Although the theme of this blog is about Freedom in the wider sense, the developments in Russia have caused me to focus quite a bit on what I see as the tragic and dangerous state of affairs under the regime of Vladimir Putin.
Lepidus, a regular corespondent on the blog, points me towards a piece by Anatole Kaletsky in today's Times. I like Anatole Kaletsky, who is a sensible and sane writer- and also good company- but I think that his comments rest upon several very Russian misconceptions of what Russia was before Communism and what it has become afterwards.
In order to think about Anatole Kaletsky's argument I think it is necessary to take a small excursion into Russian history.
Although Russia still looks to Kievian Rus as its ancestor state, in fact the political traditions of Moscovy were quite different from the diffuse collection of principalities that proceeded the Tartar conquest. The dramatic expansion of the power of Moscovy rested upon two great victories- the defeat of the Golden Horde and the sacking of Kazan in 1552 and the burning of Novgorod in 1570. These events liquidated any alternative Russian power centre to Moscow and incorporated an multi-national character to the emergent Russia. From an early stage, Russia has had an Imperial character- centralised and multi-national. As a result Russia never developed a sense of ethnic-cultural national identity that was the characteristic of Western Europe. Loyalty was to the autocracy and to orthodoxy, and where a sense of national feeling developed, it was once that focused on all Slavs, rather than Russia specifically. By contrast the fact of the persistence of Ukrainian as a separate language indicates that the Ukrainians were developing a separate sense of national identity (and it is interesting to note that the Ukrainian colours are not the Pan-Slav red-white-blue combination). In other words, even the Slavic nations within Russia were not entirely reconciled to Russia. The non-Slavic nations had different experiences- The Caucasian nations, for example, looked to a history rooted in antiquity that was radically different from that of Russia, and indeed the Russian interlude only dates from the beginning of the 19th century. In other words my response to Anatole Kaletsky is that although he asks for us to look at the West through Russian eyes, in fact part of the problem is that Russia still looks at separate nations that share a history in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union as "the near abroad". Russia's own sense of itself is still rooted in an Imperial mindset.
Further, this mindset is tinted with the knowledge that Russia has never had a significant interval of freedom- the great figures of Russian history: especially Ivan IV "the Terrible" and Peter the Great were all despotic and tyrannical- indeed Ivan IV may even have been insane. Even Catherine the Great, although she cultivated an image of liberal sophistication, ruled with an iron hand. Rulers- Boris Gudanov, Nicolas II or Kerensky for example- that attempted to reform the Empire usually failed So on top of a vague sense of specific national identity, there is also the sense that liberalism can not work in Russia. Routinely Russians say that the country is too large and the Russian mentality is too weak to allow liberal government.
My response to this is that Freedom truly is indivisible.
Ultimately the breakdown of relations between Russia and the West rests upon the breakdown of democratic rule in Russia. The Siloviki who surround Putin, although rooted in the Soviet era KGB, are also the direct heirs of the servants of autocracy too. Their sense of Russia is eeriely similar to that of the 19th century Russian bureaucrats so ably satirised by Gogol. I hold them in contempt because of their failure to address the crimes of Communism indeed their glorification of the bloodiest period in Russian history I find utterly shameful. However, it would be wrong to ignore the continuity of Czarist traditions in the current regime. Unfortunately for the Siloviki, several things have changed. Firstly the failure to establish a system of checks and balances and the rule of law is undermining investment and ultimately is impoverishing Russia. The level of corruption is now at utterly heroic proportions- and the wealth of the country is being squandered by those few who maintain their position by closeness to the regime. As under Czarism, the inability to change corrupt leaders is likely to lead to assassinations and increasing instability.
Some Soviet habits have not changed- especially the brake on dissent, yet the Siloviki, know that they are riding a tiger- and that the slightest economic hiccup will create disorder- thus the need, as they see it, to reimpose Soviet order. Hence the patriotic -imperial- slogans, the increasingly central control, and the break down of democratic values.
As Anatole Kaletsky points out, Putin knows that he is making us into enemies, but he is doing this for internal reasons.
I believe that this is desperately short sighted and that it will cost Russia very dearly. A new cold war is one that Russia can not win- they need investment. Away from the energy sector, the Russian economy is a basket case. Domestically, Russia already shows that "what is Russian is Russian and what is foreign owned is negotiable". They continue to play zero-sum games internationally. The glorification of the Soviet era is sending Russia towards Fascism- and no one is a winner if Yeltsin's Russia is seen in retrospect as the Weimar Republic.