Children of the Revolution

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The communist uprising of 1917 was neither the first nor the last time that the country faced a chance to embrace freedom, yet on each occasion the opportunity has been lost. Are there any grounds to expect genuine change in the future or is the Russian psyche somehow inherently averse to democracy as we know it?

Richard Dawson, Regional Director, Rathbones

“ Russians have always loved choosing strong leaders to protect them from outside threats, but these leaders have often exhibited all the characteristics of invaders. The Russian people keep falling into this abusive power relationship.”

— Elena Shaftan

Elena Shaftan is well placed to comment on the Russian psyche. She grew up in Siberia in the 1970s and 1980s before studying engineering in Latvia and moving to the West. After working for 19 years as an Emerging Europe fund manager, she trained as a psychotherapist and now has a coaching and therapy practice in the UK and the US.

For hundreds of years Russia has been largely defined by what Shaftan politely terms “strong leadership”. From Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great, Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin, a firm grip has frequently dominated. A consistent theme in much of the country’s greatest literature has been that the desire for some sort of master, some form of authority figure, is fundamental to the Russian mentality.

Shaftan says that to understand the Russian people you need to understand their past. “Russia has been raided, occupied, raped, pillaged and abused for over a thousand years — from the Mongol and Tartar invasions, to Napoleon in 1812 and then the First and Second World Wars. Serfdom was only abolished in 1861. It has little history of democracy but a long history of humiliation and economic crisis and that’s why leaders who promise protection and relative prosperity are so popular.”

Like the Romantic poet and playwright Alexander Pushkin, Russians seem to have accepted that the fundamental choice is not between democracy and dictatorship but between chaos and order.

It is not how the architects of the Russian Revolution in 1917 imagined it. They believed the overthrow of the existing order would lift all of the country’s longstanding curses. The Tsarist autocracy would be dismantled. The people would wake from their collective slumber and seize control of their own destiny. The Bolsheviks, socialists and soviets — the workers’ councils that had grown out of the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905 — would sweep aside the bourgeois forces of capitalism and usher in a glorious age of communism built on Vladimir Lenin’s interpretation of the socioeconomic philosophy of Karl Marx.

“Communism,” Marx had written more than 60 years earlier, “is the riddle of history solved.” What unfolded in Russia, however, proved true neither to his vision nor to his ideals. The conditions he had deemed necessary for change — in essence, a highly developed capitalist economy — were barely evident in the first place; revolution was powered not purely by the proletariat but by a bewildering array of agitators and radicals; and, most significantly, almost any trace of the liberty he had espoused was duly annihilated by the resurgence of ruthless authoritarianism.

It was this journey from hope to reality, from the fleeting euphoria of the Revolution to the lingering bleakness of the Stalinist era, that George Orwell parodied in Animal Farm. Old Major, the prize pig credited with orchestrating the rebellion, was part Marx and part Lenin; Napoleon, the Berkshire boar with an increasingly striking resemblance to the community’s former oppressors, represented Stalin. The cruel difference between what the Russian Revolution may have sought to achieve and what it ultimately led to was perfectly encapsulated in the reduction of the Seven Commandments of Animalism to a single amended tenet: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Stalin consolidated power when Lenin died in 1924, two years after the formation of the Soviet Union. He clung to it until his own death in 1953. His reign brought purges, the Gulag, war and famine; it also brought collectivisation, industrialisation, military might and the cult of personality. His empire might well have endured, were it not for the basic fact that those most determined to perpetuate some semblance of it — Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko — kept passing away.

“A miracle happened,” reflected Mikhail Shishkin, one of the nation’s most celebrated modern writers. “One after another, the supreme slaves died. The country-jail simply fell apart.” Finally, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Soviet Union — and with it Russia — had another opportunity to reinvent itself as a fully fledged democracy.

It is now just over a quarter of a century since Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically elected president, clambered on to a tank and urged the citizenship to oppose a coup d’état by communist hardliners.

Yeltsin was the rebel who had once dared to resign from the Politburo — the governing body created by the Bolsheviks in 1917 to provide strong, continuous leadership.

He had spoken out against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, the arch-reformer responsible for the epoch-shaping policies of glasnost and perestroika, arguing that reforms were moving too slowly and doing little to support a dysfunctional economy.

In June 1991 Yeltsin was elected by popular vote to be President of Russia — a new post created out of the growing chaotic struggle between the political structures of the Soviet Union and Russia.

Gorbachev was now under attack from both sides. In August 1991 a coup was launched against him by hardline government members opposed to perestroika but Yeltsin’s courage and defiance won the day.

His fellow Russians did precisely as requested, staging a campaign of civil resistance that saw the attempted takeover abandoned within two days. Gorbachev, remained in government; Yeltsin further cemented his status as an anti-establishment hero.

Only a few months later, beset by economic and ethnic difficulties, the Soviet Union collapsed. Gorbachev resigned.

Shaftan lived through the Gorbachev years. She says: “We may have had little wealth in Siberia in the ’70s and ’80s under communism — we felt equally poor — but there was a great sense of community. We had access to sufficient provisions to live comfortably. The Gorbachev times were horrendously difficult because suddenly we didn’t have even the basic rations; babushkas were begging on every street corner, inflation was running at 1,000%. Whatever money we earned would be devalued by the end of the week. It was so tough to just survive that any promise of freedom and democracy paled in comparison.

“Gorbachev is glamorised in the West. In Russia he is demonised because he brought about the worst crisis Russia had seen in decades. The truth, as ever, is somewhere in the middle — transitions are very painful.”

Yeltsin offered Russia a powerful new father figure and fresh promises. Buoyed by the conceit that the country had finally shaken off its Soviet subservience, he pledged to introduce a capitalist market economy to Russia.

The abruptness and totality of the economic shift, propelled by measures such as price liberalisation and nationwide privatisation, contrived to place most of Russia’s property and wealth in the hands of oligarchs. These opportunist businessmen in the former Soviet republics accumulated vast wealth in the wake of privatisation, usually through informal deals with former government officials. In 1993, with the old legislature steadfast in its sympathy towards bloated domestic industries and state subsidies, Yeltsin turned his tanks on the very same building outside which he had so stirringly addressed his people during the turmoil of 1991. A morale-sapping conflict with separatist Chechnya followed. It was Animal Farm all over again.

As Shishkin has noted: “Russia’s regular historical paradox is that its rulers want one thing but the result is often something entirely different.” Peter the Great sought to strengthen the nation by obtaining military technology from the West but instead imported a wave of Gastarbeiter whose notions of individualism and human dignity would fuel the rise of the anti-Tsarist intelligentsia. Lenin craved a form of Marxism but paved the way for Stalinism. Gorbachev yearned to save communism but buried it. And Yeltsin championed dramatic change but unwittingly laid the foundations for a return to something depressingly familiar.

Boris Dubin, then the director of sociopolitical studies at Levada-Center, Russia’s foremost independent polling organisation, outlined the repercussions in an interview in 2011, three years before his death. “At the end of the 1980s,” he told the Washington Post, “anything to do with the Soviet system was reviled. Then people lost everything in the economic upheaval of 1992 and 1993... There was a bigger gap between the more successful and the less successful, and this was very painful for anyone brought up in Soviet times.”

It would have made abundant sense for the Russians to blame their newfound suffering on the crippling legacy of the Soviet economy. Such a view, though, would not have been in keeping with the Russian “soul”. Instead they blamed the reformers. In effect, they blamed democracy.

As Yeltsin slipped out of favour, his period of office slowly deteriorating into one seen as a source of national humiliation, the long-entrenched bent for “strong leadership” gradually resurfaced. That wish was fulfilled in 2000, when erstwhile KGB officer and prime minister Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency. “In 1991,” lamented Shishkin, “we were able to free ourselves of communist rule. But we were unable to free ourselves from ourselves.”

Many in the West forget the positive impact of Putin in his early years in power, says Shaftan. “He took Russians from the most challenging years they have seen in a generation and brought them to relative prosperity."

Under his leadership, Russia saw the re-emergence of the middle class. Shaftan recalls: "The taxi driver taking you from the airport, who in 1998 complained at being unable to afford the fuel for his car, nine years later was complaining that he could only afford two foreign vacations a year and would really like a third! There was a transformation. Since then life has got tougher again, but there’s still considerably more wealth around than in pre-Putin years.

“Of course, what is often overlooked by ordinary Russians is the impact of the rising oil price that propelled the country economically. However, Putin’s reforms in the first four years were also incredibly positive in making Russian finances more stable.”

Putin brought an end to the indiscriminate theft perpetuated by Yeltsin’s oligarchs. Unfortunately, says Shaftan, he has held on to power for too long, gagging opponents, injecting fear into the system, driving critics into exile. “It is a frightening thought but Putin is still genuinely, insanely popular,” she says.

It is perhaps understandable; most Russians are freer than ever before. The state controls many things — television, for instance, generates an almost Orwellian stream of propaganda, replete with exhortations to beware “national traitors” — but it does not control people’s lives. Russians can make money, consume goods, eat in restaurants, use the internet, play with their smartphones and travel. In most cases, despite the curtailing of some political and civil liberties, they can even say what they want. They live in an emerging economy that has a capitalist system and in which, lest
we forget, the Communist Party is now in opposition.

But do they live in a democracy? Not in the eyes of the wider world. In the 2015 Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Russia ranked 132nd out of 167 nations, sandwiched between the Ivory Coast and Egypt, having been downgraded to the worst-case “authoritarian regime” category in 2010.

A survey in November 2015 by Levada-Center — which the Kremlin last year designated a “foreign agent” — confronted the question head-on, asking Russians: “Is there democracy in Russia today?” The most unequivocal response — “Without a doubt, yes” — was chosen by just 16% of interviewees. Moreover, invited to select their preferred style of democracy, 46% — by far the biggest proportion — voiced their support for “a completely special kind that is appropriate to Russia’s national traditions and unique characteristics”.

Shaftan argues: “Russia has some sort of democracy. It’s just that we here in the West don’t like the face of this democracy.”

Russians, of course, might argue that the corruption and belligerence of which Russia is nowadays routinely accused are traits just as likely to be found in the West. They might even echo the sentiment expressed by 27% of respondents in Levada-Center’s 2015 poll: “I don’t care what kind of government Russia has — the only important thing to me is how well my family and I live.”

But in the end a far better encapsulation of the Russian enigma, of the country’s psyche and “soul”, is surely contained in an oft-quoted verse from the pen of 19th-century poet and statesman Fyodor Tyutchev:

Who would grasp Russia with the mind?
For her no yardstick was created:
Her soul is of a special kind,
By faith alone appreciated.

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