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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Annals of the Neo-Soviet Restoration

Paul Goble reports:

References to some kind of Soviet restoration are becoming ever more frequent in both Moscow and Western capitals, a dangerous trend that threatens to “disorient” elites in both places and lead to decisions that are disconnected with reality, according to a leading Moscow specialist on nationalism in the post-Soviet world.

In an essay posted online December 19th with the significant title, “The Neo-Soviet Myth,” Sergei Markedonov says that both those in Moscow who hope for a return of the Soviet Union as well as those in the West who fear it are deluding themselves in potentially dangerous ways. The reasons the current Russian leadership employs such language, the Moscow analyst says, are not hard to specify. The Putin regime sees the Soviet past as “a powerful legitimating resource” because it hopes to present itself as “the continuer of the policy of ‘a great power’” rather than as the inheritor of the weakness of the 1990s. But the reasons Western elites are using this language are more complicated, if not more justified. First of all, many in the West see the growing income of the Russian Federation as the basis for a restoration of Moscow’s role across the former Soviet space., a view Russian analysts have typically been all too willing to invoke as well. Second, Markedonov says, many in Western capitals apparently believe that the restoration of Russian power over this region in some way could result in greater stability and predictability in international affairs, again a view that many in Moscow express and are only too willing to take from their Western interlocutors. Indeed, on this the 90th anniversary of the formation of the Cheka, many Russian commentators are celebrating Time magazine’s decision to name Vladimir Putin its man of the year because of his role, however authoritarian and undemocratic, in ending “the time of troubles” ushered in by the end of the Soviet Union.

One Moscow article on the American magazine’s decision, in fact, was entitled Stabil’nost’ uber Alles, an elegant and highly symbolic combination of a Russian term with a German one. And third, Markedonov suggests, at least some in the West have concluded that the invocation of a possible Soviet restoration as an all-purpose excuse to explain to domestic audiences their own failures in promoting democratization not only in Eastern Europe but also in the Middle East. But if this rhetoric has its uses to political elites in both Moscow and Western capitals, he continues, it is extremely dangerous because it is being used by people who either do not recognize or will not admit in public that there is no possibility for its realization any time soon.

On the one hand, these political elites forget, the Soviet Union was a state based on an ideology. Despite the essentially esthetic arguments of the original Eurasians, Markedonov points out, “the imperial idea did not win out on the territory of the former USSR.” It died along with the White Movement Wrangel and Denikin by 1922. The way in which the Soviet regime implemented its “proletarian internationalism,” building up “national-territorial” units like the union republics, promoting Soviet-defined national identities, and even contributing to the notion of ethnic property meant that the regime was in Marxist terms, its own grave digger, Markedonov argues. But none of those things meant, he insists, that the USSR was in any way simply an updated version of the Russian Empire that had existed before. However much some may want or others fear, there is absolutely no support for a new supra-national ideology in the post-Soviet states. “Nostalgia for the USSR” is found “only in Russia: Even Belarus uses [such emotions] instrumentally” rather than as an expression of its core values. And on the other hand, Markedonov points out, the idea that a restored Soviet Union could be some “soft form” of the USSR is nonsense. That country “was possible only under the harshest dictatorship with the preservation of a definite level of ethno-administrative freedom for regional dictators and a planned-distribution economy.”

Once the Soviet state under Mikhail Gorbachev loosened up in order to try to get the economy moving in the 1980s, the entire edifice came down around him because “a liberal USSR’ cannot be -- [because] at the very least this would not be the USSR.” At present, Markedonov notes, “there is not a single force in Russia or in the other countries of the CIS prepared to propose to the population a program based on state plans and the dictatorship of a single party.” Such planning does not exist even in Belarus, and “’forced modernization’” does not correspond to the needs of an information society. Indeed, any effort to move in that direction, one possibly fueled by Russia’s income from the sale of oil and gas and a belief that some Western leaders might support it would guarantee not only the isolation of this region but its continued backwardness, something neither Russian nor non-Russian elites are at all interested in seeing. Indeed, even those Russians who talk about restoring the USSR use their VISA cards and travel abroad, Markedonov notes, something that an ideologically based and totalitarian regime would almost certainly not allow them the opportunities to do so that they have today. None of this means, of course, that there are not some Russians who want to restore the Soviet Union, but rather it suggests that any effort by them to do so will fail, a process and an outcome elites in Moscow and the West now employing neo-Soviet rhetoric for their own and very different purposes need to recognize in order to avoid some terrible errors.

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