Post-Soviet Nations in the Garden of Forking Paths
No. 1 2010 January/March
Svyatoslav I. Kaspe

Doctor of Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of Social Sciences
School of Politics and Governance
Politeia journal


SPIN RSCI: 3307-5864
ORCID: 0000-0001-6746-510X
ResearcherID: K-3951-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 56162811000


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Values as Variables of Comparative Analysis

It is no longer acceptable to apply the notion of “democratic transition” to the changes that started in Soviet bloc countries twenty years ago and which still continue in many of them to this day. Using this notion has become a sign of bad taste not only in the opinion of those who sourly grin at the epithet “democratic,” but also in the opinion of quite impartial observers. Criticism of democratic transition theories is fair, by and large, as is criticism of any social theories that gradually become too rigorous and start being peddled as universal master keys to any tricky issue. The classical concepts of modernization had the same plight. This analogy is not accidental, since “democratic transition” may be viewed as one variant of the modernization scheme.

Yet attempts to totally renounce the idea of an analytically traced (rather than politically imputed) common vector for the evolution of different – and not only Western – societies from pre-modern to modern ones have proven to be unconvincing. These concepts played a positive role in improving and making more sophisticated the instruments of research that use the notion of modernization. An illustrative example is the comparison between Eisenstadt’s concept of multiple modernities and his own earlier constructs that were far less subtle.

The situation with “democratic transition” is much the same: one has to admit that something big started to happen twenty years ago. Specialists may argue about the correct name for this process, but people who feel the earth shake under their feet are not very interested in the terms used by seismologists to denote one or another type of a tectonic shift. More important is, first, that this something should correlate directly with democracy – both as a value and as a political method; and, second, that the processes which had many similarities at the initial stage in the polities it engulfed (from the first institutional changes to visual reflections in the mass media) have produced largely dissimilar, albeit obviously inconclusive, results.

This is where the field for a comparative analysis opens up: the comparability of the objects being researched; the specificity of individual cases and groups of cases represented in this field, such as Eastern European or Baltic countries, the former Soviet republics (with their internal subdivisions) and, last but not least, Russia itself. The parameters determining this specificity are quite clear, too. They include the generational factor (i.e. the number of generations of people whose lives developed under a totalitarian regime, or the presence of generations who at least have some recollections about alternative ways of social existence); the presence or absence of a pre-Soviet independent statehood tradition, its content and historical profoundness; the fundamental difference between nation-building strategies that can be used in the core of an empire and in its provinces (as is well-known, after an empire’s collapse, its former provinces encounter fewer self-identity problems than the former core of the empire).

Yet the selection of variables for a further comparison of the destinies of the polities that were moved from their places by the tectonic shifts of the late 1980s and the early 1990s is far from being a purely technical issue. Any solution will predetermine to a great degree the heuristic proficiency of numerous works written in this genre, the conclusions that follow from them and the ensuing recommendations.

The number of possible variables is quite large and includes: economic indicators; specifics of the constitutional system and territorial dimensions; variants of electoral laws and the party system; the ethnic and confessional composition of the population; neighborly relations and the structure of foreign policy orientations. Researchers who operate these notions to one or more degree of sophistication produce more or less convincing hypotheses about the causes of significant differences in the evolutionary trends displayed by post-Soviet polities. However, there is one variable that is given little consideration – values.


I undertook a comprehensive analysis of the correlations between and conjunction of the sphere of values and the sphere of politics, as well as the methods and mechanisms of the political operationalization of values in the context of nation-building in Parts I and II of my article “The Political Nation and the Choice of Values: The General Provisions and Russia’s Specificity” (Politeia, No. 2, 4/2009 – Russ. Ed). Herein the notion of values implies – in line with what I believe to be a prematurely forgotten tradition of structural functionalism (Talcott Parsons, Edward Shils et al.) – the models of interaction, which according to Parsons prove that “attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity. […]Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has also a ‘moral’ aspect”. Jan van Deth and Elinor Scarbrough write that “values are non-empirical – that is, not directly observable – conceptions of the desirable, used in moral discourse, with a particular relevance for behavior.”

I’ve offered the following conclusions from the first, theoretical part of my article:

  • A political nation is possible only as a community united by certain values;
  • As a sociological category, values refer to the sphere of the moral, the sacral, and the universal; they are the factors of society that point to what lies beyond its boundaries and, generally, beyond the boundaries of this world;
  • Only the acquisition of values enables a political nation to express itself and thus to convincingly legitimize its own existence;
  • Self-identification within the space of values is implemented as a choice and a sacrifice, as you have to pay with a loss of one set of instrumental benefits for the acquisition of another set;
  • A political nation can emerge only through carving its central system of values out of the pool of values accessible historically or by virtue of the situation for mobilization in the name of nation-building, and also as a result of building a central institutional system, which is inevitably secondary and ancillary to the central system of values, since it is the values that can legitimize the institutions but not vice versa.

Before we proceed it is important to make one more provision. The values discussed here are not only – and not so much – mass imperatives, stereotypes or preferences. The latter three happen to be the subjects of meticulous research (see, first and foremost, the huge, long-term project World Values Survey supervised by Ronald Inglehart (http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org); in Russia, this is primarily found in the works of Vladimir Magun). Yet these cross-national comparisons mostly register rather than explain things. This is because values (at least politically relevant ones) are produced not by the macro-social periphery; they are the products of the macro-social center in Shils’ sense. Shils described it as a “phenomenon of the realm of values and beliefs.” This is a kind of center of symbols, values and beliefs that rule the world. Liah Greenfeld and Michel Martin call it a “metaphor” designating “a core importance in the value system of a society, the irreducible, critical elements of this system.” The center in this context is denoted as “the central value system.” Understood this way, the center plays a crucial role in ensuring society’s integration.

This means that the variables offered for analysis do not relate to all values empirically found in a society. They relate only to those that determine the choice (or many choices) made by society – its institutional setup, political programs and guidelines, and friends and foes. With a great degree of approximation we may say that the actors effectuating a choice of this kind are the political or intellectual elites and the subject authorizing this choice (even in cases of silent consent or full apathy) are the masses of people. But the most important thing is to identify the sources of the values exploited by the elites, their contents (since people forget sometimes that values may differ greatly) and the intensity of their appreciation. There are grounds to believe that different compositions of the sources of values’ set for post-Soviet political polities are the main factor behind their drift away from each other after the collapse of the communist universe.

This set happened to be the most complete in Eastern European and Baltic countries. By and large, these states (except for the former Yugoslavia and, with certain reservations, Czechoslovakia, where difficulties emerged from the patchy ethnic composition of those countries) met the crucial condition formulated by Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan: “The question of the legitimacy of the state […] is of fundamental theoretical and political importance for democracy. In fact, agreements about stateness are logically prior to the creations of democratic institutions.” Logically they are, but in reality the sequence of events sometimes happens to be completely the opposite (like in Russia, which will be discussed below). And when pragmatism coincides with logic, the whole thing gets much easier. In those countries the democratic institutions were built quite rapidly and started operating quite effectively, since from the very start of democratic transition they had the role of a secondary value (or even not a value but a technique). The primary value was the restoration of political nations that were presented – with various degree of convincingness – exclusively as the victims of external totalitarian forces, not the internal dysfunctions of any kind. The nations’ pre-Soviet past, which was largely “invented,” according to Eric Hobsbawm, or “imagined,” according to Benedict Anderson, and hence lavishly embellished (there is not a sliver of rebuke here since nation-building boils down to imagining, inventing and reifying), happened to provide an extraordinary powerful source of values.

The second source, quite comparable in strength, was the dual center embodied by the European Union and the U.S., or “the empire of the West” as the external source of legitimacy making up for the lack of internal sources. This is what the Russian scholar Alexei Salmin wrote about it in 2003: “The new elites that came to power in Eastern European countries knew perfectly well – and the decisive majorities of societies quickly understood – where to go. Naturally, it was to go westwards – in the sense that it required making an unequivocal choice in favor of the existing European, Atlantic, and global institutions of every color. […] Many East Europeans viewed these institutions as a train of some kind, thinking it was enough just to get into any carriage, albeit the last one, to join other passengers on the trip along the main track in the right direction. Add to this Western investments and the renunciation of national control over the economy. Naturally, this instrumental solution needs some kind of justification, and the latter was found in the form of appeals – more or less well-grounded and more or less questionable – to the European (obviously meaning West European) identity of Eastern European cultures.”

This is how Eastern European countries attained stable democratic institutions and procedures. They obtained legitimacy as the tools that ensured the functioning of restored nations that were joyfully reuniting “with the family of free nations” (once again, the case in hand is a dominant perception of social reality, not reality as such; but as the famous Thomas theorem suggests, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”). The institutions were not positioned as the only (and hence quite dubious) essence of a nation’s existence. In this way, democratic institutions and procedures were exempted from the sphere of political discussions and turned into their commonly recognized formal framework. That is why even the acutest polical clashes and inter-party squabbles that may at times reach the verge of mass violence – something that happened in Hungary in autumn 2006 – do not entangle the foundations of the institutional design: the most radical demands do not go beyond resignations and/or early elections.


Things were different in the countries where emphasis was placed not on restoration, but revolution; that is, where a transition to a previously unknown state and status took place and where the parties to the process realized its newness. The countries that have at least a small opportunity to imitate the polities of the first group (Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) vehemently copy their strategies and do it quite unsuccessfully, which is easy to explain. They do not have a pre-Soviet political tradition or else it is next to ephimeric. The external center of gravity is located too far away, the attitude to it is far from consensually positive, and the position of the center regarding the integration of these countries is ambiguous.

The states that do not have such opportunities display highly variegated lines of behavior. Some of them (Azerbaijan and Armenia) paradoxically consolidate each other by a suspended, yet unfinished war (and draw the main source of their values from a recent heroic past). Other states, like the countries of Central Asia (not including Turkmenistan, which has turned into a completely enigmatic object because of its alienation from the others, making any speculations about it groundless), are building very interesting multilayer political systems. Outside observers do not offer their profound understanding enough. Works by Leonid Blyakher are one of the few rare exceptions. These systems combine in a variable measure the traditional lifestyle, the rudiments of Soviet social and political practices, the clan/clientele credibility networks, and the impact of external centers (of the very same West, Russia, China, Turkey and “the Islamic factor”). All these layers play the role of interfering sources of values. As for democratic institutions, they mostly function like fa?ade constructions, although quite efficient ones. No one, except for the few intellectual groups, regard them as primary or even secondary values. Still, they perform their main function quite successfully, as they furnish Central Asian countries with a temporary “shield along the borders,” inside of which there is a tedious search for an authentic value-related synthesis (a separate synthesis for each country). The contours of such syntheses are extremely vague, their attainment is not guaranteed in any way, and the probability of seeing more or less substantial elements of the “democratic canon” in the foreseeable future and in any recognizable form look very slim. Their transition may turn out to be quite undemocratic and this will make it possible for theoreticians of democratic transition to sigh with relief, as it will save them from many methodological and ideological problems.

The situation in Belarus looks much the same, although in this case the utmost proximity of two crucial external centers (Russia and the EU) and the absence of any meaningful internal sources of values, on the one hand, broaden the opportunities for balancing between the East and the West, prolonging the period of a state of indecision; and on the other hand, lead to a conclusion that it will inevitably end one day – with greater chances that the West will gain the upper hand.

Why so? Because Russia’s set of values, at least the way it looks now, is insufficient even for this country, to say nothing of letting it play effectively the role of a donor of values for other polities.

Three years ago I listed the symptoms of “a substantive deficiency of Russia’s actual statehood” in one of my works. They are: the problem of “fellow-countrymen” and ex-Soviet compatriots; the uncertainty (to put it mildly) concerning the correctness of Russia’s borders and the very composition of its political body; the dubiousness of state symbols (including rituals and holidays); the vagueness of assessments of the Soviet and pre-Soviet past; the obscurity of a desirable future – both with regard to domestic life and the place in the world; and the absence of a commonly accepted name for the people themselves (‘Rossiyane’ as people identifying themselves with Russia as a state, or ‘Russkiye’ as the people associating themselves with the ethnicity, history and culture of the Russian nation). All of these symptoms remain topical today and some of them have become more acute. Quite illustrative in this sense were the frantic discussions of the “memory policy;” above all, memory about Stalinism.

The generational factor does not make it possible to fully exploit the source of the pre-Soviet political tradition. In the absence of living eyewitnesses, it boils down to entertaining events like the formal guard mounting parades in the Kremlin. The hopes of certain quarters have not come to pass that “a second Russia,” arising out of emigration, could play at least some mediatory role between the pre-Soviet past and the post-Soviet present. One might assume – purely theoretically of course – that the problem could be partly resolved by restoring the monarchy. Under certain conditions – and not necessarily fantastic ones – this scenario might consolidate elite groups, without provoking repulsion from the majority of the nation; the Communist opposition to this would be quite noticeable and even outrageous but, most probably, powerless. However, the discontinuance of the dynasty (which is not synonymous to the Imperial House), the absence of an absolutely or even conventionally legitimate heir to the throne makes restoration infeasible. Genuine monarchy is too serious an institution to be substituted with simulacra projects like “Prince Michael of Kent,” however amusing.

The external source of values – the West – is inaccessible, too. A Mustafa Kemal-Pasha Ataturk is needed to reorient the core (not the periphery) of an empire to the Western political standards after it has lost in a political standoff with the West. Also, some supplementary conditions are required, like the historically prolonged period of the empire’s existence in the completely obvious (to itself, in the first place) status of a “sick European” (the word European is essential). One way or another, an Ataturk is a mandatory element, although even his presence in Turkey made the remote results of Turkey’s westernization, radical and successful without parallel, very different from what was expected in the beginning. The doors of the EU remain closed to Turkey, and Islamists seem to be gradually gaining the upper hand over its armed forces – the only surviving bulwark of Kemalism.

The Russian political groups that are ready to reorient themselves towards external sources of values have not produced a single Ataturk (even Yeltsin failed to be one, although it is not clear whether he really desired such a role). This is the reason – albeit not the only one – why the defeat of radical pro-Western forces can hardly be reversed in the near future. That is why attempts to present the “democratic canon” as a universal human value needing no institutional backup from whatever macro-social center (internal or external) are invalid. An analyst must be as na?ve as Ian Shapiro to treat democracy as a normative ideal needing no actor (after analyzing in detail the views of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx, John Rawls, Edmund Burke, Richard Rorty, and some other authors – all of them quite concrete actors – in the six chapters of his book The Moral Foundations of Politics, the author unexpectedly ascribes “democracy in general” to all of them in the seventh chapter). On the contrary, it is enough to have elementary knowledge of the history and actual state of democracy to understand that it arises in societies (and sometimes in their neighborhood) that have the right people to create and support it. This, in fact, does not make democracy in any way different from other political forms.

Russian polity has an immense thirst for values, which represents quite a realistic danger acknowledged by the authorities. Greenfeld and Martin defined the central institutional system like “the authoritative institutions and persons who often express and embody the central value system”. If the latter is absent, the institutional system loses its function and legitimacy, and transforms into an alliance of usurpers. Hence the unending attempts to mobilize the last acceptable resource of value-based power – not the pre-Soviet, but the Soviet past. The line of reasoning is clear – the Soviet past is still very close to us and it is still emanating some energy (it is well-known that dead bodies can produce a strong impact on those who are alive). Yet this approach can only lead into an impasse where Tantalus’s tortures will be guaranteed to us: “Whenever he bends down to drink, the water slips away, and nothing remains but the black mud at his feet.”

The entire incumbent Russian statehood derives from the downfall of Soviet power that partly occurred in the form of self-disbandment and partly as a result of a conscientious revolt against it. Rehabilitation of the Soviet past is directly proportional to a disavowal of the Russian past: the higher the red banner flies, the lower the tricolor – and, consequently, the status of the people who hold the flagstaff, whatever illusions they may harbor. There can be no intermediate solutions: the totalizing nature of Soviet values rules out their inclusion in any politico-cultural synthesis. In other words, they do not fit into the “integrating formula” that, according to Alexei Salmin, “embodies the political culture of society for a relatively long time.” On the contrary, any other values forcibly combined with these quickly get spoiled or eroded. In this case, the process has begun already.

The closest analogy to this – although not a mirror-like one – is the experience of the so-called “popular democracies” of the late 1940s that rapidly degraded into something very undemocratic. This unnatural hybrid of a hedgehog and a grass snake (the crisscrossing of which produces barbed wire, as is well known) was imposed on them by an external force. Replaying the same scenario by Russia on its own would only mean that history is capable of playing ironic tricks and, moreover, bitter sarcastic tricks, as well. It would be a pity to see it pushed towards this scenario.

The politico-cultural synthesis becomes possible when someone takes a responsible decision – i.e. a decision coordinated with the instance of the moral duty – on what values will be encompassed or left out. Simple decisions making it possible to lay a solid groundwork for the Russian political nation are non-existent. Hence we must look for complicated ones. One way or another, it appears that until a method is found for generating a non-Soviet (different from the restoration of the pre-Soviet) central system of values, democratic institutions and practices will remain weak. Moreover, the vectors of movement for post-Soviet polities, which twenty years ago were labeled as a “democratic transition” in a burst of overly audacious hope, will remain forking paths.