Although books have been written about the transition from
capitalism to socialism for over a century, titles focusing on the
path back to capitalism are a much more recent phenomenon.
It is 17 years since the fall of the Berlin wall and 15 years
since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Current events in the
former «socialist world» show that the scale of difficulties
involved in the transition was seriously underestimated. Moreover,
economic reforms are not the most difficult part; changing people’s
attitudes is much harder.
When communism fell, countries on the periphery of the former
Soviet empire had no doubts about where to turn — from Moscow to
the West and the Euro-Atlantic community. There were no
alternatives to this approach, which determined policy for the next
15 years and during which opposing political groups cooperated with
each other, painful reforms were pushed through and the public
tightened their belts. Now that success has been achieved, with the
European Union and NATO throwing open their doors, we have a crisis
The recent riots in Hungary, political crises in Poland,
unexpected electoral results in Slovakia and a nationalist making
it to the second round of presidential elections in Bulgaria seem
to indicate a backlash. The appearance of nationalism, populism and
anti-European sentiment threatens to undo all the hard work of the
transition period. Political, economic and social backwardness are
making themselves felt. As soon as the common goal and
psychological pressure disappeared, it turned out that meeting the
Copenhagen criteria for membership in the EU was one thing, but
getting rid of the heritage of the «accursed past» was quite
another. This is because the values of democracy cannot take root
to order, but are acquired as society evolves.
Everyone seems to agree Russia is not going the same way as
other countries. The illusions of the early 1990s that Russia could
become a «giant Poland» have been left in the past. Popular wisdom
now underscores the unique nature of the Russian path, as distinct
from the Central European way.
Yet the processes taking place here are not that far removed
from what other post-communist states have lived and are still
living through in terms of psychological mechanisms.
The Russian democratic movement of the 1980s and early 1990s,
led by Boris Yeltsin, adopted the same slogans that
national-democratic movements in Eastern Europe and other Soviet
republics seized on — liberation from the communist empire. But
whereas anti-imperial zeal was the goal elsewhere, for Russian
politicians it was a means to an end. For them the point was not
the liquidation of a great power but getting rid of the communist
regime. When the result was achieved, it turned out that the
country that remained was unfamiliar and unnatural. At the time,
this was the cause more for bewilderment than bitterness: It was
tough to conceptualize what had just happened.
As for Russia’s foreign policy orientation, this seemed like a
no-brainer. This would coincide with the aims of the countries of
Central and Eastern Europe — toward the West. It was the general
trend. Since no one was talking about European Union membership for
Russia even during the most rose-tinted period of our democracy,
there was no concrete goal. Meanwhile, reforms were much more
difficult than had been naively imagined.
From the outset, Moscow’s pro-Western course — and we will
assume here that the leaders of the day sincerely believed in it —
ran into the problem of post-imperial transformation. The tragedy
was not that Russian society could not come to terms with the fall
of empire. Most people at that stage were focused on basic
survival, and great-power status was absolutely irrelevant. Rather,
the elite in Russia, the legal successor state to the Soviet Union,
could not decide whether it was ready to wave goodbye to the former
great power. Even today it has still not made up its mind, although
the actions it has taken are objectively destroying Russia’s
position in its traditional sphere of influence.
In the 1990s, while the former Soviet satellites in Central
Europe passed difficult examinations to prove they met European
standards, Russia was following a chaotic path, overcoming one
crisis after another. A broad range of immensely difficult,
important, but tactical problems were solved. The path was so
complex and tortuous that the question of aims never arose.
Today, the economic and political situation is radically
different, but the question of aims remains unanswered. No one can
articulate distinctly what Russia wants to be. There is not even a
clear answer to the question of whether it should be a nation-state
or turn once again to the imperial multinational model. Two
contradictory tendencies exist happily side by side in the public
consciousness: On the one hand, increasing xenophobic sentiment and
popularity of the slogan «Russia for the Russians»; on the other
hand, a lingering nostalgia for what has been lost and an inability
to accept the former Soviet republics as foreign countries.
Strange as it may seem, the upsurge in nationalism is bringing
Russia close to the genesis of the other countries that have been
liberated from communist regimes. A nationalist rebirth, sometimes
in very unpleasant form, lay at the core of revolutionary events
everywhere — from the Baltic states to Poland to Tajikistan. In
Central and Eastern Europe, nationalism was aimed at the West,
while in modern Russia it is the other way round. All the same, the
mechanisms are similar.
The problem of contemporary Russian politics is that it is based
on no ideological or axiological base. Even the currently
fashionable rejection of the 1990s is not a thought-out position or
a fundamental reconceptualization of the country’s place. If this
were the case, then some alternative would have been proposed to
the liberal-democratic values that we so dislike and that are
associated with the Yeltsin period. But this is not happening.
All the attempts to formulate an alternative come down to two
options. In one, we hear shrill, vaguely worded declarations
appealing to some bygone age and assertions that foreign recipes
are unsuitable for Russia (without, of course, suggesting which
recipes are). With the other, we see attempts to provide an
ideological foundation for the rather contradictory course
currently followed in practice based on an aggregate of immediate
These interests, we should note, are not national — although
the elite insists that they are — but are group, corporate or
personal interests. Added together they do not add up to the same
thing as national interests.
What, in fact, are Russia’s national interests? No one can say,
since there is no mechanism for synthesizing the interests of the
state, society, business and various groups and regions. This
mechanism is impossible without democratic institutions.
Russia and other countries of the former Soviet bloc are united
principally by these difficulties. Western political and economic
forms consolidate much faster than they can be filled with the
appropriate content. The difference is that in Central and Eastern
Europe they have at least declared their intention to produce this
content. Russia, on the other hand, is doing everything possible to
show that it has no need of it. The problem, as we have seen, is
that without any values it is impossible to set goals.