At Politkovskaya’s funeral, the three principal forces behind Yeltsin’s regime were all on hand. Two of them, hypocrisies obliging: the West, in the persons of the American, British and German ambassadors; and the oligarchs par personne interposée, in the figure of Chubais, to most Russians more odious, as their procurer, than the oligarchs themselves. The third, in authentic grief, waiting outside: the tattered conscience of the liberal intelligentsia. In 1991, of all domestic groups it was mainly this stratum that helped Yeltsin to power, confident that in doing so it was at last bringing political liberty to Russia. Clustered around the presidency in the early 1990s, when it occupied many policy-making positions, it supplied the crucial democratic legitimation of Yeltsin’s rule to the end. Not since 1917 had intellectuals played such a central role in the government of the country.
Fifteen years later, what has become of this intelligentsia? Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century – and for long periods been its virtual raison d’être.
With the arrival of neo-liberalism, this universe abruptly collapsed. By 1997, budgets for higher education had been slashed to one-twelfth of their late Soviet level. The number of scientists fell by nearly two-thirds. Russia currently spends just 3.7 per cent of GDP on education – less than Paraguay. University salaries became derisory. Just five years ago, university professors got $100 a month, forcing them to moonlight to make ends meet. Schoolteachers fared still worse: even today, average wages in education are only two-thirds of the national rate. According to the Ministry of Education itself, only 10 to 20 per cent of Russian institutions of higher learning have preserved Soviet standards of quality. The state now provides less than a third of their funding. Bribes to pass examinations are commonplace. In the press and publishing worlds, which had seen an explosion of growth in the years of perestroika, circulation and sales shrank remorselessly after 1991, as paper costs soared and readers lost interest in public affairs. Argumenty i Fakty, under Gorbachev the country’s largest mass-circulation weekly, sold 32 million copies in 1989. It is now down to around three million.
For a time, even with shrinking sales, the better newspapers provided a lively variety of reportage and commentary, in which many good journalists won their spurs. But as factional struggles broke out in Yeltsin’s court, and the grip of different oligarchs on the media tightened, corruption of every kind spread through the press, from back-handers and kompromat to abject propaganda for the regime. In this atmosphere, a race to the bottom followed, in which the crudest tabloids, devoted to sensations and celebrities, predictably won out. Meanwhile, the print media as a whole were losing importance to television. Initially a dynamic force in awakening and mobilising public opinion – it played a key role in the overthrow of the old order in August 1991 – Russian TV started with a high level of professional skills and public ambitions. But it too sank rapidly under the tide of commercialisation, its most-watched programmes descending to levels of crassness and inanity rivalling deepest America. Among the educated, so despised has the medium become that Russia must be the only country in the world today where one can be regularly told, with a look of contempt at the question, as if it went without saying, that the speaker has no television set in the house.
All this was demoralising enough for an intelligentsia that, whatever its internal disputes, had always taken its role as Kulturträger for granted. But with the starving of the universities, the decline of the press and the infantilisation of television, came a further alteration. For the first time in its history, money became the general arbiter of intellectual worth. To be needy was now to be a failure, evidence of an inability to adapt creatively to the demands of competition. Pushed by economic hardship, pulled by temptations of success, many who were formed as scholars or artists went into business ventures of one kind or another, often of dubious legality. Some of the oligarchs started out like this. The spectacle of this migration into a universe of shady banking and trading, ‘political technology’ (campaign-running and election-fixing) and public asset-stripping, in turn affected those left behind. Others, who had specialist scientific skills, got better jobs abroad. In these conditions, as the common values that once held it together corroded, the sense of collective identity that distinguished the traditional intelligentsia has been steadily weakened.
The result is a cultural scene more fragmented, and disconnected, than at any time within memory. The collapse of the centralised book and periodical distribution system that existed in Soviet times has created difficulties for independent publishers, leaving the field outside Moscow and St Petersburg to four or five big commercial houses which own their own outlets in the provinces, publishing mostly trash while angling for textbook contracts from the government. The most significant literary enterprise is Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, started in 1992 and now Russia’s leading literary journal, whose small book publishing arm produces about 75 titles a year, concentrated in the humanities. Founded and managed by Irina Prokhorova, sister of the magnate who is Potanin’s partner in Norilsk Nickel, it also runs a cultural-political journal, Neprikosnovenny Zapas (‘Emergency Supplies’), that offers a forum for intellectual debate, and has just launched – a sign of the times – a lavish journal of fashion theory. The most coherent attempt to create something like the equivalent of the Silver Age milieu at the turn of the last century, the NLO project can be regarded as a modest oasis of reflection in an increasingly philistine scene. But by the same token it remains an enclave, liberal in temperament, but detached from politics proper. To its left, a scattering of tiny, no doubt mostly transient publishing houses has sprung up, and twigs of a radical counter-culture can be seen. In the very centre of New Russian ostentation in Moscow, hidden upstairs in a side street just behind the gross parade of luxury stores on the Tverskaya, the shabby Phalanster bookshop lives up to its Fourierist overtones: posters of Chávez, translations of Che, biographies of Bakunin, at last – just out – the Russian edition of Deutscher’s masterpiece, his Trotsky trilogy, all this amid every other kind of serious literature.
Outside, the Tverskaya with its boutiques and chain stores sets the tone. The culture of capitalist restoration looks back, logically enough, to the object-universe of late tsarism, whose garish emblems are everywhere. Moscow retains its autumnal beauty, even if as elsewhere – Weimar or Prague – too much new paint tends to coarsen older buildings rather than reviving them. But now it is enveloped in a smog of kitsch, like ancient regalia buried within a greasy wrapper. The city has become a world capital of bad taste, in which even the postmodern can seem a caricature of itself. All this physical trumpery reflects the dominant landscape of the imaginary. Within a few years, Russia has spawned a mass culture fixated on postiche versions of the dynastic past. The country’s most successful author, Boris Akunin, writes detective novels set in the last third of the 19th century. Among other stirring deeds, his upright hero Erast Fandorin thwarts a plot to hold the coronation of Nicholas II to ransom.
More than 15 million copies of the Fandorin series have been sold since 1998, and box-office hits have duly followed. The Councillor of State, in which Fandorin rescues the throne, stars Russia’s favourite actor/film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov, an ardent monarchist who plays Alexander III in his own patriotic blockbuster, The Barber of Siberia. Mikhalkov is a middlebrow figure, but higher up the scale, Alexander Sokurov, the country’s leading art-film director, reproduces much the same sensibility in his film Russian Ark, in which a prancing, gibbering Marquis de Custine leads a motley company of historical figures, in a 360° continuous camera movement round the Hermitage, that concludes with a final maudlin tableau of the Romanov court on the tragic eve of its fall, worthy of the Sissi series. (In The Sun, yet more striking camerawork, and even sicklier schmaltz, give us the quiet dignity and humanity of Hirohito, as he converses with an understanding MacArthur.)
This dominant vein of Russian poshlost today covers the gamut from pulp to middle-market to aestheticising forms, but it is the first of these that is most revealing of mutations in the culture at large. For, characteristically, a phenomenon like the Fandorin series is not the product of a Russian Grisham or King. Boris Akunin is the pseudonym of a trained philologist and translator of classical Japanese, Grigory Chkartashvili, inspired – he avows – by Griboedov, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky; his hero combines traits of Chatsky, Pechorin, Andrei Bolkonski and Prince Myshkin, with a touch of James Bond for good measure. Coquetting in the manner of a latter-day Propp, he has set out to illustrate the 16 possible sub-genres of crime fiction, and 16 character types to be found in it. Hugely successful pulp, marketed as serious fiction and produced by writers from an elite background, would be an anomaly in the West, if we except a single bestseller, never repeated, from Umberto Eco, though there is a close parallel in the astronomic sales and standing of China’s leading practitioner of martial arts fiction, Jin Yong, holder of various honorary positions at universities in the PRC. In Russia, it is a pattern: high-end intellectuals hitting the jackpot in low-end literature – Akunin is not alone – are one of the kinks of the encounter between the intelligentsia and the market.
The poverty of all this retro-tsarist culture reflects the impossibility of any meaningful repossession of the world of the Romanovs. The old order incubated a rough-hewn capitalism, but itself remained patrimonial to the end, dominated not by merchants or industrialists, but nobles and landowners. No living memory connects with this past: it is too different, and too remote, from the present to serve as more than vicarious pap. The Soviet past, on the other hand, remains all too immediate, and so in another way unmanageable. With few exceptions, the intelligentsia repudiates it en bloc. The population, on the other hand, is deeply divided: between those who regret the fall of the USSR, those who welcomed it, and those – perhaps the majority – whose feelings are mixed or ambivalent. The Soviet Union was not the Third Reich, and there is little sign of any Vergangenheitsbewältigung along German lines. In the culture at large, the tensions in social memory have produced a patchy amnesia.
Such tensions have certainly not silenced the arts. Fiction aiming at more than entertainment has never avoided the Soviet experience. Since the 1990s, however, representations of it have tended to become volatilised in the blender of de-realisations that typifies much current literature. Russian fiction has always had strong strains of the fantastic, the grotesque, the supernatural and the utopian, in a line that includes not only Gogol and Bulgakov – presently the two most fashionable masters – but such diverse figures as Chernyshevsky, Leskov, Bely, Zamiatin, Nabokov, Platonov and others. What is new in the current versions of this tradition is their cocktail of heterogeneous genres and tropes of an alternative reality, which seeks to maximise provocation and dépaysement. But such formal ingenuity, however startling, tends to leave its objects curiously untouched. The same techniques can dispose of Communist and post-Communist realities alike, as a single continuum. In Viktor Pelevin’s most lyrical work, The Clay Machine-Gun, the Cheka of the Civil War, the bombardment of the White House and the contemporary Russian mafia dance and merge in the same phantasmagoria. At its best, such literature is splendidly acrobatic. But, satirical and playful, most of it is too lightweight to impinge on deeper structures of feeling about the past.
Scholarship is another story. There, the tensions in public feeling often seem to have had the effect of sealing off the Soviet experience as a radioactive area for serious reflection or research. In the universities, scholars prefer to concentrate on epochs prior to the Revolution. The situation of Russia’s leading authority on the Stalinist period, Oleg Khlevniuk, is expressive. A young party historian reduced to penury with the collapse of the USSR, he was rescued almost accidentally from having to try his luck in business by a research contract from the Birmingham Centre for Russian and East European Studies. Fifteen years later, he still depends essentially on Western grants. The History of the Gulag was published by Yale, and has been translated into several other Western languages. Incredibly, there is no Russian edition of it.
From the opposite background, Nikita Petrov was a youthful dissident and early organiser of Memorial, the glasnost-era civic organisation. Later, picked as a radical democrat for the commission set up by Yeltsin to supply evidence for the outlawing of the CPSU as a criminal organisation, he was given access to secret police archives, of which he made good scholarly use. His latest book is a biography of Khrushchev’s KGB chief, Ivan Serov. Today, Memorial is a shadow of its former self: no longer a political movement, but a residual institution funded from the West, amid general indifference to its work among the Russian population. As for research, since the mid-1990s sensitive archives have been essentially closed – only about twenty pages a day are available from Stalin’s personal files, for the thirty years of his power, a fraction of what any modern ruler generates – and mid-level bureaucrats obstruct any inquiries likely to affront the new nationalism. But in fact, Petrov remarks, there is now little interest in critical study of the Soviet past – revelations of its crimes no longer have any impact. His major work on Yezhov, written with the Dutch scholar Marc Jansen – an astonishing portrait of the man and his time – has never found a publisher in Russia. Can translation costs be the only reason? In his view, the popular mood is now one of incurious nostalgia for Stalinism. In 1991 Petrov could not have imagined such a political reversal would be possible.
Economically, culturally, psychologically, the Russian intelligentsia has been pulled apart by the changes of the last fifteen years. The term itself is now repudiated by those for whom it smacks too much of a common identity and a revolutionary past: contemporary intellectuals should shun the suspect traditional term intelligent in favour of the neologism intellektual, of healthier American origin, to denote the new independent-minded individual, distinct from the collective herd of old. Such dissociations themselves have a long history, going back at least to the denunciations of the radical intelligentsia by Vekhi, the famous symposium of writers on the rebound from the 1905 Revolution, who might now be called neo-conservative, but were then nearly all liberals. Today, vigorous questioning of the self-images of the contemporary intelligentsia can be found across the spectrum, but attacks on its historical role again occur mainly in liberal journals – the debate in the autumn in Neprikosnovenny Zapas is an example. But their context has altered. The events of 1991, not those of 1905-7, constituted the first revolution liberals could call their own. Politically, how then does Russian liberalism stand today?
Hostility – often, in private, verbally extreme hostility – to Putin’s regime is widespread. But of public opposition there is little. The reason is not only fear, though that exists. It is also the knowledge, which can only be half-repressed, that the liberal intelligentsia is compromised by its own part in bringing to being what it now so dislikes. By clinging to Yeltsin long after the illegality and corruption of his rule was plain, in the name of defence against a toothless Communism, it destroyed its credibility in the eyes of much of the population, only to find that Yeltsin had landed it with Putin. Now, with a mixture of bad conscience and bad faith, it struggles to form a coherent story of the change.
Why, people in these circles often complain, do the Western media portray the 1990s as a time of chaos, crime and corruption – negative stereotypes of every kind – when in fact it was the freest and best period in the history of the country, yet treat Russia today as a democracy, when ‘we live under fascism’? True, certain intellectuals have also taken to denigrating the 1990s, but that is out of resentment at having lost the privileged living they enjoyed under the Soviet system, when they got comfortable salaries and flats and had to do nothing, whereas now they have to find some genuine work in the market. What then of the personal and institutional continuities between the Yeltsin and Putin regimes? Oh, those. Our mistake was to have been naive about the kind of human society the Soviet system had created, which quickly reasserted itself and produced Putin – who, in any case, ‘is not the worst’ it could have thrown up. In other words, whatever has gone wrong in Russia, it was not Yeltsin’s fault, or their own.
It was clear from the very beginning of the August overturn that a test of the new Russian liberalism would be its handling of the nationalities question, where the old – Vekhi and its sequels – had conspicuously failed. During the first Chechen War, it acquitted itself honourably, opposing Russia’s invasion and welcoming its acceptance of defeat. But the second Chechen War broke its moral spine. A few protests continued, but by and large the liberal intelligentsia persuaded itself that Islamic terrorism threatened the motherland itself, and had to be crushed, no matter what the cost in lives. A year later, America’s own war on terror allowed a gratifying solidarity with the West. Today, few express much enthusiasm for the Kadyrov clan in Grozny: most prefer to avoid mention of Chechnya. Leading courtiers of Yeltsin, still flanking or advising Putin, are more outspoken. Gaidar has explained that it is difficult for outsiders to understand ‘what the aggression against Dagestan in 1999 meant for Russia. Dagestan is part of our life, part of our country, part of our reality’ (sic – Russians make up 9 per cent of the population). Thus ‘the issue was no longer the Chechen people’s right to self-determination. It was the question of whether Russian citizens should be protected by their own government.’ Chubais has been blunter: Russia’s goal in the new century, he recently declared, should be a ‘liberal empire’.
Such views are naturally welcome enough in the Kremlin, though these particular voices are something of a liability. Around the regime, however, are more credible forces, recruited from the democrats of 1991, who provide it with critical support from a distinctive position within the liberal tradition. Grouped around the successful weekly Ekspert – a business-oriented cross between Time and the Economist – and in the back-rooms of United Russia, their outlook could be compared to Max Weber’s in the Second Reich. The fall of the USSR was, they believe, the work of a joint revolt by liberal and national (not just Baltic, Ukrainian or Georgian, but also Russian) forces. But under Yeltsin, these two split apart, as more and more Russians with a sense of national pride felt that Yeltsin had become a creature of the Americans, while liberals remained bound to him. Putin’s genius, in this version, has been to reconcile national and liberal opinion once again, and so create the first government in Russian history to enjoy a broad political consensus. The market-fundamentalism and retro-Communism of the 1990s, each now a spent force, are no longer alternatives. In bringing calm and order to the country, Putin has achieved ‘hegemonic stability’.
By their own lights, the intellectuals who articulate this vision – typically from scientific or engineering backgrounds, like many novelists – are clear-eyed about the limitations and risks of the regime, which they discuss without euphemism. Putin’s style is to give concessions to all groups, from oligarchs to the common people, while keeping power in his own hands. He is ‘statist’ in every instinct, despising and distrusting businessmen; though he does not persecute them, he affords no help to small or medium enterprises, so that in practice only the huge raw materials and banking monopolies thrive. Politically, he is a ‘presidential legitimist’, in a Congress of Vienna sense, and so will respect the constitution and step down in 2008 – after choosing his successor. Who might that be? Here, they show some nervousness. For even if Putin does not decide on a third term, he will still be very much at large – only 55, and having amassed huge power, informal as well as formal, in his hands. How would a hand-picked successor cope with him? To this, they have no real answer, beyond joking that Russians don’t bother talking of a third term, but rather of a fourth or a fifth. Their concern focuses on the successor himself. In favour of strong government but not a dictatorship, patriots rather than nationalists, they are fearful of what the future might bring, should a tougher rather than milder heir be chosen, or another major outrage like the seizure of the Moscow theatre or the school in Beslan allow the ‘special services’ to impose an emergency regime in Russia.
Those who have cast their lot with hegemonic stability risk repeating the trajectory of the original liberal intelligentsia under Yeltsin, who kept thinking that their advice and assistance could steer him in the right direction, only to find that he gave them Putin, under whom they tremble. Unable to come to terms with their own responsibilities in backing the attack on the White House and the fake referendum on the constitution, with all that followed, they are now reduced to complaining that a ruinously Sovietised Russian people have proved incapable of accepting the gift of democracy ‘we were striving to bring them’. Today’s national-liberals are more lucid than the democrats of the 1990s, but it is not clear that they have much more real influence at court than their predecessors. If one of the candidates they most fear – the defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, or even the pallid premier, Mikhail Fradkov, for example – were to be put into the Kremlin, they could find themselves in much the same situation as the limpets of Yeltsin. They hope it will be someone more amenable, like Putin’s other favourite, the first deputy premier Dmitri Medvedev, whose task is to give a socially caring face to the regime. But they will have no more say in the choice than other citizens.
Historically, Russian liberalism came in a variety of shades, and it would be wrong to reduce them all today to the pupils of Hayek or Weber. Amid the different adaptations to power of the period, one mind of complete independence stands out. Tall but stooped, almost hunched, with the archetypal bookish look of a scholar, in a square, squinting face lit up with frequent ironic smiles, the historian Dmitry Furman is of White and Red descent. His grandmother, who brought him up and to whom he was always closest, was an aristocrat, his grandfather – the couple were separated – a high Stalinist functionary, who even as a deputy minister lived quite poorly, devoted to his cause and work. Furman explains that he grew up without any Marxist formation, yet no hatred of Communism, regarding it as a new kind of religion, of which there had always been many sorts. After graduating, he did his research on religious conflicts in the Late Roman Empire, and then became a specialist in the history of religions in the Academy of Sciences. He never wrote anything about contemporary events, or had anything to do with them, until perestroika.
When the USSR collapsed, however, he was virtually alone among Russian liberals in regarding the overthrow of Gorbachev as a disaster. For a year afterwards, he worked for the Gorbachev Foundation, and then returned to the Academy of Sciences, where he has since been a researcher at the Institute of Europe, and a prolific essayist on the whole zone covered by the former USSR. He has perhaps the most worked out, systematic view of post-Communist developments of any thinker in Russia today. It goes like this. The country is a ‘managed democracy’: that is, one where elections are held, but the results are known in advance; courts hear cases, but give decisions that coincide with the interests of the authorities; the press is plural, yet with few exceptions dependent on the government. This is, in effect, a system of ‘uncontested power’, increasingly similar to the Soviet state, but without any ideological foundation, which is evolving through a set of stages that parallel those of Russian Communism. The first phase sees the heroic destruction of the old order, a time of Sturm und Drang – Lenin and Yeltsin. The second is a time of consolidation, with the construction of a new, more stable order – Stalin and Putin. The leader of the second phase always enjoys much broader popular support than the leader of the first, because he unites the survivors of the original revolution, still attached to its values, and the anti-revolutionaries, who detested the anarchic atmosphere and the radical changes it brought. Thus Putin today continues Yeltsin’s privatisations and market reforms, but creates order rather than chaos. The successor to Putin in the third stage – comparable to Khrushchev – is unlikely to be as popular as Putin, because the regime, like its predecessors, is already becoming more isolated from the masses. Putin’s high ratings in the polls are entirely a function of his occupancy of the presidency: the rulers of Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan – Nazarbaev or Aliev – can match them, because their systems are so similar.
But the regime in Russia will face a serious problem in 2008, and considerable tension is already being generated. Will Putin step down and hand over the presidency to a successor, or will he change the constitution and stay on? Either course is full of risks. He could easily change the constitution to let him stay in the Kremlin indefinitely, as Nazarbaev has done in Kazakhstan – the parliament will do what he wants, and the West would not complain too much. But this would install something closer to a traditional dictatorship than to a managed democracy, requiring an ideology of some kind, which Putin entirely lacks. So although he is now studying the interwar writings of the theorist Ivan Ilin, then a semi-Fascist émigré in Germany, the best guess is that he will not want to perpetuate himself in power, since this would require too great an ideological upheaval.
Might not nationalism provide such a basis, if it is not already doing so? Furman dismisses the possibility. Russian nationalism is too low-powered to take the place of democracy as a legitimation of Putin’s rule. It is not a fanatical force like the nationalism that sustained Hitler’s regime, rather an impotent resentment that Russia can no longer bully its neighbours as it once did. The current campaign against Georgians is an instance: an expression of the frustration of a former master-people, that has now to treat those who were once its inferiors as equals. The result is a pattern of sudden rages over minor issues, explosions that are then as quickly forgotten – disputes with Ukraine over this or that dam, clamours over Serbia, and so on. These are neurotic, not psychotic symptoms. Such petty rancours are not enough to found a new dictatorship. That is why legitimation by the West remains important to the regime, and is in some degree a restraint on it. Since it has no ideology of its own, and cannot rely on a broken-backed nationalism, it must present itself as a specific kind of democracy that is accepted by the G7 – Russia as a ‘normal country’ that has rejoined Western civilisation.
On the other hand, if Putin doesn’t change the constitution, and steps down from the presidency in 2008, there will also be a big problem for the system, since for the first time in Russian history there would then be two centres of power in the country – the new and the old president. This is a formula for political instability, as the bureaucracy would waver between two masters, not knowing which one to obey. Putin may think he will select a pliable successor, but historically this has never worked: such figures always want to exercise full power themselves. Stalin was picked as the least outstanding figure by the Party after the death of Lenin, for fear of the stronger personality of Trotsky, and he became an all-powerful despot. Khrushchev was selected as a compromise first secretary after Stalin, rather than the more powerful Beria or Malenkov – and promptly ousted them and seized power for himself. So it was too with the mediocre personality of Brezhnev, chosen as least dangerous by his colleagues. The pattern would be likely to recur after 2008.
Asked his view of Pipes’s diagnosis of Russia’s deep political culture – no popular understanding of democracy, or rule of law; tyranny always preferable to anarchy – Furman answers matter-of-factly: yes, it is more or less accurate, but Pipes is wrong to think this is uniquely Russian. It is a very widespread political culture, which you can see throughout the Middle East, in Burma, in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. We should not whitewash or embellish Russian political culture, but we should also not think of it as exceptional. Nor is it correct to imagine that there has been any significant revival of religion in post-Communist Russia. The Orthodox Church has been absorbed as an element of national identity, and officiates at baptisms and funerals. But not weddings – sexual life is completely secular – and rates of regular attendance at church are among the lowest in Europe.
If the second phase in the cycle of managed democracy is now coming to an end in Russia, what of the third and fourth phases, comparable to the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods under Communism? The whole cycle, Furman replies, will be much shorter – not seventy, but about thirty years. We are probably at midpoint right now. As for the future: the Russian intelligentsia was briefly in power in 1991, but its ideology was primitive and its outlook naive. So when the democracy it wanted was discarded by Yeltsin, the defeat of democracy was the defeat of this intelligentsia too. Only when Russian intellectuals have produced a self-critical assessment of this experience will it be able to develop new and sounder ideals for the future.
This is an impressively level-headed diagnosis of the country’s condition. Its limitation lies in the unargued premise of the argument. Managed democracy à la russe is tacitly viewed as a transition that, with all its warts, leads towards genuine democracy. Within the very sobriety of the scheme, a hopeful teleology is at work. Only one terminus is possible: the liberty of the moderns embodied in the Western Rechtsstaat. Realist in its judgments about Russia, the model is idealist in its assumptions about the West. Certainly, the two remain very different. But can the differences, and their direction, be captured by Furman’s implied dichotomy? For who imagines the political systems of the West to be ‘unmanaged’ democracies? Their own regressions are not factored into the evolutionary scheme. The idealising side of Furman’s construction exposes itself to the tu quoque retorts with which Putin and his aides now relish silencing criticism by the West.
All of these debates revolve around the nature of the state. Society is less discussed. In the West, the historians of the USSR who challenged the Cold War paradigms of Pipes and Malia – Sheila Fitzpatrick has described their rebellion in these pages – famously focused on the activities and textures of daily life in the Soviet Union, as popular realities often at variance with official myths, though not necessarily undermining them: the outcome from below, rather than the intention from above. Post-Communism offers a vast field for research of this kind, looking at the ways in which ordinary people are surviving in the new institutional wilderness. Two Russian sociologists, both living abroad, have given us striking ethnographic descriptions of some of them. In How Russia Really Works, Alena Ledeneva, who teaches in London, takes us through the dense thicket of ‘informal’ practices – some entirely new, like kompromat, others a mutation of traditional forms, like krugovaya poruka – that have sprung up in politics, professions, business and the media, all of them breaking or circumventing official rules.
For Ledeneva, they are essentially inventive kinds of illegality, developed in response to the increasing role of formal law in a society where legality itself remains perpetually discretionary and manipulated. As such, they at once support and subvert the advance of a more developed rule of law in Russia. Critical though her account of this paradox is, it comes with a wry affection and upbeat conclusion: all these ingenious ways of fixing or bending the rules contribute in their own fashion to an ongoing, positive process of modernisation. The underlying message is: the Russians are coping. Here it is Western modernity rather than democracy that is taken for granted, as the unspoken telos. A darker verdict can be found in Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics, a blistering study of the ‘political technology’ of blackmail and bribery, intimidation and fraud, in the electoral scene.
Ledeneva’s study explores the world of those who are doing well out of Russian capitalism. At the very end of her book, she lets drop that informal practices which were ‘often beneficial to ordinary people in allowing them to satisfy their personal needs and to organise their own lives’ in times past – ‘before the reforms’, as she puts it – have now become a system of venality that ‘benefits the official-business classes and harms the majority of the population’. The admission is not allowed to ruffle her sanguine conclusions, or uncritical notions of reform. Georgi Derluguian, working in the United States, is more trenchant. Few sociologists alive today, in any language, have the same ability to move from vivid phenomenological analysis of the smallest transactions of everyday existence to systematic theoretical explanation of the grandest mutations of macro-history.
‘The collapse of the USSR,’ Derluguian argues, ‘marks more than the failure of the Bolshevik experiment. It signalled the end of a thousand years of Russian history during which the state had remained the central engine of social development.’ Three times – under Ivan IV, under Peter I and Catherine, and under Stalin – a military-bureaucratic empire was constructed on the vast, vulnerable plains, to emulate foreign advances and resist external invasions, powering its own expansionism. Each time, it was initially successful, and ultimately shattered, as superior force from abroad – Swedish in the Baltic wars, German in the Great War, American in the Cold War – overwhelmed it. But the last of these defeats has buried this form, since it was inflicted not on the battlefield, but in the marketplace. The USSR fell because the traditional ‘Russian state-building assets’, in Derluguian’s phrase, were abruptly ‘devalued’ by transformation of the world economy. ‘Capitalism in the globalisation mode is antithetical to the mercantilist bureaucratic empires that specialised in maximising military might and geopolitical throw-weight – the very pursuits in which Russian and Soviet rulers were enmeshed for centuries.’
In the ensuing disintegration – an implosion under pressure of the new environment – middle-levels of the nomenklatura seized what booty they could, morphing into private asset-strippers or brokers, or reinstalling themselves at different levels, with different titles, in the reconfigured post-Communist bureaucracy. Derluguian has much to say, both picturesque and painful, about this process as it worked itself out in the centre and on the periphery, where he comes from (with an intimate knowledge of the Caucasus). But he never forgets the losers below, ‘the silent majority of Russians’, who are ‘mostly atomised, middle-aged individuals, beaten-down, unheroic philistines trying to make ends meet as decently as they can’, after twenty years of betrayed expectations.
In such conditions, the distance between the frayed, precarious fabric of private lives – of a people now ‘profoundly tired and resistant to any public mobilising’ – and the global canvas on which the destiny of the state is written, seems enormous. Yet there is one traumatic knot that ties them together. In just five years, from 1990 to 1994, the mortality rate among Russian men soared – in peacetime – by 32 per cent, and their average life-expectancy plummeted to under 58 years, below that of Pakistan. By 2003, the population had fallen by more than five million in a decade, and is currently losing 750,000 lives a year. When Yeltsin took power, the total population of Russia was just under 150 million. By 2050, according to official projections, it will be just over 100 million. So many were not undone by Stalin himself.
Official demographers hasten to point out that high mortality rates were already a feature of the Brezhnev period, while low fertility rates are after all a sign of social advance, in syntony with Western Europe. The combination of a mortmain from the past and an upgrade from the future has been unfortunate, but why blame capitalism? Against these apologetics, Eric Hobsbawm’s judgment that the fall of the USSR led to a ‘human catastrophe’ stands. The starkness of the break in the early 1990s is not to be gainsaid. In the new Russia, as Aids, TB and sky-rocketed rates of suicide are added to the list of traditional killers – alcohol, nicotine and the like – public healthcare has wasted away, on a share of the budget that is no more than 5 per cent: half that of Lebanon. A sense of the sheer desolation of the demographic scene is given by the plight of women – more protected from the catastrophe than men – in contemporary Russia. Virtually half of them are single. In the latest survey, out of every 1000 Russian women, 175 have never been married, 180 are widows and 110 are divorcees, living on their own. Such is the solitude of those who, relatively speaking, are the survivors. There are now 15 per cent more women alive in this society than men.
In power-political terms, a relentless attrition of Russia’s human stock has obvious consequences for its role in the world, the subject of urgent addresses to the nation by Putin. What will remain of the greatness of the past? In the 1970s, foreign diplomats were fond of describing the USSR as ‘Upper Volta with rockets’. From one angle, Russia today looks more like Saudi Arabia with rockets, although against the waxing of its oil revenues must be set the ageing of its missiles. That the country, even if it has now regained a certain independence, has so come down in the world haunts not only its governing class, but many of its writers. The possible spaces of empire – past or future, native or alien – have become one of the leitmotifs not only of its political discussion, but of its literary imagination.
In the leading example of the ‘imperial novel’, now an accepted form, Pavel Krusanov constructs a counterfactual history of the 20th century. His bestseller Ukus Angela (‘Bite of the Angel’ – 200,000 copies) recounts a Russia that has never known a revolution, and instead of contracting in size, expands to absorb the whole of China and the Balkans, under the superhuman command of Ivan Nekitaev (‘Not-Chinese’), a tyrant of Olympian freedom from all morality. Vladimir Sorokin inverts the schema in his latest novel, Den’ Oprichnika (‘The Day of the Oprichnik’). By the year 2027 the monarchy has been restored in a self-enclosed Russia, surrounded by a Great Wall, and run by a reincarnation of Ivan IV’s corps of terrorists, under the thumb of China, whose goods and settlers dominate economic life, and whose language is the preferred idiom of the tsar’s children themselves.
These are fictions. The polyglot intelligence specialist Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics draws on Carl Schmitt and Halford Mackinder to counterpose powers of the sea (the Atlantic world centred on the US) to powers of the land, stretching from the Maghreb to China, but centred on Russia, as their natural adversary. Originally, Moscow-Berlin, Moscow-Tokyo and Moscow-Tehran featured as the three main axes in the front against America. Later, a Slavo-Turkish alliance has been conjured up. Borrowing the title of Armin Mohler’s work of 1949, Dugin terms the eventual victory of the powers of the land over those of the sea the ‘conservative revolution’ to come. His colleague Aleksandr Prokhanov, ‘the nightingale of the general staff’, doubles as bestselling novelist, with Gospodin Geksogen, a conspiracy tale of Putin’s ascent to power, and theorist of a new Eurasian imperium, celebrated in his Symphony of the Fifth Empire, just out. These are writers who have dabbled in the murky waters of the far right, but today enjoy a wider political and intellectual entrée. Dugin’s Geopolitics carries an introduction from the head of the strategy department of the general staff. Prokhanov’s Symphony, covered on national television, was launched under the patronage of Nikita Mikhalkov, in the presence of representatives of the ruling United Russia and the neo-liberal Union of Right Forces, Gaidar’s party.
The extravagance of these dreamlands of imperial recovery is an indication not of any feasible ambition, but of a psychology of compensation. The reality is that Russia’s rank in the world has been irreversibly transformed. It was a great power continuously for three centuries: longer – this is often forgotten – than any single country in the West. In square miles, it is still the largest state on earth. But it no longer has a major industrial base. Its economy has revived as an export platform for raw materials, with all the risks of over-reliance on volatile world prices familiar in First and Third World countries alike – over-valuation, inflation, import addiction, sudden implosion. Although it still possesses the only nuclear stockpile anywhere near the American arsenal, its defence industry and armed services are a shadow of the Soviet past. In territory, it has shrunk behind its borders at the end of the 17th century. Its population is smaller than that of Bangladesh. Its gross national income is less than that of Mexico.
More fundamental in the long run for the country’s identity than any of these changes, some of them temporary, may be the drastic alteration in its geopolitical setting. Russia is now wedged between a still expanding European Union, with eight times its GDP and three times its population, and a vastly empowered China, with five times its GDP and ten times its population. Historically speaking, this is a sudden and total change in the relative magnitudes flanking it on either side. Few Russians have yet quite registered the scale of the ridimensionamento of their country. To the west, just when the Russian elites felt they could at last rejoin Europe, where the country properly belonged, after the long Soviet isolation, they suddenly find themselves confronted with a scene in which they cannot be one European power among others (and the largest), as in the 18th or 19th century, but face a vast, quasi-unified EU continental bloc, from which they are formally – and, to all appearances, permanently – excluded. To the east, there is the rising giant of China, overshadowing the recovery of Russia, but still utterly remote to the minds of most Russians. Against all this, Moscow has only the energy card – no small matter, but scarcely a commensurate counter-balance.
These new circumstances are liable to deal a double blow to Russia’s traditional sense of itself. On the one hand, racist assumptions of the superiority of white to yellow peoples remain deeply ingrained in popular attitudes. Long accustomed to regarding themselves as – relatively speaking – civilised and the Chinese as backward, if not barbaric, Russians inevitably find it difficult to adjust to the spectacular reversal of roles today, when China has become an industrial powerhouse towering above its neighbour, and its great urban centres are exemplars of a modernity that makes their Russian counterparts look small and shabby by comparison. The social and economic dynamism of the PRC, brimming with conflict and vitality of every kind, offers a particularly painful contrast, for those willing to look, with the numbed apathy of Russia – and this, liberals might gloomily reflect, without even the deliverance of a true post-Communism. The wound to national pride is potentially acute.
Worse lies to the west. The Asian expanse of Russia, covering three-quarters of its territory, contains only a fifth of its population, falling fast. Eighty out of a hundred Russians live in the quarter of the land that forms part of Europe. Catherine the Great’s famous declaration that ‘Russia is a European country’ was not so obvious at the time, and has often been doubted since, by foreigners and natives alike. But its spirit is deeply rooted in the Russian elites, who have always – despite the urgings of Eurasian enthusiasts – mentally faced west, not east. In many practical ways, post-Communism has restored Russia to the ‘common European home’ that Gorbachev liked to invoke. Travel, sport, crime, emigration, dual residence are letting better-off Russians back into a world they once shared in the Belle Epoque. But at state level, with all its consequences for the national psyche, Russia – in being what cannot be included in the Union – is now formally defined as what is not Europe, in the new, hardening sense of the term. The injustice of this is obvious. Inconvenient though it may be for the ideologues of enlargement to acknowledge, Russia’s contribution to European culture has historically been greater than that of all the new member-states of the EU combined. In the years to come, it would be surprising if the relationship between Brussels and Moscow did not rub.
Few peoples have had to undergo the variety of successive shocks – liberation, depression, expropriation, attrition, demotion – that Russians have endured in the last decade and a half. Even if these, historically considered, are so far only a brief aftermath of the much vaster turbulences of the 20th century, it is no surprise that the masses are ‘profoundly tired and resistant to any public mobilising’. What they will eventually make of the new experiences remains to be seen. For the moment, the people are silent: Pushkin’s closing line applies – ‘narod bezmolvstvuet.’
 Russian terms and phrases. Syroviki: those in control of syryo, or raw materials; siloviki: those in command of sila, or force; kompromat: compromising information; krugovaya poruka: literally, ‘circular pledge’, or mutual complicity; poshlost: (roughly) pretentious banality.
 Simon and Schuster, 464 pp., £20, September 2005, 978 0 7432 6431 0.
 Yale, 256 pp., £17.95, December 2005, 978 0 300 11288 7.
 Cornell, 288 pp., £12.95, October 2006, 978 0 8014 7325 4.
 Yale, 336 pp., £20, April 2005, 978 0 300 09545 6.
Perry Anderson teaches history at UCLA.
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