Staunton, April 10 – Russian national culture is not the determinant of the country’s development that many now believe it to be, according to Emil Pain, a leading Moscow expert on ethnicity and culture. Instead, it may “shade” this or that political or economic arrangements found in a variety of places.
At a Liberal Mission seminar in Moscow this week, Pain argued that “culture matters” but that it is not the straightjacket or definer of the destiny of a people that many think. To insist otherwise is not only contradicted by numerous examples of the existence of similar structures across cultures but also by change within each.
Like Habermas and Sen, Pain was sharply critical of the notion that certain cultures are incapable of change and adaptation and of Samuel Huntington’s argument that “similarity in the views of people is defined by religion.” If that were so, he asked, how could one explain Russia’s conflict with Ukraine or the absence of conflicts with Muslim Kazakhstan and Tajikistan?
Many in Russia, he continued, do not want to hear any criticism of the idea of cultural determinism regardless of whether they define themselves as conservatives and preservers of that culture or liberals who don’t. Both are profoundly affected by “the myth of the cultural determination of the political and economic trajectory of development” of Russia.
Part of the reason why there are so many Russian liberals who believe in cultural determinism, Pain said, is that “the majority of those who take such positions would in the West hardly be classed as liberals but rather as right-of-center neo-conservatives.”
If one examines the history of Russia and other countries, there is no evidence for the assertion that their trajectories of development are determined “once and for all” by national cultures, the Moscow scholar says. Instead, there is almost universal evidence for believing that the reverse is true.
He gives as an example the rise of “mobilized political regimes in totalitarian societies that deified their leaders and a political utopia.” That happened in Catholic Italy, Protestant Germany, and the “godless” USSR. It occurred in Confucian China, Buddhist Kampuchea and Islamic Iran.
In each case, “national culture had importance,” Pain argued. “It gave to [this political model] a certain national coloration” but “it did not destroy it.” In the case of the Soviet Union, for example, there were many obstacles to mobilization, “but they were compensated by the possibility of high losses of demographic resources: the less order, the greater loss of life.”
That should be kept in mind, he suggested, “by those who are oriented toward the restoration of the wheels of a mobilization society in Russia.” Today, such a model has fewer chances to succeed than it did under Stalin. What is possible is “virtual mobilization” of television viewers who aren’t asked to get up from the couch except for pollsters.
Pain also pointed out that despite current propaganda to the contrary, few Russian leaders in the past have operated on the basis that Russian culture determined the direction of the country’s development. Only two tsars – Nicholas I and Alexander III – did and no Soviet leader.
Contemporary Russia, he suggested, is not a reflection of a simple revival of the culture of the imperial past. Instead, “in contemporary Russian political discourse is observed a schizophrenic combination of two contradictory paradigms: “a super-constructivst ‘conspiracy theory’” which sees all events as the product of hidden forces, and “a super-evolutionary” one that defines everything as the output of a mechanism established long ago.
It is also the case, Pain argued, that many things people think are a manifestation of the continuing power of tradition are in fact artificially “’invented traditions.’” The Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow was created “before our eyes, “and the empire has not been preserved – it is being restored by hand in front of our eyes.”
Culture changes, and it can be changed, he suggested. He pointed to the case of post-communist Poland where the government launched a policy to de-communize everything via a new cultural policy. Warsaw’s policy “is called ‘memory policy,’” Pain said, but he suggested that it would be more accurate to call it “’a policy for memory change.’”
In many countries but especially in Russia, culture is the object of policy rather than being something that autonomously shapes policy, Pain said. “In our ‘vertical’ country, norms spread only from the top to bottom” and from Moscow to smaller cities and then to the villages. If culture were all-powerful, he suggested, the flow of influence would be very different.