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The Greatest threat to Freedom?

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.


Anonymous said…
Is that not the point Cicero. The West paid the price Keynes predicted for not helping Weimar Germany, and the West is now paying the price for not doing more in the 1990's and for being too closely associated with Yeltsin so when the backlash came it came against the West as well.

There is also and I hasten to add this is not a defence of Putin, the problem that for a brief period after 2001, Putin did go out of his way to reach out to the West. The response not a lot really. I also think you are a little judgemental on Russia sixteen years after communism to look at the past clearly. Spain it could be said took twenty five after Franco, France after Vichy took nearly sixty.

The next two years will be key. New men in the White House and the Kremlin, maybe a new start.

Nothing is Free said…
I am going to play the "it's the West's fault" tune one more time...

I think the West simply lost its moral authority with Russia. The final straw was the bombing of Yugoslavia. IMO, the West should not have allowed Yeltsin to blatantly steal the 1996 election, and thus let the oligarchs steal the state assets. That's when democracy died - way before Putin. The worst result would have been a one-term Zyuganov presidency, and the economy completely tanking, which it did anyway. The upside would be a near-complete inocculation to communism/socialism. Perhaps, a more or less decent liberal president from 2000 (Yavlinksy? one can always dream).

Furthermore, I wouldn't go digging so far into the past. Russian history prior to 1700 is mythology at best.
Anonymous said…

Further to back up my point an analyst quoted in the Independent, said the trouble was when Russia wanted to be co-operative the West ignored it. When it's troublesome it gets all the attention. Sums it up I'd say.

Anonymous said…
Hey, James, good stuff. I'm gonna add your blog to my google feedreader. In agreement with you on the Russians this time. They are getting out of control and I blame the oil price.

Rumsfeld aka VJ
rk said…
In response to ‘nothing is free’

You blame the west because we ‘allowed’ Yeltsin the steal the election. Ignoring the hindsight angle this is a weak argument simply because of the limited action the west could have taken. What could any western country have done? Anything short of collectively withholding support until there is a free and fair election would have been ignored. While doing so would have caused an economic collapse for which the west would have been easy to blame. The obvious course of action at the time was to see the election as a step in the right direction, get behind Yeltsin and work towards a situation where the next election was better. Making the transition from totalitarianism to democracy does not happen in a single step and there are many countries that are moving in the right direction along this path have flawed elections. Ignoring this reality of life and striving for perfection reminds me of the follies of the neo-Cons.

This ‘west is to blame’ view is an extension of a common argument that blames the west for all manner of problems around the world. The genius of this anti-western mindset is that inaction can be as damning as action so no matter what the problem (from Darfur to third world debt to Russian neo-imperialism) the west can be blamed simply because with all that wealth and power the west *could* have done the right thing. (That perhaps at the time or even now nobody can agree on what the right thing to do was is no hindrance).

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