Modernization and Counter-Modernization in Russia
No. 2 2006 April/June
Anatoly Vishnevsky


Director of the Institute of Demography of the State University- Higher School of Economics. He holds a Doctorate in Economics.


Communism expired so quickly that it never had time to consult a
doctor. Moreover, since Communism was thought to be absolutely
healthy, it is not surprising that no one demanded a diagnosis
during its lifetime. What is surprising, however, is that the
vanquished system did not draw serious attention from pathologists,
while there is no scientifically grounded post-mortem


Undoubtedly, Russia lived through great changes in the 20th
century, and since Communism held the reins of state power for 70
years, its contribution to the country’s transformation is crucial
for understanding Russia’s past, as well as its future. Therefore,
we must ask ourselves: What elements of the Soviet experience in
Russia deserve to be taken into the new century and what elements
must be totally rejected?


I believe
Communism’s influence on the modernization process is a major
factor in understanding its historical role in Russia’s




Modernization, as understood by this author, is the transition
from agrarian, rural and holistic societies to contemporary
industrial and post-industrial communities, predominantly located
in cities, which espouse individualism amongst its


If looked
at from this angle, modernization is universal. It represents a
path that is taken by all societies that have reached a high level
of development. It also encompasses societies that have regular
contacts with modernized societies or societies undergoing the
modernization process, and seek to replicate the achievements of
other societies (‘catch-up modernization’).


All-embracing modernization may be described as a product of
the universal mechanism of evolution. Interpreted in Darwinian
terms, it is a process that introduces more efficacious methods of
social activity, economic rules and cultural norms to the center of
a given society, while pushing less efficacious ones to its
periphery. Modernization’s major feature consists of importing
ready-made economic and demographic assets that have proved their
efficiency in equally modernized social and economic spheres to
other territories.


Modernization forms a great axis around which history’s main
events have turned since the end of the 18th century – the time of
the industrial revolution in England and the Great French
Revolution. As modernization gradually spreads to ever more new
countries and regions, especially in the 20th century, it has been
acquiring increasingly more features of catch-up modernization. The
material achievements of West-European societies that pioneered
modernization and the consequent profound changes were not
specially conceived or planned. They derived from the spontaneous
development of new forms and norms of economic activity in public
and private life. Over a space of centuries, that development
proliferated to ever-greater sections of society. As a result of
such development, Western Europe elaborated upon, and proved the
efficiency of, an individualistic type of personality, together
with a system of liberal values.


On the
other hand, societies pursuing catch-up modernization show a
totally different picture. They always develop along a more or less
consciously conceived plan, where the desired results are always
known in advance and seeded from above. In this situation,
government paternalism moves to the forefront, while economic and
political liberalism, so beneficial for spontaneously developing
societies, turns into an obstacle.


with pioneering modernization, catch-up modernization opened up an
era of unprecedented materialistic Messianism and innumerable
projects and programs. Their authors are usually found among
elitist quarters of society that are familiar with the achievements
of other societies and concerned by the degradation of their
homelands, above all in military and economic spheres. State power
always becomes the real executor of catch-up modernization
projects, which helps it to accumulate immense influence; this is
incompatible with the spirit of liberalism and


Totalitarian political regimes of the 20th century, including
Communist ones, were the offspring of catch-up modernization.
Russian Communism, with all of its assets, was just one example of
that development; it resembles in many ways other cases of this
type of modernization process.




Bolsheviks’ project for modernizing Russia was characterized by its
dualism: it attempted to combine the material and technological
achievements of the much-criticized West with the idealized values
of a Russian peasant community – wage leveling, abolition of money,
paternalism, etc. From its very conception, this modernization
project shared many common traits with many other similar projects
that budded in Russia in the pre-revolutionary epoch. This was more
than just a superficial resemblance. It stemmed from the origins of
these projects, which were conceived with a medieval vision of the
world in mind. By contrast, Western pioneering modernization
operated with a new vision of the world that corresponded with the
new social and cognitive reality.


medieval picture of the world relies on the predominance of a
“heavenly order,” that is, the presence of a supreme force standing
over an individual and supporting everything from some kind of a
divine center. This is a picture of the world based on determinism,
which comes forth as a philosophical concept, outlook and


picture perfectly corresponds with the idea of building a society
that puts an end to private ownership, chaotic market forces and
anarchy, and that arranges everything according to a plan. The
early Socialist utopists used such ideas as the cornerstones of
criticism, which they leveled at the world order. Marxism inherited
this ideal and handed it down to Russian Communism.


perception of the world is syncretic in that it rules out analysis
and social self-criticism. This consciousness requires faith and
allows only an interpretation of the world in terms of good or
evil, or whether its values are genuine or unreal.


countries that pioneered modernization and passed through the
crucibles of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, as
well as the economic and political revolutions of the new times,
this new vision was an essential condition for future progress.
Since the new world was becoming much more complex than the
previous world, the deterministic picture was insufficient for
understanding it. Thus, syncretistic knowledge soon gave way to
differential analysis that made it possible to understand the
growing internal diversity of society, as well as the inexhaustible
diversity of nature.


Smith’s description of the great changes in England’s economy as a
consequence of the division of labor and free exchange of
commodities provides one of the early instances of that analysis.
His breakthrough was only part of the revolution in the world
outlook that embraced all aspects of knowledge, including social
ones. It brought to life a new picture of the world, which was not
built or governed from above upon someone’s plot. Instead, it grew
from below. It was a product of self-organization, whose results
were not predetermined – at best, they had some degree of
predictability. This revolutionary outlook made the creationist
picture of the world recede, and an evolutionary picture took its
place, while the syncretistic method of cognition gave way to
analytical description.


this process did not occur simultaneously around the world or in
equal degree. Societies undergoing the process of modernization
find themselves at different stages of development, which justifies
the coexistence of both pictures of the world, the old and the new.
Moreover, the development of each society eventually reaches the
point where a clash between the two pictures becomes inevitable.
Almost in all cases this clash results in a compromise between the
old and new systems. Marxism and its offspring in the form of
Russian Communism were just one version of such


This sort
of compromise overturns the previous religious creationism and
provides a boost to an evolutionary materialistic vision of
history. It emphasizes the possibility for analytic – including
social – cognition (such as Scientific Communism). Simultaneously,
it sets forth a purely creationist task of building a more perfect


Building a
perfect world is a religious idea in essence even if it is dressed
in secular vestments. Standing in opposition to it is the idea of
self-organization, which presupposes that the determination of its
targets is embedded in the very development. This idea was clearly
formulated by Adam Smith, who formulated the “Invisible Hand” of
the market theory. Yet Marx and Engels, the German thinkers of the
mid-19th century, and Vladimir Lenin in the early 20th century,
failed to embrace such a concept. The reason was not due to any
mental limitations on the part of those outstanding intellectuals.
The root cause lies in the historical limitations of the picture of
the universe, which had become obsolete in England but was still
popular in Germany and Russia.

 Nor should we forget the
political nature of the Bolshevik
project. It was meant for the masses and was supposed to be
understandable at once. Lenin had to address the peasants in a
language familiar to them; hence he could not break the frame of a
picture they understood.


Prize winning poet Boris Pasternak commented correctly that “Lenin
steered the flow of thought – and henceforth, the country.” That
was not real governance, however, but rather “political
technology,” as we tend to refer to it today. Real processes depend
not on ethereal thoughts, but on how numerous economic,
demographic, public and political factors interact.


implementation of the Bolshevik project produced an almost
classical example of combining “instrumental” modernization with an
archaic world picture. While the former stands for the accelerated
development of industries, science, technology, urban areas,
advanced education systems and public health, the latter
presupposes creationist development governed from a single center
(“planning”), suppression of forces of economic and social
self-organization (“anarchy”), maintenance of the values of
Sobornost (group decision-making that has an impelling moral and
binding legal force), paternalism, etc. This type of modernization
could well be labeled as conservative, instrumental or


combination was a forced one and showed relative efficiency over a
period of time. But as instrumental modernization became more
successful, the old picture of the world and all of its assets
eventually came into conflict with the novelty of material life,
which slowed the spread of modernization throughout society.
Conservative modernization can be accomplished, but only if it
gives up its archaic vision of the world, as well as philosophy,
morals, political ideals and social practices consonant with it –
everything associated with the Communist idea in the 20th-century




Bolsheviks were quick to discard the attributes of modernization,
like economic and political liberalism, but they were consistently
declaring a commitment to industrial and military might, as well as
developing urban areas and the urban way of life, promoting
education, improving public health, decreasing mortality rates,
etc. None of these goals, however, contained anything specifically
Communist, as they only reiterated the results already attained in
earlier modernized countries. Yet the Soviet authorities
interpreted any achievement along that pathway as a product of
socialism. The main problem was that these achievements were few
and becoming increasingly scarce. The mechanisms of conservative
modernization wore out rapidly and turned into hindrances to
modernization, above all in economy.


Lenin took
over from Marxism its ideas of nationalizing capital goods and
replacing “industrial anarchy” with publicly regulated production

After the
Bolsheviks seized power, he reiterated these ideas with special
vigor, endlessly citing the fruitful – as he believed – experience
with regulation of the economy based on government monopoly in
Germany during World War I.


stringent monopolization of the economy by the central government,
aimed at limiting so-called industrial anarchy, actually turned
into a tool for slashing “the anarchy of consumption.” This was
done in the name of resource mobilization for a breakthrough in
industrial development, viewed as the cornerstone of modernization.
Yet this monopoly never released its grip even when the country was
past the early phase of industrial development, when it had built
the basic branches of industry and major elements of the industrial
infrastructure, and when the economic system had become much more
ramified and sophisticated than before the Bolshevik


 Theoreticians of Socialism could
never adequately answer what were the incentives of a planned
economy. All of their explanations would boil down to subjective,
political assessments of the requirements. Meanwhile, the more
complicated the economic system became, the more it showed a need
for objective criteria of its functioning, efficient means of
self-organization and embedded mechanisms of goal projection that
only a market system can create.

 On the face of it, Soviet
leaders continued strengthening a non-market economy, which they
called “socialist.” This in turn made the completion of economic
modernization in the Soviet Union and Russia impossible and finally
drove the whole system into stagnation.




industrialization,” a term that remained on everyone’s lips in the
Soviet Union for decades, meant the transformation of the
predominantly agrarian country into a country of cities. Although
urbanization advanced significantly in Russia, the final outcome
was debatable by the end of the 1980s; it is still a source of
conjecture now. This fact, however, says nothing about the
character of modernization. Yet it proves that there are objective
limits to any unnatural acceleration of social processes, including
natural pace of replacement of generations.


important is the fact that the growth of new urban areas was simply
regarded as an unavoidable functional appendage to
industrialization. It was believed that its costs must be
minimized. That is why Soviet urbanization did not include the rise
of a full-fledged city environment, even if in material terms. Even
now, 40 percent of Russian cities and towns have a rural or
semi-rural infrastructure. For example, only 143 out of 1,098
cities and towns have sewerage systems serving 95 percent to 100
percent of the population and its urban facilities. In smaller
towns, sewer systems are unavailable to about one half of the
residents. Meanwhile, 21 percent of residential homes lack sewerage
in medium-sized towns with a population of 50,000 people to 100,000
people; in cities with more than one million residents, sewers are
unavailable to 10 percent of the population. If we judge the level
of Russia’s urban development by this most illustrative fixture of
urban comforts, then urban population stands at a mere 59 percent
of Russia’s total, not the 73 percent as suggested in a recent
statistic report (T.G. Nefyodova. Rural Russia at the Crossroads.
Geographic Sketches. Moscow, 2003, p. 21. – Russ. Ed.).


Still more
incompatible with the goals of an encompassing modernization
project, and indicative of the instrumental nature of the Soviet
model, is the underdeveloped social urban environment and medium
strata of town dwellers. All the anti-modernization reactions that
occurred in post-Soviet Russian society stemmed from the weak
evolution of a semi-urban, semi-rural social structure. This
scenario prevents Russia from ending its relationship with things
that have long become features of the past. Communism in the formal
sense of the word no longer exists in Russia, yet its cause lives
on. Unless the modernization of the social structure is finalized,
Russia’s Double-Headed Eagle will continue to have one head gazing
into the future, and the other one still looking toward the




program of industrialization and modernization proved efficient
enough in terms of speeding up the demographic transition that had
begun before the Bolshevik revolution. It changed the private
aspects of people’s life and had a profound impact on existential
questions of human individuality. The mass demographic and
matrimonial behavior of the population evidenced a drastic change,
as did family roles and values, the status of women and children,
the conditions of family upbringing, and general attitudes toward
life, love and death. The close semblance of demographic behavior
between the Soviet Union and the Western countries, together with
the irreversibility of these changes, are difficult to deny. And
for a long time, the successes of demographic modernization in the
Soviet Union and Russia looked incontestable, yet they could never
be finalized.


This is
obvious when we analyze mortality rates. In the beginning of the
targeted timeframes, Russia achieved a sizable drop in infant
mortality and, as a consequence, an increase of life expectancy.
Compared with the turn of the centuries, infant mortality rates in
Russia fell sharply by the mid-1960s, while projected life
expectancy more than doubled in both men and women (Table


Table 1.   Projected Life
Expectancy in Russia in 1913, 
1964-1965, 1983-1984 and 2002 (years)



part of Russia


Yet the
success appeared to be short-lived. By the mid-1960s, when Russia
joined the group of developed nations in terms of its mortality
rate, those nations had exhausted the paternalistic strategy of
fighting mortality that was consonant with the socialist outlook
and which the Soviet Union took so much pride in. These countries
approached the second phase of the demographic transition when a
new strategy was to be formulated in order to reduce the risk of
death from non-infectious diseases (especially cardiovascular
types), cancer, as well as death from accidents, violence and other


paternalism ceased to be a positive asset in that phase. The
strategy demanded that each person take a more responsible attitude
to his or her own health and that the institutions of civil society
exert greater influence on all the decisions concerning the
protection of people’s health and ecology.


the Soviet Union – and consequently Russia – failed to find answers
to the new challenges, and the modernization of life expectancy
conditions slowed noticeably and remains unfinished. The resultant
gap in life expectancy rates between Russia and the advanced
countries continued to increase and by 2000 it exceeded the
indicators of 1900 (Table 2).


Table 2.   Gap Between Russia and
Advanced Countries 
Projected Life Expectancy (years)




A general
overview of the demographic situation in Russia, together with an
analysis of a multitude of indicators, suggests that this country
has much demographic archaism. This is manifested in the
insignificant value of life, archaic death factors, a widening gap
in life expectancy rates as compared to the West, a huge number of
abortions, persisting conservative views on family life and the
status of women, etc. All of these factors testify to Russia’s
unfinished project of demographic




gradual complication of material and social environment in which
the Europeans experiencing first-stage modernization lived was
inseparable from change in culture and the structure of human
personality. The essence of this change boils down to a transition
from Sobornost to the principles of individualism and a rise of
personality autonomy.


Pre-revolutionary Russia developed an acute awareness of the
absence of a new, individualized and independent man. It felt this
was a major sign of social retardation and an obstacle to
modernization. Consequently, the in-depth task of the entire
Russian revolution was to revamp the foundation and contents of
culture, as well as its transfer from holism to


wanted to be just like the rest of the world, yet the complicated
urban, market-oriented, monetary environment of the European type,
which promised to breed autonomous individuals, never developed
here. By the beginning of the 20th century, the country found
itself in a deadlock. To unleash the rise of autonomous individuals
as a dominant personality type, it needed faster economic and
social modernization. However, this cause could be steered only by
a new type of people who were scarce in conditions of the
prevailing Sobornost.


Bolsheviks ventured to break up that vicious circle. In theory,
they realized the imperfections of the human material that was
supposed to solve the task, yet they hoped for a cultural
revolution. “A political and social upheaval here preceded the
cultural upheaval, or the cultural revolution, on the threshold of
which we are finally standing,” Lenin once commented. For the time
being, however, the Bolsheviks had to initiate a speedy
modernization, leaning upon the shoulders of unprepared people
around them. This dilemma predestined the entire strategy of
conservative modernization, which the Soviet Union carried out
until the last day of its existence.


prospect of conservative modernization does not replace the
Sobornost-minded peasant of the past with an individualistic
bourgeois. It replaces him by a “common man,” who is equally
Sobornost-minded and who differs from his ancestors only
superficially, in some instrumental traits. He wears urban clothes
and has a modern education, but the in-depth principles of his
social existence, his internal world and the mechanisms determining
his behavior do not change. He is the same “cog in the machine,” a
passive and unpretending one.


It should
be noted that the development of trade, industries, and cities in
the West provided nothing more but instruments for attaining
greater wealth, more comforts of living, new ways of life, and in
the final run, for a deep transformation of society and man.
Catch-up modernization turns these instruments virtually into goals
of development.


officially proclaimed cultural revolution of the Soviet era aimed
to achieve purely instrumental goals, including the growth of
education levels, the assimilation of contemporary technological
and scientific knowledge. It also included the dissemination of
hygiene culture and sports. The authorities had to constantly
ensure that the new “educated class,” highly needed to make the
axle and wheel of a sophisticated government machinery rotate, did
not produce a new people, that is, autonomous


That was
an irresolvable task dogged by internal contradictions, and the
attempts to resolve it blocked progress in the instrumental spheres
of culture. Attempts at cultural modernization remained half-baked
and incomplete. But even if the program had been completed, it
would not have been a profound modernization that was capable of
changing culture in terms of both instruments and contents, thus
replacing the paradigms of holism and Sobornost, which were
inalienable from the old picture of the world, by individualistic
and liberal paradigms.


Over time,
the real and imaginary successes of Soviet conservative
modernization produced an illusion that the crisis of Sobornost
ideals had been cleared and that those ideals had re-emerged under
the banner of Socialist collectivism. Thus was formed a
transitional, controversial cultural mix that illustrated an
impractical ideal of human personality: a combination of the
instrumental virtues of an urban man of the modern age and the
collectivist virtues of the Sobornost-minded peasant.


It was
impossible that such an unnatural amalgam would be long lasting.
The instrumental model, undeveloped as it was, altered the social
environment where the former peasants, their children and
grandchildren had lived. They gradually adapted to the new setting
and developed an ever-increasing sensation of being autonomous
private individuals who had grown out of the old institutional
mantles. Circumstances dictated a transition to the next stage of
modernization where the shackles – in the form of old cultural
foundations – would be destroyed. But Soviet Sobornost was too
closely intertwined with the entire totalitarian system, which had
no plans to move aside, and was doing everything in its power to
fortify the positions of anti-individualism and anti-liberalism.
Eventually, it turned into a counter-modernization force that
slowed down the country’s renovation.




cultural modernization of Soviet society, incomplete as it was,
advanced to a rather high degree, the political system moved in a
totally adverse direction. The Bolsheviks from the very start had
rather obscure ideas about the structure of the future political
system. On the one hand, they stressed a commitment to upholding
the “general democratic tasks,” including many declarations
concerning political and civic freedoms, universal franchise, etc.
On the other hand, however, they endlessly criticized “bourgeois
democracy,” proclaiming the “elimination of the state” as their
ultimate goal, which “simultaneously means elimination of


Yet there
was a third side to that story, the imposition of dictatorship, and
it fared badly with the first two conditions. If you factor out the
utopian “withering away of the state,” only two possibilities were
left: a bourgeois democracy that had marked distinctions from the
Russian czarist regime, and dictatorship (and not “of the
proletariat”), which had much in common with czarism in terms of
the distribution of power. It is of course obvious by now what
choice the Bolsheviks made. Soviet totalitarianism drove all the
major aspects of Russian authoritarianism to every imaginable and
unimaginable extreme, thereby delaying the arrival of a “damned
bourgeois democracy,” or at least its semblance, for another 100
years. That is why an assessment of Communism’s contribution to
modernization from the perspective of the political system proves
that it was absolutely counterproductive.


It could
not have been otherwise, however, and not simply because the Soviet
political system corresponded with the creationist picture of the
world so firmly embedded in the Russian mentality. More
importantly, it correlated for many years with Soviet social and
economic reality – the economic impoverishment and hierarchical
form of the Soviet social pyramid. This system makes the privileges
of the handpicked individuals possible only through the suppression
of the aspirations of the rest of society.


changes that occurred within post-revolutionary Russia carried the
illusion of democratization of Russian/Soviet society. It grew out
of the fact that a mass of people from the grassroots, especially
the village-folk, had gained some access to the levers of state
power; modernization in Russia opened up new channels of vertical
mobility. For the majority of people, it was the first such
opportunity. It thrust to power a new political elite, which was
democratic in its origin. Yet it is important to note the relative
paucity of those mobility channels against the background of sheer
survival of the hierarchical social pyramid. The considerable
modernization changes made massive horizontal shifts look like
vertical ones.


As for the
apex of that social pyramid, the power pyramid, it remained lonely
at the top as always. In essence, new people filled old positions,
but the turnover of the ruling elites does not mean the
democratization of the political system, even if most of the new
rulers hail from the workers and peasants. The emergence of new
elites requires democratically functioning mechanisms, while the
limited number of individuals with the social status to support it
makes the advent of such mechanisms impossible. Given this absence,
anyone called to replace the old authorities would quickly
replicate the behavior of the latter and mutate into caste-like
nobility. The demand on social status, political connections and
the overall activities of “the new class” raise memories of czarist
Russia’s political elite.


But unlike
the traditional elite, any new elite must establish itself, fight
for high status and master it amid intense struggle; this scenario
led to the last drop of blood in an almost literal sense. As a
result, the entire society becomes a hostage to that struggle, as
happened in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. The outcome
was that the political system was not modernized, instead it
degraded in comparison with the czarist model. State
totalitarianism set in as opposed to imperial authoritarianism, and
formed a hard shell for a new, medieval-type Soviet


That shell
was not at all something alien or repressible for Soviet society;
in fact, it was its offspring. It contained controversial processes
of Soviet social transformation and collisions between the forces
of modernization and counter-modernization. It helped maintain
balance between them and even facilitated their unnatural
symbiosis. And yet it was the most rigid part of the system and
eventually proved unable to adapt to the changes that were
developing inside the armored egg known as the Soviet Union. And
changes did take place. Success did not crown any direction of
Soviet modernization efforts, but balance shifted dramatically
toward the forces of modernization. The offshoots of economic and
political liberalism that had budded in the totalitarian soil were
weak, but quite viable. Thus, the political shell of the system
shared the same fate as an eggshell after a chicken


Unfortunately, historical processes move at a much slower pace
than the changes that occur on a farm. The political shell has been
crushed, but Russia is still wandering around amidst the scattered
fragments of that shell, which remain hopeful that they will be put
together again some day. They are hoping for a
counter-modernization union, albeit with a non-Communist
configuration. They are agonizing, and social agony can be a
dangerous thing.