Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Dark Forces: Popular Analogies in Russian Politics

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Dark Forces: Popular Analogies in Russian Politics

Article excerpt

In his biography of Nicholas II, Dominic Lieven observed that the end of the Soviet regime, by closing a chapter in Russian history, dramatically increased the relevance of the czarist legacies for many aspects of contemporary politics.(1) Whereas, if only two or three decades ago large parts of the prerevolutionary, even the pre-Stalin, past were seen by many as confined to the dustbin of history, today the story of imperial Russia, especially that of her last few decades, has been resurrected into the "living" past, linked with current political, economic, and social developments.(2)

To observers of Russia, this resurrection was most notable on television screens. There yesterday's first secretaries proudly displayed imperial double eagles in their offices, scrambled to attend the funeral ceremony of Nicholas II ("czar-martyr" replacing "Nicholas the Bloody" in their solemn speeches), and held black tie receptions in honor of the visiting Queen Elizabeth in the Kremlin, freshly renovated to restore the czarist interiors.

Czarist history has moved center stage in Russian political discourse, with events and figures from the past now routinely invoked to discuss contemporary developments. One analogy sticks out, however, both in terms of the frequency with which it features in the press and public debates and because it deals with executive power. Since the early 1990s, attention has been focused on the private individuals who allegedly exerted serious influence on President Yeltsin, and much of the terminology used to discuss those activities came from the reign of Nicholas II. As in Nicholas's days, influential personalities have been labeled the "dark forces" and the "court camarilla," and the image of Rasputin has been alluded to frequently. If there is one analogy that was invoked continually for the greater part of Yeltsin's era, it is the "Rasputin" or "dark forces" analogy.

Studies dealing with the role of analogies in politics have focused mainly on their place in the decision-making process. Ernest May has described how experiences of the past have often been "misused" by decision makers and suggested ways to properly employ lessons of history.(3) In one of the most theoretically concise works, Yuen Foong Khong has combined findings of cognitive psychology with foreign policy analysis, developing an "analogical explanation" framework to describe the choices for war made in Vietnam and Korea. He demonstrates that analogies are not simply tools with which politicians seek to justify decisions already made and mobilize public support; rather they can play a key role in the decision-making process itself.(4)

In this article, I discuss the role of historical analogies in public discourse rather than in executive decision making. I focus on the "dark forces" analogy in Russia. I examine the role of "unofficial advisers" under Nicholas II and identify the ways in which the images of those individuals have been used in Russia. Finally, I explain why the "dark forces" analogy has recently gained such prominence and consider whether such analogies can be of use for serious political inquiry.

History in Public Discourse

In public debates, historical analogies play a role similar to that in government decision making. Analogies are a useful tool to help interpret sensory data, retrieve knowledge from memory, and process information. According to the schema theory in social psychology, people match new situations with knowledge structures stored in memory; when no cognitive structure fits the data, people may invoke close matches. Like politicians, the general public uses analogies to make sense of current developments. Analogies perform a set of "diagnostic tasks": they define the nature of the problem by comparing it to a familiar past event, highlight political stakes involved, and suggest possible solutions. They also predict the likelihood of success of a particular course of action, assess its moral rightness, and warn against potential dangers. …

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