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February 27, 2008

News from the Russian Front: Lincoln Allison offers a Utilitarian Tory perspective on contemporary Russia - and finds himself surprisingly optimistic about the country's future

Posted by Lincoln Allison

On his return from Russia, Lincoln Allison argues that there are good reasons for us to be optimistic about the country's future.

Is there a more charmless, graceless lot on the planet? People who glare at you with sullen malice, which only intensifies when they are drunk Ė which they often are. Not that I care normally, but when it is the woman on the immigration desk who has just taken twelve minutes to deal with one case and there are hundreds of us queuing. There is no guilt or sympathy in her expression, just as there is none of the faces of those who let their phones ring in the opera or the people on the metro who let the heavy doors swing back at you. Though the driver who nearly kills you as you cross the street does manage to show some disappointment that he missed.

These people have made sullenness into a culture; they have taken to extremes the common human error of confusing moroseness with cleverness. It is as if nothing could make you more uncivil and anti-social than three generations of socialism.

And if you thought that this was just their manner then try making yourself watch the home videos of the gang of teenage boys who are supposed to have killed 37 non-Russians. These have been shown on Russian television and most of the crimes were committed in broad daylight and in public places. It is not the actions of the boys which are so disturbing, but the behaviour of passers-by who studiously ignore what is going on. However, a word of caution is required about the facts of this case: it is still going on and it may well be that both the police and the gang members have exaggerated these crimes.

Also, at the risk of being fair I must add that I have not been describing Russians as such, but Muscovites as they behave in public. Even in St. Petersburg people are noticeably friendlier and more courteous. And if you want another angle on Russia then I must report my experience of visiting a dozen or so royal and aristocratic palaces which have been exquisitely and expensively restored in the last few years.

Our normal companions on these tours were parties of Russian schoolchildren and I can report that compared with their English equivalents they seemed to be better humoured, better disciplined, better dressed and fitter. I looked for, but never found, an obese child. And if you are lying awake worrying about where the next generation of supermodels is coming from I can report that every sixth form (or equivalent) in St. Petersburg seemed to have half a dozen serious candidates.

Dear old Mother Russia: riddles, enigmas and so on. No sooner have you made one firm observation about the place than you are obliged to make another which pushes you in the opposite direction. The current riddle in political commentary - even political theory - is Vladimir Putin: how do we categorise him and how do we deal with him?

I write at the moment at which Putin stands down as Russian president in favour of his friend Dmitry Medvedev as the constitution requires. Putin will become Prime Minister and possibly president of Gazprom. He makes little pretence of deferring to his successor, commenting that he can't imagine himself putting up Medvedev's picture in his office and he can legally return himself in four years.

The two men are pictured together looking nice chaps and the best of mates. It seems to be assumed that Medvedev will be a puppet, but the C/Vs of the two men look very different: Medvedev is much younger (42), a lawyer, a businessman and a former academic. He is also a Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple fan in contrast to the Russophilic Putin. We'll see!

There was never a possibility that Medvedev would lose: opinion polls have showed his support as up to 79% and the alternatives are not serious. The main question seemed to be about how many people would bother to vote; even people I talked to who weren't prepared to vote for him seemed quite glad he was going to win - a bit like Anglophone South Africans and the National Party in the Bad Old Days.

It is more or less the orthodoxy among Western political theorists and commentators that Putin is a bad thing. He has retreated from the press freedom and "democracy" of the Yeltsin years. Television, certainly, is much more in the hands of the state and the ruling party, United Russia and opposition can be costly. Putin has pursued feuds against the "oligarchs" who acquired wealth in the Yeltsin era, against former Soviet republics like Georgia and even against the British Council. In traditional terms he is an enthusiastic sabre-rattler with a menacing international presence. Asked to expedite the extradition of a murder suspect to Britain he rather cheekily commented that it was constitutionally impossible which the British could not be expected to understand, not having a constitution.

In her book Putin's Russia, published in 2003, Lilia Shevtsova saw Russia and Putin at a crossroads: onwards to freedom and democracy? Or back to Russian authoritarianism? And there's no question that if you accept this conceptual framework and the question it generates then he has gone back.

But I think the whole conceptual framework being applied here is misconceived; to borrow a phrase I came across in a Russian newspaper it is the Whig theory of history dressed up in pseudo-science. It is comparable to Marxism in its assumptions of universal models and predictable futures. And I think it has proved to be self-denying prophecy: the Whig fundamentalists like Professor Michael McFaul of Stanford who advocated a "Big Bang" rush to capitalism and democracy are responsible for the impossibility of those goals being achieved.

The Yeltsin years in Russia were horrendous: economic and financial collapse, national humiliation, crime and crony corruption at the top, all taken to be manifestations of "democracy". If Russians got to vote simply for or against democracy they would surely vote against, like Mill's man who freely chooses slavery.

I want to put a different kind of view of contemporary Russia, Utilitarian Tory rather than Whig fundamentalist. It is a view informed by two comparisons: I toured the Soviet Union extensively in 1982 and I have been on many occasions in the Republic of Georgia.

Let's start with a basic truth: Putinism is not a throwback to the USSR. There can be no such throwback because it was as rooted in its time as the Third Reich or the Byzantine Empire. The Russia I have just seen is as far removed from the Soviet Union of 1982 as it is possible to imagine. I did go to a Communist rally which did a fair job of duplicating a Socialist-Realist montage with its red flags and women in fur hats making passionate speeches, but it looked so wonderfully irrelevant to the realities of contemporary Russia.

There are a hundred reasons why the clock could never be turned back where ten would suffice. They include foreign travel, the internet, habits of free thought and self reliance and the religious revival. Russia may be authoritarian, to revive the old distinction, but it is not totalitarian - very much Singapore rather than North Korea. I feel sorry for the old people who regret the lost certainties that they were living in the most progressive and humane state on the planet, but they are a dying breed in a Russia which is changing inexorably. It is one of many countries which manage its own form of capitalism without much democracy.

Putin has given Russians three things which they had either never possessed before or had lost. First, economic growth. Figures differ and official figures do not tell a full story, but Russia's growth has nominally taken it to within striking distance of the poorest EU counties (though I'd unhesitatingly rather be the average Portuguese than the average Russian). But some of this is real, at least in the big cities and the figures don't actually tell you how well the public transport works or how generously heating is provide. Georgia was richer than Russia per capita in Soviet days, but has been left far behind now.

Second, reasonable stability: streets are comparatively safe, food and energy supplies never fail, there is no fear that the economy or currency will collapse.

Third, a sense of national pride. I suspect that this is the most important factor and I don't think we should ever underestimate the Kamyshevian aspect of Russian character. Kamyshev (you will recall) was a character in a Chekov story called In a Strange Land, a landowner who continued to pay the French language teacher of his sons many years after his sons had left home just so that he could harangue the poor chap about how much more profound, spiritual, robust, naturally intelligent etc. the Russians were than the foppish French.

Russians can live with socialism losing to capitalism in the Cold War; what they can't live with is the land of Pushkin and Borodin losing to the land of Hollywood and Starbuck's. Putin is a Kamyshevite and everyone likes this even when they say they donít. It was never conceivable that Russia was ever going to roll over and say, "Please help us to be more like you!"

Of course, it's all based on natural resources. Russia controls 25% of known gas reserves and 9% of oil reserves - and it is a decent bet that the unknown reserves favour Russia even more. Given effective state control of these reserves Putin could run a state with cheap energy and a flat-rate 13% income tax: Western exploration companies currently get $28 a barrel while the market price edges over $100 - and they still find it well worth their while. That pays for a lot of renovation of palaces and churches.

There is a debate among Russian intellectuals about whether this energy dependence is a good thing or not (oil alone is 37% of the Russian economy). In theory I take the point: the economic history of the twentieth century shows plenty of examples of economies which never developed properly because they were over-endowed with resources (Argentina?, South Africa?) and of those who had to develop because they had none (Switzerland?, Japan?). But in practice I have no doubts. I think that the fossil fuels give Russia time to stabilise and grow, time which any Georgian would envy.

Future Russian governments may make a pig's ear of the necessary economic transformation, but without oil and gas Russia would be a dangerous and unstable hell. As it is I can report that when I went to the USSR in 1982 I was in no doubt that I was witnessing a social system collapsing, but I had no such sense when I visited Russia in 2008.

Now that Russians discuss their history in a broader context than they did in Soviet times there are obvious comparisons to be made between Tsars and post-revolutionary leaders. Revolutionary visionaries like Peter the Great and Lenin are rare and probably best avoided. Weaklings like Nicholas II and Gorbachev are despised. Putin is seen by some as comparable to Alexander III who gave Russia prosperity and stability after Alexander II's radical reforms and assassination (in 1881). Alexander III was an authoritarian and a Russophile nationalist (unlike his cosmopolitan and liberal father). Not a good Whig, but a popular Tsar.

Finally, and despite the opening sentiments of this essay, I feel as I did in Soviet times that there is much to like about Russia. There are those high cheekbones and fur hats for a start. And I do rather like humming along through the birch forest sipping my free vodka in a train which is running on time even though it is snowing!

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.


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Some might think that Jonathan Dimbleby's analysis of the new Russia might be a little more reliable:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article3422300.ece

Posted by: Frank Pulley at February 28, 2008 12:55 AM
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