Materials of an International Seminar
Civil society and social development

Louis BASLE
DIFFERENT RUSSIAS AND MODERN TIMES

1/ Russia or Russias?

We deem it wise to use plural here. Apart from an ancient tradition (Tsar of All Russia, Great, Small and White Russias) plural form precisely symbolises the present day state of the country. No doubt, diversity, uncertainty, social ill-being and national problems are not features typical of the vast Russian Imperium only (Kapuscinski 1994-1999). It should be admitted, however, that in Russia these features are especially salient or even raised to power. We could outline two criteria here, namely geo-economic and ethno-political.

1-1/ Geo-economic Russias

In our analysis we will rely on Eckert & Kolossov's survey (Eckert & Kolossov 1999). If studied from the viewpoint of a geographer, economist, and historian, one could notice great "resilience" of the territory beginning with "minimal Russia […] with the area of about 510,000 sq. km, which equals the area of Spain" to "maximal Russia […] that […] covers the area fifty times as big" (Eckert & Kolossov 1999 p.12). It is this territory that Kapuscinski defines as an Imperium (Kapuscinski 1994-1999). This immense territory is full of contrasts and peculiarities that need not be emphasised. It also does not make sense to elaborate on regional and local differences in salaries and living standards. Following Eckert and Kolossov, we will stick to the             hypothesis of the geographer B. Rodom (probably Russian but no data available), according to whom "from now on there will be three Russias." The first one “comprises areas that are within at least two-hour's drive from international airports, in other words the so-called archipelago of large cities or areas with exporting enterprises…, open to the rest of the world… Their citizens naturally consider themselves Europeans.” The second Russia is “rural, surviving on its own. It is the country of small and medium towns suffering from unemployment and delayed salaries. It is a world without prospects, with limited possibilities and specific mentality." The third Russia is a country of "deep periphery, which begins two kilometers away from the last asphalt road and is almost completely cut off from any modern commodity… this marginal Russia occupies the area of almost 10 mln sq. km…" (Eckert & Kolossov 1999, p.39-40). There is nothing new here, though. Such is Russia's geographic and historical constant. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the context of growing globalisation of economy, appearance and development of new means of communications and information, this constant takes on a different nature.

1-2/ Revamp of economic oligarchy and its aftermath

 To prove the above it should be noted that collapse of the command and administrative economy caused the revamp of economic oligarchy represented "mostly by the former nomenclature" who transformed their "former bureaucratic capital … into new economic capital, or, to be more precise, into cash, with the speed of the transformation equalling the tempo of the state bureaucracy liquidation" (Sgard 1977, p.101). Such a situation does not contribute to the birth of economic initiatives and growth of productivity in agriculture, industry, public service, and, particularly, development of small and medium enterprises. Indeed, since "primitive capital accumulation" is "primarily money-based", "productive expedience" is not on the agenda" (Sgard 1977, p.102). Hence, a conclusion to be drawn is that there is a gap between the economic oligarchy and the rest of the population that suffers from such a situation, managing to survive thanks to legendary Russian savoir-faire. It looks like in this country people are barred from displaying economic initiative and setting up small enterprises, particularly in agriculture (Khairoulline 2000). As far as economic oligarchy is concerned, Vladimir Shlapentokh (Shlapentokh 1998, p.9-34) distinguishes four layers in it. Firstly, there is oligarchy within oligarchy, represented by rich rent seekers who have enough money "to buy facilities on all levels of government from the president down to local politicians, as well as those of the criminal organisations." The facilities include various exemptions and privileges, such as monopoly in this or that segment of the market, grants, tax exemptions, reduced tariffs, licensing, export and import quotas, etc. These more or less covert methods are well known; they have long been part of socialist folklore about the so-called coloured markets. Secondly, there is organised crime that controls a considerable part of economy selling the so-called "roof" or protection and occupies a significant place in political authorities. Thirdly, there are administrative workers that offer and "sell" rents and facilities. Those included in the third layer make up suppliers of the rent seekers and often customers and suppliers of the organised crime. And, finally, there are liberals, who, according to public opinion polls, have full support of the population. Indeed, opinion polls make it clear that most people do not wish the return of communism with its denial of the fundamental freedoms. Shlapentokh's point of view, however, runs counter to that of Maria Mendras's in that the latter believes that "construction of democracy is not a priority for the Russians (Mendras 1999). The recent changes in the political sphere confirm the suggestion as well as unpopularity of liberal statesmen, like Chubais and the ilk. Truly, judging by his methods he resembles "one of those tyrannical and rude reformers of Russian history", which explains the fact that "he is being hated everywhere" (Eckert & Kolossov 1999, p.67). Shlapentokh himself admits that "liberals make up the most delicate and fragile layer of all and that democratic institutions are very much frail and brittle, especially those in the regions" (Shlapentokh, p.18). The author notes that liberals found themselves under cross-fire of their enemies (Shlapentokh, p.19), which was very well in line with Russian traditions. It is but natural that the four layers are separated by rather transparent boundaries. There can be conflicts between the layers, as well as inside the layers with the outcome of the conflicts often being vague and hard to forecast. The above clearly demonstrates close relations between the economic and political spheres.

 1-3/ Ethno-political issue

 Here we face another Russian puzzle. Indeed, for a person living in West Europe, a Frenchmen in particular, Russias are as hard to perceive as, for instance, the Balkans multiplied by many times. Even an intelligent Frenchman can hardly remember the names and number of peoples living in the Russian Federation. Moreover, the difference made between citizenship and nationality cannot but revolt our Jacobinic feelings, or, to put it more plainly, our nationalism proclaiming Charles de Gaulle's redundancy, who said, "France is France!". But there is more to it. Try and explain it to the citizens of Endre-Loir or Puit de Dom that there is a slight difference between Russian (pertaining to ethnicity) and Russian (pertaining to the corresponding adjective in Russia’s official name: the Russian Federation) (Eckert & Kolossov 1999, p.12-13) and they will wonder if you are sane. Such a paradox only aggravated first with the establishment and later with the collapse of the USSR. Russia is a country that has never existed as a nation-state, but has always been an Empire. It is a country, whose historic boundaries are hard to specify irrespective of the criterion. It is a country where for more than 70 years any proper name has been erased in order to shape a community without a geographical name, which, according to Alexander Solzhenitsin, affected Russian nationalism. It is a country where to be a Russian is not the same as to be a citizen of the Russian Federation (because a great many Russians and Russian-speaking people make up relatively large national minorities in the CIS countries), but it can very well be a symbol of a national minority that, to a certain extent, can realize its miserable condition inside the Federation. But there is still more to it. The expansion of the Imperium and establishment of the USSR brought about lots of "lost souls" or people who could not determine to which ethno-political community they belonged. Such was a man who was born in Baku "in a mixed Azerbaijani-Armenian family and brought up in a Russian-speaking community". What would his nationality be in this case? According to the scientists, "in this mishmash he continues to consider himself a Soviet citizen, a citizen of a lost motherland" (Eckert & Kolossov 1999, p.81). Here is another example about a man from Cheliabinsk. "His grandfather was Russian and grandmother was Georgian. Their son, the man's father, chose to be Georgian. Later he married a Tartar woman. Their son, the man we are talking about, liked his mother very much and considered himself a Tartar. Later he married an Uzbek woman. They had a baby-boy. So, what is his son's nationality?" (Kapuscinski 1994-1999, p.142). No comments! When your clear future disappears, even if it was just a slogan, you feel nothing but frustration and vacancy. It is proved by the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Chechnya. It takes hard and painful work of mind to build the future, like it is the case with France that has not yet beaten the demons of the Vichy and Algerian war.

2/ Soviet past and Russian present

Russia's past, particularly its recent Soviet times, was far from favourable for the development of civil society, at least from the standpoint of West European, and especially Anglo-Saxon, political philosophy. One of the speakers was right saying that of the three models of society, contractual, family, and dictatorial, Russian, and later Soviet history always feared the first one, choosing either the second or the third model. Thus, the long Soviet period can be described as a top-down society modernization phase with its reliance on violence and the idea of Tsar implemented in the party and its leadership. It was not fortuitous that Lenin considered himself successor to Peter the Great as regards state reforms. However, what is more important is the fact that the Soviet modernisation initiative destroyed the traditional rural commune and did not replace it with a movement towards any other national form of modern market farm management, which could have given way to the middle class of agricultural workers. Soviet modernisation created the working class and intelligentsia but did away with the bourgeoisie, be it petty, middle or upper class, with the middle class that independent of political power, with the social basis of civil society.

Pursuant to this logic, civil society does not develop more or less spontaneously following the development of modern forms of economy, social stratification, as well as forms of existence of such phenomena as contradiction and conflict in the political and institutional spheres. It is created and shaped by the Tsar by means of shock therapy. The role of people is emphasized ostentatiously with only one thing prevailing: to hold them in leash. Indeed, had there not been vigilant vertical control on the part of the Tsar and his government, "great horizontality of the people" (using a successful metaphor of a Russian participant of the seminar) would have been very quickly drowned in mismanagement and indiscipline, while local leaders, who by that time would have become powerful barons, would have turned the Imperium into a number of feudal fiefs. Hierarchic lines of control should descend from the top of the centralised ruling structure, along which directives to the local authorities would be transferred. Reports on the work done as well as results of the work should return along the same lines to the top. It is not fortuitous that such an abstract French word as "etat" or English "state" is translated into a concrete Russian term, whose inner form has a clear connection with a boss (Tsar). Thus, the term is unconsciously interpreted as an efflation, manifestation of the boss, Tsar, a sort of a Father-Dictator symbiosis (Mendras, 1999).

From the early 30s till the early 80s, the USSR was a vast multinational and multiethnic territory, unified and controlled by ubiquitous centralized power sending directives out to the periphery and receiving the incoming flow of information from the periphery with government and public organisations working as a translator of decisions taken by the party. However, horizontal networks grew in the shadow of this vertical that gave birth to big, medium and small bosses. These horizontal networks compensated for the rigidity and hierarchic insulation of the system but at the same time they undermined its buttress. When the centre grew weaker, the Tsar got decrepit, when it became more and more difficult to control the system, and the number of directive development and execution echelons multiplied, a double phenomenon appeared: paralysis of the decision making system and growth of autonomous zones in all spheres of activity (politics, economy, art, and even the mass media). Official and non-official elements and different hierarchic levels were fantastically intermingled in these zones. In this context, we can better understand what N. Chernenko meant when he said in 1982, "Are we not too democratic and will it not lead to decrease in discipline?" (Ferro 1999, p.114). This excessive democracy could be interpreted as follows: the system, that no longer functioned along the principle of opposition (dominating/being dominated, vertical/horizontal) but retained the general logic of a pyramid, increases the number of in-between echelons, snags, interdependent liaisons, protectionism and populism by means of hierarchic changes and disorder.

These networks, though adjusted and transformed, remained even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This suggests that Russias are not chaos-stricken, though it runs counter to the general opinion. People work here, state services and bodies operate here, and security in public places is sometimes ensured even better than in West Europe or North America. However, it goes along the path described by Maria Mendras, who writes that “money and political rivalry did not restructure the new power pyramid, but rather created new landmarks which prompted the establishment of dependence relations around them. Populism is more evident than ever… The solution to people’s problems … depends on almost unlimited power of local bosses and their networks. Thus, Russians care not about legitimacy or honesty of their authorities, but rather whether they have means to solve people’s problems, in whole or in part, which to many is a matter of life and death.” (Mendras 1999, p.42).

The Russians, who got used to living in the state of “stable instability”, most of all fear grand-scale reforms that could make their future absolutely vague. This might explain the fact that they have never shared western love of Gorbatchev, the so-called “gorbymania”. Maria Mendras says that “when your living conditions are bad, you tend to think that any change will only do more harm… Uncertainty and malleability, rather than clear-cut rules and duties, make you feel more comfortable… Moreover, most Russians, not being proprietors, never needed law as a tool guaranteeing their status and protecting their property.” (Mendras 1999, p.43). In this context, the great principles of individualistic and pluralistic democracy and civil society, freely signifying human aspirations and rights as well as man’s harmonious development, these great principles sound as small talk.  

3/ Present day hardships and nostalgia for the future

Is it possible to speak of modern times in Russia? If modern times mean advances in science and technology, more or less rational economy, individualisation and loosening of intracommunal relations, religious pluralism, tolerance or even indifference towards it, mass communication and information technologies development, then Russia is definitely a modern country, except some rural parts, with its modernity shaped during the 70 years of communism. Is Russia falling behind? If the answer is positive, then a new question arises - behind whom? This is an out-of-the-way question, but nevertheless, it does make sense. Processes of historic development are peculiar and somewhat self-contained in nature. In this sense, there can be neither lagging nor lead. In the course of global evolution we witnessed some off-the-wall historic processes. At the same time the evolution creates cultural and geopolitical spheres that replicate models of the present condition of the world. In this case ideas and ideological categories start to circulate, whose aim is to give moral and mobilising prescriptions through the perspective of an ideal state. These ideas could be thoroughly analysed, but more often they are disseminated and accepted unanimously, at least on the face of it, thanks to their semantic vagueness. In the current situation, is there a single soul who would dare raise further questions about human development, democracy, and civil society? The sudden collapse of communism discredited the categories of socialism, communism, and revolution. But at the same time, it gave ground to those who consider that democracy and western market can be installed and assembled in Russia with the help of specialists and the owner's manuals. All you have to do to make it commercially attractive is to add human rights, book records, business management … and there you are. This western naïveté was confronted and repelled by history that resists human desires and projects, by social forms created and matured in the course of sophisticated historic processes. Such resistance to western modernisation can be best understood by analysing it.  The analysis should be "ideal-typical" rather than empirical. The Anglo-Saxon and North American model will serve as a paradigm. On the other hand, according to Max Weber, this ideal model although not applicable in reality has both a symbolic and practical meaning. Western modernism can be interpreted as the beginning of an era of liberal individualism. In this context, the idea of civil society will mean autonomy of one's private life and personal choice with no connection to the collective whatsoever, on the one hand, and guarantee of the state’s non-interference in the private life, having no power over it. The state serves people and is controlled by them: the majority and opposition alternating each other and the division of powers are an important means protecting from the kind of interference. Priority is given to contractual rather than communal relations, even if everybody is granted an opportunity to freely practice any religion on the condition that his religious organisation sticks to the norms of tolerance and refusal from any interference into the state affairs. This modernisation has its minuses: "disappointment in the rest of the world" leaves a person tête-à-tête with a necessity to make a fundamental choice that cannot be imposed from the outside. Contractual relations and individualism isolate a person and force him to perceive all that is happening around him as problems that want solving and that could be solved by certain means and owing to the efficiency of the organization. A person can snick between the market and bureaucracy (to say nothing of the large mass media and communication) stealing a ride, pretending an egoist or even singing placebo, shifting and swindling. At the same time aspiration for higher results can contain dangerous germs of exclusiveness. As a result, society is atomised into self-contained subsystems, such as law, economy, religion, science, education, private life, etc. (Luhmann). Such society has no nucleus as it lost all outer guarantors, the supreme all-seeing boss, who could devolve omniscience to the elite. Such society lost its sense of tomorrow for the sake of everlasting today, which is prosaic and sometimes even gloomy. Russia chose its own way, it is trying to modernise itself in its own fashion, it feels disappointment in the rest of the world and creates its own world where the law is fighting its way. So may be right were those, who defined socialism as the longest transition from capitalism to capitalism?

Works cited

Eckert Denis & Kolossov Vladimir [1999], La Russie, Paris, Flammarion "Dominos"
Ferro Marc [1985], « Y a-t-il trop “trop de démocratie” en URSS ?  repris dans Ferro Marc [1999],
Ferro Marc (présenté par) [1999], Nazisme et communisme – Deux régimes dans le siècle, Paris, Hachette
Kapuscinski Ryszard, [1994-1999], Imperium, Paris, Plon, Réédition 10/18  
Khaïroulline [2000], « Autour de Moscou, les agriculteurs ne sèment plus », Novyé Izvestia, repris dans Courrier International N° 497 (11-17 mai 2000)
Luhmann Niklas [1999], Politique et complexité, Paris, Editions du Cerf
Mendras Marie [1999], « La préférence pour le flou. Pourquoi la construction d’un régime démocratique n’est pas la priorité des Russes » Le débat n°107, novembre-décembre
Sgard Jérôme [1997], Europe de l’Est – la transition économique, Paris, Flammarion "Dominos" 
Shlapentokh Vladimir [1998], « Four Russias », La Revue Tocqueville, Vol. XIX N°1