SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social SciencesReference:
Why Russians are so different?
Abstract.The author attempts to answer the question “Why Russians are so different?” form the sociopolitical and economic points of view. He advances the idea that the major role in formation of peculiarities of Russians’ identity was played by some cultural aspects of the pre-Communist era, but also the political institutions influence of the Soviet Union. The author compares distinctive traits of Russians’ identity with those of the people of developed countries. The author considers such topics of Russians’ cultural identity as: destruction of social capital under the Soviet Union and its influence upon the current social conditions; causes of the problems with establishment of democratic institutions, as well as protection of human rights; historical background of the economic development and influence of the legacy of the Communist regime upon current economic conditions.
Keywords: mentality, identity, Russia, Russian, features, policy, sociology, cultural studies, philosophy, history
Many facts and indexes allow us to affirm that Russia and Russians are not so different form the Westerns countries and their citizens. Russian society is complex, multinational, and urbanized. The level of education is quite high here, and literary as well as artistic legacy of Russia is considered as being a part of Western culture. Welfare state and social justice values, especially labor rights developed under the Communist rule, have strong legacy in Russia, which also seems to confirm the idea that the levels of certain human development indexes are comparable to that of the Western countries. The level of equality between men and women is not lower than in the Western countries. Nonetheless, some socioeconomic and political peculiarities of Russia as well as of the cultural identity and worldview of Russians are so important, that even a tourist can observe significant differences in comparison with the Western countries. Indeed, the democratic organization of political power has never existed here; human rights abuses are common here even today; level of social capital is the lowest in the world, even on the level of most intense interpersonal relations; and economy is still struggling to convert to capitalism, among other things.
Many authors, both Russian and Western, have attempted to identify those peculiarities of Russia and its inhabitants, as well as to reveal its roots by comparing them with the Western countries and their citizens. Some of them determined that those peculiarities are of cultural origin and could be explained by religious or climatogeografic factors (Lebedev, Maksimovitch 2015), while others emphasized the institutional factor (role of the state) (Rozenova 2015). We believe that the institutional factors do not play as big of a role as the cultural factors in profoundly feudalistic societies, which Russia was until the end of the XIX century, whereas it would be wrong to reject the influence of the state (institutional thesis) on social capital, economy, and identity of its citizens, since it is axiomatic that the totalitarian states (such as Russia under the Communist rule) are so invasive into the personal and social life of the individual, that such factor could not be rejected. Thus, a historical research of the socioeconomic peculiarities, as well as of the political influence, is necessary in order to understand why Russia and its inhabitants seem to be so different from the Western countries and their citizens.
Therefore, first and foremost, we would have to present some general observations on the social capital in Russia (§1); then consider how Russian political institutions work and what cultural as well as institutional factors influence them (§2); and finally, present some observations on Russians and their economy (§3).
1. Social capital in Russia
Most of the forms of social cohesion in the pre-Soviet era were those of the traditional interpersonal kind. In other words, the antecedents that we can find in the Russians’ cultural identity of pre-Soviet era are not propitious to creation of non-interpersonal (wide weak) social ties. The most important institution of social cohesion in the pre-Soviet Russia was village community (Obshchina or Mir), which is a traditional form of social capital, built upon interpersonal relations. The importance of this basic social capital institution can be explained by the etymological significance of one of its denominations – Mir. Indeed, although Mir in Russian has several significances (all of which are extremely important, due to their abstract and universal significance), one of the translations of this Russian word means “world”, which leads us to believe that the village community (Mir) represented the whole world to an individual, and also testifies that other forms of social ties had less importance compared to that of Mir. This is especially the case of wide non-interpersonal social ties.
The importance of this social institution is also proven by its extremely sociocentric and even feudal character, where the importance of community is so high, that its dominance over the individuals undermines their freedom as well as other forms of social ties. Indeed, such distinctive traits of Mir as predomination of the common property of the community (at least in what concerns the land) over private property of its members and solidary responsibility for the actions of each of its members (krugovaya poruka) proves extremely sociocentric nature of this kind of social ties. It is not wonder to find such sociocentric institutions, especially in a country where extreme climate conditions make life of the individual uncertain, and where – correlatively – the role of the community in the survival of its members is very high. But what is a wonder though, is that such extremely sociocentric social institutions survived in Russia up to the end of the XIX century, whereas in the Western countries, they have disappeared many centuries prior.
This institution of social capital was destroyed during the Soviet Union. The main instrument of the Soviets directed at the destruction of Mir was the collectivization (kolektivisaziya). To simplify, this instrument aimed to deprive the peasants of their personal and community property by collectivizing it (but not in order to benefit the village community itself, but in order to expropriate it to the benefit of the state), as well as to appoint state’s officials as the head of the community, known as twenty-five-thousanders (dvadtsat'pyat'tysyachniki). Thus, this demolished the basic and the only democratic institution of the pre-Soviet Russia, where the head of the village community (Sel’skiy starosta) was previously elected by the members of the community.
Another element of social cohesion in pre-Soviet Russia, the importance of which needs no proof – namely the Orthodox religion – was also destroyed during the Communist era. Atheism was (unofficially) one of the main bases of the Soviet state. Lenin affirmed the necessity “to destroy the religion” (Lenin, 1967: 418) and in practice, many laws during the Soviet Union era were directed at undermining the religion’s social role, as well as destroying the Orthodox Church as an institution. Thus, the religion and the Church, which undeniably had played a social cohesive role via establishment of common moral values, were undermined during Soviet Union era.
Same is true for the family. Although some authors (Abelbeisov 2013) argue that under the totalitarian rule the cohesion on the interpersonal level was solidified as a necessity of the individual to be protected against the brutality of the state, we think that the Communist rule destroyed not only the weak traditional nationwide ties (religion), and more or less intense village community ties, but also the stronger, family ones. Indeed, the story of Pavlik Morozoff, who denounced his father to the authorities and was in turn killed by his family and then praised by the Soviet press as a hero and a martyr, is well known in Russia and certainly proves that the total domination of the totalitarian rule succeeded in undermining even the strongest interpersonal institutions of social capital.
This methodical destruction of social ties on all levels (from the most intense interpersonal – kin and family, to the weakest nationwide forms – religion) under the totalitarian rule is well described by H. Arendt under the concept of “total domination”: the state “[…] succeeded not in changing man but only in destroying him, by creating a society in which the nihilistic banality of homo homini lupus is consistently realized” (H. Arendt, 1968: 459). In other words, this author proposes that the total domination had destroyed all forms of social capital by instilling fear and reducing humans to the animal condition. Not entirely agreeing with such affirmation (at least in the case with Russia), we admit that the totalitarian Communist rule had extremely harmful influence on the trust even on the basic inter individual level of the local community and families, since violent brutality of the political power set mistrust in each other among the citizens: any neighbor was considered as a potential state official that could report any person, and therefore, considered as a potential enemy. In our opinion, the remnants of trust towards the immediate family have survived, but we have to admit that is very scarce. The reaction to such destruction of social ties can be seen even today and manifests in the excessive, inordinate love of Russians towards young children (not only their own) that exceeds any normal levels: those are the only humans that can be called human, because their innocence and incapacity to betray makes them the only individuals that Russians can still trust.
Thus, any state autonomous forms of social capital that played a social cohesive role in the pre-Soviet Russia were destroyed under the Soviet Union, and replaced by state-initiated artificial institutions of social cohesion. All of the social capital and civic engagement initiatives that we could find in the Soviet Russia were state-initiated and imposed: political participation, civil engagement, “voluntary” associations, as well as other forms of social capital, were state-initiated and even (top-down) imposed. In other words, it would be wrong to affirm that during the Soviet Union era there were no institutions, whose role was to assume social cohesion, on the contrary, the egalitarian society that was formed under Communism fosters wide weak non-interpersonal by its nature social ties, but due to the totalitarian rule they were all (form labor unions, to non-profit organizations) state-initiated and felt imposed and unnecessary.
At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, none of the traditional social capital institutions have survived in Russia, and those that were artificially constructed by the Communist state have disappeared. Only some remnants of the naturally basic interpersonal institutions of every society – the family and some limited forms of interpersonal relations (which have been seriously undermined) survived the totalitarian rule. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as a consequence of the disappearance of the state imposed artificial elements of social capital, Russians found themselves in a social capital vacuum, or as some authors put it, “in the post-Soviet environment, Russia continues to lack a cohesive sense of “self” to replace the Communist ideology that was imposed form above” (J. L. Twigg, K. Schecter, 2003: 6).
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economy was liberalized, and egalitarianism as the principle of socioeconomics was abandoned. This contributed to deepening of the gap between haves and have-nots up to staggering income disparities, which caused further deterioration of the social capital. Moreover, if during the first decade of the current millennium the economic situation have improved (although currently worsened by the dropping oil prices and economic sanctions), many Russians still live in poverty, and there is virtually no middleclass. If in developed countries people consider acceptable levels of income disparities as normal, for Russians, who were economically almost equal during Communism, such disparities appear to be as greater unfairness than anywhere else. Given the importance of current economic gap that separates the haves and the have-nots, this unfairness is considered by Russian as the greatest injustice, which seriously undermines the social capital.
Besides the staggering economic disparities, other factors in the post-Soviet Russia also contributed to the degradation of the social capital not without contribution of the political powers. Overall liberalization in the late 1980s’ and 1990s’ allowed to people to profess their own religion and, as a consequence of disorientation and ideological vacuum, produced by the collapse of the Communist ideology, religion started to play a more important role in the hearts and minds of the Russians. Moreover, political powers – especially of the post-Yeltsin era – conscious of the catastrophic situation with the social capital in Russia used religion and its main institution, namely the Church, as an instrument of social cohesion. Being historically the main denomination, Russian Orthodox Church claims to play a major role in the reconstruction of wide weak ties. Nonetheless, this enterprise is extremely hazardous, especially in such multi- religious society with state-imposed atheist past as Russia, as it leads to the opposite effect: rejection of the institutional role of the Russian Orthodox Church by other confessions and rejection of the Church-imposed religious ethics by atheists.
Finally, Russia as a multiethnic State always had problems with tolerance to ethnic minorities, which has only became worse. Today, hostility towards migrants in Russia and its own ethnic minorities also divides Russian society and depletes social capital on national level. If during Soviet Union those problems were largely dormant and hidden, the internationalist Communist ideology, which main ideological principle is based on cohesion of the proletariat of all nations (proletarii vseh stran soyedinyaites’), in today’s Russia ethnic differences are exacerbated. This is partly due to the policies of the Soviet Union of the mass deportation of the ethnic minorities that lead to the greatest mixtures of the population in different regions of the Soviet Union (even on the territories occupied by the autochthone populations). As a consequence, this multiethnic and multi-religious mixture depletes social capital, but contrary to Western countries, where society also becomes multiethnic and multi-religious, Russians do not have the same humanistic values of tolerance and open-mindedness necessary to deal with such phenomena (see below § 2).
Today’s efforts of Russian political authorities to rebuild social ties are regressive. On the one hand, the social capital initiatives from the below are repressed by political powers. The clearest example of this trend could be found in the legislation on the non-governmental organizations of the last decade, activities of which were seriously obstructed. On the other hand, many social cohesive initiatives were undertaken during the last 10-15 years, but almost all of them are state (top-down) initiated. Moreover, the mechanisms used for social capital reconstruction are copied from the examples of the Communist era: creation of state-initiated organizations and associations; propaganda and indoctrination, which are possible due to the restrictions imposed on the liberty of press and freedom of expression; etc. This artificial reconstruction of social capital concerns only wide weak nationwide ties and has no positive effect on the social capital construction on the basic interpersonal level; leads to excessive patriotism, and even nationalism, as well as contributes to the worsening of ethnic and interreligious conflicts (Kondakov 2013).
As F. Fukuyama has exactly pointed out “the levels of social capital were low or depleted under communism” (Fukuyama 2000: 31). This is absolutely true, since we know that almost any form of social capital in authoritarian or totalitarian societies is intermediated by the state authorities: “objective of Marxist-Leninism was to stamp out an independent civil society and the horizontal ties between citizens on which civil society was based”. Instead, during Soviet Union the social capital was state (top-down) imposed. In the absence of the intervention of state – i.e. after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the artificial institutions of social capital have disappeared, whereas citizens had no ability to construct social ties due to the destruction of all non-state forms of social capital. As a consequence, in such countries citizens have no culture of spontaneous horizontal engagement within the civil society, except on the level of traditional nearest kin interpersonal relations, and sometimes on the level of the closest neighbors or friends. Such identity is clearly different form that of citizens of the Western countries and cannot foster democratic institutions, which by its intrinsic nature suppose some forms of social capital and civic engagement on nationwide level, as well as hinders the development of the economy.
2. Russians, their democratic institutions, and their human rights
Russians’ support of democratic institutions is almost the lowest worldwide: according to World Values Survey/European Values Survey (polled information from 1995-2001) support for democracy in Russia is one of the lowest worldwide, even compared to the countries that do not have strong democratic institutions and democratic legacy. Of course, there is an effect of dissatisfaction with the poor performance of electoral liberal democracy during the 1990’s, or a “hangover from the Cold War era” (Norris, Inglehart, 2011: 148) as some sociologists name it. Despite the fact that there is some part of reasonableness in this explanation, we cannot entirely agree with this vision, especially as applied to Russia. Indeed, the roots of rejection of democracy are deeper in Russia than that, and we have to emphasize the attention on the fact that Russia has never had liberal democratic institutions (except at the local level - Obshchina), which explains not only the low level of appreciation for democratic institutions among Russians, but also the current difficulties of establishment thereof. Indeed, even if we take into consideration the political institutions of the pre-Soviet era, we have to admit that they were not entirely democratic (national Parliament elections favored pro-monarchical political forces – upper house members were appointed by Tsar – and Government did not have to answer to the Parliament; the latter de facto had only a consultative power) and that they existed only for a very short period of time, and therefore, could not form the conviction among Russians that the democratic intuitions are naturally necessary.
If Western world modern era revolutions were by nature liberal revolutions aspiring to establish democracy and were initiated against absolute monarchs by bourgeoisie and other wealthy strata of the population, Russian revolutions (1905, 1917) were largely initiated by the industrial workforce and peasantry. Indeed, in the Western countries the composition of the nation representative institutions of the Great revolutions’ era, which stood in conflict against absolute monarchs, were comprised mostly of gentry (English parliament of the Great Civil Wars era) as well as of bourgeoisie (Tiers Etat in France during French Revolution). On the contrary, almost half of the First Russian Duma was comprised of peasantry. The difference between the Western countries’ and Russia’s revolutions can also be revealed in the causes of the revolutions and the demands of the revolutionary active strata of the population: primarily laborers and peasantry (i.e. have-nots) demands of socio-economic and materialist nature (labor conditions and land redistribution) in Russian case (Harcave 1964) and liberal and political demands of the bourgeoisie – or more specifically, the wealthy population – in the Western countries. In other words, Russian revolutions were directed at the equality of the social and economic conditions of the laborers and peasantry and directed against the wealthy, whereas in the Western countries, they were directed by haves against the absolutism and resulted in political liberalization, democratic institutions, and guaranties of private property and other human rights and freedoms (i.e. non-materialist demands). This secondary role of the demands for democratization and respect of human rights and freedoms in Russian revolutions demonstrates that even before the advent of the totalitarian Communist rule liberal democracy and human rights were not the fundamental values for Russians.
The rudimentary democratic institutions of the pre-Soviet era were destroyed within an extremely short – form historical point of view – period: with the rise to power of Bolsheviks and the advent of the Soviet Union the situation with democratic institutions, as well as human rights, only degraded. The advent of the Communism required a (working) class dictatorship rule (diktatura proletariata) (Marx 1969), and Russian society, where respect for basic rights and liberties as well as democratic institutions were almost unknown, was perfectly suitable for such totalitarian rule. If in theory the dictatorship of proletariat was conceived as formally democratic (in form of representative institutions – soviets), unknown to Russians democratic institutions allowed to concentrate all political power outside of the population – within the political bureaucracy. Moreover, “violent” and “bloody” (Lenin 1967: 136) terrorist rule of the proletariat could be installed in Russia better than anywhere else: human rights and freedoms unknown to the majority of Russian population allowed de facto to eliminate the population from participation in political decision-making process and enslave the individual for raison d’Etat. As a consequence, the working class and peasantry’s situation was transformed from what we can describe as an economic enslavement (under tsarist rule) to state enslavement (under Soviet Union).
The individual-state relations in the Soviet Union – as in any totalitarian state – were based on the principle of the assignment of individual for the purposes of the State and not of the State for the individual, as in liberal democracies (Georgievsky 2013). Disregard for fundamental human rights and liberties is natural in Russia since – contrary to the western liberal democracies – the problem of their respect was always secondary to strictly economic (materialist) demands: Russians would not take to the streets to protest for the protection of their rights, but only in order to improve their economic situation and only then, when economic conditions of their life became truly unbearable. Russians’ materialist world outlook exacerbated during the Communist era under conditions in which individual was under constant threat of physical liquidation, which created necessity to constantly fight for one’s own survival. Disregard for human life and passivity of the population unready to fight for their rights allowed the implementation of disastrous policies without regard for human condition, which lead to heavy human losses (famine). As a consequence of such disregard, futile and precarious human conditions, Russians have developed a self-defense mechanisms for survival: a proof of this affirmation can be found in popularity of dacha, which is the only instrument – since Mir was destroyed – of individual’s survival under Communist rule, because only dacha can allow an individual to become self-sustained. Obviously, individuals in such precarious, life-threatening conditions are less prone to preoccupy themselves with such higher degree values as democracy and human rights.
As we have already pointed out, all revolutions in Russia did not have liberal values and human rights as the main objective. Indeed, as we have seen, the revolutions of the beginning of the XX century (1905, 1917) had mostly economic demands at their core (redistribution of land property and labor rights) and not democratic and liberal values, whereas the 1991 and 1993 political events were nothing more that internal power coups. As a consequence, contrary to the Western countries populations, Russians have no cultural legacy of fighting for non-material values (such as democracy or fundamental rights and freedoms) and, thus, for political institutions it is not difficult to repress such demands. Coupled with absence of non-interpersonal social capital, such demands – if they existed – have little to no chance of being met. The absence of the culture of protection of non-material values hinders not only the development of democratic institutions, but also fosters human rights abuses by political power, which can be observed today on many examples of current legislation. In other words, the lack of non-interpersonal social capital, destroyed under the Soviet Union, hinders the formation of the civil society, and therefore, prevents the formation of opposition to political power, and subsequently, the advent of democracy and recognition of liberal values, as well as human rights and freedoms. Such cultural identity – partly formed under the repressive measures imposed by the political institutions – is the main reason why Russians do not fight for their democratic institutions, theirs fundamental rights and freedoms, and why political powers are feeling free to violate them. Distrust towards the government is caused by the abuses of human rights and brutality of the political power, whereas rejection of the democratic values, political parties and mass media are brought by the impossibility to influence political decision-making process, which is in turn caused by the absence of democratic institutions legacy, as well as political powers’ hindrance of civil society formation.
Except for a brief period in recent history when freedom of thought really existed (form the end of 1980s’ to the end of the 1990s’), values of Russians during the Communist era – and even more so today – were formed under state propaganda (Dudar, Khusyainov 2014). The values that were implanted into Russians’ identity under propaganda are sensibly different from those of the population of the Western countries. Indeed, whereas main values of Westerners formed during the XX century under secure conditions of welfare state and humanist ideas built on the tragic events of the WW II, Russians’ values are, and still, materialistic and nationally oriented (patriotic). Humanistic values (such as human dignity, fundamental rights and freedoms) that arose in the Western society after the atrocities of the World Wars, did not work in Russia. The propaganda during the Communist era presented the WW II as national tragedy (which is why the WW II is referred to in Russia as the Great National War (velikaya otechestvennaya voyna)) and not as in the Western countries as humanity’s greatest crisis of all time, which strengthened liberal and humanistic values. Today, this great tragedy for Russians – which was caused by the Soviet Union’s disregard for the men and women who fought, with no regard to human losses on the battlefield – is the main factor of social cohesion skillfully used by current political institutions. Presented as an exploit of Soviet (Russian) people, and also as the achievement of the Communism, the Great Victory (velikaya pobeda) was exclusively used (and still used today) for internal purposes of maintaining the social cohesion on the national level. Therefore, contrary to the Western countries, where the WW II legacy has strong influence in formation of such values as human rights and freedoms, human dignity and tolerance to other cultures, Russians are still nationally-oriented, close-minded, and even intolerant. Same is true for the concealment of the violations of the human rights committed during the Soviet Union, especially those committed within the concentration and labor camps as well as committed by other state facilities and institutions (psychiatric hospitals and others). Soviet and current political institutions do everything to hide this atrocious past in order to avoid the public resentment towards the country’s past and current human rights abuses, and to prevent revolutionary activity (Ul’danov 2015). As a consequence, Russians do not have the same cultural identity as Westerners, which is due to the historical past of the country, as well as – and especially – to repressive activity of the political powers.
Since – contrary to the Western countries populations – Russians have not yet achieved state’s respect of their fundamental rights, freedoms, and democratic institutions via revolutions, we can find here a strong cultural identity particularism, which exist here even today. The most important of those particularisms are: excessive brutality of the law, that is not restricted by the fundamental human rights and freedoms (absence of human rights) and the corresponding distrust and fear of the population towards the arbitrary political power, as well as rejection of democratic institutions by the population excluded from political decision-making process (absence of democracy). Absence of the democratic institutions and human rights legacy in Russia – upheld by political power – explains many particular features of current Russian political life and Russians’ political identity, such as: huge gap between the citizen and political power elites; political irresponsibility of the political elites; political passivity of the citizens; brutality of the political power not limited by fundamental rights and freedoms; mistrust towards the authorities and unrespect of the political decisions and legal prescriptions by the population, etc.
Citizens’ noncompliance with the law – or “legal nihilism” (pravovoy nigilism) (Trofimov 2015) – and correlative brutality of the authorities are one of the most known traits of Russian’s political and cultural identity. Indeed, inefficacy of political decisions in Russia – due to the rejection by the population of political decisions, to the making of which they did not contribute – is compensated here by brutal political power, disrespectful of fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens: legal nihilism is a consequence of the exclusion of the population form participation in political decision-making process, whereas unlimited and brutal political power, needed to compensate legal nihilism, is allowed here because of total absence of human rights. Such identity of Russians logically matches populations’ outlook in any non-democratic country, where the law and any other political decisions naturally has no legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Many Russian proverbs, adages and sayings are there to prove that the legal nihilism is a distinctive trait of Russian identity, which exist here – due to the absence of democratic tradition – since immemorial times. For example: “The law is as a pole – you can turn it in any direction” (Zakon kak dishlo – kuda povernesh tuda i vishlo).
This inherent legal nihilism of Russians’ has been most powerfully revealed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the wave of crime and mafia – the labels of the 1990s’ Russia, are one of many other expressions of legal nihilism. Overall corruption is yet another one. Of course, poverty, collapse of the state law enforcement institutions, of state-imposed social capital institutions, as well as liberalization, are also amidst the factors of high levels of criminality and corruption, but the legal nihilism inherent to Russians – as well as the absence of traditional moral, deontic mechanisms (such as religion for example) destroyed under the Communist rule – is the biggest one of them all. Generally speaking, anarchy and chaos of the 1990s’ are there to prove that Russians in the absence of the brutal state power; destroyed traditional social capital forms and institutions, as well as the absence of new ones, are incapable of producing spontaneous law compliance. The direction taken by current political institutions will not resolve this problem: instead of stimulating autonomous bottom-to-top creation of social capital, which could foster moral values, as well as by involving people into political decision-making process, legal nihilism is combatted here by unlimited brutal force, whereas stimulation of alternative to legal deontic mechanisms is reactionary: political institutions endeavor to revive religious ethics instead of stimulating secular ones (human rights and freedoms).
3. Russians and their economy
Fukuyama have pointed out that “a successful capitalist economy is clearly very important as a support for stable liberal democracy […]” and that “[…] one of the great problems of Poland, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine and other former Communist states is that they have tried to establish democratic political institutions without the benefit of functioning capitalist economies” (Fukuyama, 1996: 356). Indeed, the development of the capitalist forms of production and accumulation of wealth are at the origin of the modern liberal democracies; the advent of the new class of the population on the verge of the modern era, namely bourgeoisie, and the conflict of the capital with the absolute power of the monarchs lead up the to the establishment of the liberal democracies in the Western world, which was engendered as a consequence of the conflict between the monarchs and the wealthy strata of the population. As we have just seen (paragraph 2), this was not the case with Russia.
We can summarize the chronological course of politico-economic evolution in the Western countries by following scheme: feudalism, followed by an absolute monarchy; followed by liberal democracy developed under the new economic conditions of capitalism on the verge of the modern era; followed by social liberalism caused by mass public demand for social justice, which diminished the excesses of the early unlimited liberalism and calmed social relations. In Russia, the middle stage of this chronological socio-political evolution is clearly missing. The simplified scheme of socio-economic and political evolution in chronological order here would be: feudalism and absolute monarchy, followed by radical Socialism (Communism). In other words, the absolute monarchy (existed until February 1917) was almost immediately replaced here by the totalitarian Communist rule (November 1917), whereas democratic institutions, as well as fundamental guaranties of human rights and freedoms, had no time to be established here due to the profoundly feudal socioeconomic conditions. Even today, we can feel the shortage of this second stage of the political and socioeconomic evolution in Russia, as well as current political and socioeconomic conditions could be described as authoritarian social liberalism.
So what were the problems of Russia’s economy that hindered the advent of the capitalism, and as a consequence, of the liberal democracy? Many of the pre-revolutionary (1917) socioeconomic peculiarities of Russia let us affirm that Russia was a profoundly feudalistic state with elements of political absolutism, which has halted the development of the modern structure of socioeconomic relations. Moreover, later – under Communist rule – the structure of socioeconomic relations has only degraded.
Let’s consider what they were before 1917.
Private property – as a necessary condition for development of any modern, or capitalist economy – is a concept that had some difficulties being established in Russia up until 1917. Indeed, compared to Western countries, where during revolutionary movements on the verge of the modern era private property received the status of “an inviolable and sacred right” (art. 17 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789), in Russia it was unknown to the most of its inhabitants until very recently. Indeed, even at the end of the XIX century and the beginning of the XX century – just before the advent of the Communist rule – Russian peasants, who constituted more than three quarters of the population, did not know what private property (at least what concerns the most important property – the land) is. The land was owned by monarchs, nobility and gentry (pomeshik), as well as by the Church and by the community of peasants. Medieval system of open field subsisted in this country up until the end of the XIX century. In other words, the private ownership of land was known only to some minority strata of the population and was unknown by more than three quarters of the Russian population, which has used common lands of the village community or lands of the landlords. This feudal system of land property relations has some significant differences compared to – for example – English system of feudal property relations. Indeed, contrary to Russia, in England relations between landlord (lord of manors) and copyholder (peasant) were mostly individualized, whereas in Russia those relations were not: in Russia the peasantry’s land ownership was communal. Such system obviously has not contributed to the development of the sense of individualized private property in Russia, and facilitated the advent Socialist Revolution as well as the expropriation of the property during collectivization (kollektivisaziya) of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Later – under the Communist rule – private property had been banned in principle, because according to Marxist-Leninist conception of social and economic egalitarianism, only personal property could subsist. These socioeconomic conditions formed a strong sense of rejection of the private property among Russians – especially when it is unequally distributed – which survived even until today and is especially obvious in the case of the nouveaux riches – a class formed after the privatization of the 1990’s, which Russians still consider to be extremely unjust (Zorina 2015).
Besides the absence of such economic institution as individualized private property for the vast majority of Russians, or predominance of communal property in economic relations, another medieval, feudal institution subsisted here up to the XX century – solidary responsibility of the Obshchina (Mir) for the actions of its members acting individually (krugovaya poruka). This form of responsibility, under which community is responsible for the actions of each of its members acting individually, has been applied in XIX century Russia for different cases, such as criminal law, as well as taxation and civil law obligations. Obviously, this system of responsibility is suitable for societies where noncompliance with law is very high (see above, § 2), inasmuch as the lack of individual law compliance is compensated by the responsibility of the community, but at the same time, this system promotes personal irresponsibility. This kind of personal irresponsibility undermines one of the principal rules of social functioning, also necessary for the development of the economy – reciprocity. This form of irresponsibility also testifies that the level of interpersonal trust in Russia was (and still is) not very high, which consequently hindered the evolution of socioeconomic relations in direction of more developed forms (corporations for example). Parasitism is another direct result of individuals’ personal irresponsibility, and constitutes one of the common traits of Russian peasantry’s identity, which can be discovered in main characters of the Russian folklore tales – Ivan the Fool (Ivan-durak). This distinctive trait of Russians’ cultural identity was only aggravated during the Communist rule, where any personal initiative was undermined by the absence of reward – any gain has to be redistributed according to the egalitarian concept of the Marxism-Leninism. Many Soviets’ initiatives and propaganda examples directed to counteract this Russians’ cultural identity trait are to prove this affirmation – Stakhanov’ overproduction for example. The existence of the crime of parasitism (tuneyadstvo) also proves this persistent trait of Russians’ temper, which takes roots in krugovaya poruka and absence of individual private property under feudalistic social institution of Obshchina, and which was perpetuated – and even aggravated – by the Communist egalitarianism.
Another significant witness to the fact that Russian economy on the verge of the XIX – XX centuries have been stuck in medieval ages is the lack of industrialization. Indeed, in contrast to the Western countries, industrialization in Russia took on a massive character only in the second half of the XIX century (reforms of Sergei Witte), precisely in 1890’s. Although there are numerous different opinions on this point (Serzhenko, 2014), many of the economic indexes are there to prove that Russian economy of the verge of the XIX-XX centuries was stuck profoundly in the primary sector of the economy with its main branch – agriculture. Moreover, even this main sector of the economy was deeply underdeveloped; characterized by antediluvian ways of agricultural cultivation and production and little mechanization. In other words the development of secondary sector of economy in pre-1917 Russia was only in its beginnings, which, due to several reasons, was made possible only by the end of the XIX century. The biggest of those reasons was the fact that the workforce necessary for the development of industrialization was in very short supply here: most of the population was an enslaved peasantry, who were liberated only in 1861. Subsequently, mass industrialization, and consequently urbanization, could become possible in Russia only with the liberation of peasantry from enslavement and their relocation into the cities.
Underdeveloped character of capitalism in this country on the verge of the Communist era can also be proven by the difficulties with establishment of certain forms of commercial companies. For example, such forms of commercial companies as joint-stock companies or corporations, as well as companies with limited responsibility of the partners (stakeholders) were not common in Russia, and have problems getting implemented even today. Indeed, Russians have always preferred interpersonal forms of commercial activity (family or small community-based), which can be explained by the fact that originally the main part of the commercial activity was developed here within the basic social institution – Obshchina (Mir), whereas absence of weak wide levels (non-interpersonal) of social capital impeded creation of large corporations, where founders (shareholders) are strangers to each other. Even in today’s Russia, the family forms of commercial activity are most common, whereas large corporations are state founded and/or state controlled (except of course for the businesses that were privatized in the 1990’s).
It is often considered that the liberalization of economic activity in Russia dates back to 1863 – 1865 laws. In reality, commercial activity in some branches of economy was allowed to the entrepreneurs having special status of a merchant (kupets), which have bought a guild license and had class privileges. Only reforms of the 1898 have really liberalized commercial activity, rendering the class privileges of the guiled merchants (kupets) useless in comparison with ordinary entrepreneurs. Those reforms have been adopted only hundred years after similar acts were adopted in the Western countries (for example the 1791 French Décret d'Allarde). This also testifies to the fact that feudalistic residues have poisoned the development of economic activity and inhibited liberalization of the Russian economy up until the end of the XIX century.
In sum, the socioeconomic relations in Russia on the verge of the XIX-XX centuries could be described as feudalistic. This not only hindered the development of the capitalism in this country, but also facilitated the advent of the Communist regime. Sociocentric character of the basic social institution – Obshchina, has limited the development of the individual sense of private property and individual’s responsibility for their own actions (and as a consequence, hindered the development of modern economic relations), which was completely annihilated during the Communist era. Lack of individual initiative; passivity; paternalism; lack of personal responsibility for the actions; unrespect of different forms of property and mistrust are the main traits of the cultural identity of Russians on the brink of the XIX-XX centuries. Those traits of Russians’ worldview have persisted – and were even aggravated – under the rule of the Communist party. Therefore, it is not paradoxical – as some authors (Sundstrom 2005) argue – that alongside popular mistrust towards political institutions and authoritarian rule, Russians have strong beliefs in the role of the state as a guarantor of social order and provider of social goods: absence of entrepreneurship sense, paternalism, lack of individual initiative, which were only aggravated by the state during the Communist era, and complete dependency on the state, made Russians rely on it for procurement of all necessary goods and services.
Ultra-individualism, developed in today’s Russia as consequence of the absence of broad weak social ties (see above § 1), as well as purely materialist values (see above § 2), are at the root of the current economic problems of Russia. What is designated in common language as a “Russian-style business” (bisness po-russki) perfectly demonstrates that gentlemen’s agreement does not work here, and business partners do not exist – every other entrepreneur is considered as a potential enemy and/or a victim. It is obvious that such distrustful social atmosphere hinders the development of prosperous economic relationships.
Add to this the legal nihilism (see above §2), which takes roots from the alienation of the population from the decision-making process, as well as absence of human rights and freedoms legacy and its direct consequence – unlimited brutal political power, such phenomena as tax evasion, black market economy, corruption, and enormous bureaucracy appeared to be natural. Indeed, tax evasion, corruption and black market economy are manifestations of legal nihilism, whereas enormous bureaucracy, that hugely hinders development of the economy, is a simple reaction to the legal nihilism.
Russian social and political institutions, as well as Russia’s economy on the verge of the Communist era, could be described as profoundly feudal. Although some progress in the direction of socioeconomic and political modernization was perceptible on the verge of the Communist era, Russia’s feudal legacy was still exerting huge influence: inhibit the development of all other than traditional interpersonal forms of social capital; hinder economic progression towards more developed (capitalist) forms; and, as a consequence, make the advent democratic organization of political power impossible. This facilitated the Socialist Revolution: majority of the population (poor peasants) seen no necessity for democratic institutions since their demands were mostly materialistic; they were not ready to fight for the protection of their fundamental rights and freedoms against the encroachments of the political powers; public opinion had nothing against the expropriation of the private property of the wealthy; whereas main demands were, and still are, purely materialistic.
But such peculiarities of Russians’ cultural identity could not explain the current socioeconomic problems and political difficulties of today’s Russia. Indeed, if prior to the Communist era the socioeconomic and political evolution toward convergence with the Western model of liberal democracy and capitalist economy was clearly perceptible, during the Soviet Union era, this trend had clearly reversed. Embryonic democratic institutions of pre-Soviet era were destroyed by one-party rule and centralized system of political institutions, with no separation of powers and reduced influence of electorate on political institutions even on local level. Annihilation of the private property and planned economy during the Communist rule has killed interpersonal economic relations; demolished any personal economic initiative and sense of entrepreneurship, as well as personal responsibility for one’s own actions. Fundamental rights and freedoms were never a value in itself for Russians; they have not (yet) conquered them in the fight against absolute power of the monarch or totalitarian rule, whereas totalitarian rule destroyed any possible evolution in this sense, which still remains the case even today.
Social capital here is still the lowest worldwide, although some artificial forms of social capital – borrowed from the Communist past – are imposed top-down by current political institutions. Such low levels of social capital in Russia determine the difficulties of current establishment of democracy and problems of economic development. Knowing the fact that social capital on the national level (wide weak ties) is the sine qua non condition for the democracy, it is understandable that democratic institutions have some difficulties with being established even today. The absence of participant culture legacy (except on the local level) is – as we have seen – a longstanding tradition in Russia. This situation only worsened during the Soviet era: population was precluded by political bureaucracy from exerting any influence upon the political institutions even on the local level. Today, this legacy exerts a clear negative influence on the democratic processes in Russia: Russians do not flock together in order to protect the constitutionally proclaimed democratic institutions, whereas current political institutions use this passivity and absence of wide weak social ties in order to further degrade the situation.
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