Staunton, May 25 — Given the recrudescence of Soviet institutions in the Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbass, ever more people are playing the game of “what if” – “what if” the August 1991 putsch or October 1993 clash in Moscow had ended another way or “what if” the anti-Bolshevik White Russians had defeated Lenin and returned to power.
In a commentary today, Boris Pastukhov, a Russian historian at St. Antony’s College in Oxford, says that such an approach to history is not very profitable most of the time but that if one engages in it now, it is far more useful to think about “what ifs” in the case of Moscow than in the case of the Donbass.
That is because, he suggests, a kind of alternative history has “already been partially realized” under Vladimir Putin, allowing one to suggest that in certain respects at least, Putinism can be understood as “the victory of the White Movement,” more than 90 years after it suffered what seemed to all intents and purposes its complete loss.
So much ink has been spilled on what Russia might have looked like had the Whites won, Pastukhov says, first among emigres and then among Russians at home after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But now there are some real reasons for taking seriously the idea that we can now see the outlines in life itself of what that victory might have meant.
Imagine for a minute, the historian says, that “in October 1919, Yudenich had taken Petrograd. His victory would have allowed the consolidation of the actions of the White Armies and the formation of a White government which would have finally taken under its full control the territory of the former Empire (except some of its border parts).”
With that achievement, however, “the first – ‘heroic’ – part of history would have come to an end.” And the new government would have been forced to confront the fact that its victory over Bolshevism had “solved only one of many problems.” Pastukhov suggests that there would have been at least five:
First, with the empire dead and a lack of desire for the generals to remain in power, there would be the question of just what kind of a political system should and even could be erected in place of the old order.
Second, there would have emerged enormous administrative problems: “all organs of power would have been just as corrupt as before, workers would have been just as dissatisfied, the national minorities would have been just as oppressed, and inequality as before would have been enormous. There would have been too much centralism and too few skilled cadres.
Third, “the majority of the leaders of the movement who would have seized power earlier were not administrators of the first rank: many went from colonel to army general in only a few years” and few of them had any real understanding of how to rule a civilian population.
Fourth, “support from abroad would have stopped,” with both victors and vanquished focusing on their own problems rather than on Russia. Consequently, the new regime would have been largely on its own.
And fifth, that regime would have been lacked the forces necessary to recover the Baltic states “and certain other of its territories ‘from time immemorial,’ including possibly Ukraine. And there would have begun active democratic transformations,” changes that would have echoed in Russia itself.
“Under recently, it would have been possible only to guess how the counterrevolutionary government of ‘the victors’ would have responded to all these challenges.” But now, observing what Putin is doing, one can very likely see the outlines of what it would have done as well, the historian suggests.
According to Pastukhov, “the flag of Putin’s Russia should be not the white-blue-red” it has adopted “but simply red and white because its ideological foundation is a combination of two counterrevolutions, the Bolshevik and the anti-Bolshevik,” a pattern that goes a long way to explain “the paradoxical quality of contemporary Russian policies.”
One can debate for a long time why the Soviet system failed, but there can be now doubt that at least for some decades, “the red movement successfully realized its counterrevolutionary plan,” first by sacrificing to others what it did not have the strength to hold and then rebuilding that strength and taking most of what it wanted back.
Would the White Movement have been similarly able to do so remains a mystery, Pastukhov says. But now there may be a test of that: “the hypothetic ‘white counterrevolution’ has found its embodiment in ‘the red counterrevolution,’ and the alternative scenario which lost a century ago has become a real political scenario for Russia of the 21st century.”
“One needn’t waste time on reconstruction,” Pastukhov says. “turn on the television and study the course of alternative history.”
That development, he suggests, raises “the curious question” about what is likely to be the fate of today’s Russian political emigres: will they be future “’Lenins’” who will return and take power, or will they be “a second edition of ‘the white emigration,’ whose nostalgic dreams remained just that?”