21.11.2005
My Perception of Russia
№4 2005 October/December

 

I do certainly not claim to understand
everything about Russia. However, I have devoted myself to Russia
since 1958, and I have lived in Russia for two periods of
altogether 12 years: 1964 – 1966 and 1994 – 2004. Unfortunately, I
miss the period 1987 – 1992 which so strongly impacted on the life
of all Russians living today.

 

Two books have taught me something about
Russia: Russia Under the Old Regime by American Professor Pipes,
and Natasha`s Dance, a Cultural History of Russia by British
Professor Figes.

 

To me, Russia is foremost an old
European nation state, an intrinsic part of European history and
culture. I stress European, not West European. There are
substantial historical differences between Russia and Western
Europe:

 

The Tartar Yoke versus the
Renaissance,

The Orthodox church versus Protestant
reform,

The 75 years of totalitarian
society.

 

With democratic freedoms in Russia,
globalization, information technology and international travel,
these differences between Russian and Western societies are
gradually disappearing, and Russia is becoming more transparent to
its citizens and to foreigners. Transparency breeds democracy.

If I compare my Soviet and Russian
periods, a few things stand out:

 

Fear, and cautiousness in the exchange
with foreigners, are gone;

The freedom to travel – one of the most
important democratic rights;

The new materialistic, consumer-oriented
way of life in Russia.

 

One strong factor remains, though, and
makes Russia different from the rest of Europe. That is the role of
the State, which has grown in recent years, and the correspondingly
weak role of non-state society.

 

Let us look at the three notions of the
State, Society, and Motherland in Russia and in Sweden, and we will
see substantial differences.

In Sweden, the State is a rather
amorphous notion, associated with high taxes, the capital
Stockholm, a few state agencies, the Prime and Finance ministers.
The strongest notion in Sweden is Society, which encompasses
everything: the welfare society, local authorities, the media,
trade unions, traditional Swedish values. Motherland is a
non-articulated notion of history as well as something that is
defined negatively as opposed to the EU or to immigrants.

 

In Russia, it is the other way round.
The State is the strongest concept, the Holy Russian State, whose
main task is to defend the Russian nation and Russianness. This
goes back in history to the czars’ owning the land and everything
on it. The State should be respected but also feared, having
precedence before the interests of the individual. Represented by
the President and the Kremlin, it provides legitimacy to the
bureaucracy.

 

Society in Russia is a much weaker
notion as a consequence of the strong State. Russia has no long
tradition of strong, well-developed non-government organizations.
On the other hand, the personal networks of the individual Russian
are by necessity much more developed than those of the individual
Swede.

 

Motherland is a much stronger value in
Russia than in Sweden. This has to do with all the sufferings that
the Russian people have lived through over the centuries,
threatened by annilation on at least three instances: the Tartar
invasion in the 13th century, the Polish invasion in the early 17th
century, and Hitler in the 20th century. Historical consciousness
and knowledge are very strong in Russia, which I regard as a very
positive factor that brings people together. Interestingly enough,
when in 1991 the International Organization of Migration in the
wake of the collapse of the Iron Curtain made a study of the
propensity of various East European peoples to leave their country,
50 percent of the Albanians said yes against     2 percent of the Russians.

 

Furthermore, the bureaucracy works
differently in Russia and in, say, Sweden, partly because of the
the strong State concept. What strikes me in Russia is the
verticality of all State institutions with bosses deciding
everything and subordinates waiting for directives, anxious not to
commit any formal mistakes. Horizontal cooperation is not very well
developed, which sometimes creates problems, for instance in crisis
management and in unforeseen situations.

Another striking factor, rooted in
Russian history, is the uniformity and universality of Russian
culture. People everywhere know Pushkin and speak the same way with
almost no dialectical differences all over the Russian Federation.
This is very similar to the situation in France, which is also an
old centralized nation-state, but different from Britain, Germany
and Sweden.

 

While the role of the State is strong in
Russia, in economic terms the public sector is much smaller in
Russia than in most European states. This leaves a great deal of
room for dynamic entrepreneurship in Russia – both of positive and
negative kind. What really impresses me most in Russia is that
after a long period of Communist stagnation when everything turned
upside down, there appeared people – the entrepreneurs – who saw
the new possibilities much faster than the rest ot us. The same was
partly true after the economic “revolution” in 1998. Generally, in
comparison with Western practices, I have found that the time spans
for economic and commercial decisions in Russia are often much
shorter, which sometimes causes problems and misunderstandings.

 

Over the years I have served in Russia I
have seen many factors at play. There have been several political
and economic crises, many of them serious, sharp and deep,
but  not long-lasting. I am saying
this under the influence of living for four years in China during
the 1970s. With respect to Russia, I see the following long-term
positive changes which move the country forward:

 

the openness to the outer world and the
globalization process;

generational change – in 10 years the
people born since 1980, that is, after Communism, will be in
charge;

the still high educational standards and
the eagerness to adopt new knowledge, particularly among the
young;

the vast natural resources, which will
remain in high demand on the world market. I for one do not believe
that the oil price will drop below 20 USD/barrel  for a long period;

a sensible economic policy after the
”best” thing that happened to Russia in the 1990s – the economic
crisis of 17 August 1998 – instilled a strong measure of realism in
Russian economic affairs.

 

I have travelled extensively in Russia
over the last ten years and visited about half the Federation
entities. What impresses me most is not just the extraordinary boom
in Moscow but the economic and other progress in most of Russia’s
regional capitals with 0,5–1,5 million inhabitants. Although
uneven, the modernization process affects the whole of Russia. The
spread of mobile phones epitomizes this. Last summer I visited the
Novosibirsk, Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk regions. The rich natural
resources, the introduction of new technologies and the quality of
the hands-on political and economic managers should contribute to
substantial growth in these regions.

 

One sad factor in Russian public life,
to which I have devoted considerable attention, is the demographic
situation. Two aspects stand out. One is the incomprehensible and
depressingly low average life expectancy of Russian males – only
about 60 years. The other is the fact that Russia’s population
diminishes by about 800,000 people a year, of which about
one-fourth, that is, 200,000 people – die from unnatural causes –
murder, traffic incidents, fires, drowning, suicide, alcoholic and
narcotic poisoning.

 

Turning to foreign affairs, I see Russia
as a traditional European nation-state trying to find its new place
in the changing environment. What Mr Primakov said in his Gorchakov
lecture in 1996 still holds true, namely that Russia must first of
all build up its domestic economic and political strength to be
able to play a respected role on the world arena. A lot has been
achieved in this respect during the last five years, and Russia is
now again taking a more active role in world politics. Importantly,
Russia has learnt the lesson after the Kosovo crisis in 1998 that
Russia must not be isolated in world affairs but be a real
participant.

 

I firmly believe in the strength and
tenacity of the Russian nation and the Russian people. The richness
and warmth of its culture has made a strong impact on me. Over 40
years, I have seen Russia change for the better and become an open
society, which has very much to give to the rest of the world.

Much remains, however, to be done. The
disgraceful war in Chechnya must be brought to a decent end,
ensuring that Chechens enjoy a normal life within the Russian
Federation. The rule of law must be further developed, and the
courts become independent from the political tutelage of the State
and other powers that be. Excessive centralization should be
restrained, and bureaucratic interference in business reduced.
State owned television channels should regain more freedom and
independence in their news coverage and commentaries. The economic
and social reforms should continue in order to reach the two goals
set by President Putin – double GDP and reduce poverty. I believe
Russia is set on this course and I look with optimism to Russia’s
future, which is very much in the hands of the Russian people
itself.