25.03.2003
A History of Lost Opportunities
Opinions

The theoretical basis of The Drama of Russian Political
History
is a fundamentally new concept of Russian history
focused on the human being. The primary interest of political
scientist Alexander Obolonsky lies not in the masses, or abstract
forces or “inevitable laws.” His book is rather concerned with the
emergence of a free individual in Russia and the development of his
self-consciousness. In the past, what were the beliefs of the
people? What were their lifestyles? What role did the state play in
these things? Such an approach enables us to penetrate into the
meaning of the events of recent history, while offering an insight
into its driving forces.

The author maintains that Russia’s past, similar with that of
any other nation, is governed by two opposing value systems. The
first value system is person-centered and demands the recognition
of the uniqueness of the spiritual self, as well as the
predominance and self-value of each individual. “In a
person-centered scale of values, individuals are the primary focus
of attentionѕ All phenomena in both the natural and social worlds,
including the internal spiritual world of the individual, are
considered in light of respect for the human person” (p. 6). The
second value system is a system-centered one which demands the
total subjugation of the human individual to the interests of the
Empire, the royal family, a particular cult, tradition, ideology,
etc. An individual in such a social arrangement is always viewed as
a means and never an end. During a large swath of history, Russia
came to be ruled by an ideology that produced the most powerful
example of a “system-centered model.” The power of princes and
czars became increasingly stronger with every passing century. But
when the lowly subjects did revolt against the nobility and
privileged classes, they did not actually seek to liberate human
beings, but were rather obsessed with various unrealistic goals
like ‘social equality’ or they merely held out hope for the time
when “the meek will inherit the earth.” This is a powerless sort of
freedom for the people which permits Obolonsky to describe, using
well-documented facts, the real essence of system-centeredness.
Using this model as a guide, he goes on to describe Russia before
Peter the Great as a historical era that was totally vacant of
civilization.

The author draws our attention to historical crossroads, i.e. to
key moments when history could have escaped the well-trodden path
of system-centeredness in order to acquire a new system, even if it
was a limited autocracy. The 17th century ruler Dmitry the
Pretender – who was more enlightened and tolerant than his
predecessors – found himself in the middle of such historical
crossroads. However, his new style remained alien to those around
him. Later on, during Tsarina Sofia’s rule (1670-80s), Prince
Vassily Golitsyn appeared to be no less of a tragic, solitary
figure. He attempted to ease the toil of the peasants and to
develop the trades and crafts, as well as the educational system
and urban lifestyles.

The seven years of prosperity were halted by the sweeping
reforms of Peter the Great. Russian and Soviet official historians
declare him a man of genius and a champion of progress, but
Obolonsky is strongly against Peter. He maintains that Peter’s
reforms were accompanied by the unbridled plunder and ruthless
suppression of the Russian population. Although there were
progressive reforms in the military sphere, together with the
introduction of new industrial technologies and the growth of
education, all of these accomplishments were devalued by an
increase in moral laxity which led to a surge in deaths. Law as a
system of rules did not exist; rather the formal decrees of the
royal ruler were law.

This explains why the author cannot look to the era of Peter the
Great as a historical period which provided opportunities for the
progress of the individual. The traditional historical view becomes
unrecognizable when it is examined through the new historical model
of ‘system-centeredness versus person-centeredness.’ The popular
and energetic figures like Peter the Great immediately lose their
classical history book attractiveness. As for the popular masses,
the author does not share the view of those historians who have
tried to justify and glorify particular mutinies, such as the ones
led by Stepan Razin or Yemelyan Pugachov.

The historical predominance of the system-centric awareness in
both the rulers and the ruled was bound by an eternal ‘love-hate’
relationship that has always been the high pitch of Russian
history. And it would predictably result in tragedy if any group
and/or individual tried to emancipate themselves from these
horrible chains.

Russia’s history over all subsequent centuries is presented by
Obolonsky as a series of attempts to introduce the fundamentals of
law, to defend human dignity and change the repressive atmosphere
of the system-centric social order. In full compliance with
historical facts, the author states that the gradual introduction
of education, together with the emergence of the gentry as a class,
gradually transformed the nature of Russian society. Already by the
beginning of the 19th century, we see the first growth of a
person-centeredness society which by the end of the century has
blossomed into a major trend. Through such a prism the author also
gives consideration of the views of the “generations of Russian
revolutionaries” – the Decembrists, Chaadayev, Herzen, the liberals
of the 1860-70s – who made a particularly great contribution to the
shaping of the nation’s self-consciousness.

The author’s concept works nicely with the analysis of the
Soviet period, revealing its system-centric essence. Obolonsky
offers his own view of the 1917 October Revolution. He believes
that by expressing popular expectations, Lenin-type radicals
brought back a primitive social system which was easily
comprehensible to the masses.

The book demonstrates the many trends that have become evident
during the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union; these
trends are fraught with real danger. On the one hand, the danger is
emanating from the economic determinism of the democrats; on the
other hand, it extends from the concomitant desire to strengthen
the executive change of command and spread government control
across the economy. Obolonsky fears that such a move would limit
and control the initiative of individuals. Such a preference for a
strong state model is, in fact, one more manifestation of the
system-centric approach.

Detrimental to human dignity, system-centeredness was
characteristic of practically all of Russia’s history and
re-emerged at every stage of the country’s development. This is an
apparently gloomy picture, but nonetheless it should not give rise
to pessimism. It brings us back to the understanding of the true
meaning of Russian history. Bitter truth is healing for both
individuals and nations. And the knowledge of it is needed not so
much for penitence, but rather for confronting the future.