Two Decades After the Fall: Russia–From Great State to Failed State

Two Decades After the Fall: Russia–From Great State to Failed State

Two Decades After the Fall: Keith Gessen

WHAT HAPPENED in Russia after 1989? An old, intricate, broken system was simply replaced with no system at all. Government stopped functioning. Russia, at various points in the 1990s, came close to being a failed state; it certainly had some of the classic characteristics. In the Caucasus region, it proved unable to maintain its territorial integrity; in 1998, it declared bankruptcy—defaulting on its debts. To go so quickly from great state to failed state is difficult, so Russia was a failed state with a bad conscience. It’s possible all failed states are that way.

It is common, and no longer unique to the left, to blame the “liberal reformers”–more accurately the neoliberal reformers–for forcing through economic reforms before a legal framework or a political base for them existed. This is fair: The reformers were ideologically rigid, arrogant, and often foolish. But insofar as the reformers had a political base at all it was the old Soviet intelligentsia (plus President Yeltsin). And how anyone could have expected social-democratic thinking to emerge from this intelligentsia (or Yeltsin), I don’t really know.

It would have been enough to look at the voting patterns of the mostly Jewish émigrés who came to the United States from the USSR in the late 1970s and early 80s (before the Soviet Union stopped letting them out). These people, who included my parents, voted for Ronald Reagan as soon as they were allowed to; and if, as with my parents, the date of their arrival plus the six-year wait for citizenship meant they could never cast a ballot for their hero, they voted twice for George Herbert Walker Bush. They voted against a regime that they had hated, silently and uselessly, all their lives. Even in places with less terrible versions of the Soviet regime–like Hungary or Czechoslovakia–the intelligentsia continued to hate the old regime long enough that they were willing to give their support to its polar opposite, whether it was American neoconservatives or the post-Soviet neoliberals.

And yet I think it’s important to add that to demonize the 1990s too much is to begin to parrot the Putinist party line. The liberal intelligentsia failed to stand up to its own political representatives and failed—even more vitally—to propose a viable political alternative to, on the one hand, the fanatical neoliberalism of the reformers and, on the other, the Stalinism of the regime’s opponents. But it nonetheless created some admirable institutions. In Moscow, alone, it helped establish the NLO magazine and publishing house, Russian State Humanities University, the OGI coffee houses and bookstores and publishers, the Falanster Bookstore. If Russian culture is not entirely a desert, even after ten years of Putinism, this is why.

SO WHAT kind of political regime does Russia have? The German political scientist Hans-Henning Schroder wrote an essay with that title a few years ago because, well, no one knows. For a few years now, people have referred to Russia as practicing “capitalist authoritarianism.” This seems right because it’s an important corrective to the “back to the USSR” mode of journalism that sees Russia as always backsliding toward authoritarianism when, in fact, it could be sliding forward into it. And my friends on the Russian left accept this characterization: For them Russia is nothing more or less than a neoliberal state on the semi-periphery of the world system. The curbs on political and press freedoms are simply the price that needs to be paid to keep the population “on board.”

So, in general I agree with the characterization. But at the same time I have trouble wrapping my head around what it means. To start with capitalism: What does it mean for a ruling class to subscribe to capitalism ideologically? Russia’s elites continue to seize companies from one another; they expand the list of companies that are, for one reason or another, protected from foreign ownership; and they seek monopolistic control wherever and whenever possible. If they’re capitalists, they are bad capitalists.

The current elite is better at authoritarianism, but in this too there is a lot of leeway. The Russian leadership is isolated, but not nearly as isolated as was the Soviet leadership; and it’s important for it to think that it’s part of the European historical process. The Russians are always coming up with names for the sort of democracy they’re running–“sovereign democracy” being the best-known–but the reason they’re doing this is, I think, because they continue to believe they’re part of the process of democratization that has taken place in Europe since 1989. This is important. They will only go so far. Russia is a capitalist authoritarian system in which both the capitalism and the authoritarianism are highly imperfect.

Putting this another way: Early this summer, several hundred workers from a shuttered alumina factory in the town of Pikalevo walked to the federal highway and blocked it for six hours. They were protesting the fact that their factory had been shut down because of a complicated dispute with the town’s other two factories. Two days later, Putin arrived to save the day and put the factory owners in their place and the factory back to work.

What was interesting–beyond how hopeful a sign it was that people were able to organize in this way (they were led by an energetic union leader named Svetlana Antropova)–was that until Putin came along, reluctantly and with all the usual Putinist boorishness, the regional authorities had parroted the neoliberal line to the workers. They’d told them that there was work elsewhere and they should move there. And the workers had replied: Why should we move there, when there’s a perfectly good factory here? The town that they were attached to–I visited a few weeks ago–is a dull, dusty Soviet workers’ town, with a main street called Sovetskaya, a soccer field, and a lone disco in the old Palace of Culture across from the bust of Lenin. But it was their town, and they weren’t just interchangeable parts to be moved this way and that.

Fifteen years ago, at the height of the reformist assault on Soviet institutions, these workers might have been told that they were historically obsolete–and might even have secretly believed it. But now they are able to stand up for themselves because neoliberalism has failed to take hold in Russia. It is an unintended consequence of the partial rehabilitation of the USSR by the Putin regime that the people of Pikalevo felt as secure in their rights as workers as they did. So while the Putin regime tries to resurrect the worst aspects of Soviet life–censorship, xenophobia, militarism–these workers were looking to resurrect one of its few positive aspects: the strength (or at the very least the confidence) of the workers.

On a much smaller scale, there are very promising “red shoots,” so to speak, among the young people in Moscow and Petersburg and–more and more–elsewhere. The Petersburg group Chto Delat’ (“What Is To Be Done?”) and the Moscow group Vperyod (“Forward”) are very small but are trying to work out an intellectual and practical response to the current regime. It will take a long time before this turns into a large enough movement for a Velvet Revolution–and Russia has rarely done things in a velvety way–but for the moment, and for the first time in many, many years, the best and strongest intellectual energies in Russia are coming from the left.

Keith Gessen is co-editor of n+1 and author of All the Sad Young Literary Men.