Russia and the West

Bradford P. Wilson

June 1, 1995

"Anarchy tempered by civil war." This phrase has been used to describe the political circumstances of Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries. With some exaggeration, it is a passable description of contemporary Russia.

What were the consequences of Poland’s earlier condition? Empress Catherine the Great, ever vigilant in building the empire, seized upon Poland’s weakness and, with Prussian and Austrian assistance, used her armies to engage in a ruthless dismemberment and destruction of one of Russia’s historic enemies.

What have been the consequences of Russia’s current befuddlement? There have been no invasions of Russian territory by foreign rivals with imperial ambitions. To the contrary, powerful and prosperous countries that were Russia’s mortal enemies a mere four years ago are now providing financial and technological assistance to Moscow in the hopes of drawing Russia into peaceful relations with the West.

And what, in turn, has the Russian government been doing to stabilize and pacify its vast federation? Most visibly, two things: (1) tailoring its public finances to meet the minimum qualifications for loans from the International Monetary Fund, and (2) crushing Chechnya.

Economic necessity clearly is driving the first task and no one can argue with necessity. And so Russia is going along. Let us not ignore the dangers of this policy, however. Consider the resentment among Russian politicians and citizens alike at the spectacle of their country’s budget and financial policies being dictated by a foreign institution controlled by Russia’s chief international competitors. Resentment is not a promising foundation for normal relations. Neither should we ignore the widespread cynicism in Russia (and not only Russia) towards the IMF fix, the conviction that it’s a mere shell game. The joke under the communist regime was, "You pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work." Now the joke is directed against the West: "You pretend to loan us money, and we pretend to spend it responsibly."

As for the leveling of Chechnya, let us contrast the activities of Yeltsin’s army with those of Catherine’s. This year, the Russian army was not trying to exploit the weakness of a once-great European power in order to establish its own hegemony. Instead, it was attempting to hide the weakness of its own government by brutally destroying a part of its own citizenry. Not to enlarge its possessions, but to conserve what is left. Not to assert its dominance over another polity, but to "temper the anarchy" of its own. And in the process, Russia revealed to the world and to its own people the dramatic deterioration of the country’s ultimate brake on anarchy–the Russian military.

While we in the West find comfort in Russia’s military decline, we should also consider the causal relationship between the government’s embarrassment at its military unpreparedness and the astonishing recklessness and savagery of its military campaign in Chechnya. It is exceedingly difficult-and irresponsible to play Pollyanna and the Glad Game with respect to Russia’s place in the so-called "New World Order."

The democratic countries of the world take it as an article of faith that the prospect of a kinder, gentler, more prosperous Russia emerging from under the rubble left by its totalitarian past depends on the success of democratic reform. Thus the question: How democratic is Russia?

Russia’s formal constitution, adopted by referendum in December 1993, meets contemporary criteria of democratic government: periodic elections and genuinely representative institutions, separation of powers, guarantees of personal liberties, and so on. But democratic government requires more than words on parchment. There must be in the people a sense of the legitimacy of the regime and of the meaningfulness of their own participation in public life.

As Russian expert Charles Fairbanks has pointed out, the problem of Russian democracy is not so much bad politics as "The absence of any genuine politics at all." There is a near universal aversion to any kind of associational activity, whether private or public–an understandable reaction to the compulsory character of associational life under communism. Tocqueville’s description of the breakdown of political life is apt: Each individual "is close to [his fellow citizens] but sees them not; … and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country." Without a sense of shared public purpose, the public debate and organizational activity at the heart of democratic politics cannot materialize.

A reasonably accurate description of the new Russia is found in V.S. Naipaul’s account in The Middle Passage of colonial Trinidad upon the introduction of universal suffrage:

Old attitudes persisted: the government was something removed, the local eminence was despised. The new politics were reserved for the enterprising, who had seen their prodigious commercial possibilities. There were no parties, only individuals. Corruption, not unexpected aroused only amusement and even mild approval: Trinidad has always admired the "sharp character" who, like the sixteenth-century picaroon of Spanish literature, survives and triumphs by his wits in a place where it is felt that all eminence is arrived at by crookedness. This was an ugly world, a jungle, where the picaroon hero starved unless he stole; where the weak were humiliated; where the powerful never appeared and were beyond reach; where no one was allowed any dignity and everyone had to impose himself.

In such a world, life in common with others is regarded as a zero-sum game in which one’s triumphs are traceable to the tragedies of others, and vice versa. It would seem that the demise of publicly compelled communist ideology has resulted not in the end of ideology, as some would have it, but instead in its replacement by another uncompelled but just as omnipresent private ideology equally hostile to the cultivation of a robust democratic life.

That is not to say that Russians are by nature a cynical and despairing people. It is a Russian proverb, after all, that teaches, "There is no evil, But that it brings some good." Care must be taken, however, that this apparently optimistic assessment of the human condition not degenerate into an excuse for evil, as it so monstrously did under the tutelage of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. And as we Americans exercise our native-born optimism in seeing in tHe defeat of Soviet Communism evidence of unrelenting progress in human affairs, let us sober ourselves with the home-grown wisdom of our great ancestor Alexander Hamilton: "’Tis the portion of man assigned to him by the eternal allotment of Providence that every good he enjoys, shall be alloyed with ills."

Bradford P. Wilson is Deputy Director for Academic Affairs at the Ashbrook Center and Professor of Political Science at Ashland University. He has just returned from a Fulbright year in Russia.