Russian Intellectuals Hold the Russians in Contempt: Not Ready for Democracy
Russia’s future evolution will depend greatly on the status of the Russian intellectual community, particularly that of the cultural elite who are considered the cream of the intelligentsia. This intellectual community is comprised of people whose careers require creative abilities, such as scholars, writers, film directors, actors, journalists, and others who are engaged in non-traditional activities. (There are, of course, many false intellectuals claiming creative abilities without actually showing any; the hack writers or journalists who only serve the political regime come to mind.)
In fact, the intellectual community, with all of its diversity, is the single greatest catalyst for change in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian (hybrid) societies. Aside from their day jobs, this community performs three public functions: first, is the creation of a realistic public image of society that opposes the official, and usually more optimistic, depiction of society; second, is their active participation in oppositional activities against the authorities (such as protest letters and declarations, and participation in meetings and demonstrations); third, they are responsible for the advancement of the new ideas necessary to bring great change to society. In 2010, the famous Russian actor, Sergei Yurskii, contended that the Russian intellectual community is the single fermenting element keeping society alive, rather than allowing it to ossify. Indeed, particularly in Russia, history has shown that as a rule, the business class is much less likely to resist authoritarian power than intellectuals. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case is a good illustration of this thesis. Almost
none of the Russian “oligarchs” came to his defense, either during his two trials or after his imprisonment (most of the oligarchs even hailed the Kremlin’s decisions); only the intellectuals showed their anger over Khodorkovsky’s arrest and two trials.
Now, under Putin’s rule, Russia is going through a rare period in its history when the Russian cultural elite is not playing an active role as an oppositional political actor, and is not able to offer ideas for change in society. Paradoxically, the ability of the intellectuals to perform its three public functions depends greatly on the ruling elite’s attitude toward them. In a very repressive regime that perceives its intellectuals as a potentially hostile force and that takes no interest in their creative activities, the politically active intellectuals end up serving as propagandists for the regime while the rest remain in “internal exile.” At such times, intellectuals are not able to provide society with a realistic image of itself. They cannot help society by becoming an oppositional force, nor can they offer new ideas for change that will attract the masses.
The intellectual community has faced this situation twice before in Russian history when the leaders were indifferent to the intellectual activities in the country: during the period of Tsar Alexander III, and during the three decades following the revolution. In three other periods — those of Katherine the Great, Nikolas I, and Stalin after 1946 — the rulers held mixed attitudes towards intellectuals, so their repressions were combined with concerns over the role of the educated class in society.
Tsar Alexander III: A Target of Admiration in Putin’s Court
The first display of profound hatred toward intellectuals was during Alexander III’s monarchy (1881-1894). This tsar, with his sheer anti-intellectualism, was unique in Russian history before the revolution. He was the first Russian tsar to declare an open enmity for education and culture, along with an unconcealed hostility towards democracy. He solidified the latter with his proclamation of the most militant slogan of the Russian nationalists: “Russia for Russians.” He abolished the autonomy of Moscow University (in 2009, Putin did the same with all the leading universities), and strongly constrained admissions to schools for children from the “low states of society.” The tsar was the first to endorse laws imposing restrictions on the media and in libraries. During Alexander III’s time of great repression, the lives of Russian intellectuals were mostly “frozen,” a term often used from those times.
Alexander III, who was the epitome of obscurantism for many generations of the Russian intelligentsia, became a muse for the filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, a friend of Putin’s and creator of “The Siberian Barber” (1998), in which he placed himself in the role of his beloved tsar. With great enthusiasm, Mikhalkov takes advantage of every opportunity to cite the deeply anti-democratic statements of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, who was the head of the Russian church and one of Alexander III’s main advisers. In his writings and talks, Mikhalkov refers to a number of conservative figures in prerevolutionary Russia, such as Pobedonostsev. Mikhalkov cites Pobedonostsev ’s “The Great Lie of Our Times,” in which Mikhalkov’s pet politician wrote, at the end of the 19th century, «it is terrible to think of our condition if destiny had sent us the fatal gift—the all-Russian Parliament.”
Lenin’s Disdain of Intellectuals
The second time intellectuals became the target of hatred and persecution happened in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. When the Bolsheviks, who were ironically a highly educated people, came to power using the maxim regarding the female cook’s ability to run a society, they exerted a great deal of effort in denigrating the intelligentsia, who had enjoyed great prestige in pre-revolutionary Russia. Lenin correctly saw the intelligentsia as the enemy of the new regime. In 1922, the Kremlin expelled nearly 500 highly educated people, the crème of this intelligentsia, to the West. Maxim Gorky, a famous and, at that time, independent writer, undertook the exceptionally difficult task of saving as many writers and scholars as possible from starvation and persecution. He regularly appealed to Lenin, his friend, to save some of them from Cheka, and was actually successful in some cases. A number of famous philosophers were among the ranks of the deported intelligentsia. In September 2010, Russian intellectuals discussed the departure of two “philosophical ships,” (the name for the ships that deported intellectuals from Russia) from Petrograd (currently known as Petersburg), and the consequences of the anti-intellectual policy of the government at that time. They tried to use this event as a warning to the current rulers of Russia about the consequences of the anti-intellectual policy Putin’s regime has been pursuing.
Mixed Attitudes toward Intellectuals during Soviet Times
For all of their repression, Stalin’s regime radically changed the status of the intelligentsia in the late 1930s, turning it into a greatly respected stratum of the population. In addition to that respect, after 1946, the creative intelligentsia also began to reap the rewards of material wealth.
Never in Russian history has the ruling elite treated intellectuals as well as during the post-Stalin era. The totalitarian system continued after Stalin, of course, harassing those intellectuals who directly challenged it. There was only a brief period, following the Prague spring, when the Kremlin launched a fleeting anti-intellectual campaign. This ended up being very superficial and had no impact on the life of the intellectual community.
Stalin’s heirs regularly invited scholars to the Kremlin, which had created a network of research institutes to serve as the bases for expertise on various issues. Even Nikita Khrushchev, with his reputation as an emotional leader with a propensity for making impulsive decisions, regularly asked the scholars for advice, and created the Council of Science in the Kremlin. In the post-Stalin period, Soviet society accorded enormous prestige to intellectuals. In fact, Soviet youth propelled scientists to the top of the prestige ladder.
The Intellectuals as Providers of an Objective Picture
Perceiving a heightened sense of importance within the regime, the Soviet intelligentsia claimed to be the nation’s brain. It praised members who defied the authorities with a sober analysis of the state of the country and suggestions about what society should be doing. It is clear from the post-mortem analysis that, in reality, only a handful of intellectuals such as scholars, writers, film directors, and journalists, were closest to understanding the nature of the “hard reality” of the Soviet system. The desire to tell society “what indeed is going on” was the inspiration of those who created the new science, empirical sociology. The liberal journal “The New World” (Novyi Mir) saw publishing literary works and essays about the genuine life in the country as its major goal.
The Protest Activity
The Soviet intellectuals were indeed the vanguard of the country’s oppositional activity. They were the only ones to write non-conformist articles in the official media, and people treated those who spread their texts in Samizdat and took part in various protest actions like heroes (actually, intellectuals have always played similar roles in any authoritarian society that ever existed including China and Latin America, among others.) As I discovered through my national surveys in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars like Sakharov, Arzimovich, and Leontovich, as well as writers like Okudzhava, Vysotsky, Galich, Paustovsky, and Evtushenko were the models for civic behavior people most often mentioned. The absolute majority of the Soviet dissidents of 1960-1980s were intellectuals; people from other categories of the population were the exception.
It was only natural that as soon as Perestroika began, the intelligentsia was the energy that transformed society. In fact, the first slogan “Glasnost or Openness” was primarily addressed to the population’s educated class. No other group of the population supported Mikhail Gorbachev as much as the intelligentsia. Gorbachev always surrounded himself with scholars as his advisers. The intellectuals celebrated Perestroika as the moment they finally became the recognized leaders of the country. As part of my personal life experiences, it is both amusing and heartbreaking to remember how conformists during the Soviet times, unwilling to recognize their own cravenness and materialistic motives, derogated brave and honest intellectuals like Vladimir Bukovsky and General Grigorenko as crazy people. In today’s Russia, we see similarities in the derogation of a few intellectuals, such as Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov, who fight the regime.
Andrei Sakharov and his fate symbolize the critical role of intellectuals in Soviet society and their task in understanding the nature of Soviet society. It also explains why the Soviet totalitarian system tolerated such intellectuals. Sakharov was a physicist. His creative mind demanded highly developed critical faculties, which made it possible for him to draw a realistic picture of the “hard Soviet reality.” Yet, Sakharov was able to take part in political debates in the Soviet Union only because he held the high prestige of a very important scholar for the authorities.
Sakharov’s case confirms the idea that only critical intellectuals, and not the conformists, can make a sober analysis of the social realities in an authoritarian society. While commemorating the anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s death, Dmitry Bykov (one of several brilliant intellectuals in post-Soviet Russia) mused about what might have happened with the Soviet Union, had the Soviet leadership paid serious attention to Sakharov’s political writings and his vision of the facts. Bykov postulated that if the Soviet leadership had taken Sakharov’s beliefs seriously, if they had seen them as a “fresh” perception of facts (and not as an attempt to undermine their power), the Soviet Union would have survived as a state. Sakharov’s work, The Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom, appeared in 1968. It was, in many respects, a “foreword” to the ideological program of Mikhail Gorbachev, who made his proposal less than 20 years later.
Projects for the Future
The intellectual community in the post-Stalin era was brimming with projects for the future. The critical intellectuals were most definitely not a homogeneous group. Though almost unanimous in their rejection of the official picture of Soviet life, they differed amongst themselves in their vision of the future for Russia. Some of them insisted on a special historical path for Russia, pushing for a nationalistic state that was even more despotic than the Soviet one. However, the greater part of the intellectual community dreamt of a democratic evolution in Russia. My survey of the political views of the Russian intelligentsia in the late 1960s found, unequivocally, that the majority of both the creative and the general intelligentsia were in favor of a liberal society. The surveys done in the midst of Perestroika in the middle 1980s confirmed the dominance of liberal views among the intelligentsia.
The Radical Change in the Status of the Intelligentsia during Putin’s Era
During Putin’s regime, the public role of Russian intellectuals declined to one of its lowest levels in Russian history, particularly in the last 8 decades.
From the very beginning, Putin’s regime revealed its hostility, at best described as indifference, to the intellectual community. With the self-confidence of the KGB agents who “[knew] life much better than anybody else,” the new elite did not feel it was necessary to consult with the intellectuals about politics. During his talk show on December 16, Putin spoke about “the liberal intelligentsia” with great contempt, using his typical gang slang. In fact, the ultimate cause of the ruling elite’s indifference towards the intellectual community can be found in their decision to transform Russia into an authoritarian state, which was a necessary condition for perpetuating their political power indefinitely, as well as for securing the property that they had acquired (mostly illegally) following the collapse of the Soviet system. As they were choosing an ideological rationalization for this political course, the slogans about the partial restoration of the Soviet empire and the restoration of Russia’s geopolitical place in the world, which were used mostly for domestic propaganda, only had a modest impact on the actual actions of the Russian leaders in foreign policy matters.
The high price of oil and gas made it possible for Russia to abandon its plans to go forward with the modernization of the economy, and for the government and the intelligentsia to cooperate—both of which were necessary in order to preserve the elements of democracy from the 1990s. Remarkably, the Russian church shares the Kremlin’s contemptuous and hostile attitude toward the intellectual community. This is largely due to the intelligentsia’s resistance to the idea of transforming Orthodoxy into the state religion and its expansion into all spheres of public life. The Russian patriarch, Kirill, expressed those negative attitudes toward the intelligentsia when he accused it of participating in the persecution of the church during Soviet times.
Low Role in the System
There are many indicators of the intellectual community’s decline in status in Putin’s Russia. The first indicator is the amount of financial resources dedicated to Russian science. In October 2010, the vice president of the Academy of Science, Gennadii Mesiatzev, noted that the “the size of the budget of the Russian fundamental science is equal to the budget of an American provincial university.” To be sure, scholars are practically nonexistent in the presidential administration and the government in general. Unlike in the past, the Kremlin rarely keeps scholars on staff as experts. Society has perceived the Kremlin’s decision to eliminate the formal autonomy of leading universities like Moscow’s and Petersburg’s as a sign of its contempt for scientists.
However, the Kremlin’s attitude toward the Russian Academy of Science was an even greater indicator of Russian leadership’s views on the status of science. Never in Russian history have the leaders of the country treated a major scientific institution such as the Academy of Science as badly as they currently do. Considered the essential center of science and the provider of scientific expertise to all major institutions in the country, the Academy of Science has historically been a highly respected institution, first under the tsars and then during the Soviet times. The Kremlin’s actions to promote science under its own terms with such creations as a scientific town in Skolkovo, and the meetings Меdvedev and Putin held with some members of the intelligentsia, were more like propagandistic tricks and public relations strategies that embody the imitative activity typical of Putin’s regime. Moreover, the falsely extended hand to the scientific community was, as Russian journalists asserted, mostly done to cover up the embezzlement of oil and gas revenues, as well as for laundering money, and thus could not affect the standing of the intelligentsia, which continued to be humiliated in society. Even Putin’s decision to provide a small increase in financing for some of the provincial universities in the country, and increasing the monthly financial aid to college students (which is currently at about $35, with a $2 increase planned for 2011-2013), in addition to the creation of a special program to finance projects with the participation of foreign scholars could not alter the intellectual community’s opinions towards the Putin administration and its position on science.
The spread of obscurantism reveals the most about the anti-intellectual atmosphere in the country. This atmosphere allows crooks to claim to be great inventors as long as those who hold positions of power support him. Victor Petrik’s story is quite typical. Petrik claimed to have invented a filter that could supposedly turn radioactive waste into safe drinking water. In the end, this proved itself a total lie. Petrik has the biography of a typical adventurist and felon. He spent much of the 1980s in prison for smuggling antique furniture, and he learned self-hypnosis from an uncle. Yet, Petrik has received endorsements and contracts from top Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin (before he became prime minister), as well as from major Russian companies. United Russia, the ruling party, regularly gives Petrik prominent roles in events on innovation, while officials, including Russia parliament speaker Boris Gryzlov, have publicly endorsed his products. Despite the negative verdicts by the most prominent scholars in the country, Petrik’s projects are active. Indeed, this man has become so confident in his unconditional support from above, that he even sued members of the Russian Academy for “defamation,” demanding a gigantic sum of money as compensation for damage to his reputation.
The Way to Control the Intellectuals: Fear and Corruption
The indifference of the government towards the activities of the intellectuals has greatly undermined the resilience of the group itself. The significance of the intellectuals, which were among their greatest assets, enabling them to play a critical role in Soviet society, have been all but completely diminished. The ruling elite have resorted to two dependable tactics in order to kill the inclination toward rebellion: fear and corruption.
The mass repressions of Stalin’s times and the more moderate ones in post-Stalin Russia are certainly absent in the political system built up by Putin. Putin realized that the politics of terrorizing people in Soviet times was often accompanied by “over killing.” The same results could be achieved through much smaller repressive actions. The murder of a few journalists and politicians combined with an evident unwillingness to discover the true perpetrators was enough to sow the seeds of fear among many prominent intellectuals. During a radio program on October 31, 2010, journalist Radzikhovsky refused to openly discuss the politics of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader and Putin’s vassal, explicitly saying that he could lose his life if he chose to discuss the matter. Providing the loyal intellectuals with access to the most lucrative positions on television, in the movie industry, and within the state apparatus turned out to be sufficient for taming their desires for self-actualization, or for being not respected by the public and one’s peers. Lilia Shevtsova, a prominent political scientist, perfectly described how the fear of losing their comfortable lives turned intellectuals into obedient myrmidons of the regime, and what the various theories are that they use to rationalize their behavior.
The Docility of the Russian Intelligentsia
The tactics of fear and corruption, combined with an indifference to its activities, created a very docile intellectual community. Its members have been recruited by the authorities to serve in various pseudo-democratic institutions like the Public Chamber, or on the presidential Council on Human Rights, which helped the regime keep a façade of decency before the international public.
No less significant is the way in which outstanding intellectuals openly, and without shame, have groveled before Russian leaders. In a recent meeting with Putin and other prominent figures, not a single person supported the critical comments of musician Yurii Shevchuk, who was treated rudely by the host. In another meeting, this time with Medvedev, famous rock musicians were primarily concerned with flattering the president, which provoked contempt in the media. One journalist directly named the participants of the meeting as servants of the boss. During their meetings with leaders, the most typical action of intellectuals is soliciting financial support for their various endeavors. Despite the miserable state of science in the country, Russian scholars do not dare to defend their professional interests. At the meeting organized by the trade union of the Academy of Science, which met on October 20, 2010, only 300 people were present. None of the people from within the ranks of the Academy joined the participants. The demands addressed to the government in those meetings were related only to the financing of science, and were totally devoid of any political issues.
The group of intellectuals who challenge Putin’s regime today (though mostly in very timid ways) is very small. In her January 2011 article, Lilia Shevtsov could identify no more than a dozen names. While the movement “Strategy 31” was formed in order to uphold the right to a peaceful assembly, a right guaranteed by Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, and is indeed an important political event, only a few prominent intellectuals have thus far joined the protesters in Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow on the 31st of every month that has 31 days . Very few intellectuals came to the defense of Khodorkovsky, or of Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the liberal opposition, who was brutally arrested on the New Year’s Eve for participating in a protest action of Strategy 31.
It is only logical that during the ten years of Putin’s regime, the intelligentsia has been unable to advance any figure that possessed moral authority, like Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn. In the 2005 survey of the Fund of Public Opinion, most Russians declared that the number of moral authorities in the country had declined drastically. In 2010, Russians were asked to name people who were role models for them and not a single scholar or writer was among the 25 people named. In another survey, which asked people to name the most respected cultural figures, those the Russians named were indeed innovators in their fields, but had almost zero influence in the political arena. Those named included film director Aleksei German, theater director Lev Dodin, pop singer Zemfira, and poet Timur Kibirov, to name a few. Only one of them, Yurii Shevchuk, could be considered a moral authority for Russians, particularly after his public confrontation with Putin in 2010.
Self-Deprecation of the Intelligentsia
It should be noted that the intelligentsia is more than aware of its own miserable status in Putin’s society. Some of them even go so far in their self-criticism as to declare that “the Russian intelligentsia” is dead, “it exhausted its social role,” and that “the masses lost their confidence in the intelligentsia as the bearer of knowledge, as the intellectual leader of the nation.”
While it is impossible to unearth even one voice that will praise the role of the “brain of the nation” in contemporary Russian society, the explanation for this is very complex. Many recognize that money and the yearning for a comfortable or glamorous life has been the main cause of the demise of the intelligentsia. Alexander Yakovlev, one of the leaders of Perestroika, wrote with sadness in the mid-2000s, “the creative intelligentsia enjoys wealth, the support of the authorities and essentially is bought by the Kremlin.” And the famous journalist, Vitalii Tretiakov, suggested that the Russian intelligentsia dreams only of a permanently luxurious life. Indeed, Russian intellectuals yearn for lavish apartments, vacations to Western resorts, extravagant parties, Western schools for their children and, of course, the pleasure of being in close proximity to power. While the lifestyle of the intellectual community’s supposed activities such as attending literary discussions at the Club of Soviet writers, attending classical music concerts, protecting unknown poets and painters, and listening to the tapes of Soviet bards, was imitated by party apparatchiks and their managers in the Soviet times, it is now the Russian intellectual community, together with members of the political elite, who are trying to imitate the exotic lifestyles of Russian moguls.
In their self-rendering critiques, some intellectuals have gone so far as to cast doubt on their own abilities to play the role of the intellectual hub of the nation. The famous television figure, Andrei Maksimov, asserted that the intelligentsia is “naïve” if it believes that “all Russians share the ideals of the Russian classical literature,” and does not understand that most Russians are devoted followers of “glamour ideology,” with its cult of money and luxurious living. He also said that the intelligentsia has lost touch with the masses and its struggle for the soul of the Russian people.
Those among the intellectuals who share in the self-loathing try to rewrite history and attack the role of the intelligentsia in the past. They declare that this stratum was always far removed from real life, and that its atheism and eternal dissatisfaction with the authorities has never been constructive. According to this view, the intellectuals even bear direct responsibility for the victory of the Bolsheviks. Those who attack the claim that the Russian intelligentsia is the vanguard of progress invoke Alexander Solzhenitsyn, known for his denunciation of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia and its alienation from the ordinary people, as their ally. Even more remarkable is the current interest in the famous collection of the articles in Vekhi (Milestones), with the renowned Nikolai Berdiaev as one of the authors. The book was published in 1909, following the defeat of the First Russian Revolution. He accused the intelligentsia of the irresponsible solicitation of Russians to fight the monarchic regime, the pillar of societal stability. Participants at a special conference in 2009, held in connection with the centennial anniversary of the book’s publication, vividly discussed this particular collection of articles, many of which were in sympathy with the main thesis of the book. They proclaimed that the government saves not only its society, but also the intelligentsia.
The Attitudes toward the Existing Political Order in Russia: A Measure of Conformity
Regardless of their outward behavior, most Russian intellectuals dislike the existing state of their society enormously. Among other things, they refuse to recognize the official position regarding the existence of democracy in Russia, and are inclined to see Putin’s political regime as authoritarian and deeply corrupt. With Putin’s Russia clearly returning to the authoritarian model, the clash between the two paradigms claiming to explain the present state of affairs in any society—the structural paradigm with its focus on the existing political and economic order, and the cultural one with its focus on the crucial role of cultural traditions and the people’s mentality—has been revitalized (in the United States, the conflict between these two paradigms has become particularly strong in recent years, particularly during discussions over the causes of social and racial inequality). A reasonable approach supposes the use of both of the paradigms in an analysis of social life, and recognizes the relative role of each of them in the explanation of social facts. Often, and nearly everywhere — the USA, China, Latin America, and Russia — analysts tend to simplify and exaggerate the role of one paradigm or the other.
In the 1990s, Russian intellectuals (along with many Western experts) were definitely “structuralists,” believing in the crucial role of agents such as the liberal government, which could radically change everything in Russia and make it a contemporary society in a short period of time. Under Putin, the intellectuals have radically altered their views. Now, the majority of them gravitate towards the view that the mentality of the Russian people is a major variable in explaining the emergence and perpetuation of Putin’s authoritarian regime. It is remarkable that the cultural paradigm is just as preferable for the arrant conformists as it is to the defenders of the existing regime and the staunch opponents of it who prefer political passivity. For the first two groups, “the Russian mentality” serves as a justification for their collaboration with the authorities and their acceptance of the non-democratic character of Russian society. For the last group, it serves as a substantiation of their deep pessimism and their passivity in the political life.
The Sociological Support of the Cultural Paradigm
It was the Russian sociologists who provided the data that could be used by both camps in the intellectual community — the conformists and non-conformists. Vladimir Yadov, a premier sociologist in Russia, headed the sociological march in favor of the cultural paradigm that has doomed the Russian people to an authoritarian and corrupt society, perhaps forever. In his leading article, published in 2009, the patriarch of Russian sociology contended that what happened in the 2000s demonstrated the futility of fighting against corruption and tyranny by the officials, because “it always was.”
In support of this view, Yadov cites a number of his sociologist colleagues who provided data in his favor. Among others, Yadov refers to the data of Magoonand Rydven, which showed that “the Russians are characterized by a higher need for protection by the state,” and they “expressed less need for freedom and independence, inclination to risk” than in the populations of Western European countries.
Another champion of the cultural paradigm, which shifts the responsibility for political and economic retardation in Russia back onto the Russians, is Lev Gudkov and his colleagues in the Levada Center. Gudkov argues that the ultimate reason for the “aborted modernization” lies “in [the] full immoralist character of the Russian society.” Strikingly, Russian sociologists also place the blame for its citizens and “national character” onto social passivity; the fact that “an absolute majority, i.e. 90% of the citizens, believe that they are unable to affect any matters that go beyond the nearest circle.”
The Conformist Intellectuals: The Quest for Justification of the Regime’s Support
Prominent journalist Leonid Radzikovsky is a classic example of the conformist intellectual who pretends to be an independent thinker but chooses as his trademark the standard lamentation of the insurmountable Russian mentality. His dirge about the flaws of the Russian character greatly satisfies the Kremlin, even if from time to time, Radzikovsky drops some critical remarks about the regime (though without pointing to specific rulers). In almost all of his radio talks on Ekho Moskvy, he repeats that the prospects for democratization are hopeless because of the authoritarian mentality of the Russian people. He mocked the participation of liberals like Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Kasianov in the Moscow protest march on April 15, 2007. Many other publicists have taken a position similar to Radzikhovsky’s.
The Critics of the Regime
It is almost amusing that non-conformist intellectuals, the critics of Putin’s regime, share the same view about the impossibility of Western democracy in Russia. For the opponents of the regime,owevdr the Russian mentality and Russian traditions, as they perceive them, are the basis for deep pessimism. Valeria Novodvorskaia has impeccable credentials as an oppositional politician. In her venomous attacks against the Russian people, she often refers to them as a “mob.” No less critical of the Russian mentality is the famous fighter against corruption, Georgii Satarov, who portrays the Russians as “archaic people”.
It was Andrei Konchalovsky, a prominent Russian film-maker and publicist, as well as his brother Nikita Mikhalkov (who subscribed to another ideological camp), who came up with the elaborated theory about the fatal role of the cultural traditions in Russian history. He labeled Russian culture as “peasant,” and contended that the same culture, with all its flaws (i.e. the neglect of law, the arbitrariness of the political elite, the inability of people to cooperate, the lack of a civic conscience, and its narrow egotism), is the dominant one in Latin America. He paid special attention to the pernicious role of the Russian Orthodox religion, and suggested that the translation of the Bible into the Slavic language made the study of Latin and Greek irrelevant for Russian priests and all educated people, which in turn removed Russians from the treasures of the ancient world, with its cultural traditions and encouragement for intellectual pluralism.
The most prominent contemporary Russian writers who are critical of the modern Russian reality describe the masses in a similar way to Konchalovsky—as either indifferent to democratic institutions or hostile to them. In the last decades, the novels of such prominent authors as Vladimir Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin have portrayed a Russian society that is doomed to wallow in violence, obscurantism, despotism, and even absurdity. Their pictures of Russia’s private property and the market economy have become instruments that have only increased the arbitrariness of the cruel political elite and the total passivity of ordinary people. The new literary star, Evgenii Grishkovets, avoids any direct critical or satirical descriptions of Russian society, yet his novels, published in the last five years, show Russian people of all walks of life as deeply apolitical and absolutely indifferent to the political developments in their society, and to the corruption and crimes within it. Only a tiny minority of Russian intellectuals deviate from the majority, challenging the views of “the mental inferiority” of the Russians. Among these “dissidents” are those who are mostly consistent liberals, like Boris Nemtsov or Vladimir Milov. Another minority rejects the idea of accusing the Russian nation of an anti-democratic mentality, shifting the responsibility for the emergence of an autocratic society to the liberal elite of the early 1990s, which betrayed its own democratic principles and created chaos in society.
The Total Support of the “Russian Mentality” Theory by the Kremlin
The paradoxical element of the Russian ideological situation is that the views of most of the intellectuals, in regards to the masses being unprepared for democracy and the fight against corruption, are fully shared by the Russian political elite. In underscoring a rather strange commonality in the views of people who vehemently oppose one another on the nature of the Russian mentality, it is necessary to make a distinction between the public declarations of the Russian leaders and their genuine views, which are indirectly revealed. The difference between the public open ideology, and the elitist closed ideology was typical of the Soviet times.
The Public View: The Regime is Democratic
Both Russian leaders have insisted, in their numerous statements in 2007-2010, that the Russian political system is as democratic as a Western one. In his Munich speech in 2007, Putin simply contended that the West, instead of “teaching us,” “has to learn itself what the genuine democracy is.” Medvedev is not as contemptuous of reality as his mentor. To his credit, even when he was still Putin’s subordinate, he rejected the ridiculous description of the Russian political system as a “sovereign democracy.” However, with mild reservations, he insisted, in his speech at the 2010 Yaroslavl forum, that “Russia, without any doubt is a democracy.”
In order to entangle the issue and make sober comparisons of the Russian political order with the Western systems more difficult, he used certain characteristics of a democracy, such as “the sustenance of the high rate of technological progress,” or “the defense of citizens against criminals,” which are, of course, not directly relevant to the definition of a democracy. A host of Russian intellectuals were in a hurry to support Medvedev’s view about the democratic character of the existing political regime, using various convoluted arguments. For example, prominent sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaia, told the audience at the forum how complex the concept of democracy is, and how many indicators are used in its description (“Freedom of House” uses 7 characteristics of democracy; UNESCO uses 10 indicators), which makes any substantial comparisons with the West almost impossible, and, moreover, allows Russia to assert that the existing political regime is indeed democratic.
The Kremlin’s Disdain of the Masses
In their contempt for ordinary Russians, the Kremlin and its ideologues follow the Soviet leaders who, from Lenin to Andropov, have all held the ordinary Russian people in great disrespect, seeing in each Russian a potential or actual drunkard, thief, deserter or spy. There is little doubt that bureaucrats of all levels—from the governor to the clerk in the village office—share the same contempt, and even hatred, of ordinary people. What is more, the necessity for justifying the authoritarian regime pushes Russian leaders and their myrmidons to describe a Russian life as deeply corrupted and criminalized, plagued with alcoholism, moral nihilism and a very low standard of living, all incompatible with a democratic institution.
The contempt for the ordinary people, the belief that the masses possess a “political immaturity,” and the notion that Russian society is absolutely not prepared for democracy are themes that have, from time to time, crept into the text of the leaders, particularly Putin, with his prolific use of obscene words to describe the masses, especially the opposition. This negative perception of the Russian people has escaped from texts in which Medvedev paints unflattering pictures of Russian life, such as at the Yaroslavl forum, when he absurdly demanded that “Russian citizens should believe that they lived in a democratic state” as a precondition for the transformation of Russia to a democracy. (In fact, no more than one-third of Russians accept the official statement about the democratic nature of the Russian state.) Dropping names of famous Western scholars like Seymour Lipset and Carl Popper, Medvedev made an almost direct hint that poverty in Russia is a major obstacle to democracy.
The novel by Natan Dubovetsky, Near Zero (an allusion to the year 2000) provided even greater insights into the minds of the Russian political elite. It is a consensus in Moscow that the name is a pseudonym for Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s leading ideologue, and the author of the absurd theory of “sovereign democracy.” With exhausting detail, the novel creates an abominable picture of Russia and Russians who, with their criminal propensities, are simply unable to live in a civilized society. The pro-Kremlin writer and journalist, Sergei Minaev, derogates both the opposition and the attempts to build democracy in Russia—which remains a political order deeply alien to the Russian nation—in his novels.
While the authors who blame the Russian people for the actual state of the society are mostly regarded as Putin’s devotees, another group of people close to Medvedev have espoused the same profound mistrust of the Russians’ ability to perpetrate a liberal transformation of the country. In the aftermath of the Yaroslavl forum, Igor Yurgens, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Development, the official presidential think-tank, declared, “Russians are very much archaic,” that “in the Russian mentality the communal values are higher than the individual values,” and that, perhaps by the year 2025, the “Russian people will be mentally comparable in their perception of democracy with the Europeans.” However, Yurgens also “observes [the] de-professionalization, degradation and, lumpenization of Russian society.”
The Superiority of the Russian Mind
Another theory about the Russian mentality, which is also used by the Kremlin to justify its regime, asserts that this type of mentality is superior over the Western mind, and in any case recognizes the advantages of the authoritarian system over a democratic one, thus praising the uniqueness of the Russian path throughout history. However, the disclosures made by those who are close to the leaders, and who have obviously served them, provide deeper insights into the minds of the leaders and the bureaucracy. With his Manifesto (October, 2010), film director Nikita Mikhalkov, Putin’s personal friend and monarchist, became one of the most eloquent heralds of this view by praising “the conservatism” of the Russian culture and the Russian mind, which unites “ecclesiastic, monarchist, Soviet, and liberal ideologies.” Mikhalkov underscores “the special respect of the Russians for authority, for state power and for order.” He justifies the regime as useful for the country, openly mocking democracy as contrary to Russian traditions and incompatible with the large size of the country. Mikhalkov’s position has primarily been endorsed by Russian nationalists like Alexander Prokhanov, as well as by leading Communists like Gennadii Ziuganov.
It would be an exaggeration to say, as do some critics of Putin’s regime, that “the writing is on the wall,” foretelling its demise. With the flow of oil dollars and high fuel prices, the Russian economy will continue to slowly develop. The army will get more weapons, with a large increase in weaponry from foreign suppliers, and the standard of living will be maintained, mostly through the import of foreign goods. There will be no threat to the integrity of the country from within or abroad. Russia will be able to integrate the results of global technological progress in some areas, like communications, computers, or new medical equipment. The Kremlin will continue to boast, and not without reason, of the new public buildings in Moscow and other big cities, as well as about their international endeavors, like hosting the Olympic Games in 2012 or the Soccer World Cup in 2018. However, with the indomitable corruption, whose metastases have penetrated each cell of society, beginning with the presidential administration and the government, the inefficiency efficacy of the state has already reached a very dangerous level for Russia to survive as it is now. From the developments in the Krasnodar region, as well in other areas, Russians learned with horror in November that the alliance of corrupted officials, police and criminal gangs control large territories of the country with impunity. The anticorruption and nationalistic riot in Moscow in December, only one mile from the Kremlin walls, showed how precarious the political power in Moscow is, as the crowd of thousands could have easily have taken control of the capital.
The miserable status of the Russian intellectual community is one of the strongest factors accountable for the decline of the Russian state and economy. With such a low status in science and other spheres of intellectual activities, the process of gradual decline in education and science will continue to lower the technological level of the Russian economy. Russia, as the online newspaper Gazeta.ru contends, was able to “create not one new technology” in the last decade, and concentrates all its efforts on the sustenance of the oil and gas industry. The professional level of the cadres in most industries will continue to decline.
A contemporary Russian author recently wrote quite sadly of the situation in Russian society. He explained why the attitudes of the Kremlin toward the intellectuals are so important for the prediction of future: “The authorities in Russia have already a long time ago estranged themselves from the society. To invite scholars for strategic management would imply the yielding of some part of absolute power to others and allow the dangerous virus of reflections, doubts, and alternative ways of thinking to penetrate in its bureaucratic cocoon. The problems lie not in “excessive” expenditures on science, but in the potential possibility for the change of the whole society, at the risk of turning to another model of social developments. Therefore it is true that the attitudes of the state toward academic science are the most precise description of the genuine views of the authorities on society.”
The main reasons for the current problems Russia faces in its weak prospects for the modernization of society lie in the nature of the country’s political elite, not in the mentality of the majority of Russians who, like many other people, are very susceptible to the ideology coming from the top. The profound mistake of those who try to explain the current situation within the country is that they look mainly at the mentality of Russians and Russian traditions.
A confluence of different circumstances (including some traditions) has led to the fact that the country is led by the political elite, who are deeply hostile towards any serious changes in the country, as this would pose a direct threat to their power and property. This view is shared by several people deeply devoted to Western values, such as politicians Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, and intellectuals like Igor Nikolaev. In fact, the ruling elite, as seen throughout the course of history in Russia and other countries—including the USA—can significantly change the system of values in a society in a short period of time. It happened in Russia during the aftermath of the revolution with the installation of a totalitarian society by Stalin, again during Perestroika, and once again after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The future of Russia depends almost completely on the composition of the political elite in the next decade. The first sign of change inside the political elite will be in their attitudes toward the intellectual community and a dramatic rise in the presence of its members in the Kremlin, as what happened during Perestroika. A great deal also depends on the courage of the Russian intellectuals, their readiness to challenge the Kremlin and to restore the brave tradition of the Russian intelligentsia as the major critical force of the authoritarian regime. However—and here is the main point of this piece—this community will only be able to perform its role as the catalyst of liberal changes if it can overcome its defeatist ideology: their belief in the retarded mentality of the Russian people.
If the Kremlin is able to maintain its deeply anti-intellectual course and move away from the democratization of society, Russia will have no choice but to continue its technological and intellectual degradation. The West should not be afraid of Russia’s foreign aggressiveness—by all accounts the Kremlin has refused to confront the USA and Europe—but rather they should fear the dangerous consequences of Russia’s regression, which includes an upsurge of rabid nationalism and the seizure of power by Russian Nazis, as well as the government losing control over the country.