RUSSIA'S role in this new century could be humble: just one country among many others. While Russia may not expect to be the global leader in the future, the country could look back to the past with pride. Indeed, she in many ways epitomizes the twentieth century. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 was the logical if not the calendar end of the century. PostSoviet Russia continues to fascinate the observer who tries to predict the future development of the country. While the early assumptions about Russia following the Western path were found to be groundless, observers started to look for a historical scenario which could provide guidance in understanding the country's future. Hence, two scenarios emerged.
According to one, Russia is similar to that of Germany on the eve of the Nazi political victory. The other scenario envisions contemporary Russia more closely to that of Imperial Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution. The discussion on the possibilities of these scenarios became especially popular after the August 17, 1998, financial crash. In these articles I will show that neither of these scenarios is viable, for each of them has ignored the non-Western nature of present-day Russian society. Not only is present-day Russia qualitatively different from that of Weimar Germany in the 1930s but even Imperial Russia was more Western in its political culture than the present regime. While neither the Weimar nor Bolshevik scenario materialized, the pre-modern non-Western pattern of the political development could provide the clues for the future. And here, the war in Chechnya and the rise of Prime Minister Putin could be of great importance. Boris Yeltsin's sudden resignation at the New Year and Putin's b ecoming acting President have made the youthful politician the favourite to win the Presidential Election at the end of this month. Indeed, regardless of his political future, Putin might shed light on the internal logic that may lead Russia in the new millennium. This will be the subject of the second article.
The deterioration of the Russian economy prior to 1999 led to visible signs of political tension and, increasingly, various manifestations of political extremism which remind historians of events which occurred on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution. An increasing number of observers, however, are given to comparing the country to Germany on the eve of Hitler's victory. Because of the recent proliferation of groups which clearly have a semi-Nazi colouring, the facts would seem to favour this explanatory model.
To describe this political shift in the country, some observers have coined the expression 'Weimar Russia', the implication being that Russia today is similar to Germany on the eve of the Nazi victory in 1933. The winter 1999 march of 200 members of Alexander Barkashov's party, whose philosophy and rituals are strikingly similar to those of the Nazis, provides additional proof for those who support the Weimar scenario. The violent demonstrations near the American embassy in 1999 are a good indicator that the war in the Balkans has led to an additional increase in these extreme forms of nationalism and to the speculation that the Russian Nazis may have a chance to take power.
There was a good chance that Barkashov could have found himself a dominant figure in the Duma. However, his Russian National Unity Party acquired a bad reputation and for this reason Barkashov attempted to register under the umbrella of the new organization 'Spas' (Saviour). It seems his entry into the Duma was prevented not by a lack of supporters but by the action of the authorities to refuse to register the new organization.
Yet, while the increasing popularity of Barkashov and his believers is indeed indicative of the political instability in the country, most likely future developments in the country will not follow the German model. The employment of these two historical models -- the Weimarian or the Bolshevik Revolution -- to understand present-day Russia, could obscure the developments in the country rather than assist in understanding them. In a way the appeal of these models, especially the Weimarian scenario, is that they play the same role as past attempts to explain the Bolshevik Revolution through the prism of the French Revolution. While some elements of the Soviet experience did indeed have striking similarities to the events of the French Revolution, they were fundamentally different phenomena. The historical analogies made at that time were self-deceptive and could be termed a manifestation of what Marx called 'false consciousness.' The same can be said about the current attempts to discuss Russia in terms of var ious historical models, where Weimar Germany or Russia in 1917 serves as the point of departure.
The Illusion of the Weimar Scenario
The popularity of the Weimar model among scores of political scientists, of course, is due to the striking parallels to present-day Russia and Germany in 1933. For example, the national humiliations, the economic collapses, and the recent rise in the popularity of various Nazi groups (with Barkashov's Russian National Unity Party as one of the best examples). In recent years, Barkashov and his men have become increasingly visible, actively recruiting scores of young men who defy Westem media stereotypes.
Throughout Yeltsin's regime, the press in the West generally stated that the 'red-to-brown' movement was made up exclusively of the older generation who were suffering the most from the collapse of the Soviet empire. Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow and until the 1999 elections one of the leading contenders to replace Yeltsin, was anxious that his city not be identified with the 'red-to-brown' movement, and for this he strongly opposed Barkashov holding his party's congress in Moscow. Barkashov threatened to retaliate. Of course, Luzhkov 's militia, not to mention various agencies of the central government, were monitoring Barkashov's movements. Their vigilance should have been most strict, especially when one considers that Yeltsin and his entourage stated that political extremism is one of Russia's major political problems and had discussed the possibility of a coup.
While the fact that many members of the militia were sympathetic to this movement and might have played a role in the ability to predict and prevent Barkashov's march on the capital, it is clear that the major reason for such a situation in 1998 was most likely the militia and state security forces' general ineptitude. The lack of a clearly defined chain of command and the fear of being severely punished for making a mistake, is in sharp contrast to Soviet days, when these forces feared being punished for this or that dereliction of duty. And this weakness, in some cases a virtual paralysis, was not limited to the security services and the militia. The army, even some of its elite forces, had also become increasingly rebellious and unreliable, including those forces stationed close to the city who would presumably act as a sort of Praetorian Guard in case of a political crisis.
A visitor to these supposedly elite forces found that they were hardly ready for combat. He was greeted by drunken officers, who instead of emphasizing the unquestionable loyalty of the troops to Yeltsin, began to complain about delays in the paying of soldiers' salaries. This apparent inability to muster even a minimally reliable force was what had prevented Yeltsin from disbanding the Communist-led parliament during the September 1998 crisis that followed the collapse of the Russian currency.
Even more startling, however, was then Prime Minister Evgeny Primakhov's announcement in the spring of 1998 that a nationalization would not be possible because of the weakness of the State. According to Primakhov, the oligarchy (financial tycoons), who control much of the country's wealth, had formed security forces. He actually implied that he was not entirely sure that the state would be able to destroy these paramilitary groups in case of a confrontation.
It is clear that various elements of the government, including its elite enforcement agencies, were more and more dysfunctional, while various independent paramilitary groups, including those with extremist views, were increasingly cohesive. These forces were undergoing training and acquiring weapons and could be a match for the army and security forces. And this was in sharp contrast to Germany on the eve of Hitler's seizing of power, when there was no question about the power and loyalty of security forces and the army or their ability to master any enemies of the State. For Hitler, the army was the key element to achieve power and this was the reason why he courted the army so much. He was ready to turn against the radical branches of his party storm troopers just to please the armed forces. There are other important differences. Nazi rallies in Germany, especially right before their victory, evoked an emotional response from the crowd whether positive or negative. In the case of Barkashov's march, Muscov ites were indifferent, reflecting the passivity of the majority of Russians.
However, since the beginning of the NATO war with Serbia, there has been a rise in violent demonstrations, mostly of young and middle-aged Muscovites. Several thousand Russians have expressed a desire to go to Serbia to fight. This rise in nationalistic feelings will affect future presidential elections. Yet this nationalistic animus will hardly be enough to rally Russians into a cohesive national body with the idea of restoring the country's international standing, regardless of the cost, as was the case in 1933 Germany. While a few Russians have expressed their desire to fight, the majority still do their best to avoid the draft. In a poll, 80 per cent of the population favoured Russia 's avoiding involvement in any military conflicts by any means possible. More importantly, despite the perceived pressure from NATO, most Russians have no desire to rally the country to go to war. All of this is in sharp contrast to Nazi Germany where there was a strong sense of national unity, a feeling that citizenship ent ailed obligations, such as paying taxes and serving in the army.
All of this suggests that a Nazi-style victory, which would take a mobilization of a considerable part of the electorate, is impossible in Russia. A more plausible scenario would be an arrangement in which a comparatively small group of plotters, possibly supported by a small group of active participants among the general public, would be able to bring off a coup in the capital. And as a matter of fact, a tiny minority, aided by the passivity of the majority, shaped both of the seminal events in recent Russian history (the August 1991 end of the Communist regime and the October 1993 confrontation between Yeltsin and the parliament). Indeed, the fate of Yeltsin in 1993 came down to his ability to deploy four tanks while his enemies had none. This swift takeover in the capital would resemble more the Bolshevik Revolution than the Nazi rise to power in Germany. The analogy between Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution and the 1997/98 situation was also popular with many political scientists.
The Illusion of the Bolshevik Scenario
While comparison of current events to the situation in 1917 has some validity, observers usually ignore several essential aspects of revolutionary Russia and of the country today. Traditionally, historians have viewed the Russian Revolution from diverse perspectives. For some, the Bolshevik Revolution was essentially a minority's usurpation of power and an imposition of its will upon the rest of society through terror. For others, and they constitute the majority of observers, the revolution was the result of a conflict between the rich and the poor. These historians are given to comparing it to other classical revolutions in Europe, such as the French Revolution. Yet these comparisons are deceptively simple. The problem here is that neither present-day Russia nor the Russia of 1917 had a strong civic society. One of the essential components of Western society is the notion of a social contract to which almost all citizens adhere.
Most of Russia's problems, both past and present, are deeply related to what could be called 'legal nihilism,' that is, a disrespect for the law. Law is the basis of modern Western capitalism. In modern Russia, the lack of attachment to the law, which in the West guarantees private property rights, has various manifestations. One of them is the approach to the social contract. In the West, citizenship can be defined as a sort of 'marriage' to the state, which gives citizens certain rights for which they are in turn obligated to provide certain services to the state, chief of which is paying taxes. The willingness with which citizens pay taxes is one of the best indicators of the internalization of the social contract, of the sort of stability that is necessary for investment and economic progress. Despite the endless complaints about tax evasion, one can safely assert that the majority of the Western public meets their obligations to the state and pays taxes.
The situation in Russia is altogether different. The chronic inability of the state to collect taxes is a sign of the lack of respect for the law in Russian culture. And the Russian state's record in the collection of taxes is in no way a recent phenomenon. During the last years of the imperial regime, records show that only direct pressure from the bureaucracy could induce the peasantry to pay taxes to the treasury. This unwillingness to pay taxes also has much broader implications than economic ones. It is an indication that the social contract modem Westerners willingly obey has never existed in Russia, neither at the beginning of this century, nor today.
This would seem to suggest that the Russian Revolutions were not so much a changing of the political/social order as a collapse of order itself. And this has manifested itself in two major processes which, at least in the case of the Bolshevik Revolution, have been marginalized by the majority of historians -- the speedy disintegration of the Russian state and the rise in criminal activity. These two essential elements can also be seen in the Russia of today.
The disintegration of the Russian Empire, following the collapse of the monarchy, was rapid. People of different ethnic backgrounds (non-Russians) populated most parts of the empire and they seceded as quickly as they were able. This was merely the beginning: for those regions populated mostly by Russians, such as Siberia and Don, followed suit. The situation, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is essentially the same. When the USSR collapsed, the unity of the Russian federation, even Russia proper, began to crumble almost overnight.
It is clear that Moscow, the home of the central authority, is increasingly viewed with hostility by regions whose residents abhor Muscovites' comparative affluence while their living standard continues to decline due to the chronic non-payment of salaries and benefits throughout the provinces. They do not understand why millions of dollars were spent on a pompous celebration of the city's 850th anniversary when millions of people in some regions were starving. Even before the August 1998 financial crash, it was clear to many observers that central authorities in Moscow were increasingly unable to deal with the recalcitrant regions. The case with the far eastern region shows this clearly. Despite his concentrated efforts, Mr. Yeltsin was unable to remove the local regional governor. And since the crash, the push toward disintegration has become stronger.
The proliferation of crime is another major manifestation of the meltdown that characterized Russia in 1917 and does so again today. While the collapse of the old order in 1917 and again in 1991 are seemingly quite different phenomena, curiously enough the 'socialist' revolution of 1917 and the capitalist' revolution of 1991 do have one essential element in common. Both events initially led to the plundering of private property and a rise in criminal activity. During the 1917 Revolution, many Russians viewed 'socialization' in a simple way -- as the division of the property of the elite and the state among the masses. This was taken in its most literal sense, for the peasants robbed the estates of the landlords, the workers sold or bartered the equipment from their factories for food, and soldiers and officers sold the army's equipment and fled with the money. The disintegration of authority, the shaking up of traditional values, and the public's equating of 'socialization' as a license for theft is alive to day. Today, 'privatization' is equated with theft, and a considerable portion of the Russian public considers everything for sale. As in 1917, there is an increase in crime and banditry of all sorts. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, these criminals are hardly cut from the same cloth as Robin Hood, no one, neither rich nor poor, is spared.
While the presence of these two phenomena -- criminal activity and disintegration of the central authority -- are present in Russia today, there are substantial differences. The point here is that at the beginning of the twentieth century Russia was, paradoxically enough, much more Western than post-Soviet Russia. The sense of social cohesion was much stronger in imperial Russia. This can be seen in the reaction to the spread of crime in Revolutionary Russia and the reaction today. During the first months of the Bolshevik Revolution, the public had a sense of mutual solidarity and were willing to take justice into their own hands as history shows. Newspapers from the period and newly opened archives give a picture of macabre grassroots trials that led to executions on the spot. In the countryside, angry peasants killed thieves after frightful torture, residents of the larger cities and the militia routinely shot thieves on the spot, and Petrograd residents almost made a sport of throwing criminals into the c anals that criss-crossed the city.
This type of summary punishment provided the secret police (CHEKA) with a justification for increasing its repressive policy and gave this predecessor of the KGB its first taste of blood. Indeed, the secret police's first executions involved not the political enemies of the regime but common criminals. In the course of events, the repression widened and led to the inauguration of the Red Terror and a widespread destruction of the regime's various political enemies.
Nothing of the sort can be seen in Russia today, though it would be wrong not to note that there have been some lynchings in former territories of the USSR.
One, of course, can argue that the aversion to dealing with criminals in such a brutal manner is because present-day Russians are more civilized than their forebears were in 1917. And, clearly, the majority of Russians are averse to any repeat of the terror employed by the Soviets in 1918. Yet, it is not only a sense of civility that makes most Russians averse to a return to lynching as a form of crime control. Russians are generally loath to help the police for any reason, even in situations when they might have a chance to help those victimized by criminals as it is usually done in the West. Thus, their unwillingness to take matters in their own hands as was done in 1917 is owing to other reasons than their humanitarianism.
Except for their own small circle of friends and family, present-day Russians feel deeply alienated from each other, society, and the state. This sense of fragmentation is perhaps the reason why Yeltsin's radical opponents were unable to build any cohesive social/political resistance to the regime. Russians simply do not care. For example, strikes have been sporadic and have never been translated into a national strike, as was the case in 1905, Even the most militant group of workers, the miners, has failed to demonstrate a sense of class solidarity.
An incident from the summer of 1997, when the miners camped out at Gorbatyi Bridge and demanded that the government pay back wages, could serve as an example of their apathy. The workers claimed that they would not leave until their demands were met, and their defiance was underscored by the fact that the bridge had been the place where a violent confrontation took place between Czarist troops and workers during the 1905 revolution. The authorities were also aware of the history and left the workers alone for several months. Finally, however, they tired of the demonstrations and violently removed the workers, sending them back to their homes. This sort of humiliation of workers would have led to an outbreak of violent protest in Imperial Russia. Yet the miners remained passive. And their passivity is a reflection of the lack of cohesiveness among social groups and radical parties. This is in stark contrast to the situation at the beginning of the century.
The Bolsheviks were organized and had supporters throughout the country. The extremists of 1997/98, even the largest groups like Barkashov's, had nothing like this at their disposal. The endless squabbling at the top, which was characteristic of Russian politics during this period, might have triggered a coup, yet, it would not necessarily have lead to the creation of a semi-fascist dictatorship or Stalinist type of regime, or even a hybrid of the two. The result of the enterprise would most like have a different outcome. A coup in the capital, even a successful one, would hardly be accepted in the provinces where the elite had become increasingly assertive. Local garrisons were more and more resembling embryo armies, and it is not surprising that Alexander Lebed, governor of Krasnoyarsk and a leading presidential candidate at the time, bragged that he had at his disposal several divisions. And as a former general in the Soviet army, he knew how to lead them in case of an emergency.
Thus, it was unlikely that Moscow troops, which Primakhov implied, might have a problem in maintaining order in the city would be chased to the outskirts of the state. In this case Barkashov's or some similar group's victory in Moscow would most likely not lead to a repetition of the Nazi's victory or the Bolshevik revolution, but rather to something similar as to what happened during the Chinese Revolution when the collapse of the Manchu dynasty spelled the end of China as a unified state.
Of course, just because Russia is less Western than it was in 1917, and even less similar to Weimar Germany, does not exclude the possibility that a strong leader could reassemble the broken fragments of the state and create problems for the West. Throughout the entire post-Soviet era, the dream has been entertained that such a leader may even emerge during elections. Of course, it has been assumed that his emergence would require that he downplay his aggressive nationalism during the campaign. After his election, he could begin a nationalistic drive to restore the state, much like Mao did in China after his victory and as the Soviets (to some extent) did after taking charge in 1917. Putin could be such a man.
At the same time, it is also held that the re-emergence of a strong and unified state, however, is not predestined, as several Western societies demonstrate, and any Russian disintegration or semi-disintegration could be permanent. As a matter of fact, an unsuccessful right-wing coup might even be enough to provide a powerful push to the final meltdown of the state. That a right-wing coup might lead to the collapse of Russia as a state rather than to a country transformed along totalitarian lines, makes this scenario even more chilling because of the thousands of nuclear warheads scattered all over the Russian Federation. The resulting political disorder would create a new dilemma for American foreign policy makers. Either a slow or a quick disintegration of the Russian State into a loose confederation of local principalities, similar to the Holy Roman Empire, may emerge as a result of internal conflicts. The current situation in Chechnya could affect this situation and will be the focus of my next article.…