A New Chance for a Hopeless Cause
No. 1 2008 January/March

Tsarist Russia,
Europe’s last monarchy that vehemently rejected the introduction of
a Constitution, gave birth naturally to revolutionaries. The latter
drew their inspiration – and partial support – from the West. But
Western democracies, which were not completely developed and marred
by social problems at the time, were not the ideal. The
revolutionaries copied their guidelines from the critical and
utopian social ideologies produced in the West rather than from the
Western reality of the day. They had faith in the “creative powers
of the Russian nation” that would certainly build a freer and more
progressive society than Western society once it was liberated. The
Russians did not envy the West back then. On the contrary, they
expected that the West would envy them.

The principles of
organizing and building a refined new society were subject to
endless and bitter debates among the revolutionaries, but the
much-cherished goal fostered in them a readiness to die and, more
importantly, to kill. Then the revolution came at last (and
although the revolutionaries fought for its earliest arrival, it
many ways it came out of the blue). One of the revolutionary
factions managed to grab all the power and started implementing its
ideas. What it produced was a totalitarian Soviet system that
initially annihilated millions of Russians, then sank into a senile
degeneracy and slumber.


Although Tsarist
rule gave birth to revolutionaries, Soviet power brought to life
the dissidents who, with certain reservations, can be discussed in
terms of being the functional equivalents of the revolutionaries.
Both forces resolutely denied the repressive undemocratic
government and even went farther than mere denial as they
translated it into action. But along with it, the dissidents had as
many differences with the revolutionaries as the Soviet system had
with the Tsarist one.

Soviet rule was
harsher and more repressive than Tsarist rule, especially in the
first half of its history, but it still marked a step forward
compared with Tsarist traditionalism. It supported some modern
values, like development, equality and democracy, albeit in a
distorted form. The dissident ideology also signaled a positive
movement versus revolutionary ideology, but it was as painful and
contorted as the Soviet system was against the Tsarist

The dissidents
were free of the revolutionary utopianism and dogmatism that
underlaid the bloody history of the early Soviet government. They
did not think that Russia should display a kind of especially
beautiful state rule to the world. They simply dreamt of
restructuring Russia into a “normal” contemporary society. They
found their ideal not so much in the future than in the geographic
space, i.e. in the West, which had built stable democratic
societies by that time and had stopped emanating utopian
ideologies, which were inspirational for revolutionaries. The
dissidents lived in a totalitarian system that had arisen out of a
popular revolution and they could not dream of another revolution
of this kind. They felt rather apprehensive about the “people’s
creative power,” which had shown its worth in 1917.

Yet this smaller
utopianism of dissident mentality had a reverse side of its own.
While the dissidents did not seek revolution, they did not have any
distinguishable ideas (right or wrong) of their own about how
Soviet society could attain freedom or whether it could become free
at all. They hated Soviet power, but they thought it to be a
monolith. About ten years before the downfall of Communism,
Alexander Solzhenitsyn scared the West by saying that the Soviet
Union and the Communists would grab it “with bare hands.” The
dissident writer Andrei Amalrik pinned vague hopes tainted with
fear only on a war between Russia and China. The dissidents fought
against Soviet power by living “outside the realm of lies,” but
they did not fight for power. They were free of the utopianism of
their predecessors, but their protest was much more passive,
individualistic and unpromising than that of the

The dissidents’
pro-Western orientation also had negative aspects from the point of
view of the transformation of Soviet society. They treated the West
better than the revolutionaries did and likewise the West treated
them much better. The West lured the dissident quarters that did
not see any encouraging social prospects in their home country, but
saw fair prospects for themselves in the West. Thus they weakened
Soviet society’s ability to transform. I personally try to imagine
sometimes what would have happened to Russia if Lenin, when he was
in exile, had gotten a prestigious lecturing job in the West with a
good salary and had introduced academic courses under titles
echoing his two fundamental works – “Materialism and
Empirio-Criticism” and “The Development of Capitalism in

dissidents” were few in number – even fewer than “genuine
revolutionaries,” but hundreds of thousands of people had a
revolutionary consciousness complex and, as the perestroika era
revealed, millions had a dissident mentality. Moreover, people who
shared the dissidents’ vision of the world, but who preferred to
live their lives in peace, found their material well-being and
careers everywhere, including in the Central Committee of the
Soviet Communist Party and even with the KGB. Naturally, dissident
quarters were not aware of this. The fall of the Soviet system was
much more unexpected for believers of the dissident ideological
complex than the downfall of the Tsar was for the revolutionaries.
These quarters could also not imagine the form of that fall. The
situation in 1991, when a struggle developed between the General
Secretary of the CPSU, an advocate of a gradual drift toward
democracy and the market, and the allies of a recent secessionist
from the Politburo, who called for an immediate breakaway from the
Communist past and a rapid transition to a Western-style society,
would not have been conceivable to any dissident even a couple of
years before that.


People with a
dissident mindset, if not dissidents themselves (they were too few,
and many of them had settled in the West by the time), came to
power in 1991. While the victory of the revolutionaries brought
Soviet power to life, the victory of the dissident democrats
eventually gave rise to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The slogans of
freedom and democracy in 1917 accompanied the start of the
construction of a system, which in many respects was more
repressive than Tsarism. Similarly, Russia began to build a
political system in 1991 that is acquiring increasingly more
Soviet-like traits.

Once again, the
specific mentality of the revolutionaries had an imprint of Tsarist
power and was an important medium in transmitting the traits of
Tsarism into Soviet rule. The specificity of the dissident
mentality was in the same measure rooted in the Soviet system and
it, too, facilitated the transmission of Soviet traits into
post-Soviet reality.

First of all,
there was a natural but overly swift and smooth transition from a
feeling of total impasse, borne out by the totalitarian system but
absolutely unjustified as one could see later, to unbridled and
equally unjustified expectations. This transition was coupled with
the fear that one might miss a windfall opportunity and miss it
forever, as if the Soviet Union might continue to exist infinitely
if it were not crushed in 1991. This feeling instigated a rush to
destroy the old system without any thought to the aftermath the
destruction would have for the people or to what kind of a new
system would replace it. That was a compensation (not on the part
of “genuine dissidents” of course, but millions of passive
believers of the dissident complex) for a previous passivity and
time served. This gave way to hectic activity, ideological rigor
and dogmatism. All of this was seen in ardent calls on the part of
former members of the Communist Party to ban the party and in the
fact that the former chief of the Central Committee’s ideology
department had turned into the main anti-Communist. It is
noteworthy that the fight against totalitarianism was replaced by a
fight against the much-hated symbols of the totalitarian past. The
trick was that the situation allowed, quite invisibly for the
fighters, the restoration of the very same past under the cover of
new vestments. One should remember that the struggle against the
Communists was carried out using purely Communist methods.
Furthermore, there were many other reflections of the Soviet
totalitarian system in the mentality of people who rejected the
Soviets in an overtly totalitarian way. As a consequence, the more
radically the symbols changed, the faster the previous content

For many
democrats who have been pushed to the sidelines of political life
and who cast fearful glances at the end product of their doing,
Putin has taken on the role of a carrier of evil who has sprung out
of nowhere. This is largely the same role that Stalin was assigned
in the reflections of many revolutionaries who were stunned to see
what the Soviet system had grown into. Yet Putin is a legitimate
successor to the events of 1991. He succeeded the chieftain of the
dissident revolution and he himself was an aide to one of its
leaders, St. Petersburg Governor Anatoly Sobchak. It was not Putin
who founded the existing system; it was those who emerged
victorious in 1991, 1993 and 1996.

The post-Soviet
system has acquired its finishing touches now and it replicates the
Soviet one in minute details. We have come to the point where
distinguished textile workers praise Putin at “history-making”
congresses of the party, a point where people hailing from the
security services, including the former persecutors of dissidents
in the KGB, dominate the national leadership, and where the
Ministry of Culture fights with a new form of art “alien to the
masses of people.”

But a return to
the past means a rebirth of intellectual dissent as an element
immanent for the past. If “distinguished textile workers” are back
in place, then we cannot but get new “renegades” and


Still, everything
is much milder “at the new turn of the spiral,” and it looks like
many of the achievements of perestroika will remain forever. The
democrats – the representatives of the dissident mentality – can
gather openly now instead of crowding into tiny Soviet-era
kitchens. They can travel abroad, take part in political life, and
join legal, although powerless, political parties. Nonetheless,
many traits of the dissident ideological and psychological
complexes come into light quickly in all of that activity,
including the operation of political parties.

Like Soviet
dissidents, the democratic neo-dissidents have a super-strong sense
of protest and, simultaneously, a strong sense of hopelessness.
And, similarly, they do not have any strategy for a transition to
democracy. Their actions are far more expressive than cleverly
thought out. The best the democrats can dream of is to get a tiny
and powerless minority in the powerless State Duma (and the way
that the democrats nominate the top three candidates for their
electoral lists suggests that they do not even think seriously
about that). The inability to unite also stems from this. Entering
blocs and finding compromises makes sense only if you have a goal
that can be reached through compromise, but when there is no goal
in sight, compromises are not needed, in which case it is much more
reasonable to search for a compromise with the authorities and thus
get some functional dividends.

neo-dissidents’ psychological status is even worse in some aspects
than that of Soviet-era dissidents. The problem is that the
dissidents could attribute all evils to the “1917 disaster,” which
could be explained by circumstantial factors and Russia’s huge
“misfortune.” No one knew how to get rid of Communism. Then
Communism fell, and now everything has come back full circle. This
means that the root causes do not lie either in Communism or in a
concurrence of circumstances but, rather, in the country as such,
in society and in the people. A nation and a country like
his are
hopeless, and that is why the democrats’ position is hopeless, and
the prospects for democracy are hopeless too.

There are many
more people now who share one form or another of the dissident
mentality than those who attend democratic meetings and vote for
democratic parties (and why on earth should one vote for parties
that simply cannot do anything?) – the same way that
“semi-dissidents” or “dissidents at the bottom of their hearts”
prevailed numerically over “genuine dissidents” in the past. One
can also find neo-dissidents everywhere. And the more the
government’s degeneracy grows, the bigger their army will


A resurgence of
the dissident feeling of powerlessness after the euphoria of
perestroika and the early years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency is a
natural process and a necessary element of the lessons that should
be drawn from Russia’s recent experience. It is true that the root
cause does not lie in Communism, or at least in Communism alone,
but in the country as such and the nation. Russia is moving toward
democracy along a bumpy and curvy road and the things that are so
simple for others (like electing their own governments) come
painfully and slowly to Russians. However, the experience Russia
gained in the 1980s and 1990s has a reverse side, which Russians
are only somewhat aware of now.

perestroika and the events of 1991 showed that the seemingly
invincible Soviet power was a Colossus on clay feet, and I am not
at all sure that we have developed a deeper and better
understanding of this country than we had at the end of the Soviet
epoch and during perestroika. It cannot be ruled out that a chance
to move over to democracy is much closer and will turn up
unexpectedly and in an unexpected form, quite like the chance for
perestroika sprang up. Generally speaking, sudden finales seem to
be immanent for the systems with “no-alternative” rule and blocked
feedback from the nation.

Second, past
experience shows that although people were not prepared by and
large for democracy, democratic ideas were not at all alien to
them. The majority of voters supported perestroika and, more than
that, they voted for Yeltsin’s pro-dissident ideology in 1991. The
fact that the population started voting for the Communists and then
developed a passion for Putin after the horrors which the country
suffered in the 1990s seems to be natural.

Third, the
special features of dissident mentality that make up an essential
element of the entire cyclic process Russia has lived through
played as much a crucial role in the defeat of democracy as the
specificity of revolutionaries’ consciousness played in the
replication of the worst aspects of Tsarism in Soviet power. But
since the specialty of democratic mentality was a vital determining
element of development that has paved the way to the current
system, changes in it will mean that the next phase of transition
to democracy will have results different from the previous two

No one can tell
when a new chance for this will emerge or what form the transition
will take, but there is hardly any doubt that this chance will
appear and that this might happen in the short term (whatever the
self-identical nature of Russia’s path, it cannot be self-identical
in the twenty-first century to the degree that would see an endless
chain of presidents handing over state power to one another). But
an early transition is not the most important factor. It is
essential that a new chance should not unleash a new cycle similar
to the previous ones. In a non-democratic system its rejection
cannot but contain the painful features of the latter. One cannot
discard them altogether anyway and they will continue to surface in
some form. And yet, knowing these cycles means that one has come to
terms with one’s own past and can now be vigilant and control