Staunton, November 25 – The unwillingness of Russians to make a sharp break with the Soviet past and accept that Russia today is “a new independent state” and the efforts of Vladimir Putin and his regime to present Russia as a country with a single unbroken history has left Russia without a present or a future but only a past, according to Vadim Shtepa.
Unlike in Germany in 1945 or Russia itself in 1917, the Russian regionalist argues, there is no willingness among most Russians to accept the idea that they now live in “another Russia,” one radically dissimilar from its predecessor and indeed “a new independent state” like the other former Soviet republics.
That helps to explain why Russia remains mired in its past and also why it has gone to war in Ukraine, but it also suggests that if Russians do not accept that they live in a truly new country and a federation “Russia may soon not exist at all, with the ‘third Rome’ repeated the fate of the ‘first,’” however eternal both Russians and Romans thought their empires to be.
When the USSR collapsed in December 1991, “another country” appeared on the map of the world. People in the West continued to call it “Russia” just as they had called the Soviet Union, but “it was understood there that this was already ‘another Russia’ which both in its borders and ideology was different from the USSR.”
Inside the country, Shtepa continues, “this difference was still more obvious.” But they should have been recognized, celebrated and deepened because “this historic shift should have been no less deep than that in Germany from the Third Reich to the Federal Republic,” even if people there and elsewhere called both “Germany.”
Unfortunately, in Russia, “this transition was carried out not as a historical and worldview revolution but as a conformist consensus. The former party leaders, having thrown off their old ideology, quickly found a place for themselves in the new state system. There was no lustration,” because Boris Yeltsin did not want to “rock the boat.”
“As a result,” Shtepa says, “the bureaucratic nomenklatura easily preserved itself, only having to exchange the red party cards of the CPSU for the blue plastic cards of United Russia.” But their worldview and administrative approaches did not change. And now they are ready to reclaim publicly what they never gave up in practice.
It is surprising but also symbolic that “there were no attempts in the 1990s in ‘new Russia’ to create any fundamentally new state symbols.” Instead, the rulers simply reached back and restored many from the imperial era, and they adopted the same approach when they came to draft the Federation Treaty in 1992, employing tsarist and Soviet methods rather than new ones.
(This is “a sad irony of history,” Shtepa says, because only a year or so before the end of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin and his team regularly counter-posed “’sovereign Russia’” to “the Kremlin ‘center,’” something they stopped doing as of December 1991.)
“The ‘new Russia’” of 1991 “borrowed practically all of its symbols from the pre-revolutionary empire,” and that “symbolic failure” was accompanied by another failure: “the return of endless Caucasian colonial wars” that the tsarist regime had fought and that the “new” Russia has had to fight again.
But that “symbolic” failure was paralleled by an even greater one, Moscow’s efforts to present Russian history as a single unbroken stream with now fundamental breaks, a failure that both can be explained and reinforces “a total distrust in the present” and opposition to anything that somehow separates it from some “’glorious past.’”
The absurdity and dangers of all this for Russia become obvious if one imagines how anyone would react if “present-day Italians suddenly began to conceive themselves as the literal descendants of the Roman Empire” or if Germans “suddenly were to recognize the fuehrer as ‘an effective manager’ despite certain excesses.”
Post-Soviet Russia’s unwillingness and inability to escape from such historical nonsense was very much on public view at the time of the opening of the Sochi Olympics. Instead of doing what all other hosts of such competitions have done and present an image of the country now, the Russian organizers offered the image of a country including Kitezh, a nobility ball, and the construction of communism all mixed together.
And “if one reads sites like Russian Idea where numerous influential experts are published, one frequently has the impression that the authors are living in the 19th century. They still think in the categories of opposing other empires, cite Dostoyevsky and Danilevsky, and talk about “’the limitrophe’” in the Baltics.
Without exception, Shtepa writes, such authors consider themselves conservatives, but the problem is this: they don’t know what to conserve because they are unwilling to make choices. And their unwillingness to do so has already cost Russia its present and may eventually cost it its future as well.