Russia: West or East?

I’m still not convinced by Lex’s arguments that Russia is not a dialect of Western Civilization, and when I get the time, I’ll dig more into that. However, I did want to make some of his case for him, from a quote in the article that he linked to. I disagree with much of that article because I think it focuses on a Russia that has not been in existence for hundreds of years, and projects that vanished Russia on the modern Russian consciousness. Most specifically, the claim that Russians do not see or emphasize individuals is flat wrong, in my opinion. However, I have the pathological need of the scientist to try to poke holes in my own arguments: there is much in that article that is correct, and can be used to bolster the argument that Russia is a separate civilization from the West. For example:

The masses remained traditional: they were unable to defer gratification, they were indifferent to fraud and the notion of contract, they had a short time horizon, had little or no drive or motivation for achievement, and did not know what entrepreneurship was.

sarcasm Sounds like France. /sarcasm

Seriously, an older friend of mine in a city near the site of the great tank battle of Kursk was an engineer. He and I were engaged in a slightly tipsy philosophical conversation (was there any other kind in the late USSR?) back in 1989. He said that the taint of serfdom still permeated the Russian soul, and most of his countrymen were still slaves at heart. I wholly disagreed with him at the time. I only partially disagree with him now. Who knows, I may wholly agree with him when I get to be as old as he was then (he is much older – and wiser – than me).

One of the signs of this servile attitude, according to Alex, was the class distinctions that the allegedly egalitarian communists were able to impose upon a Soviet citizenry that was all too used to class distinctions, and therefore not ready to point out the hypocrisy of Communists giving to themselves first, and only then to each of the rest “according to his need”. I’m not talking about Scandinavian hookers and midnight caviar feasts hidden in the fastness of the Kremlin, here. I’m talking about in-your-face reminders that there was more than one class of citizen. Let me give you two examples of this that were visible to pretty much every Soviet Citizen except for people so far back in the woods that they had effectively yet to join the 19th century, let alone the 20th.

First was the system of “Birch Tree” stores (Березка). A lot of young Russians barely remember them, if they know of them at all – a Google search in both English and Russian netted only a few sites with more than a passing mention – but when I was there, Moscow and all the larger cities had them near every major cluster of government buildings. I’ll let the good folks at Vodka Online tell you what they were:

Birch Tree Stores

The Soviet Era: in their time, these were the only hard currency stores in the Soviet Union. Perceived by consumers to be inaccessible (only officers in the Merchant Marine or diplomats, etc. were allowed to shop there).

Russian Incarnation: The Birch Tree stores lost their raison d’etre after the legalization of the hard currency market and the liberalization of prices in the country. In the face of the rapid growth of boutique stores filled with imported goods, and the opening of legitimate trading centers, Birch Trees either closed or joined the ranks of ordinary Russian department stores. Currently, the brand name is not used in Russia.*

I’ll bet that brand name is not used. I never heard such cussing from mild mannered ladies as when the topic of conversation would turn to those stores. There was a wide assortment of goods available there that the average Soviet citizen either had to do without, or had to pay exorbitant sums on the black market to purchase. Everything from orange juice to limited edition books (in Russian, not English). I was seriously worried about scurvy from the lack of citrus in my diet, so I went in there about once per week to buy orange juice. Of course, I probably undid the healthy effects of the citrus by teaching my roommates how to make screwdrivers to cover the taste of samogon…

People authorized to work abroad weren’t the only ones allowed in there, apparatchiks with a certain ID were allowed to purchase merchandise in rubles, which I, as a foreigner, was not. Prices were labeled in dollars (which I used) and rubles, at a scandalous rate of about $1.50 to the ruble (when the black market rate was more like 10 rubles to the dollar – remember this was 1989 – by the time I left in early 1991 I was getting 40 – 50 rubles to the dollar). The one in Red Square used to have an old lickspittle lackey in front who even kept out the Soviet gawkers – in other stores they didn’t check for your Party card. My friends and I took it as a tribute to our assimilation to Russian culture when he mistook us for Russian youth and asked “rebyata, shto deleaete?”. We reveled in his astonishment when we whipped out our US passports. To us he was little better than an overseer of slaves, and to this day his face haunts me as a reminder a reminder that everyone has his price, and it is astonishingly low for most – of how some petty little privileges can buy a man’s service to a corrupt regime.

It seems there were other stores of this type, such as “Samotsvety”, which sold regular jewelry to the masses, but had a special back room just for the Party:

We were the only jewelry store not controlled by the Ministry of Trade. Samotvety belonged to the department of Jewelry Industry under the Ministry of Machine Construction. The meant that we got direct shipments from the factories, which ensured we had a very unique line.

On the Arbat side, anyone could come into the store – please come in, our door was open! But from the Kaloshin Alley entrance we admitted only elite clients – members of the national government, for example. For them the selection was a bit richer, and they could place special orders directly to the factory with us.

Now even in the days of 40 rubles to the dollar, I was in no financial position to be buying jewelry in the USSR, so I missed this particular example of Party favoritism, although I walked past it almost every day on the Arbat. I’m sure the Russians walking the Arbat with me back then were aware of the two-tier system, though.

The second in-your-face reminder of Communist class distinctions was the sign, pretty much at any window serving customers, that Members of the Party and Veterans of the Great Patriotic War were served “вне очереди” – in Russian “vnye ocheredi” – literally outside the line. I remember buying bus tickets somewhere in Byelosrussia or the Ukraine sometime in 1990. The line was miserable – people were crammed in a tiny vestibule to get out of the cold, and the scent of unwashed bodies and last night’s cabbage soup filled the room. The woman at the window was barely competent and slower than molasses in January. Just as I got within about 20 people to the head of the line, she closed for lunch. Meaning I would surely miss the next bus, but what could you do? Some guy studying the poster a few minutes later burst out in anger: “Outside the line? They ought to shoot those bastards in the Party, not send them to the head of the line.” The fact that he said this in public, in front of a bunch of strangers, let me know that Perestroika had really taken hold. But translating that anger into social action would be fighting hard against the social inertia of a population that lived in serfdom until after the American Civil War freed our slaves. And if Victor Suvorov is to be believed, well into the Soviet era the internal passports necessary to travel and relocate within the USSR were not issued to Kolkhozniks, making them in effect, serfs of the Party.

The post-Soviet era has preserved its privileges for the elite: most notably in recent months, the privilege to put on those magnetic flashing blue lights (called “migalki” in Russian) on top of their cars like undercover cops. This, apparently, gives them the right to drive like maniacs at high speed, and even the right to drive the wrong way down a one-way street, and forces people to yield to them as they would to a legitimate emergency vehicle. I bet that the apparatchiks had that right back in the USSR, too, it’s just that now there are a lot more cars on the Russian road, making the practice even more dangerous. I doubt driving habits have much improved over there – Russia used to have the highest per capita accident rate in the developed world, so all this makes for tragedy.

This Western news article states that people were fed up about migalki, and that a recent accident was beginning to galvanize opposition to the law. A particularly Russian opposition, though:

“Our ribbons are small and discreet, not like the big orange flags in Kiev,” said Yuri, a banker who did not want to give his surname because he feared reprisals. “They are saying ‘we still have patience, but our patience is not unlimited’.”

Yuri fears reprisals for flying a ribbon tied to his car? Yeah, democracy’s come a long way in Russia, hasn’t it? Well, maybe, because I’m not sure the reprisal he fears would come from the Kremlin. Here’s what the Russian press has to say about this:

An initiative by the police to eliminate private emergency lights on the roads has found support in the government.

Not counting on fines to solve the problem (those who go about with police lights usually have more than enough rubles), the Ministry of the Interior asked for provisions in the law to allow for the confiscation of illegal signaling devices and a ban on driving the car until their removal.

OK. That line about rubles is a pretty clear way of saying that a lot of the people driving around with these things are mafia. And the joke when I was there was that the difference between the Russian and Italian mafias is that the Italian one wants to take over the government, while the Russian one is the government. So maybe Yuri is right to be circumspect. But maybe Alex was right, too, and Yuri is still a slave at heart.

A little more evidence from the same Russian article to back up Alex’s claim:

Perhaps, in the war against terrorism and simple crime this law will help, but it will hardly rid our roads of this kind of thing. That is because there are more legal police beacons around than we really need. The bureaucrats would gladly reduce their number, except for the fact that every time such a law is proposed, the privileged class gets into a fight that boils down to “Why do they get them and we don’t?!”. Therefore, the result is often the opposite of what was intended. So, in September there was a whole new list of privileged persons and organizations released. According to that list, the right to beacons extends to a great number of bureaucrats from the President to the rector of the Academy of Agriculture, and to a still greater number of organizations (including, for example, Aeroflot and the gas company Gazprom).

Aeroflot? The freaking national airline gets these things?!?

Russians tend to see life as a zero sum game, because for most of their history, goodies were doled out from above, they weren’t created by entrepreneurs from within society. Russia never gave their best and brightest the chance to go out into the world and make a killing at new ventures, which Western Europe did with their colonies. Russian entrepreneurial spirit was stunted by the fact that the silk road bypassed them since they fell under the Tartar yoke, and colonial expansion was confined by their lack of ports to Eastward expansion into Siberia. So until very, very recently all the goodies in Russia made their way from Western Europe via the privileged classes. Deep down, Russians tend to feel that if someone is materially successful, that success had to come at the expense of someone else, not as a product of creating more wealth than existed before the entrepreneur came on the scene. And to be fair, most Russian “businessmen” are raiders, not traders.

I like Russians. I like their easy nonchalance in the face of adversity, I like their universal reverence for their pantheon of great writers, and I like their dark, gallows humor. But their willingness to accept the trappings of serfdom, or at least second class citizenship, their easy rationalization of corruption, and their long tradition of ignoring laws they don’t like (be they good laws or bad laws) unless an authority figure is present, and their view of life as a zero sum game, don’t bode well for their democracy. Maybe Sinyavsky was right, after all, maybe Russia’s purpose on this planet is to serve as a warning to the rest of us.

* All translations (or mis-translations, as the case my be) are mine.

5 thoughts on “Russia: West or East?”

  1. Perhaps it’s just my Cold War mandatory Russian History courses speaking, but I’m firmly of the opinion that if there’s any serious “East” vs. “West” that distinguishes “Europe” from the rest of Asia, then Russia falls on the “Western” side of that line.

    (As my knowledge is suspect, please correct me if I’m mistaken).

    First. The “Rus” are Scandinavian in origin, and consolidated their overlordship over the nothern water trade lanes during the same era the Normans conquered Sicily, S. Italy, England and ect. However many times populations from the steppes were integrated into that social structure, the underlying identity was retained.

    Second. Russia’s church is Christian Orthodox. Were we to say that the particularities of Russia’s Eastern Orthodox church somehow makes Russian culture, “Eastern” rather than “Western”, then by the same argument the Greek Church should reflect on Greek culture in a similar manner.

    Third. If we are speaking of “West” in a strictly cultural sense, then it’s hard to imagine Russia being excluded. If I recall correctly, Tolstoy has some very funny things to say about this subject. Else, it’s very hard to imagine “modern” Western literature and Drama stripped of it’s Russian influences.

    Fourth. Historically, Western Eurasia (Europe) has treated Russia as beyond “European” society, but I’d argue that of all the Peoples to rub up against “European” megalomania, none has saved Europe from itself more than the Russians. Geographically, there is NO continent, “Europe”, with neat geographic borders. What has served instead is the idea of “Russia”… probably because so many European hegemons have ruined themselves trying to invade central Europe. And where another people might come to resent and reject western neighbors who constantly try to muscle new territory, for some reason the Russians always forgive western Europe.

    Anyway. while admitting that my education probably created a bias in favor of Russia, and that as an American, rather than European, I have a different view of the issue. Still, I think Americans would be wise to bet on Russia if given the chance.

  2. The distinction is not “West v. East” it is Roman v. Byzantine, Latin v. Greek. Of course Russia was Christian. But it was Orthodox. It’s political and cultural life was profoundly different from the West for that reason, among other reasons.

    None of this has anything to do with “betting on Russia”. I had a Russian grandfather. I am something of a Russophile. I have read a fair amount of Russian history and literature. I respect and admire the sacrifices the Russians made to destroy the Wehrmacht, and hence save the world from further and worse disasters. I wish them well out of a sort of retro-patriotism I have for the place, as well as a desire to see a long-suffering group of people have a decent break for a change, and also because a peaceful, orderly, prosperous Russia would make the world a safer place.

    None of that has anything to do with understanding the place. Nor does it have anything to do with assessing what the Russians will need to do to make some progress toward political freedom and economic growth. They have a lot of work to do. We do them no favors if we pretend that they have the cultural foundations to move quickly in these areas. They don’t. Nor do they have any history of secure property rights, or transparent government, or strong civil society, or honest and even-handed courts, or limits on state power.

    Just as American culture and institutions are deeply-rooted, as writers like David Hackett Fischer have shown, so are Russia’s. And seventy years of communism only made things worse.

    We need to be tough-minded, not sentimental, about Russia. Then we can actually be of some help to them. But, mostly, it is up to them to turn their country in a positive direction. Can they do that? I think they can. Will they do that? The current trends are not hopeful ones. Stay tuned.

  3. Scott, when I was in Russia, they saw themselves as “East” – that’s why they named so many of their showpiece military and aerospace projects some variant of “Vostok”, which means East in Russian. Now, some of that was almost tongue-in-cheek, to empahsize the difference between “us” and “them”, and some of it was a perverse pride in being the underdog of Europe whose mission was to save the continent from the capitalist world, but when pressed, Russians do acknowledge their Eastern characteristics, especially the almost Chinese fatalism that I talked about here.

    For me it is hard to distinguish Eastern characteristics that came out of antiquity, such as the Byzantine influences that Lex emphasizes, versus the syncretic and eclectic influences of both the Tartar Yoke (a couple of the mummies of Russian princes from that period on display in Valdimir look Mongolian, so it’s obvious how much influence they had) and the mixing of traditions in the Empire.

    As far as betting on Russia if given the chance, or rather being forced to, I think that the post on my blog that started my exchange with Lex pretty much covers my feeling on that.

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