My latest piece for Intersection Project, ‘Russia’s “special path” is a red herring’, like anything we write, did not come about in a vacuum. Even stories that appear academic in nature can be propelled by a sense of pathos which comes from the heart of lived experience. That was certainly the case with this piece.
Something I was recently discussing with Jim Kovpak, who is raising hell across Eastern Ukraine at this very moment, is how much of everything we write about Russia is infused with countless memories from years gone by.
It might come as a surprise that an article referencing Thomas Khun and historical dialectics would be evocative of anything, at least anything personal.
But in truth, most of the ideas expressed on Russian Avos can be traced back to raucous nights that descended into drunken philosophizing, uninvited diatribes from cabbies and thugs, grey-skied tea time with neighbors and acquaintances, and everyone else that’s come my way since I first found myself dropped off in a rat-infested hole in northeastern Moscow all those years back.
The great American novelist Thomas Wolfe once said it took an entire village to make a single character in one of his books. And while I might not be writing 20th century’s greatest bildungsroman, even a blog about Russia has its inspirations, big and small.
Seemingly sterile sentences can be minefields of memory; pathos-free paragraphs an attempt to distill down a million floating fragments of lived experience into a single drop of coherence. Its funny how the mind words. An article you vaguely remember reading five years ago blends with a conversation you had six months back to create something new. You spend all that time collecting tesserae in your pocket, until one day you go about creating a mosaic. Results, of course, will vary.
The same can be said for my latest, where ideas formed while reading Khun many aeons ago on Fitzwilliam Street in Belfast collied with an op-ed I recently encountered in the Moscow Times by Jim Kovpak’s favorite whipping boy, Pyotr Romanov.
The piece which caught my eye (and my ire) is titled ‘Russia Won’t Be Rushed by the West’. Such writing is really indicative of a tendency I (unfortunately) encountered quite often in Russia — the ability to condescendingly talk about your supposed backwardness; to arrogantly dismiss assumed arrogance; to use relativism as a whip to sanctimoniously lash out against judgment.
It’s why I keep returning to the undercurrent of cognitive dissonance in Russian society. It takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics to argue that a simmering latent inferiority complex is a manifestation of superiority, just as it takes a lot of prevaricating to say that the hallmark of Russia’s civilizational and spiritual superiority is a populace which, for some reason, is incapable of governing itself.
As for Romanov, if one had an interest in understanding how the Russian propaganda machine’s 4D tactic of rebuttal works, he would be a good place to start. Dismissal, distraction, distortion and dismay —most anything he writes is a semantic attempt to draw and quarter a straw man (if not a scarecrow.)
And when it comes to Russia’s “special path”, it seems like the Russian people are destined to take a backseat and let the hand of fate steer them. Or, as Romanov puts it: “Russia will ripen when it ripens,” Russia has just one healer and helper — time.”
This special pleading is fatalistic to the core. It is the essence of Russian Avos (the concept, not my blog!), and it is also a deeply, deeply flawed proposition.
Why? Because there is no guarantee that Russia will ripen at all. Maybe it will rot and disintegrate; maybe it will be the mulch from which a new civilization arises. The world, after all, is littered with the graves of once-great (and not-so-great) civilizations.
The problems is, when viewed in an ad hoc way, history can seem inevitable and progressive. Of the seemingly infinite variables at hand, there is a tendency to weave a web of meaning around those events which did transpire, as if there could have never been another way. And while there does appear to be an overall arc of development spanning the roughly 200,000 years of human existence, nothing should be taken as inevitable.
Although some steps in our historical timeline do necessitate the emergence of others (the industrial age certainly precipitated the information age), other steps were wholly unnecessary social and political constructs which led to needless centuries of stagnation. The bronze age most certainly begot the iron age, for example, but Europe’s 600 year feudal holding pattern was neither necessary or beneficial. That it was did not mean it ever had to be.
Ultimately, Romanov on the surface is right in arguing that a country’s unique history should always be taken into account when analyzing its current political order. That Moscow would take prominence over (and eventually subsume) the proto-democratic Novgorod Republic due to the former’s collaboration with the Mongols (among other factors) should not be overlooked in understanding Russia’s centuries-long dance with despotism.
But it also demonstrates that the absolutist, statist, expansionist and militarist aspects in contemporary Russia were not inevitable facets of Russian reality. If Novgorod proves anything, there was nothing intrinsically despotic about the “Russian soul” at all. That Russia was a victim of circumstances in the past does not mean it should forever be bound to them, though some, for various reasons, would disagree.
I think you should always be wary of system apologists who promise for tomorrow what they (or their patrons) are doing nothing to build today. Often, they are tearing down the very scaffolding which they claim they will climb in due time. It’s just an intellectual shell game to deflect criticsm from a regime which is selling out its own people while claiming their interest is one and the same.
That Venice, which, in the words of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, went from “economic powerhouse to museum”, proves that the elite, in a bid to maintain their privilege, can strangle the polity, sometimes irreparably.
As Romanov himself said, this isn’t rocket science.
Despite my somewhat discursive analysis, you don’t have to dealve into dialectics or history to answer a few simple questions.
Over the past 15 years, has Putin’s administration worked to make a more or less inclusive political system? Have the instances when Moscow cracked down on democratic rights been warranted or necessray in light of any genuine existential threat? Has Putin used his 15 years in power to diversify the economy to the point where it is no longer exposed by the externalities impicit in any resource-cursed economy?
Speaking of rockets, that the same country which helped put the first man in space over half a century ago struggles to put a sensor on a rocket rightside up is telling. One Rocket crash may be a mistake. Fifteen in five years is systemic.
One only need to look at the swift pardoning of Evgeniya Vasilyeva, a former defense official who stole millions from the military, to see the signal being relayed from the government.
(Adding insult to injury, Vasilyeva managed to weaponize the money she stole.)
Is it a coincidence that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, was found to have committed $1.8 billion in financial violations in 2014 alone? Is it a coincidence that rockets are falling from the sky when such a vital agency can bleed nearly $2 billion in one year?
None of this is occurring in isolation. It starts at Putin’s one billion dollar Black Sea palace and ends with the postal worker stealing your mail. This is the house that Putin has build. And now some apologists are telling you to wait for it to come crashing down on your head rather thank pick up a hammer and fix the damned thing. Madness, utter madness.
As that old proverb goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
Rather than plant treets, Putin is busy burning saplings for a patriotic orgy. He is robbing Russia of its future to give people a false sense of greatness today.
And frankly speaking, there is nothing unique about that path at all. But that doesn’t make it any less tragic.