International Perplexity

18 April 2016

By Poel Karp

Next year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which changed the world. Marx spread the faith that the working class would not only achieve equality under the law but that having reached the highest level of capitalism and become the majority of the population, it would institute a dictatorship of the proletariat in all developed countries. Then the state would wither away and Communism would dawn. The October Revolution lifted its prayers to Marx, but it transformed his faith. It didn't wait for other countries or for a higher level of capitalism. It took place in backward Russia, and it didn't care that the working class in Russia was but a small portion of the population. The Russian Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, relied on will and force, and under them the state didn't wither away, it took ever more control. First of industry, and from 1929 agriculture as well, and even science and the arts. And it took command of the colonies of the previous empire. The USSR lived Mussolini-style: "Everything in the state, nothing outside the state". Our country introduced totalitarianism first, before Italy.

It had a vast number of victims, starting with the newly re-enslaved peasants. The Bolsheviks who hankered back to Marx also suffered. Almost a million shot and twenty million imprisoned was not an annoying accident, as people now like to suggest, but the essence of Communism revealing itself. But perhaps the chief crime of Lenin, Stalin and their successors was that they turned Russia's back on the rest of developing mankind.

Marx did not foresee that already from the end of the nineteenth century productivity would depend not solely on the physical labor of the workers but on increasingly expensive raw materials and even more on competitive intellectual labor and freedom of thought. It seemed to Marx that the science he valued so highly was the work of a few. But in the twentieth century those engaged in intellectual labor formed a social class that served progress. The Bolsheviks, cherishing like-mindedness, did not recognize this class, called it a mere 'stratum', and dealt with it only from extreme necessity, like nuclear arms. They granted freedom of thought only in isolated military spheres. And all other aspects of labor and life they ran in a manner in contradiction with knowledge and reflection. And the working class, too, was kept in its place by the ruling nomenklatura. In the thirties the slogans of October were still emblazoned on banners, but they were nothing but ornamentation for a life that was very different from the slogans. Marx's project turned out to be an unattainable utopia.

That is why the Nazi army defeated the well-armed Soviet Union in the first months after it invaded, forcing Soviet forces back to the Volga. They could barely have held the frontline without the food and military aid of the United States and Britain. Subsequently occupying half of Europe, the Soviet Union looked like a victor, but as soon as Stalin's death permitted, its leaders had to figure out how to run the economy differently. The ruling class feared serious changes, as it might be swept away by them. In the early eighties the crisis became evident, they had run out of logical explanations. And so they launched Perestroika.

They started it as a matter of reorganizing state administration. Gorbachev understood that nothing could be changed from inside the Party machine, political support was required. And then the support was stronger than he'd expected and the Party machine opposed changes. Three stances emerged within the nomenklatura: The Stalinist-Brezhnevite position taken by the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the quasi-social democratic position of Gorbachev, who wanted to preserve the Soviet Union, and Yeltsin's position, which was to return to unlimited autocratic rule, without the Soviet Union and Communism - with a President instead of a Tsar. The rulers brought the masquerade of Revolution to a halt.

Autocratic rule, hitherto hidden behind a façade, was now openly proclaimed. Power as the vertical embodiment of a tyrant's will did not bother about its relation to society. It gave no weight to the ‘horizontal’ level of regional administrations enjoying a degree of independence. Nor did it concern itself with the separation of powers, which has never existed in Russia. Perestroika created only the appearance of private property, and Russian property owners are no more than agents of the state. The rise in oil prices on the world markets, quite independently of Russian privatization, for a time raised standards of living. But the essence of the economy hadn't changed. Russian policy was the same as it had been, in its concentration on military production as well as its desire to strengthen the vertical power structure and drive the countries that had slipped out of the Soviet Union back into the empire.

This is no surprise in the case of Russia. Her character as a state has not changed much in a hundred years. The real cause of perplexity is that the West took on good faith Yeltsin's declaration, and later Putin's, that Russia was not what the USSR used to be. And that the West tolerates from Russia what it didn't tolerate from the Soviet Union. Along with Russia, the United States and Britain both signed the Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Ukraine territorial inviolability if it gave up its nuclear weapons. And now the USA and the UK have, with Russia, trampled on their international obligations, imposing no more than pitiful sanctions. But if agreements aren't binding, why the talks? Why is Mr Kerry traveling to Moscow for a week, if Moscow is showing it doesn't consider itself bound by being a signatory to the Memorandum? Russia put soldiers in the Crimea and the Donbass region, but is not considered a party in the Ukrainian conflict, rather an outside observer. France and Germany talk with Russia about what Russian soldiers do as if the Ukraine crisis were an internal affair. The West refuses to call things by their true names.

In 1991 the West foolishly believed Yeltsin when he said that Russia would be different, even though even before he appointed Putin he had shown that things remained the same. And what did the West do? Once upon a time, in response to the blockade of Berlin, the West created an airlift, and some politician, when asked if Western airplanes weren't going to be shot down, said: "But Stalin knows that one airplane shot down means world war." Because of the complexities of the flights to Berlin, almost eighty pilots lost their lives, but not one was shot down. Stalin understood that the West would not yield, and a year later he restored communications by land. Putin understands that the situation has changed. As a professional secret policeman he sees that the West is governed by nonentities who don't hold their ground. They'll give away Ukraine, and Syria, and the Baltic states, and Poland. So he puts the squeeze on. The one thing he does neglect, however, is the fact that he can't control the consequences of his aggression, which may incite a world war before he's ready.

It's not that people don't like Russia. Most people do, they like Russian ballet and they like Russian money even more. But people don't like Russian autocracy, especially in the countries which have experience of it. Humiliating Obama and Merkel with old games, Putin has managed to strengthen Russophobia along the way. Moreover, while integration in the civilized world is of vital importance to Russia, you can’t suddenly become a pupil when you are trying to be a teacher to everybody. And it should be said that the West feared Hitler, and yielded to him, and when he didn't pipe down they had to fight him in worse circumstances. So today, wishing to maintain peace with Russia, the West should not swallow her aggressions but respond, otherwise there will be no end to them. The West must see that it is only when Russia leaves the Crimea and the Donbass and pays reparations, that talks will be useful.

The Russian powers-that-be cannot explain why the Russians, a people no less able than the British, Germans, French, for a hundred years and longer, with the exception of one decade of insane oil prices, have lived incomparably worse than others; why Russians, in contrast to the others, were first slaves to landowners and then slaves to collective farms. It is not because the Russians work any worse, or because they are lazy or succumb to drunkenness, but because the state, at first autocratic and then totalitarian, at first feudal and then based on a ‘nomenklatura,’ used their strengths and abilities to seize and hold on to an empire. And it was precisely the empire, having outlived its time (there are no others left on earth), that impeded then country's development. The Tsars failed to take the path of regeneration, so did the Party leaders, and Putin and his cohorts can burn the world down along with Russia but they cannot make it Russian. They won't win the battle Lenin and Stalin already lost. If the country hadn't been under totalitarian control, the people would long ago have changed the way things work and thrown off the regimes imposed on them. But in Russia there are two patriotisms competing with each other: on the one hand there is a love of fatherland, a preparedness to defend it from illegal, brutal and reckless power, and on the other hand there is a totalitarian, imperialist patriotism which demands everything our own way, the Russian way. To save itself, Russia needs do no more than recognize others' right to live as they wish.

Translated by Alissa Leigh-Valles