The Yeltsin Era in the Light of Russian History: Reform or Reaction?

By Glinski, Dmitri; Reddaway, Peter | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Yeltsin Era in the Light of Russian History: Reform or Reaction?


Glinski, Dmitri, Reddaway, Peter, Demokratizatsiya


In Russian and Western debates about developments in the post-Soviet world, the term "reforms" has become a kind of magic fetish. The mere mention of reforms, like a shamanistic incantation, unleashes a storm of passions across the spectrum of public opinion. However, the specific meanings of the term are often as murky and diverse as the interests and goals of those who invoke the word. Profound and substantive differences exist over what is meant by "Russia's reforms"--differences between Russians and Westerners, as well as between various intellectual and political camps in Russia itself. Thus, in the view of most present-day Western observers, as well as old-style Westernizers inside Russia (including most of the orthodox Marxists in the early twentieth century), reform has been deterministically linked to the idea of modernization and more generally to a belief in the linear progress of civilization. In this conception of history, all nations are perceived as developing, perhaps at different speeds, in the direction of a single universal standard. One of the popularizations of this doctrine was the much advertised essay by Francis Fukuyama on "the end of history."(1)

However, it is clear that in late Soviet and post-Soviet Russia the number of proponents of the optimistic view of modernization and a linear perception of history has been shrinking. By contrast, an increasing number of Russian historians and social scientists have embraced variations of the cyclical paradigm of change. The roots of this approach go back to Heraclitus and, in modern times, to Giambatista Vico, whose teaching about the corsi e ricorsi, the ebbs and flows of history, was the first in modern Western thought to challenge the doctrine of universal and irreversible historical progress. Although few serious scholars would interpret the historical cycles as mere repetition without development, establishing parallels between distant periods of Russian history has long been characteristic of Russians' view of their past, present, and even future. Note the widespread use of such terms as "Bolshevism" and "revolution from above," which were coined in the twentieth century but are used to describe earlier as well as recent periods.

The cyclical conception of Russian history was elaborated most eloquently by a wide-ranging intellectual of the Silver Age, Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932). To him belongs the reconceptualization of Bolshevism as an extemporal idea that generalizes the whole pattern of leaps toward "modernization" via coercive revolutions from above. In Voloshin's words, "Peter the Great was the first Bolshevik." In our times, variations of the cyclical paradigm were adopted even by such unambiguous Westernizers as Alexander Yanov and Natan Eidelman. The latter, in his "`Revoliutsia sverkhu' v Rossii," saw the series of "revolutions from above" as a progressive spiral. It is worth noting that such a cyclical interpretation of a nation's history is, although a prominent feature of Russian culture, not unique to Russia. It does not necessarily deny the idea of progress nor imply perennial backwardness on the pan of a nation.(2)

To use a popular and easily recognizable metaphor, Russian history is often presented as a pendulum swinging back and forth---between progress and conservative backlash; between despotic, bloody police regimes and the anarchic Times of Troubles, which have periodically brought the country to the brink of disintegration and virtually destroyed the state. The initial impulse for the pendulum swings--both to the right (in the direction of dictatorship) and then to the left (toward the weakening of the state)--is often seen to be the recurrent attempts of Russian rulers to carry out a radical, top-down transformation of society.

It goes without saying that throughout five centuries of Russian history the major problems facing the various reformers, the correlation of social forces around different reformist programs, the international context, and many other factors have changed substantially. …

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