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Moscow Times
October 14, 2004
Overcoming Russia's History
By Robert Skidelsky
Robert Skidelsky is a member of the British House of Lords and professor of political economy at Warwick University, England. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

President Vladimir Putin's proposals to centralize power in the Kremlin even further gives an opportunity to revisit the debate between Richard Pipes and Alexander Lukin in the pages of The Moscow Times on July 6 and 21. The debate was about the reasons for Russia's turning away from democracy.

To Pipes this came as no surprise: It merely showed Russia's incapacity for freedom, rooted in the long history of the patrimonial state. He cited evidence from recent opinion polls revealing "a preference for order over freedom, suspicion of democracy and the free market, and nostalgia for the Soviet Union." Lukin countered that the "anti-democratic" mood in Russia today is not the consequence of ancient history, but a "not entirely adequate," though understandable, response to the weakness and corruption of government in the post-communist period. Pipes' claim that it reflected a 700-year history of unfreedom was "so general as to be almost meaningless."

My instincts are with Lukin: The economic and political traumas of the 1990s were the worst possible breeding ground for a nascent democracy. The restoration of the state and the economy, the curtailment of corruption and gangsterism were bound to be top priorities for any post-Yeltsin government. Yet the accelerating momentum to centralize and control beyond any reasonable requirements for a strong state or the "war on terrorism" does suggest that a deeper historical reflex may be at work.

There are three main candidates. The first is the absence in the Russian political tradition of any doctrine of restraint on the ruler's actions. Most societies have developed such traditions.

In China it is Confucianism. Here, the restraint is internal to the ruler. The good ruler is the virtuous man. The Analects of Confucius are mainly concerned with the rules of virtuous conduct. Foremost among these are the rules of propriety: The superior man does things in the proper way. "Riches and honor are what men desire," Confucius says. "If they cannot be obtained in the proper way, they should not be held. Poverty and meanness are what men dislike. If they cannot be avoided in the proper way, they should not be avoided." Confucius repeatedly warns against passion, excess, bias, rhetoric, haste. One Confucian maxim that Deng Xiaoping, unlike Mao Zedong, certainly took to heart was, "Do not be desirous to have things done quickly. ... Desire to have things done quickly prevents their being done thoroughly."

Confucianism is highly conservative. The more dynamic West developed a specialized philosophy of rule -- political theory -- based on the principle of external restraint. What is important is not the character of the ruler but the external checks that exist to the exercise of his always imperfect will. One can trace this evolution from the church-state conflict in the Middle Ages through the social contract ideas of the 17th century to the constitutional theory of the separation of powers.

Both systems of restraint, Eastern and Western, nevertheless had a common aim: to prevent people from being treated simply as instruments of the ruler's will.

One searches in vain for a similarly well-established philosophy of restraint in Russian history. The revolt of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century against tsarist absolutism failed: "A society which provided unique opportunities for the growth of the governmental machine left no room for the growth of a politically and economically independent dominant religion," Wittfogel writes. Nor did any secular or constitutional tradition of limited rule emerge. There was no internal escape, therefore, from the tradition of absolute despotism. Whether the fragile Russian liberalism of the silver age would have broken the hold of despotism but for World War I remains the great unanswered question. Instead, Lenin's Bolshevik state was built on the foundations of tsarist autocracy. The great Russian rulers have been the most terrible ones: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Stalin.

The grandiose and grotesque Foreign Ministry suggests a second explanation for Russia's anti-liberal history: "The residues of empire," an official once remarked to me. Pipes himself writes: "Russia has had to administer too vast a territory with too limited resources to indulge in democracy." But it's not the vastness or poverty of the territory -- as Lukin points out -- that has prevented democracy, but its imperial character. According to the historian Geoffrey Hosking, the Russian empire ("Rossia") has always prevented the political development of the Russian nation ("Rus"). This interpretation is based on the solid empirical link between nationalism and democracy. Russia had to become a nation before it could become a democracy.

It seemed that this was about to happen when Russia pulled out of the Soviet Union in 1991. It has now become clearer that the end of the Soviet empire did not automatically spell the end of the imperial state. This is because there are too many "residues" of imperial rule scattered throughout the Russian Federation and its near abroad. Chechnya, deeply implanted in the Russian state, cannot be cut out of the homeland, as the Western Europeans did with their colonial empires. Beyond this, natural resources -- once Russian, now "foreign" -- and "irredenta" of Russian populations in the Baltic states and Ukraine offer a constant temptation to reassert imperial control. All of this will continue to exercise a baleful influence on internal political development.

A third explanation for the re-emergence of autocracy pays less attention to ancient history and more to the dialectics of revolution. This is the approach of the economist Vladimir Mau. The collapse of the old regime (in this case communism) weakens the state and fragments society to such an extent that support grows for the reimposition of order by force.

Thus, the "regime of personal dictatorship, whether it be that of Cromwell, Napoleon, or Stalin, flows naturally from the logic of the revolutionary process." Whether the present Putin phase will be followed by the consolidation of dictatorship or the growth of liberal democracy is historically open-ended. Thus Mau's view has some affinity to Lukin's.

The weakness shared by all these interpretations, it seems to me, is the insufficient attention they pay to voluntarism in determining political outcomes. It is surely not necessary to be a Bolshevik or a Nietzschean to allow a big role for political leadership. It is not just the future that is open-ended, but the present. How people think and act now will help shape the future. A democratic opposition to Putin's still-flabby Bonapartism is by no means doomed to fail. But against the background of Russian history, it will require intelligence, courage and leadership of a high order.