Russia – A Society Without Traditions Facing Modern Challenges
No. 2 2008 April/June
Emil Pain

Professor at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics; General Director of the Center for Ethno-Political Studies. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

What is stagnation? I personally define
it as a historical situation where the ruling elite does not want
to adopt a new way of life, while the opposition does not know how
or is unable to do so. In an era of stagnation both the government
and the opposition circulate the same myth about the predestined
fate of the country or its “special path.”

The liberals, who bitterly reject the
idea of Russia as a “very special civilization” understood as “a
thousand years of Russian glory,” willingly accept the same myth in
a different wrapping – that of a civilization marked by “a thousand
years of slavery.”

The phrase “Russia is very special” is
the buzzword most commonly heard today. Yet one question remains
unclear: Compared with what countries is Russia very special and in
what particular ways do the special features of Russia reveal
themselves? There is not much comparative research on this

Opposing ideological groups are unaware
of the true tendencies that characterize the dynamics of national
culture and, unfortunately, are equally reluctant to be aware of
them. “Such is the mentality of this nation” they keep saying as an
incantation. The understanding of these tendencies is hampered by
the common use of popular terms like ‘the cultural code,’ ‘the
civilizational matrix’ and ‘the national archetypes,’ which
continue to be metaphors or poetic images that fail to explain how
these tendencies work. I strongly believe that scientific research
must demythologize public consciousness and draw a distinct line
between myth and rational knowledge. In line with this
understanding of the key role of science, I will try to present my
hypothesis of why certain seemingly traditional behavioral
stereotypes are so persevering and how the dynamics of genuine
traditions works under the impact of global challenges.


Publicists and, not infrequently,
scholars tend to label any historically persistent phenomena as
tradition. This factor impedes in many ways the understanding of
many of today’s social and political developments. Tradition is a
handing down from one generation to the next of the norms of
conduct, ideas and values that all members of the community are
expected to abide by. Far from all recurrent phenomena will fall
into the category of tradition. If people wrap themselves in
clothes in winter and take off most of those cloths in the summer,
this is not a tradition but a situational self-adjustment to the
environment. On the other hand, what you should wear in winter and
how much of your body you can expose in summer is a precept of
tradition. To hand down traditions to posterity, society needs
institutions which play the role of carriers, custodians and – most
importantly – controllers of these precepts. Social control uses
moral incentives to maintain traditions and moral sanctions for
their violations.

In today’s Russia, social control
mechanisms have been practically dismantled together with the
institutions that perpetuated them. Peasant communities had been
buried in oblivion already by the middle of the last century.
Religious communities and Russian Orthodox parishes were destroyed
during the Soviet era and the possibility that their role will be
restored is very small, considering the fact that more than 87
percent of people who consider themselves Russian Orthodox do not
associate themselves with one or another parish and only go to
church occasionally. Quite recently, one could see babushkas
sitting on benches outside urban apartment blocks and gossiping
about the moral merits of one family or another. This would
compensate to a certain extent for a pattern of social control that
operates along the principle of “What will others think of you?”
Now this is gone too. Moreover, it is a commonly recognized fact
that family relations in the Russian community – primarily in the
ethnic sense – have been destroyed and previously tight contacts
among family members have changed into periodic contacts. All of
this suggests that the perception of Russian society as one ruled
by collectivism and a communal consciousness is just a

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has drawn
the conclusion that society is doomed to extinction and there will
be a full collapse of social norms if the decay of traditional
institutions of collectivity is not made up for by new institutions
of informal contacts, mutual assistance and social control. This
replacement or recombination of the old and the new traditions is
taking place in many countries. Many traditional mechanisms of
social regulation have survived in Germany, for instance. Russians
who move to Germany do not find it difficult to get accustomed to
new laws – those laws are very much like Russian ones except that
they are followed more often. What they really find problematic is
informal control – such as their neighbors telling them all the
time what one can or cannot do in one’s own home or out in the
street. New institutions that bring together people of the same
age, gender or profession, charity funds and others have augmented
traditional institutions. Informal associations – traditional
(neighborhood and religious) and also new – embrace about 60
percent of adult Germans. In Scandinavia, that percentage is even
greater and stands at 69.5 percent.

The U.S. provides one more example of
this, as more than 80 million Americans eighteen years and older,
or 45 percent of the total population, spend at least five hours a
week in voluntary social activity, including charity and religious
community events. For 75 percent of Americans, solidarity and
orientation at social commonwealth are no smaller values than
personal self-actualization. In Russia, the traditional
institutional environment has been demolished and has not been
replaced with anything new. This fact per se casts doubt over
society’s ability to hand down any standards at all, whether
traditional or not.

If so, how could one explain the
recurrence of monotypic collisions and the so-called
‘traditionalization,’ which analysts refer to as an indisputable
feature of contemporary Russia? Or how would one interpret such
historically persistent patterns of behavior as mass non-compliance
with the law?

Alexander Herzen, a 19th century
Russian pro-Western thinker, highlighted this feature as a purely
ethnic one. “Whatever social rank a Russian belongs to, he will
bypass the law anyplace where he can go unpunished, and the
government acts in precisely the same way,” he wrote. It should be
noted, however, that neither the much-respected Herzen nor the
numerous experts of the past who frequently quoted this thought
ever did comparative research and thus were hardly able to say
against what countries and peoples this feature of Russian life
looks specific.

Cross-cultural research done with the
aid of sociological polls and social/psychological tests has
appeared but only fairly recently and the results seem surprising
at first glance. The European Social Survey (ESS) taken in 2004 and
2005 in 24 countries shows that the citizens of post-Communist
European countries have common features, while at the same time
dramatically differ from other Europeans. In the first place, they
are far less ready to respect the law and – most remarkably – have
a greater inclination to justify possible violations of the

It should be noted that disrespect for
the law took root in many post-Communist countries during the
lifetime of just one generation of people who got trapped in the
millstones of the totalitarian system. The impact of this system is
easy to explain: if the standards of law and order are established
through violent interference on the part of an authoritarian power
instead of being naturally assimilated by an individual, this
coercive obedience inevitably estranges people from the power and
the law. In such cases the severity of Russian/Soviet, Czech,
Polish, Hungarian and other laws was cushioned off by an optional
non-abidance of the laws. Estrangement of this kind does not flow
out of tradition; it is a product of people’s situational
adjustment to monotypic conditions of life.

Another remarkable fact is that in
societies in which a sizable number of elements of traditional
organization has been preserved, estrangement from the
authoritarian power leads to entirely different consequences than
in societies with demolished institutions. Take for instance the
North Caucasus republics, where people’s alienation from the
authorities and their laws has been replaced by the growth of
informal traditional institutions – family, territorial, communal
and religious. This has not happened, however, in most other parts
of Russia and other post-Communist states except Poland, where the
Roman Catholic Church has a prominent role.

In traditional societies, people’s
alienation from the external environment increases the importance
of trust in “their immediate” environment, while in
de-traditionalized societies alienation affects even the immediate
environment. According to the EES, a poll conducted in Ukraine
showed that more than a half of the respondents treat suspiciously
even the social environment which they are closely related to – in
the questionnaire they underlined the statement “the majority of
people will try and treat you dishonestly.” Russia – which was left
out of the survey – obviously displays a much higher level of
anxiety and suspicion than Ukraine; far fewer traditional civil
institutions have been preserved in Russia and the new ones are not
as mature. Russia also displays far less interpersonal contacts
even within the limits of a local social medium. If the social
environment in today’s Russia resembles a punctured sieve, how can
it keep up the archetypes of collective notions and cultural

When the traditional institutions for
safeguarding and reproducing cultural norms no longer work or
become weakened, the socio-cultural dynamics become subject to the
general systemic law of inertia.


Everyone knows from their school years
that an object retains quiescence or continues a uniform steady
motion until it encounters resistance (friction) or gets a new
external impulse. This principle of inertia perfectly explains the
mechanism of cultural dynamics. The names of nations have the most
endurance – they can exist for centuries and even millennia as they
do not encounter resistance and do not impede people’s adaptation
to historical changes. Customs that have lost their original
meaning and have turned into rituals can also endure for a long
time. With some ethnic groups, you shake hands when meeting other
people; with some others, you clap hands; and with others you press
the hands against your chest. All of these customs do not interfere
with the changing world.

Yet the more resistance that the
fast-changing world puts up to a tradition, the lesser the degree
of the latter’s survival. For instance, urbanization wiped out
ethnic clothing, only leaving a place for it in some ritual
activities. It also changed traditional ethnic dwellings into
standardized houses equipped with central heating, running water,
sewage, and adapted to the endlessly rising cost of

Traditions may take centuries to form,
but only a few years to vanish. The siesta (the long period of rest
in the afternoon between the peak of activity in the morning and
after sundown) was the Spaniards’ calling card for centuries. Many
great Europeans cited that tradition while saying that the Pyrenees
were the border of Europe. “A nation that sleeps during the day and
is awake at night can’t be called European.” But then
industrialization came and pushed the siesta to the sidelines,
leaving a space for it only in the leisure and entertainment
business. Late-night public carnivals on the squares of Spanish
cities stress the country’s colorfulness and attract tourists,
while putting up no obstacles to economic development or
integration in the European Union.

The changing environment does not
always destroy traditions. It can even energize them for a while,
especially when the symbols of national and ethnic identity become
the targets of aggression, which triggers resistance. However, it
is not the mental traditions, but rather the social institutions
defending them that put up resistance. If tradition-based
consciousness lives on, this happens because either the conditions
that gave birth to a tradition have survived, or new conditions
have appeared, playing the role of a freezing chamber or, vice
versa, a greenhouse to regenerate the withered traditional norms.
More often than not, analysts ignore precisely these institutional
conditions. In Russia, the protective shell of traditional
institutions has been torn off, which has opened up a broad alley
for any cultural borrowings, including the most bizarre ones.
Russia is the only country where the biggest newspapers publish the
predictions of astrologers more often than weather forecasts. It
has generated unique opportunities for manipulating the mass
consciousness and construing any public moods, however volatile
they may be.

And what about the archetypes of
consciousness that ostensibly predestine values like paternalism
and orientation toward a “strong arm?” They are a myth – there is
no proof that archetypes can affect the choice of a political
system or social relations. Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence
of a rapid and radical transformation of paternalism.

The mass consciousness of the German
nation experienced a drastic change in less than fifty years. In
the 1930s, Germany lived under the sway of paternalism and
totalitarian collectivist values, which dominated individualistic
ones. Ulrich Beck said the people lived according to the principle:
“You’re nothing and the State is everything.” Today, Germany is a
pylon of European liberalism with its powerful accent on the
individual who gets involved in various free associations. Germans
in the 1930s had the heaviest imaginable militarization mindset,
but over time this changed into an extremely peace-loving

The consciousness of Scandinavians has
gone through the same kind of metamorphosis, although over a longer
period of time. The progeny of the once horrific Vikings evolved
into quite meek nations. They used to be the heaviest drinkers
imaginable and now they cannot compete in drinking either with the
Russians or with the Finns. Even the Chinese mentality has seen
revolutionary changes. I said ‘even’ because the case in hand is a
country that still has a predominantly rural population that has
retained traditional institutions to a larger degree than others.
China’s cultural specificity is nurtured by the extreme density of
the practically monoethnic population and a very small inflow of
ethnic immigrants. Now China – which preserved its virginal
self-identity for centuries and isolated itself from cultural
borrowings by the Great Wall – has become the world’s largest
copycat. It replicates and mimics everything that is Western – from
Rembrandt paintings sold at Chinese flee markets to cars and

Today, few people would not point out
the mythical cultural codes running through the life of various
peoples and allegedly determining susceptibility to some ideas and
the obstruction of other ideas. But reality shows an entirely
different picture. King Juan Carlos of Spain and Venezuelan leader
Hugo Chavez speak the same language, belong to the same religion
and share the same imperial history, and yet they do not accept
each other’s views. On the other hand, Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad is a Moslem, Chavez is a Roman Catholic and the
Belarusian father superior Alexander Lukashenko is an Orthodox
Christian atheist. These three represent different cultural codes,
but understand each other perfectly and love each other tenderly.
North Korea’s Kim Jong Il could easily join this group, although he
represents the extremely distant Korean Buddhist

The same nation divided by a border
(like the North and South Koreans) may build very different
political systems, while different peoples may build similar
regimes – such as the forms of socialism built in North Korea and
Cuba. Communists in Russia acknowledge both of these forms of
socialism as their kin. Such observations are open to one and all.
Now let us turn to aspects that are hidden from the eye unequipped
with science.

Many changes take place unnoticed as
they come about under the guise of traditions. Japanese
sociologists insist that the current collectivism in Japan’s
society is traditional only at the surface. They claim that it
stands in contrast to the traditional coercive and, in many ways,
gregarious collectivism. These scholars point out some kind of a
new, conscientious and selective collectivism of “solidary
individualism.” The reason is that the ongoing rise of
individualism causes a compensatory reaction demanding new
collectivism. That is why it is not surprising at all that
voluntary organizations and various collective actions are found
exactly in the individualistic countries with ‘open societies,’
whether in the West or in the East.

Russia is a different story. Analysts
typically link the work style characteristic of Russians –
shturmovshchina (literally ‘storm work,’ which suggests haphazard
surges of activity in industry depending on the demands of the
season) – to the specificity of Russia’s natural conditions and the
traditional seasonal distribution of work in rural areas with
super-intensive work in the summer and almost no activity during
the long Russian winters. However, for more than fifty years now,
Russians have been living in an urbanized country and hence ‘storm
work’ reflects rather a fundamental trait of the socialist economy
as a system of chronic shortages, which bred short supplies of
produce throughout the year and the fatally irreversible need “to
assimilate allocations” at the end of the year. That is why this
tradition could be seen during the Soviet era in regions as
different climatically and geographically as Estonia and
Turkmenistan, or East Germany and Mongolia.

The above-mentioned European Social
Survey revealed that a multitude of stereotypes in behavior and
consciousness attributed to national character or age-old life in
specific civilizational conditions (terrain, geography, language,
religion, etc.) actually took shape within the rather brief
Communist period of history. People living in post-Communist
countries that belong to different ethnic and religious groups and
have different natural conditions – Hungary, Poland, Slovakia,
Slovenia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Estonia – display much
more similarity than divergence. All these countries display a far
smaller rate of engagement by citizens in public associations and
movements (from 2.5 to 6 times less, depending on the type of
associations). Also, the value of these associations is much lower
than in the West. The comfort level and security of living in
post-Communist states is also lower and, consequently, the value of
human life is underrated there compared with the other countries
under review. When people become accustomed to living in an unsafe
environment unprotected by law, life loses its value regardless of
whether one lives in the South or in the North. And all of the
above-mentioned post-Communist nations are among the top ten in the
ranking of countries with the biggest percentage of people who have
been forced to give bribes. It is not surprising then that the same
countries are in the top of the list in terms of readiness to give

Surprisingly, the Estonians are the
most ready to give bribes, not the Slavs; while the Finns –
ethnically close relatives to the Estonians – are at the bottom of
the list. This leads us to the conclusion that the age-old ethnic
closeness of the Estonians and Finns and their relative long life
within the Russian empire have had less impact on the specificity
of their actual behavior and consciousness than the decades when
Estonia was part of the Soviet Union.

The Russians have a fashion for
describing the ethnic character of one or another nation in the
form of jokes that ascribe light-headedness to the French, pedantry
to the Germans, Victorian mannerism to the English, and
spirituality to the Russians themselves. But what is the
much-lauded German order or the proverbial English traditionalism?
They are ethnic markers; images formed in discourse. They have seen
changes throughout history. It is commonly accepted now that the
French are light-headed and the English are prim and reserved, but
in the 17th and the 18th centuries the two nations enjoyed
radically different assessments. Charles-Louis de Montesquieu
claimed that England had no tyranny due to English flippancy. His
claim does not sound absurd if you recall which of the two nations
turned down the traditional religion, was the first to recognize
women as supreme rulers, trenched upon the sacred life of the
monarch, and legitimized sporting houses.

Meanwhile, the ESS indicates that
neither tradition nor order can be found on the list of values that
dominate among the British, Germans or French today. Both values
are of a protective nature, while these three nations find it much
more important now to adapt to the briskly changing conditions of
life. Britain occupies a place closer to the bottom on the list of
24 countries in terms of emphasis on tradition. The leading
positions belong to the countries with high levels of religious
devotion – Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland. They also outdo
post-Communist countries in what concerns respect for tradition.
Moreover, this quartet fully conforms to all the legal standards of
the EU and is undergoing a dynamic modernization. Why then does the
specificity of less traditional Russian mentality allegedly
predetermine “a special path of development?” Russia does have a
specificity of its own, though – one that stems neither from
tradition nor from ossified consciousness.


The bitter satire of Russia in the
works of the 19th-century writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin looks
like observations by a contemporary, as the fundamental
characteristics of life in Russia “have successfully withstood the
test of time.” Raw materials remain the backbone of Russian exports
– the same as they were during the reign of Peter the Great, with
the only difference being that oil and gas have replaced timber.
The top rulers continue to set up governors in provinces quite like
the Russian tsars did in the past.

Where does paternalism come from? It
arises from estrangement. This conclusion was prompted by an
interesting explanation of the results of the past election in one
of the republics of the North Caucasus. “Votes are not blood, we
don’t begrudge them; we’ll vote for those whom the bosses choose,”
people would say. But when the same bosses encroached on the
people’s genuine interests during the distribution of land, they
immediately encountered mass resistance. The more a person is
estranged from some sphere of life, the more he is inclined toward
paternalism. “The Duma is alien, so let the bosses decide on it,
but the land and pensions are our own, and so we’ll stand for them

Things acceptable at one period of time
may become totally unacceptable at other times. At the time of
Peter the Great, absolute monarchy was a standard feature all over
Europe, but it had become an anachronism by the 19th century. The
enlightened part of Russian society perceived the change as a
historical challenge then. The authorities noticed it too, but
reacted to it with repressions and circulation of protective ideas,
which was a forerunner of today’s idea of a ‘special civilization.’
In the 19th century, the official idea of narodnost, or staying
true to the interests of the people, was used as a shield against
the idea of popular sovereignty in much the same way as the special
‘sovereign democracy’ is used today to “protect” Russia against the
idea of a genuine rule of the people. It is amazing to see how the
consciousness of the ruling class combines two mutually exclusive
convictions – that Russia’s path is predestined and simultaneously
that Russia can be steered away from the right path by whiffs of
“alien influences.”

Today, like in the 19th century, Russia
does not have a society capable of influencing the authorities.
That type of society, formed within the boundaries of a country and
fastened together by a common identity and awareness of being the
true sovereign of its land, is called a political nation. Such
societies exist but only in a small number of countries, which
brings us to the problem of civilizational specificity. I view it,
first and foremost, as a set of specific conditions that create
different opportunities in different countries; the
varying force of friction for the response to general impulses –
the challenges of time.

Political nations take less time to
form in those places where traditional societies produce social
strata capable of leading the forces that counteract the
concentration of power. In England, the aristocracy had to rely on
the people in the struggle with the monarchy already in the Middle
Ages, thus gaining the role of the nation’s leaders. The same
process was far more difficult and took longer in France, but it
eventually made the Third Estate play the leading role. In contrast
to that, the Russian aristocracy relatively rapidly devolved into a
class of civil servants fully dependent on the monarch. As for
Russia’s Third Estate, it simply did not have enough time to grow
into an independent political class over the five decades that
separated the emancipation of the serfs (1863) and the Socialist
Revolution (1917). The formation of the Third Estate in Russia is
still in progress now.

Political nations emerge as a rule in
the footsteps of ethnic consolidation. The lack of ethnic
consolidation creates huge obstacles to political consolidation.
The Arab world has separate states but no nations, as people there
associate themselves to a greater degree with an Arab supranation
and even more frequently with religion than with individual
countries. Such forms of identity allow people to unite at times
against such events as the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a
Danish newspaper, but national consolidation inside those countries
goes on painfully and this torpedoes their modernization. There are
also many countries in Latin America and in some of them nations
have failed to take shape. There is no ground for the national ‘We’
idea to take hold there, as those countries have the same Roman
Catholic religion, practically the same language – except for
Brazil – and a patchy ethnic composition. Each country has a
national soccer team, and in soccer championships one can see
plainly against whom ‘We’ are playing. However, this does not
provide enough ground for ethnic consolidation. And what does all
of this produce? According to the eminent Peruvian economist
Hernando de Soto, attempts to modernize Latin American countries
have been made more than eighty times, but they all have failed. A
national project cannot be implemented if there is no nation to
support it.

Friction does not predetermine the
vector of motion; it simply conditions the difference of speed and
trajectory. The peculiarities of settlement by ethnic groups and of
the formation of Latin American countries did not prevent some of
them from beginning to set up political nations. National cultures
have arisen in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Chile. The
nation-state’s self-identification of citizens is gaining momentum
there; people are uniting around common non-ethnic cultural symbols
and, most importantly, around a growing self-awareness that they
are masters of their land. Still, in most cases in human history it
was the ethnic consolidation that preceded the national-political

Russia has formed its statehood and the
Russian ethnos – established many centuries ago – has created a
great culture and a multitude of national symbols. But Russia’s
statehood could not consolidate on the ethnic basis in the
conditions of the Empire. Soviet-era sociological research showed
that ethnic Russians had a much weaker ethnic consciousness than
peoples in other former Soviet republics. Research done in the
early 1990s, which compared Russians with other ethnic peoples of
the Russian Federation, produced the same results. However, the
situation has changed since the end of the 1990s – the
consciousness of ethnic Russians has started to outstrip that of
other ethnic groups.

This phenomenon might have various
consequences. On the one hand, the entire set of social problems is
getting an increasingly intensive ethnic coloring, sounding like
“Look at those strangers! They rob, buy up property, deal drugs,
breed corruption, and bring infections here.” On the other hand,
the growth of ethnic consciousness helps many people assimilate the
idea that they must become masters of the country. This is
synonymous with popular sovereignty, which nurtured the rise of
most political nations. Unfortunately, people very often strive for
the right to be masters not with regard to the country, but with
regard to the “aliens.” Still, let us recall that in France, the
birthplace of the popular sovereignty idea, its authors and the
leaders of the French Revolution espoused bellicose xenophobia,
both toward neighboring nations – above all, Germany – and toward
their own minorities – the Bretons and the Corsicans.

Russia is currently seeing a rapid
growth of nationalistic organizations against a general decrease in
people’s participation in the institutions of civil society. But
the specialty of national values has nothing to do with this.
Ethnic traits are just the simplest markers for distinguishing
between ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’ especially in an environment of
make-belief party stratification. It cannot be ruled out that
ethnic consolidation in Russia could open up the road to the rise
of a political nation – the way it happened in most European
countries. Yet the aftermath of a two-stage rise of such nations
has not always been similar.

Integration of various ethnic and
religious groups around the majority took place only in countries
where ethnic-cultural unification was a mere instrument for further
consolidation of people to resolve the pressing political and
social problems, such as elimination of despotic regimes, poverty,
diseases, etc. In these countries ethnic nations transformed into
civil ones and modernization gained pace. This was the case with
peoples fighting against empires for their national liberation (for
instance, the Dutch fighting Spain and the Greeks fighting the
Ottomans), and with ethnic groups that made up the backbone of
empires (for instance, the Spaniards and the Turks consolidated in
the struggle with internal defenders of imperial complexes in the
20th century).

However, there have also been cases
when ethnic values and objectives themselves played dominant roles,
thus paving the way toward an ideology of ethnic and racial
superiority. Fascism was born this way – as a radical racist theory
coupled with the myth about a mystical predetermination of a
“special path,” i.e. the mission of a chosen people, race or
civilization. As seen by the Third Reich, this option brings tragic
results both to the nation that accepts it and to millions of
innocent victims in other countries.

Which path will Russia choose? The
programs and actions of today’s Russian nationalistic organizations
suggest that most of them are already imbued with racism. However,
their numeric strength does not exceed 2 to 3 percent of all the
people who are now assimilating ethnic consciousness. The vast
majority of them are not racist or nationalistically minded. They
are simply disoriented people with a vague understanding of the
real causes of problems and an even vaguer idea of how to cope with
them. Frankly speaking, it would be hard to expect anything
different from people who are being indoctrinated with the idea of
mental and national superiority and the idea of a special path for
Russia. Furthermore, the mass media hammers into people’s heads
ideas about alien influences and the malicious designs of the
barbarians who destroyed the Byzantine Empire and are now set to
destroy the Third Rome.


Japanese Kabuki theater and the Russian
theater founded by Konstantin Stanislavsky retain their national
uniqueness because they do not compete with each other. But armed
forces are made to compete and that is why a national army equipped
with bows and arrows cannot defend its self-identity in fighting
with an army that has artillery guns and tanks. Understandably,
national economic systems cannot remain unchanged while competing
with the economies of other countries and responding to new
challenges. Some countries are still in the process of transition
from agrarian to industrial development, while others have already
entered post-industrial development. Nor can nations escape
urbanization, which in its turn transforms lifestyles, family types
and demographic behavior. If a need for change emerges, it will not
be blocked by any mental archetypes. However, any change requires a
stimulating impulse.

One good example is the so-called
qwerty effect – a standard positioning of those six letters on the
upper left side of computer keyboards. It is clear now that the
choice of this position was far from the best possible, but to
remodel it now would be too expensive and irrational. Why? Because
the impulse to alter this position is very weak. It is a very
different case when foreign airports stop accepting Russian jets
with a higher-than-admissible noise level. This is a serious
impulse for the airlines to start overhauling their fleets –
regardless of the costs. And when a big country loses in the
Crimean War to a foreign naval task force, the impulse for change
is all too strong.

The current political system in Russia
shows inertia not so much because of tradition but, rather, owing
to the weakness of impulses for a change of the political regime.
Even if society becomes fully aware of the problems, this does not
immediately create prerequisites for their removal.

There is a consensus in Russian society
today in recognizing the many social and economic problems and this
can be seen in the promulgation of the so-called ‘national
projects.’ However, these are not genuinely national projects since
they do not rely on a civil nation. These are governmental projects
which suggest the use of tools traditional for a civilization with
‘a special path’ – mobilization measures and distribution of
resources. This very fact dooms such projects to

Science. The Soviet
authorities were well aware of the significance of scientific and
technological progress. At the same time, Soviet modernization
based on mobilization ripped science from its natural groundwork –
emancipation of the individual and the existence of incentives for
creative research. As a result, great achievements were beneficial
only for a rather narrow sphere of life, mostly military defense.
The authorities had the power to arbitrarily suppress important
branches of science, such as genetics or cybernetics, while at the
same time thrusting forward false ones. Eventually, the shackled
development of science led to a situation where the thin ranks of
research intellectuals were further thinned by repressions and the
brain drain, as scientists would flee the country at the first

The situation has changed now, but not
necessarily for the better. The prestige surrounding research has
fallen below Soviet-era benchmarks, and low salaries are not the
only cause here. Even in developed countries, scientists do not
earn the same money as bankers or lawyers do, yet research activity
tops the charts of social prestige. This is typical of societies
where the idea of progress has turned into a creed; in Russia, it
has drowned in neglect and hopes for the future are pinned on
growing demand for resources in other countries. Russia boasts of
spirituality and keeps slipping into obscurantism, an indispensable
attribute of stagnation. There is no honorable place for science.
Great achievements that meet the requirements of science are
possible only in a scientific community, and that community is
falling apart in Russia. A lecturer at a provincial university can
make a great discovery, but it will be buried right where it was
made – unless someone from Moscow steals it. Horizontal links among
scientists are weakening, while the vertical subordination of the
scientific and cultural space is increasing. The government has
monopolized the distribution of funds for science and culture,
earmarking funds in strict compliance with the hierarchic status of
cities and towns.

Modernization based on mobilization counts on demographic
resources. A country can win wars by sacrificing many more human
lives than its enemy and launch great construction projects without
sparing other people’s lives. This way of doing things might be
still possible in China, but Russia’s human resources are waning.
And what does the Russian government do in such conditions? It
mobilizes resources and distributes them to stimulate births. Yet
Russia does not differ from the rest of Europe very much in terms
of birth rates, although social spending in Europe is already more
than what Russia will be able to afford to spend in 2020. It is a
different story when you look at the mortality rate in Russia – it
is the highest in Europe and life expectancy is the lowest. The
mortality rate has grown even in comparison with “the horrific
1990s.” Why? Because reducing death rates cannot be resolved
through mobilization. Former Socialist countries which used to have
similar levels of mortality and life expectancy as Russia before
they entered the EU have made sizable improvements in that sphere.
This has happened largely thanks to the adoption of EU standards
which put the highest value on human life. Healthy lifestyles have
become prestigious and sought after in these countries. The EU has
renounced smoking on a national scale. People have started
exercising not only for the sake of the prestige of a great power,
but for their own health.

Corruption. There is
no need to explain that the problem of corruption, if it keeps
growing, can halt life in any country. Yet many Russians still
don’t realize that this illness cannot be remedied through
government efforts alone. Moreover, the corruption clot gets bigger
if power is increasingly accumulated in the hands of the state. The
more inspections there are, the bigger the bribes and the wider is
the spread of corruption.

However, Russia is not the first
country to deal with this problem. In the late 1970s, after a
single party had been in power for thirty years, Italy had higher
corruption levels than Russia does today. Police frightened the
rank-and-file more than criminals, as people thought the police
were a government protected mafia. People could live “by the
notions” – not by the rule of law – for quite some time, until the
size of bribes exceeded income. At that point, the people united in
a “clean hands” movement that consolidated the nation and pushed a
resolution to the problem out of deadlock. Today, Italy is number
one in the EU as regards the quantity of volunteer organizations
watching the courts, the police and other agencies of law and

. In the 2000s, Russia has seen an annual
increase in violence on ethnic and racial grounds. The authorities
have not left the problem unattended, and the number of people
convicted for such crimes offers a testimony to this. I am not
against court sentences of the kind, but I do realize that they are
not very efficient amid a passive attitude on the part of society
that sympathizes with “indigenous” nationalism.

The ethno-political situation has
deteriorated in many countries in this century, as seen in the
riots in the Arab-populated districts of Paris, clashes with ethnic
immigrant groups in the Netherlands, and terrorist acts in Spain
and Britain. The aggravation of inter-ethnic tensions is a global
problem now and is linked in many ways to a new stage of
demographic transition.

It is common knowledge that the
demographic transition began when high rates of childbirth and
mortality, characteristic of traditional societies, were replaced
with low ones. The next stages saw an increase in life expectancy
due to progress in medical science and changes in lifestyles.
However, these factors do not make up for the drop in births or,
consequently, for the shrinkage of the population and labor
resources. That is why developed countries have come to a new stage
of the demographic transition, in which immigration is behind the
greater part of population growth in Europe and the U.S.

The global problem prompts a universal
solution, namely, a revision of priorities and the foundations of
self-identity. Civil forms of identity begin to prevail in society
over racial, ethnic and religious ones. For the first time in the
history of France – the birthplace of chauvinism – Nicolas Sarkozy,
a descendant of Hungarian immigrants, was elected president. The
Americans could elect Barack Obama, the son of a black man from
Africa, to the White House. The surge in Obama’s popularity is
amazing, especially when one considers that this has become
possible in a country where racism was commonplace a mere forty
years ago and where there were official racial segregation
regulations, above all in southern states.

Those who think that the striking
changes that have occurred over a brief historical period came
about only thanks to government efforts are making a fundamental
error. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt could not be called a
supporter of racism, but he would not even dare think about
striking down segregationist laws. He realized that the electorate
would not support him on that. President John F. Kennedy did not
launch segregation reforms until the U.S. elite became aware that
society might collapse after the racial upheavals in American
cities in the 1950s. An offensive against racism began in those
conditions. The process became irreversible after the ideas of
racial equality had received support from the leading mass media
and the Hollywood “dream factory” and – most importantly – after
public opinion changed. Reliance on society opened the doors to a
reform of racial relations and ensured its efficiency.

In my view, the world has only now
started assimilating the idea of popular sovereignty and the
government’s reliance on society, which was put forward more than
two centuries ago. However, this idea embraces a limited number of
countries and where – unfortunately – it is meant exclusively “for
internal use;” i.e., where national public opinion matters only in
solving domestic problems. As for international affairs, the U.S.
and France display a total disregard for public opinion in many
countries, as has been vividly shown in the recent decision on
Kosovo. As for Russia, society has virtually no influence on vital
decisions even in its own country. At best, it is allowed to
legitimize the decisions already taken.

* * *

Any hopes to resolve the problems
facing Russia today by derelict methods of state mobilization are a
sheer illusion. Russia has lost its traditionalism and the goal it
faces today is not so much to move forward, but, rather, to restore
a balance between the elements of state and society that have
already been reformed and those that still remain intact. Given
this situation, a further fragmentary modernization of a slumbering
society and perseverance of the principle “the king knows what his
subjects need best” is a path that will lead the country into a
blind alley, and in this sense it really is a “special

However, the claims on the part of many
Russian liberals that the resources for modernization through
mobilization have run shallow are also deceptive. We must draw a
distinction line between the moral outdatedness of a construction
and the exhaustion of resources. A certain model of car may be
morally outdated but customers might continue driving it for quite
some time. The resource of that model will be exhausted when demand
for it runs out. The same applies to models of political
development. They run out of resources only when society, or its
most active part, realizes that the models are no longer useful for
solving pressing problems. Then the problems themselves will turn
into challenges calling for changes. As for today, the current
consumer boom in Russia shows that the majority of Russians share a
conviction that it is quite possible to live in the present
situation. A Russian proverb says: “The peasant needs thunder to
cross himself and wonder.” When that thunder comes, Russians will
cross themselves – in all senses of the word, including a change in
their political creed.