Nov 13th 2008
When revanchism and financial crises meet
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FOUR comforting bits of conventional wisdom are as follows: 1) Russia has no ideology; 2) if the system there features distinctive political ideas at all, they are merely the same as western ones, but tempered by pragmatism; 3) the financial crisis will accelerate normalisation, rather than entrenching eccentricities; 4) any odd-sounding notions such as “sovereign democracy” are rhetorical flourishes for domestic consumption only.
Certainly some facts support this. Marxism-Leninism was a serious affair, with its roots in a recognisable branch (or dead-end) of 19th-century German philosophy. You could take academic exams in dialectical materialism. (Remember the laws of “negation”, “transformation” and “opposites”?) Marxism in its more modern form influenced, for better or worse, western academic thought in everything from literary criticism to sociology.
The thought patterns (to describe them as neutrally as possible) swirling round the upper reaches of power in Russia are a pale shadow of that. Strands of Soviet and Tsarist nostalgia, coupled with an affection for the corporate state that Mussolini would have recognised, make a confusing and confused mixture.
One might speak of dogmas and historical paradigms, but not a formal ideology. Moreover, some Kremlin spin doctors insist that no real difference exists between Russia and the West, other than the dislocating effects of historical interruptions. And the urgent questions now are practical, not theoretical. The fetid pools of Russian exceptionalism offer few clues about how high the central bank should raise interest rates to defend the rouble.
For a counter-argument to this comforting picture, consider the arguments of Viktor Yasmann, a veteran analyst at the American government-financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Mr Yasmann’s central exhibit is a remarkable best-selling book called “The Russian Doctrine” (Russkaya doktrina).
Published in 2007 by the pseudonymous Mikhail Kalashnikov and a group of 50-odd people drawn from the security services, think-tanks, the media and the Russian Orthodox Church, this 800-page tome is in effect a revanchist manifesto.
It outlines how Russia can regain predominance in the Eurasian landmass, drawing on both imperial Russian and Soviet-era traditions. The existing political system is dismissed as convenient camouflage, behind which a new order is taking shape, featuring, among other things, an “aristocracy” of ex-KGB people. Ideas such international law, the separation of powers and human rights get similarly short shrift.
It makes pretty horrible reading. But Mr Yasmann contends that these ideas are affecting mainstream Russian politics. He says the doctrine has “already become the agenda of the Putin-Medvedev leadership” and that it may also prove appealing to corrupt authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the ex-Soviet world.
But the popularity of the book, the credentials of its authors, and the presence of some of its themes in speeches by Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin do not of themselves prove Mr Yasmann’s case. So far, the “doctrine” does not seem to be producing the desired (and promised) national resurgence. Progress on infrastructure, public services and demography—to take just three indicators—has been dismal. Secondly, corruption and chauvinism are incompatible except in an era of easy money. That seems to have come to an end.
That is not to say that the “doctrine” will be dumped. The economic crisis is more likely to make it evolve—and not necessarily into something more palatable. As Western policymakers grapple with this, they may note that their task is complicated by neglect of Russia-watching capabilities in officialdom. For years, hawkishness towards Russia (or indeed any knowledge of it at all) was a near career-breaker in many countries’ government service. It is lucky that people like Mr Yasmann stayed on their watch.
Thursday, November 13, 2008