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«Cultural Contradictions of Post- Communism: Why Liberal Reforms Did Not Succeed in Russia _ Nina L. Khrushcheva A Paper from the Project on ...»

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Cultural Contradictions of Post-

Communism: Why Liberal Reforms Did

Not Succeed in Russia


Nina L. Khrushcheva

A Paper from the Project on Development, Trade and International Finance

Copyright © 2000 by the Council on Foreign Relations®, Inc.

All rights reserved.

Printed in the United States of America.

This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and excerpts by reviewers for the pubic press), without written permission from the publisher. For information, write Publications Office, Council on Foreign Relations, 58 East 68th Street, New York, NY 10021.

Cultural Contradictions of Post-Communism Why Liberal Reforms Did Not Succeed in Russia Things that I admire elsewhere, I hate here [in Russia]… I find them too dearly paid for; order, patience, calmness, elegance, respectfulness, the natural and moral relations that ought to exist between those who think and those who do, in short all that gives worth and charm to well-organized societies, all that gives meaning and purpose to political institutions, is lost… here… Marquis de Custine, 1839 We wanted for the better, but it still turned out as usual.

Victor Chernomyrdin, 1998


One goal of Russia’s economic reforms over the last ten years has been to establish a new class of businessmen and owners of private property -- people who could form the foundation for a new model post-Soviet citizen. However, the experience of this post-communist economic "revolution" has turned out to be very different from the original expectations. For as people became disillusioned with Communism due to its broken promises, the words "democracy" and "reform" quickly became equally as unbearable to large sectors of the Russian public after

1991. Such disillusion was achieved in less than 10 years -- a record revolutionary burnout that would be the envy of any anti-Bolshevik.

Only a few years into the reform process disappointed analysts were already posing stark questions: "Why has democratic and market reforms turned out to be such an arduous process? Why has Western style liberalism, embraced almost everywhere in theory, proved difficult even to approximate in practice? Why has freedom not yet been established, even though the totalitarian state has been torn down?"1 Indeed, many analysts assess the results of the past ten years as a nearly complete failure, andblame either corruption, or Western institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. The blame attached to the international institutions may be too simplistic, as the Bretton Woods Institutions have been around for 50 years, and many of their projects have proved successful. In addition, corruption is part of every political economy and exists to greater and lesser degrees in every country. What is significant is the consensus that Russia’s political economy is corrupt on all levels. According to numerous sources2, Russia has ranked among the ten most corrupt nations in the world over each of the past eight years. International investors complain about corruption regularly, and the 1998 financial crisis made matters much worse, inciting discussion as to whether Russia’s developing economy was in fact a form of developing capitalism, or simply 1 Stephen Holmes, "Cultural Legacies or State Collapse?" in Michael Mandelbaum, ed., Post-Communism: Four Perspectives. A Council on Foreign Relations Book, 1996, p. 25.

2 Transparency's International 1998 and 1999 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Russia 76 out of 85 countries. Denmark was ranked first least corrupt country, and the United States shared 17th place with Austria. On a ten-point scale, with Denmark having earned a 10, Russia scored 2.4. The United States and Austria both had 7.5, while Cameroon earned only 1.4, the lowest score. www.transparency.de 2 "oligarchizm," a system where a narrow elite has "stolen the state, and everything else."3 That question has drawn attention around the world. The US Senate held hearings on corruption in Russia on September 30, 1999. Public speculations about "Who Lost Russia?" triggered debates within the IMF and World Bank, inspiring a restructuring process of both institutions; Boris Yeltsin was brought to resign and new President Vladimir Putin has declared a "dictatorship of law and order" in his fight against Russia's lawlessness.4 The question of corruption only highlighted Russia's complicated transition, but its general problem with liberalism and capitalism goes beyond politics and into history and culture. According to the political scientist Stephen Holmes, corruption is not a cause but a consequence of what he calls "cultural legacies, those habits acquired in the past which are difficult to shake and which purportedly obstruct the successful creation and function of democratic and market institutions. Habits die hard and mentalities change slow…"5 A number of aspects within the Russian "national character," the "cultural legacy," explain the failings of liberal policies in Russia since 1991. Among these are the influence of Asian culture and the values that linger from the previous system, both of which reinforce the special role of family and friendship relationships for a Russian. The influence of these factors leaves little hope for a "faceless bureaucracy," that would operate without regard to personal preferences and sympathies, applying the law and regulations equally to all. Until now, a complete understanding of the problems posed by cultural obstacles to a properly functioning market has not been at the heart of most discussions of Russia's liberal economic reforms.

However, the mixed results of the reform process, as well diverse assessments6 by Russian actors and outside participants and analysts, suggest that the problems go much deeper than only the issue of bad policies, inefficient implementation, or the supposedly corrupt nature of the Russian state. "What deserves careful thought is the reform-hampering role of inherited attitudes and patterns of behavior. People do more easily what they are used to doing than what they have never done… Habits and expectations, which perversely constrict freedom of choice, can be handed down from generation to generation and survive for centuries by sheer inertia."7 Moreover, Jeffrey Sachs, Harvard economist and early advisor to Boris Yeltsin, suggests that it is not just behavioral patterns, but also geography which, although not entirely deterministic, "conditions events" and keeps "a powerful hold even in our supposedly globalized economy… Proximity to the West induced better policies…"8 throughout the postcommunist region.

The two epigrams by de Custine and Chernomyrdin that introduce this essay suggest a simple but powerful conclusion: Russia’s culture has a deep impact on any reform effort, meaning that the country is not easily susceptible to change. Why is it that the late czarist 3 Kenneth Murphy, Marek Hassel, "Stealing the State and Everything Else: A Survey on Corruption in the Post-Communist World," Project Syndicate, Winter 1999. www.project-syndicate.cz 4 Jonas Bernstein, "Party Lines: Dictated by Law, or Nods," Moscow Times, March 4, 2000.

5 Stephen Holmes, "Cultural Legacies or State Collapse," p. 26.

6 Today only a few reformists insist that the road to capitalism which they chose by way of "shock therapy" has proven itself successful. Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Anders Aslund and a few others remain confident that reforms could not have been done differently. In his book Privatization Russian Style, Chubais argues that the way reforms were implemented was defined by the necessity to neutralize the Soviet-style bureaucracy, because the command system never wanted to admit that a "Soviet man like every other man was nothing more than 'homo economicus,' fully engrossed in the economic interests: interest in money, interest in property and profit." (Anatoly Chubais, "Birth of the Idea," in Anatoly Chubais, ed., Privatizatsiya po-rossiiski.

Moscow: Vagrius, 1999, p. 29.) 7 Stephen Holmes, "Cultural Legacies or State Collapse," p. 26.

8 Jeffrey D. Sachs, "Eastern Europe Reforms: Why the Outcomes Differed so Sharply," Boston Globe, September 19, 1999.

3 system, late Communism, and post-communism all failed to generate viable alternatives other than changes that appear destructive and malfunctioning? Why is it that replacing the old regime always results in a crippled successor regime? One possible answer here is a great paradox of "tyranny," in which a "weak state" provides too much government, depriving people of the basic liberties needed to make their own decisions.9 Such a state is ever impotent to solve the fundamental problems facing it, remaining effective only at weakening and discrediting alternative leaders. This pattern held true even after 1991, when the reform team led by the English-speaking Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais tolerated no alternative to themselves.10 This point brings to the fore another paradox: enduring some of the worst despots in world history, the Russian people developed an almost apocalyptic fear of change, especially change of power. Change is never welcome in Russia. The end of a regime engenders not hope but a fear of cataclysm. Thus, more than in other cultures, power in Russia is subject to inertia, which creates a favorable environment to autocratic rule. The person wielding power embodies power and is followed by the population regardless of the kind of policies he implements, often even despite these policies. This attitude marked people's devotion to Stalin, and was the secret behind the reelection of Boris Yeltsin in 1996 when, despite poll numbers which showed his popularity at their lowest point in his presidency, the Russian people nonetheless voted to reelect him, most likely reasoning, "Better the devil we know." This attitude is very often something held subconsciously rather than consciously, and is part of a centuries old tradition, which only time and different (positive) experience could change.

The contemporary Russian scholar and cultural historian Yuri Lotman, in his final work before his death, Culture and Explosion,11 offers a perspective that Russian culture, unlike the cultures of the West, embodies an underlying binary logic of opposition. Without necessarily being aware of these patterns, individuals and groups conceptualize social lives in terms of sets of absolute alternatives that admit no compromise. There is no neutral ground either one alternative or the other must be chosen. In this choice, either one or the other must be absolutely victorious.12 In terms of human values, Lotman gives the following sets of polar, obsolete and stark oppositions: charity versus justice; love versus the law; personal morality (ethics) versus state law; holiness versus politics, etc. A fateful result of binary thinking, according to Lotman, is that the victor, after defeating an opponent, must always seek to annihilate the past. The past is regarded not as the foundation for organic growth, but as a source of error to be destroyed before it infects the new regime. Total destruction precedes 9 See, for example, Edward Kennan, "Muscovite Political Folkways," The Russian Review, 45, No. 2, April 1986.

10 Anatoly Chubais insists, "Of course our privatization was not without "minuses," however if we followed the slow A-B-C process suggested by the 'soft' reformers, we would have had much more negative outcome… Criminalization would have been absolute." (Anatoly Chubais, ed., Privatizatsiya po-rossiiski, p. 32.) It is comforting to know to know that the level of criminalization could have been more absolute. Now, however, there has been evidence that reforms could have taken a less radical turn if the reformers and their Western advisers would have been less rigid in understanding the reforms. Traditional structures would not have been destroyed, appropriate new structures would have been built, and Russian cultural values and peculiarities of the Russian national character would have been taken into consideration. See, for example: Juseppe Chiesa, Proshchai Rossiya (Farewell Russia). Moscow, 1997, pp. 35-60; Jeffrey Sachs, "Betrayal," The New Republic, January 31, 1994; Michael Ellman and Vladimir Kontorovich, eds., The Destruction of the Soviet Economic System.

Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

11 Yury Lotman, Kultura i Vzryv. Moscow: Gnozis, 1992.

12 This may also be the reason why many reformers keep insisting that their policies were ultimately the right ones.

4 creation; creation thus takes place in a void. Means and ends are divorced,13 as the longed-for new world can only be constructed on the ruins of the old.

Yeltsin, Gaidar, Chubais and their colleagues, it appears, acted in accord with this classical script of Russian history, repeating its binary logic of opposition. Reformers defined a mythological West, which was understood primarily in terms of opposition to the Soviet Union. The reason for this absolute vision, following upon Sachs’s “geographical proximity” idea, derived from the fact that, for centuries, Russia was separated from the rest of the world by physical and psychological borders, although its rulers always saw those borders as under threat. Thus the post-communist reformers, despite their liberalism, accepted the usual totalitarian formula of "we know best" when attempting to transform the old Soviet society.

Communism failed because it was a bankrupt ideology. They reasoned that Russian society and economy would begin to work only by quickly adopting a viable ideology, the free market model. Never mind that such change could only be imposed by the autocratic techniques of "ends justifying the means." What Isaiah Berlin called “the mixture of utopian faith and brutal disregard for civilized morality,”14 in regard to the Bolshevik policies, could also be relevant when assessing the Russian liberal reform process, which ruled more often by presidential decree than democratic consent.

The essence of democracy, however, is to secure public support for government policies, which the Yeltsin government consistently failed to do. One cannot auction, privatize or even simply redistribute the assets of a huge country among the citizens without wide citizen involvement, particularly when the populace were well-aware of the high (often bloody) price paid to develop those assets.

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