Russia Enters the New Century

By Shlapentokh, Dmitry | Contemporary Review, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Russia Enters the New Century


Shlapentokh, Dmitry, Contemporary Review


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.

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