Friday, 7 March 2014

Memories of Underdevelopment

One of the ever-present tropes of Russian history is the idea of "accelerated development". This is premised on the belief that the country is inherently backward, but that it may make the leap to modernity through an act of will: the deregulation and privatisation of the Yeltsin years were quite in keeping with the spirit of Lenin. The grandaddy of this idea is Peter the Great, who built St Petersburg (on the bones of conscripted serfs and Swedish POWs) as a "window to the West", thereby initiating the binary metaphor of Russian state history and elite culture: open/closed, in/out, new/old etc. The new city's Baroque palaces and arrow-straight prospects were a radical contrast to the winding Medieval lanes and onion domes of Moscow. The bi-directional "window" motif also captured the conflicting desire to be accepted by the West while fearing its intrusive gaze.

Russia's history after Peter is often presented as a series of steps forward and backward, tentative liberalisation alternating with brutal repression: serfs liberated, everyone sent to Siberia. Underlying this is a liberal fatalism about the possibility of reform that dates back to the early nineteenth century and reflects an elite pessimism about the maturity of the people. This in turn creates a space for that mix of the fantastic and the hard-headed that is quintessentially Russian. Khazov, a Populist (Narodniki) of the 1860/70s, quoted by Marshall Berman in All That is Solid Melts into Air, observed: "Russia is led along the road to political freedom not by the liberals but by dreamers who organise ridiculous and childish demonstrations; by men who dare to break the law, who are beaten, sentenced and reviled". This has an obvious modern echo in Pussy Riot and Ukraine's Femen, particularly when they are on the receiving end of Cossack knouts (the fact that women have been at the forefront of radical protest is significant in itself).

Rather than the serene or jerky progress experienced elsewhere, Russia is assumed to have had trouble maintaining any forward momentum, hence the continuing need for acceleration. The twentieth century was dominated by this paradigm, notably in the emblematic development schemes of the early Soviet Union, such as collectivisation and electrification, which promised to leap-frog the country from feudal under-development to post-capitalist industrialisation. Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, the daddy of modern dystopias and inspiration for Orwell's 1984, was subversive not because it criticised the "Benefactor" (i.e. Stalin), as subsequently assumed (it was actually written before Lenin's death), but because it questioned the need for accelerated development. The post-hoc Cold War triumphalism of many in the West - that the USSR couldn't keep up the pace of military spending and thus crippled its economy - is a variant on this: Russia has great power delusions but lacks capacity beyond "inexhaustible" supplies of manpower and raw materials.

The reality is obviously more complex, but this trope remains popular among both domestic and foreign analysts. Autarkic development provides a progressive vocabulary for Russian conservatives, not to mention opportunities for oligarchic looting, while the attendant risks to foreign capital, together with the oligarch's fondness for imported luxuries that Russia is incapable of supplying (e.g. an English education), allow foreign conservatives to raise their eyes to heaven and mutter exasperatedly about "muzhiks" (all oligarchs are assumed to be peasants at heart). The Through the Keyhole special on Viktor Yanukovych's crib was a perfect example of this, with outrage over his profligacy competing with contempt for his gangsta taste. The point was not that he was a corrupt politician, and therefore no different to many in the West, but that he saw himself as a Russian oligarch. That vulgarity, we were invited to conclude, was his real crime in the eyes of the Ukrainian people.

The pre-games coverage of Sochi by Western media focused heavily on inadequate facilities and corruption. This was not inaccurate (far from it), but it reinforced the idea that Russia remains irredeemably backward. Similarly, Putin's anti-gay legislation is seen as indicative of a society-wide intolerance, even as a rejection of European values, rather than as a top-down "culture war" initiative intended to distract from economic concerns and drown out political criticism (like Section 28 in the UK in the 80s and the current abortion rollback in Spain). The corollary of this assumed backwardness is the fear of irresponsible action, under-development being seen as a form of immaturity and a lack of sophistication. The suggestion that the "Russian bear" may lash out at any moment is always hovering in the background.

Since the 1991 failed coup attempt and the eclipse of Gorbachev, the popular Western image of Russia's leaders has shifted from the negative pragmatists of Cold War legend (Andropov was even characterised as a "Karla" initially) to unreliable chancers driven by their weaknesses: the drunken "holy fool" Yeltsin and the vain, bullying Putin (his assessment of Yanukovich as both "legitimate" and having "no political future" was pragmatic, but widely interpreted as evidence of arrogant puppet-mastery). Much of the Western media finds itself lurching from one pole to another in its coverage of the Ukraine crisis (sometimes in the same article): from assuming that Putin is playing a cautious game (pushing inch by inch until he meets resistance) to assuming he is hell-bent on re-establishing the old Soviet borders.

The development trope has surfaced in two forms during the crisis: a blithe assumption that the West of Ukraine is more "advanced" than the East, hence it's affinity with the EU (in reality, the West is more rural, the East more industrialised); and a suggestion that Putin's leverage ultimately comes down to large reserves of natural gas, on which the German economy is dependent (those naff Gazprom ads during Champions League broadcasts now take on a sinister hue - perhaps Bayern Munich will be spooked into a collapse against Arsenal). The "vulnerability" of London to an oligarchs' strike is a minor and slightly comic variation on the latter theme, though one that paradoxically hints at our under-development (a dependency on foreign capital) as much as Russia's.

The Ukrainian crisis looks like it will resolve in one of two ways: either a partition of the country, with the Western rump accelerated into the EU and NATO (Alex Salmond will have words to say on that); or a loosely confederated buffer-state in which exclusion from the EU and NATO is the price paid for territorial integrity. Putin has calculated that Russia will gain whatever the outcome, so long as hostilities are avoided (and nobody fancies war in this of all years). The US and most of the EU do not care much either way and see this as "afters" from the dissolution of the USSR (they are not keen on another agriculture-heavy Eastern march with crypto-fascists and oligarchs in or near government). Even the Crimean Tatars will be reconciled - they have the attraction for the Russians of not being Ukrainian, and of liking horses.

1 comment:

  1. It would be useful to discuss the idea of the misrepresentation and ideological distortion of Russian/Soviet economic performance in light of some estimates of reality. David Kotz' "Revolution from Above" has a good consideration of this, and brings out how in terms of general measures the Soviet economy continued to grow until the disruptions in the command system brought about by the Gorbachev reforms. Growth had become anemic, which was one of the drivers of the reforms, but it was still occurring.