed to produce at least as many goods as capitalism, and to distribute them more equitably—and for free.
In reality that was not the case. Soviet factories churned out shoddy stuff — and never enough of it, either. The late Soviet Empire soon became a kind of cargo cult. Western consumer goods were a new gold. Foreign travel, an opportunity to obtain them, became a corollary to that cult. Western clothing — especially blue jeans — cosmetics, electronics, films, booze, cigarettes, records, etc. became the ultimate measure of success. Children of high-level party apparatchiks became diplomats in order to get lifelong access to foreign goods.
The disintegration of support for communism was closely linked to the demand for consumer goods and the inability of the system to satisfy it. This is what drove mass protests of the Mikheil Gorbachev era in Russia — as opposed to many national republics and Eastern Europe where national liberation was the dominant theme.
This fact shaped post-Soviet Russia. The 1990s were the time of real freedom, when uniquely in Russia’s history it had neither political prisoners nor political emigrés. The press was free, curious, and irreverent. The legislature dared to oppose the executive.
But while early reforms laid the foundations for a market economy, they also led to a re-evaluation of the communist economy. Its market value turned out to be very low so that ordinary Russians were suddenly unable to afford the attractive goods that began to appear on the shelves. This is why the 1990s, for all their heady air of freedom, remain the black spell in the national memory.
Putin’s Russia is often referred to as USSR 2.0. In many ways it is even more grotesque than the late-stage Soviet Union but that is beside the point. What matters is that it retains some of the basic feudal features of communism while at the same offering access to consumer goods and foreign travel.
Note that a majority of the Russian population support Putin and his kleptocratic regime, viewing any position of power in purely feudal terms — as an opportunity to stuff one’s own pockets. Lack of democracy and freedom is not in any way decried, and the nostalgia for the Soviet Union focuses on greater equality of poverty.
But feudalism is about the seigneur-vassal relationship. A Politburo member has his men throughout the system, a leader of various siloviki factions in Putin’s Mafia state has his capos and foot soldiers. A dominant feudal state needs its vassals — and hence an Empire.
The Bolsheviks initially offered self-determination to all the constituent states of the old empire. Finland, the Baltics, and Poland (the latter with Woodrow Wilson’s help) took them up on it. But other colonies were promptly brought back to the fold, to fit into the neo-feudal Soviet model.
Rebuilding the empire is as crucial for Putin — and for any of his successors — as it was for Lenin. And no other nation — not even Belarus — can satisfy Russia’s need for a vassal as Ukraine, which means that Kyiv should prepare to defend itself for a long time to come.