Why Russia is hopeless

Edmund Burke, whose hatred of freedom and absence of independent ideas inspired American conservatism

Some 20 years ago I was splashing about buckets of cold water to douse the universal enthusiasm about glasnost, perestroika and the ‘collapse of communism’.

There’s no tradition of civilised society in Russia, I was writing, and whatever little there used to be has been crushed during the 70-odd years of Bolshevism. Hence the belief that, having shed the shackles of communism, Russia will turn into a Western or even quasi-Western society is, to be charitable, naïve.

There was no viable group to replace the Communist Party in government. Or rather there was one: the KGB. That’s why, rather than hailing what a particularly brainless neocon described as the end of history, I shuddered to think what those people would come up with next.

Now we know: all those wonderful things so beloved of useful idiots amounted to a transfer of power from the Party to the organic fusion of the KGB and organised crime.

Proof was quickly provided, if any was needed, that a market economy not buttressed by a legal tradition of long standing is a synonym for gangsterism – and an attempt at democracy for which there’s neither taste nor historical prerequisites is bound to result in some sort of fascisoid regime.

I can’t claim clairvoyance, much as I’d like to. What I can claim is some knowledge of political history, specifically of revolts resulting in drastic changes to societies.

Different as they might have been, they all have something in common, some sine qua non of revolutionary makeover.

All modern revolutions, whether self-described as bourgeois, peasant or proletarian, were perpetrated by middleclass intelligentsia cohering on the basis of a plausible idea. In revolutions too, the word came first.

Actually, ‘intelligentsia’ is too broad a term, implying a whole class of people. In reality, revolutions are made by a small, vigorous and unscrupulous core within intelligentsia.

In addition to detesting the existing order, such activists always have a clear idea of where they wish to take the country, and they always brandish some easily digestible slogans for public consumption.

Sometimes the idea coincides with the slogans, and sometimes – perhaps usually – it doesn’t. Not to embark on a long foray across many centuries and borders, let’s just look at the two Russian revolutions in 1917.

The February one deposed the tsar whose rule was widely seen as untenable. The active group in the event was formed by left-of-centre liberals, who thought Russia could prosper as a copycat Western-style democracy, complete with all the liberties implicit therein.

Like all revolutionaries, the members of the Provisional Government wanted to destroy something, in that case Russia’s absolutism. Unlike some revolutionaries, they also wanted to create something: a Russia shedding her Golden Horde heritage in favour of Western democracy.

Yet eight months later the Provisional Government was ousted by another, Bolshevik, revolution.

The Bolsheviks, led by a syphilitic ghoul, had no constructive purpose whatsoever. They were driven by zoological hatred of everyone who wasn’t a Bolshevik.

Their hatred was truly classless: they murdered with equal relish aristocrats, officers, priests, engineers, scientists, academics, workers and peasants.

They didn’t really seek anything constructive. All they wanted was absolute power enabling them to spread Lenin’s syphilis all over Europe and eventually the whole world.

The divergence between their desiderata and their slogans was as wide as it could be, for the simple reason that the desiderata owed much to Russia’s Asian, which is to say Mongol, political heritage, while the mendacious slogans came from the European Enlightenment.

By the time I grew up, in the ‘60s, people widely, and the intelligentsia universally, detested communism. The powers that be, on the other hand, having gorged on the blood of 60 million victims, were suffering from reflux: the general slackening of will.

They had lost the taste for mass murder, and inevitably a dissident movement appeared. I was a small part of it, and I remember the all-abiding hatred we all felt for the communists.

But what, other than the death of communism, did we actually want? Whenever that question was asked, a fog descended.

We’d mouth general platitudes along the lines of democracy, liberty and all things Western. Yet we knew next to nothing about the West and understood even less. Even though I was bilingual and read mostly Anglophone books, I was no better than others.

That became instantly obvious whenever we were asked any question beginning with “And specifically…” We couldn’t offer any specifics that wouldn’t be laughed out of a freshman seminar on political science at any Western university.

Predictably, when the sclerotic Soviet Union could no longer survive, it wasn’t my fellow dissidents (I myself left Russia in 1973, half a step ahead of an arrest squad) who took over, but the people they either hated (KGB) or despised (gangsters).

Looking at the situation today, one can detect obvious parallels. The Russian intelligentsia almost universally detests Putin’s kleptofascist regime. That’s good, because it’s indeed detestable.

Those with the gift of the gab write about the Putinistas knowledgeably, convincingly, at times brilliantly. But what sort of alternative do they see in their mind’s eye?

Generally speaking, their frame of reference is yet again negative: whatever Putin likes, they hate and vice versa.

If Putin manipulates religion for his purposes, they’re militant atheists. If Putin is against homomarriage, they’re for it. If Putin is anti-EU, they think it’s the greatest achievement in political history. If Putin were to insist that the sky is blue, they’d argue it’s polka dot.

All that is good knockabout stuff, but specifically, ladies and gentlemen? What kind of Russia would you like to see?

A Western one, comes a reply as thunderous as ours used to be back in the 60s. Yet their ignorance of the West is as staggering as ours was, if less excusable. After all, unlike us they can travel in the West and have access to any information they want.

When I read Russian opposition publications, I’m as impressed by their deep insights into Russia as I’m appalled by their wilful ignorance of the West, married to the typical effrontery of ignoramuses who aren’t even aware how little they know.

As an example, here’s my translation of a recent piece by the popular blogger Mikhail Pozharsky. As far as I can glean from his sketchy bio, he started political life as a Nazi who wanted, among other things, to kill all homosexuals. He then travelled all the way to libertarianism, with an interim stopover at liberalism.

Here he offers his take on conservatism, and I’m publishing this piece in its entirety only because it’s typical of the level of political thought within the opposition intelligentsia.

“The lupine stupidity of conservatism

“Wolves are considered dangerous predators, but they have an Achilles heel: they fear everything new and unknown. That determines how they’re hunted: little red flags are hung around the forest, and, because wolves are scared of approaching them, they run where the hunters await. One wonders why some people and whole nations like to emulate such stupid beasts. However, there is an explanation.

“For wolves are a perfect symbol of political conservatives. What in fact is the conservative agenda? Do you see something new, unknown? Run away, go into a stupor – as long as you don’t get anywhere near! Conservatism is a political ideology without an ideology as such. It is wholly replaced with kneejerk neophobia, an irrational urge to maintain the status quo.

“A conservative’s thought is never independent – he runs wherever he’s driven by representatives of other political forces, mainly socialists (it’s not for nothing that those little red flags are red). Conservatives are driven by the principle ‘I’ll cut off my nose to spite lefties’. Thus they keep running inside the perimeter hung with flags, thereby popularising the left agenda.

“Yet there’s no fundamental difference between conservatives and lefties. The left seek absolute power in order to raze the old society and build a new one in accordance with their utopian fantasies. Conservatives also seek absolute power, but to the opposite end: protecting everything old from natural erosion. That’s why repentant socialists often become conservatives, and vice versa. But they seldom join the ranks of defenders of freedom. They are all enemies of freedom.

“A conservative defending freedom is as rare as a socialist doing so. The USA was initially built on liberal principles. That’s why an American conservative may support free enterprise. However, the same American conservative will be against freedom in other areas – he’ll be in favour of protectionism and a ban on same-sex marriage. Conservative is incapable of pondering and developing the ideas put forth by the Founding Fathers. A conservative is a kneejerk ‘want everything as it was’.

“That’s why supporters of freedom, libertarians, may have conservative views in the area of morality or religion. But they can’t be political conservatives. Political conservatism is as incompatible with liberty as socialism is.”

As one of those lupine conservatives who detest liberty, I don’t think any commentary is necessary. One seldom sees so much ignorant bilge put forth with so much arrogance.

The only true statement in the piece is that conservatism isn’t an ideology, but the poor chap isn’t even aware of the negative connotations of the word ‘ideology’.

Now political taxonomy is a tricky business, and ‘conservative’ means different things to different people. In Russia as often as not it stands for ‘Stalinist’ and, when used pejoratively in that sense, it’s justified.

But Pozharsky is talking specifically about American conservatives, who are supposed to be enemies of freedom and have no ideas of their own, other than opposing same-sex marriage and free trade.

It’s true that conservatives neither want to murder all homosexuals, as Pozharsky did when he was a Nazi, nor to see them marrying, as he wants now he’s a libertarian. Yet he allows libertarians to have conservative views on morality and religion, which views are incompatible with the championship of homomarriage.

But never mind the intellectual muddle, feel the ignorance. Pozharsky – and take my word for it, he’s typical – not only knows nothing about conservatism, but he doesn’t even know what the word means.

Talking specifically about American conservatism, he hasn’t read a single word written by Russell Kirk, James Burnham, Frank Mayer, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Erik Kuehnelt-Leddihn (Austrian American) and dozens of others I could mention.

Nor is he familiar with the history of conservative thought, signposted – among hundreds of others – by Aristotle, Burke, Goethe, Chateaubriand, de Maistre, Tocqueville or, if he wants to talk about American Founders, Ames, Randolph and Calhoun.

So what will happen to Russia when Putin finally goes, as go he must at some time? Who’ll take over? Pozharsky, of the cutlet fame? His fellow liberal-libertarian admirers of the West about which they know the square root of sod-all?

I dare say it’s more likely, nay guaranteed, that they’ll be ousted, possibly massacred, by heirs to Putin and therefore the Golden Horde tradition of Russian politics – this time with a huge thieving dimension (not that corruption has ever been dormant there).

My advice to Russian intelligentsia would be to stop looking to the West for answers. They should have done so many centuries ago, when the West was in ascendancy. Yet over the past couple of centuries the West has been busily destroying what took almost two millennia to create – what conservatives cherish.

Whatever good is still extant in the West can’t be just run through a copier – the run-out will be garbled. By all means, they should study the Western experience critically, adapting what could be useful, discarding the rest.

But the first order of the day should be for them to generate indigenous ideas based on concrete Russian realities, not on Western ones they don’t understand in sufficient depth.

And they ought to refrain from sweeping statements about the West that upset me so. These are never amusing, grown-up or clever.

4 thoughts on “Why Russia is hopeless”

  1. Sasha, I admire your wisdom, insight and your style, and I read you as an email subscriber quite regularly (practically daily – and never comment). This time I just wanted to say that the finale does contradict the rest: Russia MUST copy a successful society (just like it happened throughout the history of our civilization), as much as they can, with love and zeal before deciding to add that heavy-handed “Russian touch” (hopefully, they one day they won’t do it). G-d forbid they would think they got some NEW “ideas” – again. And I hoped you would address that “lupine Achilles heel”, an entirely tone-deaf mixed metaphor (as if the Pozharsky cutlet itself wasn’t bad enough, he had to add some stinky heel to it. The whole wolf paragraph is a stack of hooey).
    Merry Christmas to Penelope and you from us!

  2. Russia. The true and basic nature of the Russian and Russian society is a “love” of authoritarianism such as during the time of Ivan, Peter, etc. They like to have the strong hand guiding them.? This is often the perception in the West. As to how true I cannot say if the Russian is this way. And what alternative to the current system in Russian does Alexander see as fit?

    1. Whether or not the Russians like the strong hand guiding them, that’s all they’ve ever known. My point is that it’s pointless for Russia to look to the West for models to follow. She’d be better off trying to emulate reasonably successful countries that are a lot more like her, such as, say, Singapore or South Korea. Nor does one detect any understanding on the Russians’ part of what it is that makes the West Western. Generalities about freedom and democracy is all one hears, which is good in theory but unworkable in practice. Similarly, in theory it would be wonderful to win a few million quid in the lottery, but one can’t peg one’s economic future to such an eventuality.

  3. 100,000 people in the “West” (mostly) have signed this letter, (https address pasted below) praising Putin for his leadership and efforts in the Middle East!!
    Seasons Greetings Alexander. If I don’t get time to read your wonderful blog at work, then I press print and often have a hearty laugh into dreamland…or get fired up to read another few chapters of a book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.