12.07.2006
To Save and Protect
№3 2006 July/September
Svetlana Babayeva

RIA Novosti Senior Analyst. 

Georgy Bovt

Georgy Bovt — a political scientist and a member of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy.

The idea of maintaining Russia’s territorial integrity is being
discussed these days with an air of solemnity that may appear
strange to the politically disinterested man on the street. Indeed,
the nation’s current economic situation is fairly satisfactory, the
government shows stability and there are no cataclysms in sight
that should bedevil us. Nor are there external foes plotting a
perfidious invasion to seize Russian oil and gas. The political
changes due in 2008 do not yet hold any unpleasant surprises; at
least there are none on the horizon at the present time. So unless
one considers the situation in Chechnya or the North Caucasus, the
skies over Russia look fairly bright and clear.

Why then all the talk about the need to preserve the country’s
integrity? Against today’s background, this debate seems to betray
a stark lack of confidence in the future.

More surprising, the apocalyptic protests about impending
threats to the country’s unity are heard amidst absolute public
silence. After all, one would expect that the loud debate be
followed by some detailed proposals on how to confront the
problems.

So, if one listens carefully to the complaints, what are they
really about?

There is definitely some stir in the government. It is arguing
over the inflation levels (although differences over them fit into
the 3 percent margin); infighting continues in the
Gref-Kudrin-Fradkov triangle; there is much talk about the need to
decide how to use the Stabilization Fund, as well as the Investment
Fund.

The long-awaited national projects have been made public, and
unless one questions the practical technicalities of their
implementation (and nobody does), the projects look unquestionable.
It is hard to imagine that, given the projects’ support from the
big guns of the mass media, they may suddenly appear to be a losing
effort on the part of the government.

One gets the impression, however, that the main propaganda pitch
in support of the national projects has been reserved for 2007 and
2008 in order to create a favorable background for the election.
Otherwise, if the projects are announced prematurely, the
anticipated grandeur of the plans may be overshadowed by the pale
reality. 

Half-hearted talk of reform in municipal housing and utilities,
taken together with problems plaguing the Armed Forces, corruption,
wild bureaucracy, impoverishment and variegated social problems are
all under the authorities’ ideological control and out of the
opposition’s reach. And even if the latter did attempt to make
these issues instrumental, society does not show much concern about
them anyway.

DEAFENING SILENCE

Human rights and civil freedoms have long been driven to the
sidelines of public debate. Despite the West’s attempts to infect
the Russian people with their concerns, as, for example, with the
recent law on non-governmental organizations (Western quarters
believe this legislation dramatically restricts NGO’s powers and
opportunities in Russia), Russian society remains immune to these
apprehensions; it accepted the controversial law nonchalantly.

Even corruption produces a rather feeble reaction, which is
heard in idle conversation throughout the town. In Russia,
corruption does not limit itself to the upper class only. It has
permeated all social strata. The country has long lost the habit of
living according to the law and has begun to co-exist with the
condition. And if one looks at the situation from a broader angle,
today’s Russia does not have a single commonly stated national
problem that could awaken society for a serious nationwide
discussion and, consequently, for a real political opposition.

Opinion polls indicate that increasingly more Russians are
developing a preference for a one-party system. Also, fewer
Russians are interested in elections as a means for choosing
substantive programs, on the assumption that the big shots will
decide everything all the same.

The phrase “the bosses will decide without us anyway” sounds
rather hopeless amidst the public silence. It overburdens no one
and poses no problems. Is it a manifestation of “Russia’s special
path?” Does this attitude signal that what other peoples view as
hardship and encroachment on their lives is to Russians a
harmonious and comfortable way of existence?

THEY JUST DON’T CARE

Political dormancy and indifference have engulfed the people who
have turned their energies to the realm of material rather than
political ambitions. The consumer boom is rolling through the
country, in some places energetically – occasionally even
glamorously. Those immersed in this new lifestyle have no
propensity for political ruminations, while the high-browed experts
claim these people simply “got tired of politics.” However, it is
these people – the very middle class – that were supposed to
highlight the dreams and hopes for acquiring a guarantor of
stability and efficient democracy at the start of the reforms. It
appears, however, that the more populous this class becomes the
less it craves that democracy. What it cares for is the simple joys
of life and pleasure-making. While understanding the meaning of
“the rights of consumers,” these people cannot logically link this
notion with “human rights.” Nor do they make a logical link between
their own material status and the realization that it cannot exist
outside of the social system that is wrapped up in public
apathy.

There are also people who were not overtaken by the consumer
boom, who are trying to cope with the new reality, relying mostly
on bare subsistence and floundering desperately in poverty and
alcoholic degeneration. Experts classify them as individuals
“struggling for survival” who have no time to care for politics.
This is rather strange, since history knows many instances where
the marginalized were interested in the political scene.

Faddei Bulgarin, a Russian man of letters, wrote in the Syn
Otechestva magazine 150 years ago: “There are mutually accepted
terms between the Czar and myself. He protects me from external
enemies, from internal villains, from fires and floods, he tells me
to lay cobblestones on the pavement, clean the streets and turn on
street lamps. In return, he expects me to sit quietly. So I do.”
But one thing history teaches us is that such sitting does not last
forever. General history develops in cycles, while Russian history
tends to move forward in leaps. At this point Russia may be
standing on the threshold of such processes. They have latent forms
yet, but it does not mean that the Russian scene is totally free of
nascent developments of some kind. Add to this the obvious setbacks
that the government has had in paving streets with cobblestones,
turning on street lamps and – the most unfortunate part of all – in
protecting the people from internal villains.

In the wake of it, the popularity of a single-party system is
growing and the popularity of elections is declining.

TAKE TO RED SQUARE?

Given this environment, some Russian political experts have bred
amazing ideas about the indicators of democracy in this country.
“Why do you say we don’t have freedom of speech? Look at the
discussion taking place in the mass media. (What discussion, where
and who ever saw it?) Look at revelations in the Internet and at
NGO’s statements,” they tell us reproachfully, giving up the role
of analysts for the role of propagandists. Their arguments,
ostensibly confirming pluralism in the country, bring to mind an
old Soviet-era joke: Everyone in this country has the freedom of
coming to Red Square and shouting out “Reagan is a fool!” These
“experts” either do not know or simply prefer to ignore the truth
that shouting in public in other parts of the world means
influencing decision-making, not just rending the air. In Russia,
there has formed a belief that shouting with no practical effect
attests to democracy. That is why even words uttered by people at
the top have turned into senseless pounding gums. A person may
debate an issue by yakking on the web endlessly, but this yakking
will not affect whatsoever final decisions.

A Russian has always lived with a feeling that says: «I
know much more than others»

Words are losing value. When people have to say something in the
absence of anything to say, all talk transforms into demagogy. At
this point, words come to veil essential developments. They stop
meaning the things said. Words stop entailing deeds, and the deeds
become as shallow and frothy as the words.
As a result, a whole class of redundant people, frustrated over
empty chatter, drift away from reality. Then, when the time comes
for this class to be called upon, it will not believe the calls. It
will not rise to support them. History knows of instances when such
departures from the scene helped to generate an alternative elite
that would later return to the levers of decision-making, for
example, during the reign of Russian czars Alexander I and
Alexander II. Yet history knows of other instances, too, when a
departure from activity brought about a gradual collapse of the
system.

TO FUTURE ADVANTAGE?

But why all this talk about threats to national sovereignty, on
the one hand, and the endless protests that upset our official
optimists, on the other hand (for example, concerning the
“inadmissibility of postponing reforms, growing problems with
infrastructure, stagnation,” etc.)? Perhaps this is just an
objective process of consolidation of what was gained during the
boisterous reforms of the 1990s? Or is it possible that the huge
country – an endless wild wagon train – is dragging to the point
that has already been reached by the vanguard of Russians (for
instance, residents of megalopolises who have already secured their
niches in the new market reality)? Or maybe stagnation of some kind
is really necessary so as not to make our feet sore in the long
march? Would it be better not to jeopardize the affluence of the
booming oil prices by some risky reformations? And is it worthwhile
to subject society to reforms at the present time?

History has hardly any precedents where reforms would be
procured for the future. In an overwhelming majority of cases, they
were necessitated by reality. Or else they would be demanded by
lower walks of life, which suddenly realized their existence had
grown unbearable. So why is it possible to demand now that the
Russian government invalidate history and start spitting against
the wind? And do all phrases like “Look, the country’s swerved from
the right course” mean anything more than a jaundiced desire to vex
the authorities that have built this blessed stability?

Some will explain it by a Misgiving; others will claim the air
is filled with a lack of confidence in the future. Still others
will speak of the feeling of insecurity, that the country has no
firm ground and may fall to pieces if swayed. Let’s be serious.
It’s not normal to accuse others of being the cause of your fears,
or to perceive those fears as someone’s guilt. But why then is
everyone focused on today, reluctant to look at tomorrow? And what
does the future have in store for us?

GOING ONE’S OWN WAY

After several years of meandering along the Western path, and
then wasting time in an attempt to find some way to combine
traditionally Russian and European traits, Russia seems to have
decided to return to life as it was in the Soviet Union – quiet and
familiar. And it’s useless to point at the big shots that
ostensibly goaded the country into this state. The decision to
revert to the Soviet past came from those who showed solidarity
with the government and were prepared to be led there by the hand.
At a certain moment, the people wished to have a government of that
sort. The motive was a craving for tranquility where there is no
personal responsibility and where one can always place
responsibility on the upper echelon. It is much easier to live
along the servile “what-can-we-do-for-you” policy than to invent
something new, prove your worth to others, create or deny
something. Living by the Soviet Union formula and having enough
money ensures the simple joys of life. What more can a man dream
of?

The nation’s retreat into a state of vegetative placidity is
expressed in opinion polls as a “return to conservative values.”
“People got tired of revolutions and mimicking the West,” the
advocates of the new life claim. But is it true? Do Russians really
know what Western values are? And what do they mean by saying
“conservatism?” One may get the impression that after less than two
decades of painful jumbling of Western values misinterpreted by
local  “experts,” after years of rushing side to side in a
complicated economic and political environment, the country failed
to find instantaneous happiness; it became disillusioned and
reverted to the past.

Let us clarify one thing, though: no one ever bothered to
explain or implant any new values. No one ever tried to set
reference points for moving forward. There was only a period of
trivial robber baron capitalism, an outrage of the strong and
powerful, and the helplessness of the weak. The powerful side
stuffed itself with things inaccessible hitherto, be it money,
power, sneakers, or BMW vehicles. But there was little else aside
from it. Most dramatically, there was no understanding of where we
wanted to go or whom we wanted to transform into. Our historic
memory was anchored in the Soviet past. Thus, the best thing Russia
proved able to invent was a coming to terms with itself and
reverting to the past. Youthful days always arouse warm memories,
even if they were passed in a shantytown.

A NEW RUSSIAN PATH

When people start waving banners that declare for the defense of
national sovereignty and the maintenance of territorial integrity,
more often than not they are referring to some preservation
measures against something coming in from abroad, against cultural
or civilizational influences. Their vigilance shot up markedly
after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Undoubtedly, the present tactic of annoying the West by little
pinches does not compare to campaigns against cosmopolitism waged
in the past, while sporadic efforts at spy-hunting resemble petty
pranks compared with the scale they might have acquired had the
political elite, a progeny of the Soviet past, let loose its
deep-rooted instincts.

There are individuals who are scratching their heads in search
of a scientific terminology to explain the phenomenon; they are
attempting to formulate what they call “Russia’s own path.” Their
arsenal of arguments is anything but platitudes. They have been
used and proved workable in other countries, and that is why many
have an illusion that the arsenal will show its worth again after
being mended and revamped. And what if their conviction is
erroneous?
The planners of this road to sovereignty are marking it off with
signposts carrying slogans like “Sovereign Property and Capital,”
which implies, for instance, a subtle “no” to foreign capital,
since it carries alien values. The idea has already had an impact
on legislation, witnessed by attempts to erect administrative
mechanisms for protecting Russian car manufacturers and aircraft
builders, or to single out “strategic industries.” If someone is
tempted to think this will defend Russian capital, he should not
forget that it would remain Russian capital, indeed, but not
private capital. It will definitely turn into a capital for the
bureaucrats, slightly disguised by a formula of private-state
partnership – in its specific Russian interpretation. The system
has clear contours that Marxist theory classics ascribed to the
Asiatic method of production – a marvelous theory, although never
fully shaped.

Fierce criticism of the vices of oligarchic capitalism, however
late it came from the intellectual viewpoint, has finally begun to
take an ideological slant. It stresses the benefits of
comprehensive nationalization. References to regulated prices are
now on the lips of even those who designed liberal economic mirages
of the future in various research centers less than a decade ago.
Now they confess the bankruptcy of their ideas, with eyes cast
down. They look as if they are quoting a Soviet-era philosophic
song: “How young we were in those days, how much we believed in
ourselves….”

Humans are humans, and it is easy to understand them. Russian
capitalism has demonstrated extreme cynicism, social
irresponsibility and corruption, and any person concerned about the
country’s future often slides into despair watching the events as
they transpire. The situation may seem hopeless, and hence the
question: How should people without a Harvard School of Business
background feel if the only thing they saw in their life was the
functioning of the administrative resource, supervised diligently
by men with “ardent hearts, cold minds and [more or less] clean
hands,” as the founder of the Soviet KGB, Felix Dzerzhinsky, would
say. Such a life experience makes the nationalization of any
functional assets left in this constantly robbed country more
useful than anything written by Adam Smith or the Chicago School of
Business. It soon turns out, though, that as finance swells in
someone’s clean hands, they tend to get increasingly dirty. The
ardent hearts get icy, too, and dreams of miraculous riches and
unbridled capabilities agitate the one-time cool thinkers. The
consequences turn out totally different to what was visualized
initially. Circumstances may overpower the best intentions.

The political superstructure of this system was tailored on
“vertical power control” and contained the same dual source of
origin. First, there was frustration over the cynicism, hypocrisy
and inefficiency that virtually all institutions of democracy and
civil society, including the free mass media, had shown on Russian
soil. In other countries, the very same institutions work smoothly
and without ugly deviations. The second factor logically arises
from the first one. Since everything is glaringly dysfunctional on
the lower tier of society, it must have been set into motion from
the upper tiers. This requires an all-embracing control, without
trust in anything or anyone.

Yet, whatever process is attempted, be it from above or below,
it must not be confined only to the aspects of life that the
builders of the new system now focus on. It must spread beyond the
infrastructure and overhaul the manufacturing sector, for example,
or, spark technological breakthroughs. The process must do more
than just reverse the economy’s dependency on oil exports. It
implies more than just national projects with the purpose of
invigorating the social sector. And it certainly means more than
the consolidation of government institutions; such attempts will be
doomed unless they acquire a new content that is moral, ethical and
humanistic in the broadest sense. The same goes for all other
spheres of our life.

This country needs a national humanistic project that is moral
and spiritual in nature much more than it needs a doubling of the
GDP. The great British economic historian, Arnold Toynbee, said
that civilization – Western or Chinese, or any other (and Russia is
not an exception here) – is determined by its secular and sacral
culture every bit as much as its territory, borders, infrastructure
and even government institutions. We must rebuild the integrity of
culture above all other things today. The nation has become too
alienated from culture, and the problem cannot be ignored at the
state level anymore. In terms of the consequences, cultural
alienation is far more ominous than the decaying infrastructures
that we inherited from the Soviet Union. The problem is that few
people acknowledge it.

A NEW HUMANISTIC PROJECT

It is scarcely possible to draw up a complete list of steps that
could comprise the essence of a new humanistic project. It is
obvious, however, that arguments about a pro-Western, Oriental or
some other special pathway for Russia make no sense until a
qualitatively new basis appears for choosing any of the three
pathways. This does not mean, however, the state, its individual
institutions or other forms of ownership. It means the people who
populate its territory, their aggregated culture, the moral footing
of society and the principles of people-to-people and
people-to-government interactions.

First and foremost, the humanistic project demands a revolution,
not just reform, in the field of education. Occasional financial
injections will hardly help; even teachers’ monthly salaries raised
to 10,000 rubles to 15,000 rubles will mean nothing. The social and
material status of the education system must rise to a level where
the government attaches more significance to it than military
defense. Otherwise Russia, while continuing to keep up with the
technological race for some time – in space exploration, ballistic
missiles, or fifth-generation fighter jets – will lose the
civilizational race. The reason is simple: the human products that
our education system is churning out are not competitive in today’s
world.

A government must lead a concrete, and not merely formalistic,
dialog with the nation. This envisions a rebuilding of people’s
trust in the institutions of power and their actions, which must be
transparent. The actions may be not very popular, yet the
authorities must know how to explain them in easily understandable
terms. Take, for instance, changes in the Traffic Regulations;
these should not be amended instantaneously, without preliminary
explanations. Otherwise, it will just lend proof to the idea about
the upper echelons’ disregard toward everyone whose car roofs are
not outfitted with flashing sirens. Also, the government should not
attempt to replace tax and fee discounts by “subsidiary monetary
remuneration” as it did last year – in a manner that a superior
race would choose to communicate with lowly aborigines. Nor should
it tout new tax benefits as some kind of benevolent handout:
“freebies” given to some members of society are not a sign of the
government’s supreme virtues, but rather the redistribution of
public wealth created by other members of society. The state is not
God the Almighty; it is only a distribution agent.

Civilization does not boil down to notions like territory,
borders, infrastructure, or even state institutions. It relies,
above all, on secular and sacral culture. This is true for
absolutely everything – from tax regulations for businesses to the
work of passport offices to the issuance of benefits to enfeebled
babushkas. There can be no reward in igniting the feeling that the
people-to-government dialog resembles instead a dialog between a
conquered population and occupation forces. There must be decency,
accessibility, openness, and a common language that people find
comprehensible. Speak in the format of national logic, commonly
accepted by the government and the people; regulations and laws,
for example, must become universal for everyone regardless of
official status. Today, the absence of this universality erodes the
country much more effectively from the inside than any phantom
external foes or orange-colored enemies.

The Russian establishment keeps speaking about consensus even in
areas where consensus has never existed. Meanwhile, the ruling
elite forgets that consensus is reached in society, not in
political back rooms. Politicians are oblivious of society and only
operate within a specific political field, i.e. opportunistic
interests groups with narrow vision and espousing servile goodness.
But the field is deceptive, and the reality is different from this
deceitfulness. Even if the rank-and-file are endlessly stuffed with
obnoxiously silly talk shows, recipes of culinary fads and
cataclysms taking place “somewhere over there,” it does not mean
that all of the important questions simply vanish. Viceversa; the
piling up of unanswered questions eventually makes people
frustrated that it is impossible to get straight answers anywhere.
Questions hang in the air and make it muggy. As a political
scientist said recently, “the air in Moscow has little oxygen, yet
this is not a reason to stop breathing.” Then some people get
suffocated, while others seek to fling open the windows.

There are few techniques capable of making the Russian man
change. One way is to show him the colorful diversity of the world
and not to restrict his freedom of choice and scope of vision, as
was done for centuries. Being aware of a different mode of life and
different methods of building life, one can learn the art of
comparison. An ability to note and to compare things is the primary
asset of living fully alive. A Russian, be he a slave or a master,
a government official or a worker, has always lived with a feeling
that says: “I know much more than others.” New elements in a
panorama of the world will first confuse his vision – and will
stimulate his curiosity and willingness to know more about “things
over there.” Why kill that curiosity intentionally by lauding the
so-called “third way?” Comparisons and reflections can give birth
to new ideas and solutions.

No doubt, this approach has validity only for people who have
curiosity, yet keep it suppressed. The ones without curiosity can
be offered other solutions. For instance, you can breed in them a
revulsion against filth. This is not a problem since this is a
reflex that can be made automatic in individuals with a perennially
dormant mentality. Punitive measures and good examples can over
time breed a culture of protests against the baser manifestations
of human nature. Mean instincts are found in all ethnic groups, and
there is no nation that is without sin. Yet the countries we refer
to as “civilized” have managed in the past 50-150 years to devise
mechanisms of pressing those manifestations of negative behavior
down to acceptable levels. We witness it in the everyday life of
the European countries where many drivers observe traffic
regulations out of respect for the people around them, or maybe the
fear of video cameras or road police. Or consider Singapore, where
harsh penalties persuaded people to refrain from the habit of
spitting and littering on the streets.

Such measures are usually matched with the principles of
tolerance in society and, as a result, a country forms a habit of
abiding by at least a minimum of written rules.

As for the Russians, the Bolshevik revolution wiped out the
class that carried the principle of tolerance, and subsequent
Soviet bureaucracy would rather indulge in a policy of conformism
and hypocrisy and would not get imbued with respect for itself or
for others. A situation where neither the national character nor
the external environment is conducive to mutual tolerance makes
outbursts of violence imminent. This is what regularly happens, for
example, during brawls involving football fans, skinheads,
commuters on the highways – even between dacha owners and farmers
from nearby villages. Violence permeates Russian society – and not
just in the literal sense (between individuals or between people
and institutions of power). Violence is occurring increasingly more
at the theoretical level where it turns into a tool of solving
problems – be it international disputes or litigious issues between
corporations. This in itself is an ominous phenomenon.

The situation may worsen further in a not-so-distant future
given the weakness of the law enforcement institutions and blatant
omnipotence and impunity of the “power people” – from power
bureaucrats to street criminals. And the aftermath from this
scenario will not be confined to inter-ethnic rampages alone. As
Georgy Shchadrovitsky said during the Soviet years, “Russia is a
strange country, horrifying and amusing at the same time, where
non-existent things spring out of nowhere and get to the highest
imaginable positions.”

However utopian this may sound, there is one more way of
counteracting all those vile instincts, and that is to stimulate
benevolence, which was readily found in Russia in previous
centuries. Since Russians are still famous for this quality,
various power and state institutions must further encourage a
degree of kindness in the people. Why not support and promote
beneficiary activities and philanthropy and why not exempt it from
all taxes? Why not stimulate – from the higher echelons, by setting
personal examples – care for orphan children? Do this in earnest,
not in the spirit of “preventing foreigners from adopting our
children.” Why not promote assistance to the sick and disabled? Why
not make blood donation, for example, a program of action for all
those mushrooming pro-government movements short of ideas but not
money?

WHAT WE MUST SAVE

At the present time, few encouraging things are happening. It
looks like time has stopped and is even lurching backwards. The
re-emergence of phenomena like the Young Guard organization of the
World War II era, events resembling the Soviet-era Socialist
Competition at factories, documentaries about state bosses who
passed away decades ago, and the re-emergence of Soviet lexicon
along with the restoration of “the image of the foe” (it does not
matter who the foe is – Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, the West in
general, or the still extant internal “opportunists”), are all
signs of a struggle against time.
The contemporary Russian philosopher and writer Dmitry Prigov says
in this connection: “Not a single country except Russia is trying
to unite its people on the basis of the past.” This sounds like a
verdict as time will swallow either the actors or the fruits of
their actions, and Russia will again rush into a rejection of its
own past. Russia has seen too many periods when it discarded its
own past: almost every new ruler began his rule by destroying what
his predecessor had done. This is exactly what happened during the
rule of Nicholas I who succeeded to Alexander I, as well as with
the reign of Alexander III who came after Alexander II. It also
followed from the leadership of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and
Yeltsin. It is the same way now. But there is also another problem:
we have run out of the resource of durability, as well as the
necessary stock to be crushed.

In essence, today’s agenda has only one task. It is simple but
has paramount importance over a doubling of the GDP, maintenance of
territorial integrity, nationalization of property, beefing up the
country’s international competitiveness and all other things along
those lines. The whole country, no, all of Russian civilization
that took shape over centuries is really faced with a danger, one
that is more threatening than any of the above-listed dangers,
though.
The ones crying out for sovereignty and territorial integrity are
making a horrendous mistake. They are trying to save the body, and
what we need is salvation of the soul. Let us learn how to be
kinder and more decent.