TRANSITIONS ONLINE: Russia's Broken 'Wheel Of Ideologies'
by Peter Rutland
15 June 1997
NEARLY 30 years ago, a young Soviet dissident stunned Western readers by penning an apocalyptic essay predicting the imminent fall of the Soviet Union. Andrei Amalrik wrote Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?
in the spring of 1969, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and shortly after violent clashes on the Soviet-Chinese border. He portrayed the USSR as a decrepit and ideologically bankrupt regime, presiding over an atomized and disillusioned society, and logically doomed to extinction. That now seems to be stating the obvious. But, at the time, the mainstream of Western thinking regarded the Soviet Union as an expansionary, technologically advanced empire at the height of its powers.
Amalrik predicted Soviet leaders would launch a war with China between 1975 and 1980 in a bid to divert attention from domestic stagnation. He was wrong, but the Soviet army was sent into Afghanistan in 1979, and its defeat there was an important factor in triggering the chain of events that led to the Soviet collapse-which did involve, as Amalrik predicted, rebellion in Eastern Europe and the non-Russian republics. He also argued the end of the Soviet Union would be followed by anarchy and the end of the 1,000-year-old Russian state as such. He saw little chance for democracy to take root, since "the ideas of self-government, of equality before the law for all, and of personal freedom-and of the responsibility which goes with these-are almost completely incomprehensible to the Russian people." Amalrik's pessimism was forgotten in the heady days of 1991 and 1992, when democracy was taking root in Russia, but it looks more relevant with each passing year.
The demise of the Soviet Union is now historical fact, and Amalrik's writings are useful not so much because he foresaw the collapse but because he provides some useful starting points in trying to understand what has been happening in Russia since 1991. Trying to map the plurality of political ideas circulating in the Soviet political system, he came up with an interesting "wheel of ideologies." The wheel has two axes. The vertical dimension goes from liberal to conservative, understood in terms of values rather than economics: that is, individualism vs. collectivism rather than market vs. central planning. The horizontal axis distinguishes between Westernizers and Slavophiles.
According to Amalrik, the Soviet ruling elite was dominated by an ideology of "conformist reformism"-a conviction that reform was possible, combined with a belief that criticism of the current authorities' reformist efforts was disloyal and dangerous. Around the core ruling ideology there circled three main opposition ideologies-"genuine" Marxism-Leninism, liberalism, and Christianity-and a couple of officially condoned ideologies-Marxism and nationalism-that diverged somewhat from the main elite consensus. The opposition ideologies were rather amorphous and poorly defined: each was more a moral stance than a political program. They were espoused by dissident figures, who were marginalized or persecuted by the regime, but they also had their discreet supporters inside the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Soviet state. Proponents of one or another intellectual current (Westernizers, Slavophiles, true Marxists) were able to "capture" not only publishing houses and research institutions but even some government ministries and Central Committee departments.
Amalrik's wheel was an insightful guide to the political currents of Leonid Brezhnev's USSR. Leading dissident figures, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, could easily be located on the diagram and their interactions understood. What, though, would the equivalent diagram look like for post-Soviet Russia? What is the ruling political ideology, and what are the principles around which opposition elements are grouped?
REINVENTING AMALRIK'S WHEEL
Most Western observers believe (or is it hope?) the political values of liberal democracy and market capitalism are taking root in Russia, although such ideas face opposition from recalcitrant sectors of the population, from bureaucrats to pensioners. The most obvious way to analyze the spectrum of political values would be to draw a line with the friends and foes of change placed at opposite ends-roughly equivalent to Amalrik's vertical axis. To this one could add the second axis of Westernizer vs. Slavophile.
However, such neat typologies fail to capture the confused plurality of political views in contemporary Russia. The wheel of ideologies is broken, and in its place there has arisen a bewildering array of political positions. Orientation to power has become more important than adherence to a particular set of political values: pragmatism has displaced philosophy. Since 1991, democrats have turned into patriots, and communists have embraced market reform. "Westernizers" denounce NATO expansion, while ex-General Aleksandr Lebed hired a follower of Friedrich Hayek, Vitalii Naishul, to write his economic program.
The key factor shaping the political spectrum is access to power: where you stand depends on where you sit. The most appropriate mental image is not of two intersecting axes but of a series of concentric circles, with Boris Yeltsin at the center. Surrounding Yeltsin is an inner circle of favored aides and a phalanx of bureaucrats. The next circle is formed by the government ministries, followed by select regional leaders and the State Duma. Beyond that are the outsiders, totally excluded from the exercise of political power. The political game consists of espousing whatever is the political flavor of the month in order to maneuver oneself closer to the center of power.
That said, the current array of political values in Russia looks something like that depicted in Figure 2. At the center is the presidential administration, "the party of power." President Yeltsin cannot be tagged as a Westernizing liberal. True, he has presided over the introduction of a market economy, but one that is run by a corrupt oligarchy of rival clans. Yeltsin has pursued détente with the West-but still tries to defend Russian state interests by traditional means, such as the Chechen war, military intervention in the Transcaucasus, and union with Belarus.
Gennadii Zyuganov's Communist Party does not really have a clear alternative program. Rather, the communists have settled into the role of the "irreconcilable opposition," defining themselves by what they are against rather than what they are for. In a nutshell, they are against the present and in favor of the past. Ironically, they have become the main defenders of parliamentarism, chiefly because it gives them the opportunity to criticize the situation in the country without being responsible for coming up with policies of their own. Neither Yeltsin nor the communists, therefore, occupy a principled position on the political spectrum.
Hovering around those two poles is an inchoate array of alternative political positions, only some of which are based on a coherent philosophical outlook. Radical communists advance a Marxist-Leninist analysis, and radical liberals espouse pure market principles. "The democratic opposition," such as Grigorii Yavlinskii, challenge the party of power from a loosely social democratic perspective. "Populists," such as Lebed and eye surgeon Svyatoslav Fedorov, practice anti-politics: they criticize government policy from the point of view of "the common man" but lack a distinct set of political values or a credible program for putting the country back on its feet.
The political philosophies of provincial leaders such as Boris Nemtsov (the "regionalists") range from communist to nationalist to liberal. They do not form a united group: while in theory they might appear to have a common interest in reducing the power of the federal authorities, in practice they can individually profit from cutting separate deals with Moscow.
The "state builders" are symbolized by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov. They espouse a nonideological ideology, proudly affirming that professionalism is more important than political principles. They dominate the state apparatus but have not been able to create an effective political vehicle of their own and have had to rely on Yeltsin to keep the communists at bay.
DIVIDED UNDER THE PATRIOTIC BANNER
The "nationalists" (or, as they style themselves, the "patriots") were the group that seemed to have the greatest potential to fill the ideological vacuum of post-communism, given Vladimir Zhirinovsky's surprise victory in the parliamentary election of December 1993. In a country that had lost its empire and seen its economy shrink by one-third, there seemed to be rich soil for politicians willing to invoke the theme of national betrayal. In the wake of Zhirinovsky's success, both democrats and communists swung in the nationalist direction. Their leaders embraced the rhetoric of Russian national interests, refusing to contemplate territorial changes "from Kaliningrad to the Kurils." In effect, the whole political map moved into the bottom left-hand corner of Figure 2.
On the liberal wing, Boris Fedorov tried to square the circle by joining free-market economics to a vociferous brand of "demo-patriotism." Equally curiously, Gennadii Zyuganov moved away from the language of class warfare in favor of appeals to a national consensus and traditional Russian values. Yeltsin, who long before Zhirinovsky had used Russian sovereignty as the lever to loosen Mikhail Gorbachev's grip on state power, launched the Chechen war in defense of Russia's "territorial integrity."
Zyuganov thought espousing patriotism would be the key to broadening his appeal beyond the hard-core communist electorate, but he was overwhelmed in the 1996 presidential race by Yeltsin's anti-communist message. Even if Zyuganov had won, it is not clear what policies he would have tried to implement. The feared "red-brown" coalition of nationalists and communists is riven by deep internal divisions, and they have been unable to capitalize on their dominating position in the State Duma. For all the talk of "Weimar Russia," the nationalist specter remains more ephemeral than real.
The adoption of nationalist polemics has not served as a unifying force for Russia's fragmented political spectrum. Rather than focusing the debate on concrete issues and specific policy choices, it has diverted politicians on the left and the right into ruminations on the Soviet and pre-Soviet past, providing more ammunition for mutual recrimination and further polarizing the political landscape.
The stumbling bloc in the search for a consensus on Russia's national interests is Russia's confused post-imperial status. Sprawling over 11 time zones and two continents, it is not a nation-state in the European sense of the word. The Soviet experience of life in a multinational, superpower state is still a very recent memory-and a reality, in the shape of more than 20 million Russians living in the near abroad. It is hard for Russians to distance themselves from nostalgia for their Soviet past and get on with the job of defining their Russian identity.
The attempt to chart the political space of contemporary Russia has its limits. Indeed, it is the absence of such a common terrain that is the most striking feature of Russian politics today. Contending political thinkers speak past each other and rarely bother to engage in direct public debate. Most of their energies seem to be devoted to disputes and rivalries that are fought out within the confines of each group in the ideological spectrum.
The study of political discourse in Russia today may have to be more archaeological than ideological. The political spectrum consists of remnants of ideas from ages past. Different layers of debate have been inherited from different historical sources. The democrats are divided between those who imported the rhetoric of "market democracy" from the West and those who are still fighting the battle against tyranny of the late 1980s. The communists are split between the managerial caste who were very comfortable with the loosened system of the perestroika era and those who preferred the certainties of the Brezhnev years. Nationalists push the debate even further back. Some are trying to understand why Russia fell prey to Stalinism, others are pondering the viability of the tsarist state. The Stolypin reforms (of 1907) and Eurasianism (an idea current in the 1920s) are topics of everyday political debate. It's as if the British Conservative Party were still debating over where to bury Cromwell.
A political scientist would normally try to map a country's political space by looking at the positions of the leading political parties. In a functioning democracy, parties serve as the main repository and propagator of political ideas. Russia has seen three elections in the past five years, which should have given ample stimulus to the formation of parties. But with the exception of the Communist Party, Russia's political parties are rump organizations largely confined to the corridors of the State Duma. Parties find it hard to recruit members and to attract and retain the loyalty of voters.
The lack of clearly defined parties is yet more evidence of the "ideological vacuum" that has opened up in Russian society since 1991. Yet, in certain respects, that vacuum predated the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the Soviet era, people were forced to pay rote homage to a single official ideology, which for most was devoid of meaning. They were not exposed to an open public discourse about political values; on the contrary, they were socialized to be skeptical about such a discourse and the motives of those who were leading it. Russians were trained (by years of reading Pravda) to read between the lines, to look for the hidden motives of the author. Only a fool would bother to try to understand the words and ideas themselves. Marx's notion that ideas are a mere reflection of material interests seems to have struck particularly deep roots (especially among those who later became the new capitalist class).
The official ideology provided a reference point for the emergence of alternative ideologies among dissidents and even within the political elite, as in Amalrik's schema, but those ideologies were not shared by large segments of the population. Instead, ordinary Russians developed their own "private" set of values, based around friends and family, and retreated from the realm of public politics.
EXPLAINING A VACUUM
There are three possible explanations for the failure of democratization to be accompanied by the revival of political ideologies. The first argues that the ideological vacuum has deep roots in Russian culture that predate the Soviet era. The second explanation sees the vacuum not as a uniquely Russian phenomenon but as the product of worldwide processes of social change. The third sees the absence of ideology as a more accidental development, the result of the distorted structure of political institutions that emerged after 1991 and the consequent excessive concentration of political power. If the latter is true, then Russia may escape from its current rudderless malaise in the not-too-distant future.
Most analysts begin by trying to figure out where Russian parties and political leaders are placed along various issue spectrums: the degree of market vs. state regulation of economic activity, or acceptance of international norms vs. assertion of national particularities. One would then expect to find political parties dispersed across that spectrum-extreme left, moderate left, moderate right, extreme right.
In reality, Russians don't think of their political system in terms of a gradation of ideas, but in terms of polar opposites, such as communism vs. democracy, or the old favorite, Westernizers vs. Slavophiles. The issues are presented as Manichaean alternatives; the choice is between right and wrong, good and evil. Throughout Russian history, debate about the role of figures from Peter the Great to Stalin has been sharply dichotomized. What some Russians saw as barbarism, others saw as the best hope for Russia to break through to civilization. There was no common ground. That polarizing tendency is combined with an overpowering inclination to personalize politics. The important thing is not so much the ideas themselves but who is espousing them and the moral qualities of those individuals. Political debate in Russia proceeds through the identification of the enemy, through distancing oneself from one's opponent.
The political debate since 1991 has been structured around a sequence of hostile polarizations. In 1991, Yeltsin was able to draw support from two very different political groupings with divergent goals-the democratic movement and the nomenklatura capitalists-who were momentarily united in their common desire to pull down the Soviet state. Similarly, in 1995 and 1996, two groups with very distinct philosophies, the communists and nationalists, joined forces behind Zyuganov only because of their mutual distaste for Yeltsin, and not because they agreed on a common set of principles or policies. That coalition on the left caused the democrats and nomenklatura once again to sink their differences and unite in opposition to Zyuganov.
Scrutiny of the political programs of various parties for the 1995 and 1996 elections is of little use in trying to get a fix on the relative weight of political ideas. They are vacuous documents, consisting largely of platitudes written so as to avoid giving any ammunition to one's political opponents. It seems as if each party goes out of its way to proclaim that which it is not. The Communist Party's program stressed the recognition of private property and good international ties, while the liberal parties underlined the importance of social guarantees and improving the popular standard of living.
Each side was playing the polarization game in the 1996 presidential election. At the start of the year, Yeltsin's political rating was, in Anatolii Chubais's words, "lower than grass." Chubais decided the only way to boost Yeltsin's chances was to convince voters that the choice was between communism and civilization. For his part, Gennadii Zyuganov tried to turn the election into a struggle between the true defenders of Russian national interests and those who had sold out the country to the West. The voters were being offered a moral choice rather than a selection of rival political programs. They were being invited to decide who is honest and who is dishonest, to decide who is guilty for Russia's woes: the communist past or the market-reforming present.
Is this tendency toward radical polarization of ideas a product of Russian culture (something to do with Orthodoxy, perhaps)? Or is it a result simply of the harsh Darwinian political life that Russians have experienced this century, in which the winner takes all, including the head of his opponent? If this really is the picture of modern Russian politics, then one wonders whether they can ever escape, or whether they are doomed to repeat the cycle indefinitely. Is the political spectrum falsely polarized because it suits politicians, or is that the way the citizens see it too? Which came first, the communist or the anti-communist?
If polarization is hardwired into the Russian political mentality, then the question arises of what will come next when anti-communism has exhausted its usefulness. A perennial theme, which still resonates in contemporary debates, is that of Russia vs. the West. Both proponents and opponents of market reform agree that the market ideas are being brought in from outside. While reformers are convinced Russia had no choice but to adopt the Western model, nationalists and communists believe Russia could have found its own path for the transition to capitalism, as did the Chinese. The problem is, nobody seems to be in a position to implement such ideas. The main cadres of the economic bureaucracy, epitomized by Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, have thrown their weight behind market reform and the integration of Russia into the global economy. The nationalists have failed to convince the key economic elites (those running the few viable fragments of the Russian economy) that Russia is capable of pursuing an alternative to market liberalization.
What is more striking is that Chernomyrdin's group has failed to generate a robust political philosophy to match its economic pragmatism, beyond the simple idea that "What is good for Gazprom is good for Russia." A central paradox of post-1993 politics is that the political elite is consolidating but is not able to find a common language or a set of values and principles around which to rally popular support.
The ruling political establishment likes to present the choice not as Russia vs. the West but as common sense vs. ideology, "realistic" pragmatism vs. utopianism-whether of the communist, Great Russian, or neoliberal variety. That means the main political division is between "insiders"-those who have accepted the pragmatic rules of the game and are sharing the spoils-and a disparate collection of "outsiders," clinging to various fragments of political ideology and generally heading in opposite directions.
The pragmatic embrace of Western-style market reform makes it difficult for Russia's leaders to play the nationalist card. Still, the ruling elite, like its communist opponents, tries to disguise its struggle for power behind a cloud of vaguely patriotic rhetoric. However, the patriotism that is invoked in Russian political debate is not systematically conceived or even coherently expressed. It often serves as a fig leaf to cover the greed of the new rich, who seek to legitimize their wealth by endowing a church or a soccer team. It is rhetoric pure and simple: neither a real philosophy nor a new set of policies.
Still, given the staying power of the Westernizer-Slavophile dichotomy, and given the apparent exhaustion of the anti-communist card with Zyuganov's presidential defeat, it is possible that at some point in the future Russia's political class may turn to anti-Westernism as the theme around which to polarize the political landscape.
THE END OF IDEOLOGY?
Another response to the failure of political ideas to take root in Russia is to argue that Russia, far from being a "backward" pupil of democracy, is in fact ahead of its time. It has leapt from a premodern to a postmodern set of political values, just as Lenin argued Russia was able to skip the capitalist stage and move straight from feudalism to socialism.
Francis Fukuyama's famous essay "The End of History?" argued that with the end of the Cold War, ideology itself had outlived its usefulness. Liberalism was victorious not only over the ideology of communism, according to Fukuyama, but over ideology itself. Political ideologies were essentially phenomena of the 19th century, the only way for modern society to incorporate the mobilized masses of industrial workers into the social fabric. With the solution of problems of social cohesion provided by representative democracy and the market economy, political parties ceased to be motivated by grand principles and became shifting coalitions of interests. With the defeat of Soviet communism, democratic capitalism was free to shed its ideological heritage and spread its pragmatic institutions worldwide. Political philosopher Aleksei Kara-Murza even sees the shift from ideology to pragmatism as a major achievement for Russia and a necessary component of social modernization.
Fukuyama's analysis did not seem to be borne out by subsequent events in the former Yugoslavia, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Algeria, where adherence to religious and nationalist ideas fueled violent conflicts. However, it does seem to fit developments in Eastern Europe and much of the former Soviet Union. In most of those societies, ideology really does seem to have come to an end, or at least it has slipped off the radar screen of political observers. In Central and Eastern Europe, communist parties have renamed themselves, shelved their millenarian rhetoric, and donned business suits. Nationalist parties have established their noisy presence but rarely poll more than 10 percent of the vote-generally less than what they get in Austria, France, and Italy.
Even liberal and conservative parties have been slow to appear. That is odd, because liberal values do indeed seem to have triumphed. Polls indicate that the people of the region want to live in democracies with prosperous market economies and to join the European Union. They are dissatisfied not because they reject those goals but because the goals have not yet been reached. But the acceptance of liberal values at the level of the individual and family has not been accompanied by the creation of liberal parties. Arguably, the only liberal party with any substantial political presence is Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party in the Czech Republic.
So Fukuyama may be right after all, at least in the European context. Liberalism is an ideology that does not have to establish a visible presence in the political landscape in order to exert its authority. The people of Russia and other post-socialist countries want governments that are going to follow the basic liberal rules of the game: to create conditions for a prosperous market economy while respecting individual civil and political rights and turning the nation into an accepted member of the international community of liberal states. Beyond that, people do not really care who governs them, or what is the color of the political flags their leaders wave. In general, ordinary citizens are highly suspicious of political leaders, offer their loyalty to none, and try to change them as often as possible. In a curious twist to Friedrich Engels's vision, the rule of people has indeed been replaced by the administration of things-but according to capitalist, not communist, principles.
This shift in values is accompanied by changes in the social "hardware," from how people earn their living to where they get their information. Most of the post-socialist economies have seen a radical shift in the spac e of a few years, with the labor force moving out of large industrial plants and into small enterprises in the service sector. The explosive spread of television-the increase in the variety and attractiveness of programming, and the arrival of satellite dishes and video recorders-has shifted the focus of political socialization from the workplace and public bar to the family home.
Those social changes have undermined the sociological basis for the formation of Western-style political parties, which are evolutionary entities rooted in historical processes. They originated either from below (out of churches, labor unions, or social gatherings) or from above (networks of activists put together to win elections and distribute the resulting political favors). Those processes unfolded over many decades, forging complex social institutions with multiple functions and meanings, cemented together by tradition and habit. One can organize an election in a matter of weeks, but one cannot expect political parties to be created overnight. Even in Western Europe, many traditional political parties are losing members and voters as the same socioeconomic trends that have blasted onto the scene in Eastern Europe have also gathered pace in the West.
WEAK PARLIAMENT, WEAK PARTIES
The third approach to the puzzle of the "ideological vacuum" is to look at political institutions rather than deep cultural traits and decade-old historical legacies.
In Central and Eastern Europe, both voters and party leaders have a hard time locating their parties in a clearly defined policy space. Parties in the former socialist Central European countries did not form around clearly defined political philosophies. Rather, they arose, splitting and merging, through a series of crucial formative political events, each sequence idiosyncratic to the country in question (what the sociologists call "path dependency").
That pattern of party formation has not played out in Russia. There, the great events of the post-Soviet era have been party destroying rather than party creating: the breakup of the USSR, the launch of "shock therapy," Yeltsin's battle with the parliament, the Chechen war, the center's struggle with regionalism, and Yeltsin's re-election campaign.
Moreover, the Russian parliament throughout those struggles has tended to come out on the losing side. That is inimical to party development, since legislatures are the crucible of party formation. It is Russia's hyperpresidential regime more than anything else that is responsible for the lack of definition to the political landscape.
This factor is illustrated by the failure of the government's efforts to create a left-right political-party spectrum in the run-up to the 1995 State Duma elections. Yeltsin's advisers came up with the idea of creating two moderate political parties-to borrow the phrase used by General Babandiga during Nigeria's abortive democratic opening in 1993, "one a little to the left, one a little to the right." The effort was a dismal failure: the "leftist" party of Ivan Rybkin went nowhere, while the "rightist" party, Our Home Is Russia, was immediately tagged as the "government party." It barely managed to find a niche in the Duma, finishing third in December 1995 with 10 percent of the vote.
Fukuyama suggests that the absence of political ideologies is a beneficial state of affairs, the final conclusion to the Enlightenment's quest for a rational public order. However, looking at Russia's experience, one feels the failure to develop a differentiated spectrum of political opinion, or even a more basic respect for political ideas per se, is a potentially fatal flaw for Russian democracy. Without some overarching ideology, individuals or groups sharing certain economic interests will never unite and achieve their common goals. The public goods even a Hayekian minimalist state requires can only be provided if there is some res publica to decide what is required.
Peter Rutland is an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. From 1995 to 1997, he was on leave to work as assistant director of research at the Open Media Research Institute. This article draws on interviews in Moscow in August and September 1996 with Aleksandr Meshcherskii, Aleksandr Tsipko, Aleksei Kara-Murza, Masha Gessen, Leokadiya Drobizheva, and Vladimir Gimpelson, and on later conversations with Vitalii Naukim, Vladimir Mau, and Oleg Witte.
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