Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Between the Scylla of dictatorship and the Charybdis of anarchy: Russia

I'm with Winston Churchill when he said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Truly democratic states, with guarantees of human rights and freedom of speech, press, and religion, are precious and yet rare commodities.

Russia is an excellent case in point. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-1991, the winds of freedom ushered in--what? A surprisingly chaotic and poverty-striken country, although of course in retrospect it shouldn't have been such a surprise. However, the sorry state of the Russia that emerged from the collapse of the once-mighty USSR surprised even most experts and analysts in the field, just as the collapse itself surprised most prognosticaters.

So much for predictions. As I've written before, the failure of pundits to foresee events that occurred during and after the end of the Soviet Union made me realize that political soothsaying was not much more reliable than ordinary soothsaying. One of the reasons is that there are just too many unknowns that interact in mysterious ways; that's true in all complex human endeavors. But certain general principles are clear, and one of them is that it's not an easy task to create a functioning democratic state out of one that's fallen on hard times and is used to despotism of one type or another.

That's one of the messages of Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor," in which the Inquisitor says:

In the end [the people] will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, "Make us your slaves, but feed us." They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious.

It's no accident the Dostoevsky was Russian, even though he predated the Communist takeover. The problem is both a long-term Russian one and a near-universal one. It's the tendency of the majority of states to drift to one form of tyranny or another, in order to counter the forces of civil war, anarchy, and chaos.

What prompted this soliliquy of mine? The murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was a critic of Putin's government. It's not likely that Putin or his henchmen actually killed her, but they didn't have to:

...even if Vladimir Putin's associates had nothing to do with Politkovskaya being gunned down in an elevator of her apartment building in the center of Moscow, his contempt for law created the climate in which the murder was carried out. Like the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in his Canterbury Cathedral many centuries ago, the crime was committed in the clear belief that it would please the king.

Read the whole Ha'aretz article to get an idea of how Putin's Russia has become, in the words of the author, a "Potemkin village," where "the same arbitrary brutes rule" as before.

I think that's hyperbole; no one's alleging that the situation has gone back to anywhere near what it was under Stalin, for example. But present-day Russia is a dreadful disappointment to reformers who thought something very different was going to happen back in the heady days of the 90s.

It turns out that the author of the article has a special interest in these things. Her name immediately caught my eye: Nina Khrushcheva.

Nina Khushcheva--could it be? As a reader of countless Russian novels, I recall how those Russian names work--it's the feminine form of Khrushchev. And of course, as a person of a certain age, I remember that Nina was the name of Khrushchev's wife:



The present day Nina, who turns out to be their great-granddaughter, teaches at the New School in NY and is a Soviet expert. In this reminiscence, she weaves her memories of her great-grandfather Nikita with her analysis of the ebb and flow of Russian politics.

Khrushchev's famous 1956 speech denouncing Stalin's murders was an epochal event in the history of Communism because--as Nina well describes--it let in the first breaths of freedom and reform, even though those breaths were small and self-serving (in an amazing quote, she says that Nikita "confessed he had needed to tell the story in part because his own arms were 'covered with blood up to the elbows'").

Khrushchev didn't want the USSR or Communism to fall, and neither did Gorbachev when he instituted his much broader reforms. But events always have unforeseen consequences, and reform is one of those events--it can end up causing the whole ship to founder. And then, when the dictatorship is overthrown, the country whose economy has been tanking, whose population has lost initiative, whose social ties have been shattered by decades of informing on one another, whose trust in government has devolved to the most abject cynicism possible--how does that country go about rebuilding into a functioning democracy that protects human rights, as well one that boasts a robust economy?

It's a daunting task, and the Grand Inquisitor's solution always beckons. Putin definitely hears its siren call. But the alternative--the realpolitik policy of leaving dictators in place--is a lousy one, as well. Therein lies the conundrum.

[NOTE: the issues raised here are obviously huge, and apply to countries such as Iraq and North Korea, as well. My plan is to write another post or two focusing on the choices we face there in terms of this particular dilemma.]


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