Russia’s Sisyphean Loop

Anatoly Karlin @
PDF version | DOC version

Russia’s Sisyphean Loop

The Eternal Return to the Future?

In this article I attempt to explain Russia’s historical cycles of failed Westernization and to project its future socio-political trajectory. First, I note the nature of and linkages between Russia’s geography, cultural traditions and imperial cycles. Second, using a ‘Belief Matrix’ model and drawing on historical observations, I accumulate evidence that Russia is caught in a ‘Sisyphean Loop’ in which all its attempts to Westernize – for a panoply of economic, cultural, and political reasons – merely end returning it to its imperial Eurasian past-and-future. In this century, there are three possible ‘steady state’ outcomes: either the Loop will continue as Russia returns to authoritarian stagnation or even succumbs to ‘totalitarian reversion’, or it will break – resulting in Russia’s entwinement within a ‘liberty cycle’ in which it finally manages to anchor liberal values onto its population.

I. The Curse of Geography

Russia’s physical geography can be characterized in three words – big, cold, and flat. This unique combination has left an indelible mark on the national character and the nature of the Russian state that cannot be ignored in any work on its political economy[1]. Let’s consider the deleterious effects of each of them in turn.

The early Rus’ state emerged in the coldest region to ever produce a settled population, a problem compounded by its post-16th century eastern expansion into Eurasia. Growing seasons are short, late spring droughts are recurrent and grain yields are low. This made Russian agriculture outside the southern Black Earth regions, where the cold is mitigated by exception soil fertility, unproductive and barely sufficient for population subsistence. Peasants throughout the world have traditionally viewed merchants with suspicion, since capitalism’s profit motive undermined the egalitarian village social relations and support mechanisms[2] necessary to guarantee community survival in a Malthusian world predating modern economic growth. The especially precarious nature of Russian peasant life further amplified these psychological attributes, making Russia deeply averse to the development of capitalist enterprise, with its emphasis on individual initiative and steady capital accumulation[3].

The resultant low per capita surpluses and the difficulties of taxation rendered old Russia incapable of supporting an extensive institutional superstructure. Instead, it assumed the form of a “patrimonial state” based on absolutist rule, capable of concentrating scarce resources to fulfill crucial national tasks such as defense, “defensive modernization”, and the provision of food security. Even though industrialization and fossil energy reserves have somewhat mitigated the economic effects of the severe cold in Russia, the costs remain substantial: the construction and maintenance of infrastructure is far more expensive than in temperate regions, and the Soviet legacy of large population centers in deepest Siberia and the High Arctic necessitate subsidized energy flows to avert humanitarian catastrophe.

These climatic problems are compounded by Eurasia’s huge, unconnected landmass, a feature noted as early as the 18th century by Adam Smith[4]. The low population density, relative lack of navigable rivers and distance from the seas starved Russia of capital, necessitating coercive state intervention in economic development. Though it is true that in the post-agrarian age the railways, telegraphs, telephones, radio, TV, and the Internet mitigated these factors, Russia continues to incur great costs on road and railway maintenance and the opportunity costs of missing out on the cargo freighter revolution of globalized late industrialism.

Furthermore, not only was Russia in a perpetual natural state of economic backwardness, but it was also surrounded by foreboding plains dominated by Asiatic horsemen to the east and Teutonic, Scandinavian and Polish encroachers to the west. This induced an acute sense of insecurity, at times overspilling into paranoia, in its rulers. Russia was impelled to expand from its Muscovite heartlands to suborn weak border regions (Ukraine, Poland, Central Asia, etc) and seize and hold natural buffers against powerful neighbors (the Caucasus, the Carpathians, etc). As Catherine the Great pithily put it, “I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them”. However, the initial economic gains of conquest were worn down as Moscow was forced to maintain strong standing armies on every potential front, administer the new lands and fund an extensive internal security apparatus, all of which constituted a constant drain on scarce resources and the productive labor pool.

[The reasoning behind Catherine the Great’s claim, “I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them.” The Kremlin’s view of the world – its strategic rear secured by the frozen Barents Sea, it feels “natural” to expand up to the Tien Shan, the Iranian border, the Caucasus, the Carpathians, and as far down the North European Plain as possible. Source: Stratfor].

Adding these factors together, it becomes clear why imperial overstretch, economic inefficiency and primitive consumer markets are features, not bugs, of any Eurasian empire. Although industrial, technological, and fossil energy sources have mitigated the curse of Russia’s geography during the last century, they were reinforced in the other direction by the Soviet physical legacy of “city-forming enterprises”, industrial “gigantism”, remote population centers, a metastasized military-industrial complex and “structural militarization”[5].

Much has been written on how developing nations can get locked into ‘dependency’ relations with the advanced ‘core’, in which a misguided focus on comparative advantage (bananas, oil, etc) contributes to the growth of strong structural and institutional barriers in the developing nation towards long-term, industrial growth – the only sure path to sustainable wealth[6]. It has also been pointed out that the only nations to have successfully ‘caught up’ with the original ‘leading’ industrial economy, Britain, were those which developed their indigenous manufacturing capabilities with active, large-scale state involvement (e.g. Germany, Japan, the Asian NIC’s)[7].

Not only does Russia suffer from the classic problem of economic backwardness (along with its associated tendency to develop unhealthy dependency relations), but its economy is further burdened by the aforementioned cold climate, huge landmass, poor riverine connections, strategic vulnerability, and a Soviet physical legacy which (somewhat) worked in the context of central planning, but which is a liability now that the Eurasian economic space has been opened up. In its open condition, the Russian economy is structurally uncompetitive on the world stage, relative to Europe, the US, and China; because manufacturing is inherently loss-making on the Eurasian plains, it is much more economically ‘efficient’ to just ship out Russia’s mineral resources to fuel manufacturing in warmer, coastal regions such as the Rhineland or the Pearl River Delta. No more than 20mn Russians are needed to service the pipelines and grow fat from the proceeds. The other 120mn are free to eke out a subsistence living on Russia’s marginal lands, or die out (as indeed many did during the post-Soviet era of neo-liberal reforms[8]).

Hence, it is hard to escape the conclusion that to achieve real, long-term economic growth and political sovereignty, as opposed to transitory commodity-bubble booms and political dependency, Russia needs to implement a degree of economic autarky – protective barriers, state backing of sunrise industries, buying (or stealing) of key industrial technologies, etc. True, this will doom it to eternal backwardness relative to the developed West. But so will openness – and at a far steeper social and political price, as will be demonstrated below.

II. Clash of Beliefs

Despite all the superficial similarities, Russia is most certainly not America. The US has a temperate climate, no significant external threats, abundant land, and excellent navigable river systems and sea ports on both coasts, all of which enabled its long legacy of free-wheeling capitalist development. Though the individual European nations tend to be strategically insecure and heavily-populated, entailing a more state-centered pattern of development, the continent’s geographical endowments – fertile river valleys, easy access to the sea and differentiated climatic zones – made it highly favorable for the development of commerce and capital accumulation[9].

These differences in starting conditions manifested themselves in lower growth rates for Russia relative to Europe. Although their absolute differences were infinitesimal and overwhelmed by the “noise” of annual climate / harvest variability and longer-term Malthusian cycles[10], this nonetheless led to a growing development gap between the two civilizations on a millennial timescale[11]. Russia’s historical backwardness was already evident by the 15th century in the contrast between the achievements of Renaissance Europe, which was by then building up the foundations of the modern world – the printing press, mechanical clocks, caravels, etc – while medieval Muscovy, the precursor to the Russian Empire, was only beginning to emerge from its long Tatar-Mongol night. Thus, the Russian state’s first interactions with a self-confident, more advanced, and frequently predatory Europe, set the template for the next five hundred years of its tortuous relations with the West. This relationship made it into a “torn nation”, to use Samuel Huntington’s term from the Clash of Civilization – forever torn between succumbing to Western civilization and returning to its Eurasian legacy.

This takes us to the crux of the problem. Russia’s seemingly-permanent backwardness ignited a prolonged debate between groups that would come to be known as its “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles” / “Eurasianists”. One of the current and most influential iterations of the former is the argument set forth in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which in the heady, triumphalist days of 1992 proclaimed, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

First, this is backed by the empirical evidence. According to the Polity IV database, the number of countries qualifying as democracies rose from around a dozen before World War One, to more than ninety by 2008[12]. Second, Fukuyama noted the increasing influence of the “Mechanism” of natural science on societies, which emphasizes the primacy of rationalism and the desirability of optimal socio-economic arrangements. Third, he appropriated the Hegelian master-slave dialectic to argue that liberal democracy is the system best geared towards managing the conflicting thymias[13] of both “isothymiacs” – whose desire for equality is satisfied by classical liberalism and rule of law; and “megalothymiacs” – whose desire for power over others is satisfied through capital accumulation and the thrills of democratic politics. The theory goes that as nations embrace the scientific method and industrialize – whether to enjoy the fruits of consumerism, or only just to preserve their political sovereignty – the likelihood of their convergence to liberal democracy and integration into the “international community” approaches one.

These theories of secular progress have developed in an uneasy conjunction with the “civilizational school”, which believes that free markets and liberal democracy are specific features of Western civilization, i.e. of the Latino-Germanic peoples, and therefore cannot easily take root in other societies. One of the most powerful arguments against wholesale Westernization was made by Nikolai Trubetzkoy in Europe and Man, published in 1920 amidst the postwar disillusionment and revolutionary turbulence of those years. He states that the idea of world progress, with European civilization naturally at its forefront, is nothing more than a baseless assumption of European cosmopolitanism (which is itself merely a euphemism for “egocentric” “pan-Latino-Germanic chauvinism”). This is because “the scientific nature of the proof is illusory”, since to “reconstruct the evolutionary scheme, we must know its beginning and end points, and to ascertain its beginning and end points, we must reconstruct the evolutionary scheme”. Through a deft combination of psychological and philosophical arguments, he comes to the conclusion that all cultures – including “savages” – are essentially equal and should be evaluated on their own merits. Though cultural relativism is well-known today, at least on liberal university campuses, such ideas were ground-breaking at the time[14].

Following his reflections on the non-universality of Western culture, Trubetzkoy asks whether it is possible for a non-European culture to a) completely assimilate with it and b) whether doing so is desirable. To do so, he draws on the work of the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, who argued that all cultures are defined by “the uninterrupted emergence of new cultural assets” (legal codes, political structures, scientific ideas, artistic styles, etc). All cultural assets are either “inventions” – a product of the indigenous culture, or “propagations” – imports from another culture. The former is much easier to assimilate because it is an organic product of the society in question, whereas the latter is copied from another society and whose transplantation will result in a clash with older pre-existing values, resulting in a long and bitter duel logique for supremacy.

When a culture like Russia tries to Westernize, the result is cultural schizophrenia. A good half of its inventions – those stemming from its “old Russian” side – will now be rejected out of hand for not conforming to the dominant European paradigm. Because of its “cultural dependency” on Europe, paralyzing social clefts develop across classes and generations – for instance, during the 18th century “trivial, demeaning aping of Europe”, when the French-speaking upper classes were often unable to even understand their Russophone serfs. (Furthermore, “[Russia] must accept without protest everything that genuine Romano-Germans create and consider valuable, even if it conflicts with its national psychology and is poorly understood”. This basically defines Russia’s unsuccessful attempts to create a Western style free-market economy in the early 1990’s, which was carried out by ideologues and hijacked by insiders).

The resultant internal weaknesses and wastage of ideological energy on internal debates and conflicts cement a permanent cultural lag behind Europe. This breeds a burning inferiority complex within Russians, and causes Europeans to look down upon Russians, whom they criticize for either a) not Europeanizing far enough – for Russia’s indigenous cultural assets can never be fully extirpated, absent a full “anthropological merger” with the Romano-German world, or b) deceitfully repressing their “true nature” under a European veneer[15]. This further reinforces Russians’ disillusionment with the West.

The failure of Westernization, growing social tensions, and simmering ressentiment against the West, occasionally reach a critical point in which Russia attempts to “leap” the gap separating it from the West, as happened during the Bolshevik Revolution (leapfrogging from feudalism to socialism) or the 1990’s (from socialism to market fundamentalism) – i.e., to whatever utopian end-of-history the West appears to be moving towards at the time. However, these leaps are extremely enervating and result in long periods of stagnation as Russian society sets about resolving the contradictions opened up by its Sisyphean attempts to catch up to the West.

III. The Belief Matrix

One way to understand changes in a society’s belief systems is to graphically represent it within a Belief Matrix, as shown below for a ‘Sisyphean loop’ (encounter with the West).

The horizontal axis represents the degree of society’s faith in its own indigenous culture, which can be (roughly) proxied by measures such as demographic health, social solidarity, levels of social trust, the crime rate, and faith in the future. The rightmost part represents a state of “sobornost” (соборность) – a catch-all term for a deep sense of internal peace and unity between races, religions, sexes, etc, within a society, or in the words of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Lossky, “the combination of freedom and unity of many persons on the basis of their common love for the same absolute values”[16]. An example of such a period in Russian history could be the Khrushchev thaw (1956-64), which saw the ebbing of the class war and Stalinist repressions, rapid industrial growth, and symbolic achievements in space; but before the onset of the Brezhnev stagnation, with its drunkenness, corruption and cynicism, which dimmed the lights of faith in a bright socialist future.

Its opposite is another untranslatable Russian word, poshlost (пошлость), which according to different commentators is a kind of “petty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity”[17], “triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality”[18], “not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive”[19], and “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature”[20]. This is another good catch-all term for categorizing declining cultures that have, or believe they have lost, their faith in themselves, prominent 20th century examples being Weimar Germany and 1990’s Russia.

The vertical axis of the Belief Matrix represents a society’s degree of belief in Rationalism, that is, Enlightenment values such as liberalism, the rule of law, the scientific method, etc, or what Samuel Huntington ethnocentrically labels as the “Idea of the West”. Several caveats must be added. Rationalism does not necessarily imply democracy, for as thinkers from Aristotle to de Tocqueville pointed out, democracy has a tendency to degenerate into an (irrational) tyranny of the majority. However, some democracy, or at least some degree of popular consent, is needed to sustain a rational society, i.e. for ‘liberal democracy’ to become so ‘embedded’ as to be accepted as an integral part of the national culture, as it is in countries like France or the US.

That is much harder than it sounds. The scientific method is alien and unfamiliar to the peasant mind filled with images of rain gods and trickster demons. The rule of law cannot sit well in human societies based on on communal coercion, “big man” rule and sacrificial scapegoating. As pointed out in Part I, rational market forces are anathema in subsistence societies. Thus, reconciling sobornost with rationalism, or ironing out the internal contradiction inherent in ‘liberal democracy’, is a long and tortuous process that necessitates the development of economic surpluses, and consequently of a culture of tolerance and an argumentative tradition, for its fulfillment. The only nations that managed to fully accomplish this in their pre-industrial phase were Great Britain and the US. However, once a society resolves these contradictions it enters a powerful liberty loop, which ensures the long-term survival of liberal democracy within its territories, at least in the absence of very severe exogenous shocks. Finally, it should be emphasized that the “Idea of the West” is only an absolute ideal to which humans can only aspire to, but never reach unity with; as such, it should not be conflated with individual “Western countries” (France, the US, etc), which are composed of humans and hence frequently, understandably, and inevitably fail to fully live up to their Rationalist ideal.

This explains the frequent Russian, Muslim, Third World, etc, accusations of double standards and hypocrisy[21] on the part of the “West”, which presents itself as a universal, end-of-history civilization, but in reality often acts in ways to further its cultural and economic hegemony. Though part of the critique is accurate and justified, another part veers into being a Romantic reaction against the West, which Gustav Pauli tried to define as “irrationalism, the mystic welding together of subject and object, the tendency to intermingle the arts, the longing for the far-away and the strange, the feeling for the infinite and the continuity of historic development”[22] – much like postmodernism, it is very hard to define Romanticism, for (rational) definition is contrary to its very spirit!

I have designated this over-reaction in Russia’s context as Russian mysticism (Romanticism) or skeptical Russophilia[23], noting that their adherents share a common belief in the non-universality of the Western project and in Russia’s unique civilizational identity and destiny – be it of a Slavophile, Eurasianist, or some other hue. Contrary to the ‘Western Russophobe’-imposed definition of a ‘Russophile’ as someone who uncritically praises Russia and its government, their defining trait is a simple acceptance of Russia for what it is; for unlike the case for (rational) Western civilization, resolving its own contradictions is not part of Russia’s historical mission – and one could add that attempts to do so on the part of its elites have led to usually led to tragic results. The essence of Russian Romanticism can be summed in just four lines by the famous Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev.

Умом Россию не понять, | You can’t understand Russia with intellect,
Аршином общим не измерить: | You can’t measure her with a common scale,
У ней особенная стать — | She has a special kind of grace,
В Россию можно только верить.  | You can only believe in Russia.

This anti-Western reaction can sometimes spiral out of control, transcending its aesthetic, mystical origins into the realm of ‘metapolitics’[24].  The intersection between sobornost and mysticism is the dark region where totalitarianisms arise and democides are unleashed, as their spiritually tortured societies attempt to go back to an imagined past using the most modern tools – as Goebbels himself said, “National Socialism has understood how to take the soulless framework of technology and fill it with the rhythm and hot impulses of our time”. Speaking of which, the prime example of this during the 20th century is German Nazism, which ‘scorns personal freedom and objectivity and all universal, unnational values as being the “superficial” civilization of the sunny Mediterranean, in contrast with the “deeper” Kultur of northern fogs, that misty metapolitics, that “queer mixture of mysticism and brutality”’[25]. A modern example would be the Islamists using modern technology (bombs, airplanes, etc) and modern ideology (Islamized ‘Third Worldism’) to recreate their vision of a pure, idyllic imagined past[26].

In conclusion, there are four utterly distinct socio-psychological states on the Belief Matrix. First, at the bottom right (rationalism / sobornost), we have stable societies where liberalism enjoys a substantial degree of popular consensus, locking them into self-perpetuating ‘liberty cycles’. Second, at the bottom left (rationalism / poshlost), we have peoples with minimal internal social solidarity and a rational mindset, which one could call “diasporic[27] (in that it is typical amongst “diaspora peoples” like the Jews, Armenians, the Chinese ‘bamboo network’ in East Asia, etc). The diaspora mentality cannot be sustained within a non-diasporic society, for a society cannot be a parasite on itself indefinitely; it will have to move upwards, towards a state of “barbarism”, whose essence is a principled stand for pure parasitism – the top-left of the Belief Matrix (mysticism / poshlost), which is a form of nihilism. Yet this too is an unstable state, since it needs to feed off a functioning civilization for its material and cultural survival (i.e. one with a certain degree of sobornost), hence it will eventually come to an end – either when it is crushed by the civilizations it necessarily stands in opposition to, or when it conquers them itself but whose demise likewise eliminates the rents the barbarians had previously relied upon to sustain their civilization, thus forcing them into generating their own productive capabilities. Fourth, the region of the top-right (mysticism / sobornost) is the aforementioned realm of metapolitics, of the “charismatic authority”[28], of high “passionarity”[29], of the national will, of totalitarian despotism.

IV. The Sisyphean Loop

We are all prisoners of the belief matrix and its laws, even the ‘post-historical’ Europeans[30] entrenched within transnational liberalism. As such, it is imperative to understand these laws, especially as they apply to cultures in an uneasy relationship with the West. I will now try to put together a general model of how traditional cultures react to the Western challenge, before applying it to Russia’s five hundred year history of alternating acceptance and rejection of the West in Parts V-VII. I will be referring to the ‘Sisyphean Loop’ chart in Part III throughout.

As attested to by numerous chronicles, first contact with Westerners by less advanced civilizations typically results in a certain fascination with the strange, new Westerners, as well as a determination to catch up – especially to acquire the Western military-industrial technologies to defend against Western predation. (There are many exceptions, of course; for instance, 19th century China believed the Europeans had nothing to teach them, and retreated in on itself to its cost. But in the long-term, the reality of Chinese stagnation and its exploitation by Western powers – including by a Western-armed Japan – eventually forced a tectonic shift). The two cleanest examples of countries repeatedly opting for ‘defensive modernization’ are Japan during the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, and successive incarnations of the Russian Empire under Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Alexander II, Stalin, Putin?

Many indigenous traditions are seen as incompatible with modernization and are rejected by the ruling elites – and as noted in Part II, since a Westernizing nation “borrows its evaluation of culture from the Romano-Germans”, it must then “accept without protest everything that genuine Romano-Germans create and consider valuable, even if it conflicts with its national psychology and is poorly understood”[31]. This creates internal tensions, conflicts, and unrest within society. There occurs a growing gap between the Westernizing elites and the traditional mass of society, a theme that typically comes to dominate vast swathes of its culture and literature, a classic sign of poshlost. Society moves to the bottom- left of the belief matrix, embracing Rationalism (synonymous with Westernization) at the expense of faith in itself. Social trust erodes, there is more internal strife, and society takes on a “diasporic” mentality – the debasing feeling of being a foreigner in one’s own land.

The cosmopolitan elites come to be seen as foreign leeches on indigenous soil, decadent and degenerate, by the common folks – many of whom retain, let us remind ourselves, peasant mentalities valuing egalitarian collectivism, and many of whom are now being uprooted from the soil to swelling cities, made literate and capable of reading agitprop, and made mobile by the new railways, as happened in the last decades of Tsarism (in modern times a similar role may be played by the spread of electronic social networking technologies[32]). Furthermore, these grievances tend to have more than a grain of truth, as the elites do tend to slavishly follow foreign manners (e.g. see the French-speaking Tsarist aristocracy, many of whom could not even understand their Russophone serfs) and exploit the indigenous population in the name of Western-associated ‘modernization’, forcing the country into a humiliating ‘dependency’ relationship with the already-developed core.

Over time these problems begin to discredit further Westernization, especially once the easiest (and ostensibly most useful) task of military modernization is completed. The people and the elites lose faith in the West – the former because they associate it with degeneracy and corruption (e.g. the Russian workers and peasants most aware of it: because of the development of the national railway system during late Tsarism, even a peasant from a rural backwater could now observe the parasitic decadence of the Court); the latter because of the shallow nationalism born of reinvigorated military, economic and cultural strength accruing from a limited modernization. Intellectually, there is a gradual movement back towards embracing indigenous culture, like the late Tsarist intelligentsia’s (narodniki) fad towards Slavophilia, with its (rather risible) idolization of Russian peasant life.

But now one of two things happens. A part of the elite realizes that their decadence is politically dangerous (a large gap between the masses and the elites presages revolution), and tries to move back towards indigenous traditions – back to the people, so to speak. This is opposed by another part of the elite that has gotten used to its perks and privileges, despite the spiritual anomie in which they are stuck because of this. The ruling elites become disunited and weak; the masses are increasingly disillusioned with the whole system; new ideologues appear, preaching about total rejection of the West (e.g. the Bolsheviks) and a return to an imagined past of purity and virtue, i.e. to tradition (e.g. amongst whom there were many admirers of Russian peasant communal traditions; non-Russian examples would be fascist movements or the radical Islamists who overthrew the Iranian Shah).

There appears a crisis, further straining divisions in the government and polarizing society in general (e.g. World War One). Eventually the government is forced to reform, but alas and alack, as per de Tocqueville, the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform. By reversing course and showing weakness, it delegitimizes itself in the face of crisis; furthermore, it frequently becomes more democratic just when the people (and newly-enfranchised electorate) are becoming more hardline, and extremists (the Bolsheviks in 1918, the Iranian Islamists in 1979, etc) are waiting in the wings. The extremists moderate their positions to win over the people and consolidate their control; after that they unleash terror, taking their captive nation into the far-top fringes of uncompromising rejection of Rationalism and anti-Western reaction.

On the other hand, if the elite remains united; if the crisis is not that severe; if the people retain a firm belief in Rationalism and the Idea of the West and are unswayed by the extremists, then a more moderate outcome can be expected – a reversion back to the past, the state of stasis (“traditional authority”), yet having assimilated some elements of the Idea of the West during its loop so that society is now “better” and perhaps “fairer” than before (by the yardstick of more Westernized states). They remain in this inert state until another shock (e.g. defeat in war by a more Westernized nation, or recognition of weakness) forces them to act, restarting the loop.

Why do I call this a Sisyphean loop? Because while it lasts, this basically explains a tortured nation’s attempts to catch up with “the West” (roll the rock to the top of the mountain), but never managing it (the rock keeps going back downhill). This is very pronounced in Russia – its entire history since gunpowder Muscovy has been one of quixotic attempts to catch up to and surpass the West, yet which all too often ended in catastrophes wrought of messianic delusions, followed by prolonged periods of frustration, stagnation, and collapse.

V. The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Russian Empire

The hand of the Muscovite Leviathan lay heavy on a people always near the edge of subsistence, creating strong centrifugal forces that further reinforced the state’s natural penchant for coercive centralization and intensive legitimization (the main instruments in these endeavours being the Army, the bureaucracy, and the Church). This resulted in Russia oscillating between two equilibrium states – 1) a centralized autocracy attempting to consolidate state power over the Eurasian vastness – “Empire”, and 2) a natural state of illiberal, anarchic stasis – “Chaos”.

This is how this imperial cycle works. Following Russia’s cyclical collapses (the Mongol conquest, The Time of Troubles, the Civil War and the post-Soviet transition), in which the state withers away and foreign powers and their Russian proxies move in to take advantage of the Eurasian vacuum (the Poles during the ‘Time of Troubles’, the Civil War era interventions, Western ‘financial advisors’ during the 1990’s), there eventually emerges a messianic “white rider” who heavy-handedly drives out the usurpers, and restores order and national morale (the 15th– and early 16th-century princes of Muscovy, Peter the Great, Lenin). Putin is the current white rider, intimately cognizant of Russia’s weakness from his intelligence background and determined to once again play state-driven catch-up to the West.

However, this is rarely successful – these developments are stymied by the baleful economic and social effects of Westernization on Russia (see Part II). Disappointed by slow and stunted progress, the white rider “realizes that the challenges ahead are more formidable than he first believed and that his (relative) idealism is more a hindrance than an asset”[33]. Into this society riven by internal divisions and disillusionment (poshlost) – in steps the ‘dark rider’, who unburdens himself of the white rider’s moral restraints in an all-out drive to fulfil the state’s goals through strict internal controls, subjugation of the economy and military expansionism – he recreates the Empire, driving Russia to the (metapolitical) top-right of the Belief Matrix. The most famous examples are Stalin and Ivan Grozny in his later years.

This empire-building is accompanied by intense efforts at state legitimization (the “Third Rome”, the socialist future, etc – i.e., reincarnations of the mystical, messianic Russian ‘national idea’) and state coercion (from oprichnina to OGPU). Yet the people tend to go along willingly with this project, because of unfavorable memories of the era of collapse and disintegration, and their perception that this regime, though harsh, is a necessary and ‘national’ one. In his visit to the 1930’s USSR, John Scott noted that Stalin himself was regarded as a kind of beneficent Tsar, a father of the nation, and a competent ‘captain of state’ like the propaganda posters portrayed him[34]; the regime enjoyed popular support and Stalinist industrialization was fuelled not only by fear, but by immense enthusiasm and fervor too. The war correspondent Alexander Werth noted similar sentiments in 1941, e.g. Stalin was viewed as a paternal bashka (thinker)[35].

After the dark rider dies, his ‘charismatic authority’ is replaced by more traditional and bureaucratic institutions, i.e. a more rational order. However, his legacies and achievements – sobornost, autarky, sovereignty, i.e. the Empire – linger on, and continue legitimizing the regime. For the Empire is, at root, a social preservation mechanism to allow Russians to enjoy the benefits of sustained socio-political complexity – internal peace, a degree of security from foreign marauders, a large contiguous market space permitting economies of scale and autonomous economic development, and the aesthetic trappings of imperial splendor.

However, cursed with a geography highly unfavorable for settled life (let alone civilization), imperial overstretch, economic backwardness and primitive consumer markets are features, not bugs, of any Eurasian empire (see Part I). Furthermore, the dark rider also sows the seeds of destruction by overextending his realm, which eventually ushers in a period of stagnation and increasing socio-economic strains. Russia’s imperial cycles are basically a permanent struggle against dissolution. Sometimes, the costs of maintaining the imperial superstructure exceed the benefits, by which point a systemic shock could unravel the entire system – a good example would be Kerensky’s Russia in 1917, which collapsed once its coercive (military) and legitimizing (the Church) power was destroyed by defeats, defections, and Bolshevik propaganda.

Half-hearted attempts of the ancien régime at reform fail and the country slides from decline into a new collapse, thus closing the cycle. Though crises are generally rarer in Russia than in most European countries, once they occur – given the amount of stress holding the system together – they tend to be extremely catastrophic. Even as newly-empowered ideologues set about fulfilling their dreams of leapfrogging the West from within the collapsed shell of state, the real Russia outside the Kremlin crumbles reverts back to its natural state – the natural state, an anarchic state of stasis, decentralized Chaos; abandoning its cities, laws, and other accoutrements of civilization for the primeval mysticism of its endless plains, dark forests and Slavic skies.

VI. Patterns of the Past

In this and the next chapter, I will be putting together the above observations on Russia’s geographic-climatic idiosyncrasies, the derived cultural traditions, its special path along the Belief Matrix, and its imperial cycles, trying to link them together and apply them to its past. There appear to me to be several ‘Sisyphean Loops’ in the history of the post-Tatar Russian state, periodic ‘waves’ in which it actively tried to reconcile rationalization with its indigenous traditions – most intense under the rule of Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’), Peter the Great, Lenin and Stalin, and Yeltsin and Putin (though also identifiable under Catherine the Great, and Alexander II and Alexander III).

Thunderstorms over the Third Rome

First off, the reason I put apostrophes around Ivan IV’s epithet – in Russian, it is “Grozny”, an adjective formed from the Russian word “гроза” – “thunderstorm”. Not necessarily cruel and unjust; more appropriate translation are ‘fear-inspiring’, ‘mighty’, ‘superhuman’, ‘sublime’; an unpredictable force of nature that can bring the rains that save the harvest, or kill and destroy everything in its path.

Following Ivan IV’s recognition as ‘Tsar of All Russia’ in 1547, he proceeded to build a diverse, Eurasian empire – and thus cementing Russia’s conception of itself as an Empire ever since. Though criticized for his ‘repressions’, including the violent suppression of the Novgorod insurrection[36], most of the ‘evidence’[37] for his ‘tyranny’ comes from Andrei Kurbsky, the first Russian ‘dissident’ and traitor who turned to Poland-Lithuania in 1564. Actual historical records record only 4,000-5,000 executions under his reign, most of them recidivists who betrayed Ivan Grozny a second time; furthermore, in any case the numbers pale besides the violence seen in Western Europe at the time (e.g. St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in France with 5,000-30,000 dead, and Henry VIII’s anti-vagrant laws that resulted in the execution of 72,000 peasants misappropriated of their lands).

Ivan Grozny made a series of far-reaching reforms, some of which were surprisingly advanced for their time – e.g. the introduction of elected juries from the lower ranks, local self-government, medical quarantines for combating plague, a standing military (strel’tsy), and rationalizing reforms of the Church, the law code, tax collection, the bureaucracy (formation of permanent chanceries, or prikazy, in 1553), nobles’ service obligations (the 1553 ‘decree on service’), and the convocation of zemskie sobory (‘land assemblies’) drawn from merchants and artisans to build consensus for state modernization policies.

Many of the reforms were based on those prevailing in the Ottoman Porte, in particular those concerned with the military structure, tax collection, and noble obligations. However, the attempt to copy the Ottoman system of land division (private, clerical, state, and ‘sovereign’) – known as the institution of oprichnina (1565-1572), meant to create a personal fiefdom subject to Ivan’s direct rule in order to extirpate treason and reduce boyar power – backfired. The black-cowled, sinister oprichniki, riding on black steeds with a broom and dog’s head to “sniff out and sweep away treason”, were more interested in personal enrichment and settling personal vendettas than in pursuing their task of consolidating Ivan Grozny’s power. They proved powerless to defend Moscow against a devastating raid from the Crimean Khanate in 1571, and were disbanded soon after – but not before inflicting severe damage on the Muscovite heartlands. By now Ivan’s transition from a white rider to dark rider was complete, as he steadily slipped into mental insanity, and Russia was wracked by famines and depopulation, and an unsuccessful war with Livonia. Following his death, Russia would slip into deep stagnation (in which state predation would be displaced by boyar predation) and within two decades, the ‘Time of Troubles’, an era of conspiratorial politics and internal strife (poshlost), depopulation, and foreign (Polish) intervention. Much of the 17th century was spent in recuperation from the depopulation and weakening of the state during the late 16th century; although pointedly, it was during this time, relatively free from Malthusian stress and predatory state alike, that Russians enjoyed some of the highest per capita surpluses and consumption in their pre-industrial history[38].

The reign of Ivan IV, ‘the Terrible’, set the template for all of Russia’s consequent ‘defensive modernizations’. Realizing Russia’s backwardness upon coming to power, the white rider, or strongman saviour, begins to rapidly implement a revolution from above involving centralization, social mobilization, and technical and cultural borrowings from abroad, i.e. an embrace of Rationalism. Yet eventually it is noticed that results aren’t progressing as fast as they ought to and need to, and the white rider is replaced by a much stricter dark rider, who rules with an iron fist and possesses an overinflated perception of Russia’s capability to assimilate his changes and reforms. The pursuit of modernization takes on a mystical, quasi-spiritual hue.

Ivan Grozny is special in that in his case, both riders were the same person; it’s just that under the pressures of sabotage and treason from his boyars, he metamorphosed from being a white rider to a dark rider. Under his later rule, efforts at legitimization, coercion, mobilization, etc, were pushed to such extremes that they of themselves critically undermined Russian power. Furthermore, Russia’s rising power and expansionism brought it into conflict with Poland-Lithuania to the west, which sought to check its advances, attempted to block Muscovy’s technological imports from Western Europe[39], and allied itself with the Crimean Khanate to the south (an Ottoman protectorate) – a move that could be seen as a precursor of Britain’s and American’s strategies of ‘containment’. This illustrates a recurring theme of Russian expansionism mentioned in Part I – there are always limits to imperial growth in the form of mounting resistance from bordering Powers, which impinges on the Empire’s economic base. Just as it Russia’s neighbours made it difficult for it to acquire modern gunpowder weapons, so the US during the Cold War would try its best to restrict exports of advanced technologies to the Soviet Empire.

And so it went for more than three hundred years more of Tsarism, during which time Russia suffered from a dependency relation with Europe, both economically (grain exports for luxuries) and culturally (a Francophone, ‘foreign’ elite). Ironically, the single greatest attempt to break out into modernity through mobilization and centralization (despotism?), pursued under Peter the Great, had its greatest impact on the reinforcement of (development-inhibiting) serfdom. The aristocracy soon wriggled out of its state service obligations after Peter’s death, but retained despotic power over their serfs until 1861, using their surpluses to fund lavish lifestyles devoted to the ‘trivial, demeaning aping of Europe’, as characterized by Trubetzkoy (see Part II). A renewed state-led industrialization campaign from the 1880’s would eventually generate the massive reaction – both Western and anti-Western, rational and irrational – known as the Bolshevik Revolution. It is to this event and its consequences that we now turn.

“The Third International is not an International, but the Russian national idea”

Late Tsarist Russia was a highly polarized, divided and turbulent society, as noted in Part IV. Peasants were drifting into rapidly expanding, unsanitary industrial cities riven by inequality. The railways and the spread of literacy – contrary to later Soviet propaganda, already well advanced[40] by that time – gave Russians unprecedented mobility and access to new, radical ideas and a glimpse of the aristocracy’s (and foreigners’) la dolce vita. In its last decade, Tsarist Russia was wracked by constant labor unrest in the factories and political violence, which were harshly suppressed. The workers, aware of and seduced by the consumption habits of Europeans[41] and their elites, demanded a bigger piece of the consumption pie, as did a younger, more ambitious segment of rural society. This conflicted with the state’s need for rapid industrial development, which by now it was taking seriously[42] – high tariff rates on manufactured goods, state involvement, the railways, and a cheap, suppressed labor force contributed to the late Empire’s rapid industrial expansion. But for all that, it should be noted that the Tsar retained the support of the vast majority of people, the extremist elements like the Bolsheviks were regarded as traitorous internationalists, and Russia’s growing power bolstered national self-confidence. At the genesis of modern total war in 1914, the Russian Empire was waxing, not waning; indeed, fearful projections of its future strength were an important factor in Germany’s decision to cross the Rubicon into Belgium.

The war exposed the Empire’s underlying weaknesses, as the initial outburst of patriotic euphoria degenerated into pessimism and anger. The war effort was prosecuted incompetently and an ill-supplied and demoralized Russian Army met defeat after defeat at the hands of the Germans. The privileged elite refused to share the war burden with the workers, alienating them through their ostentatious splendor – manifested above all in the Tsar, whose German wife, English lifestyle, and tolerance of the dissolute Rasputin discredited him in the eyes of the people. These transgressions were made to seem all the more egregious due to the Tsarist regime’s war propaganda, which only served to reinforce Russia’s sense of national consciousness. By 1917, the railway system was breaking down, and along with it food supplies to the cities and the front.

Following the collapse of the three-hundred year old Romanov dynasty in early 1917 and the cessation of political repression under the weak Provisional Government, the socialist-revolutionary movement sensed its historical moment. The radicalization of the urban workers, the discrediting of the old order, and the Bolsheviks’ skilful representation of themselves as the solution to the people’s problems (Land, Bread, Peace), laid the groundwork for the October Revolution of 1917. Utilizing their control of Russia’s main urban centers, instilling iron discipline in their followers, strangling the early Revolutionary freedoms in their cradle, and portraying the White forces as being corrupt and in cahoots with dark foreign forces (i.e., playing on the nationalism which they had rejected in their older, theoretical days), the Bolsheviks won the Civil War and set about building Communism – ‘Soviet power plus electrification of the country’, in Lenin’s memorable phrase. This was in essence another Russian attempt to ‘leap ahead’ of the West, similar to that attempted by Ivan Grozny, Peter the Great and even the late Tsars; yet married to industrialism, far more radical and ‘total’ in its scope and ambitions. Incubated within this apparent, radical Westernization – for Marxism was developed by a German in London, and had its antecedents in the Western dialectical tradition – was a profound resurrection of the mystical and sublime element of Russian history (e.g. the spiritual rehabilitation of Eurasia symbolized by the return of the capital to Moscow from Petrograd).

After the radicalism, insecurity and terrors of the Civil War period, the 1920’s saw a significant liberalization and social modernization – the fruits of the latest Western Rationalism. Abortion was legalized in 1920 and divorce laws were reformed. Austere ‘war communism’ was replaced with the New Economic Policy, which grudgingly granted the right to make private profit. There was more freedom in the arts, typified by the Russian avant-garde movement, which reached its peak in the 1920’s before being forcibly displaced by ‘socialist realism’ from 1932. This was part of a general return to ‘tradition’ spearheaded by Stalin, who pushed the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ in opposition to Trotsky’s internationalist concept of ‘permanent revolution’ and Bukharin and Kamenev’s social-democratic leanings. These old Bolsheviks were to be later condemned as heretics, and extirpated during the Stalinist ‘show trials’ of the mid-to-late 1930’s along with their ideas as Russia drifted back towards a socially-conservative, neo-imperialist state based on mobilization, militarization, and messianic fervor. As the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev put it in his 1937 book The Origin of Russian Communism, “the Third Rome, Russia managed to bring about the Third International, on which were imprinted many of the features of the Third Rome… The Third International is not an International, but the Russian national idea”; the Soviet state represented a transformation of the “ideas of Ivan the Terrible, a new form of the old hypertrophied state of Russian history…Russian Communism is more traditional than people usually think, and is nothing more than a transformation and distortion of the old Russian messianic idea”. That said, the social revolution nonetheless irrevocably changed Russia: as Slavoj Žižek noted, for all their arbitrariness, ‘terror and misery’, nonetheless socialism “opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations which, among other things, enabled us to measure the failure of the really existing Socialism itself”[43]. In other words, Russia’s inevitable failure to fully assimilate this latest Western propagation (see Part II) would in time psychologically contribute to the late Soviet disillusionment and collapse because it opened up a space for its own refutation; just as previous radical ‘revolutions from above’ overseen by strongmen like Ivan Grozny and Peter the Great ended up undermining the Empire.

As noted in Part V, for all the privations (repressions, economic coercion, etc) forced on the Russian people as the Empire was built up during the 1930-1950’s – and defended at phenomenal cost during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) – the regime retained a great degree of support throughout. Sometimes the regime went too far in its paranoia and ended up undermining itself, as during 1936-37 when the repressions spiraled out of control and became of themselves the greatest source of ‘sabotage’ in the Soviet economy. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the USSR could have withstood an assault by the Wehrmacht, supported by the industrial potential of most of Europe, if it hadn’t been for Stalin’s foresight and ruthlessness in industrializing the Urals, expanding Soviet borders west, centralizing state operations, and preparing wartime industrial relocation plans.

For if the USSR had lost the Great Patriotic War, this would have resulted in the partial extermination, Siberian exile and helotization of the Slavic and Jewish populations of eastern Europe, as envisaged under Generalplan Ost, Nazi Germany’s genocidal scheme for conquering Lebensraum in the East. This partly explains why Russians today hold such conflicted and contradictory views on Stalin, the despotic Messiah who led and ruled them like the God of the Old Testament – according to a February 2006 opinion poll, 47% of the population are positive, whereas 29% are negative[44]. During the postwar decades, Victory was the greatest single legitimization of the Soviet regime, and even today, it cleanses away the other manifold sins of Stalin’s regime in the minds of many of Russia’s citizens – attesting to its lasting power as Russia’s national myth.

After the poshlost of the 1920’s to the early Stalinist period, in which Russia moved in an upwards arc along the left side of the Belief Matrix, after 1938 – and especially after the spiritual boost of Victory in 1945 – Soviet Russia returned to a state of sobornost at the top-right position of the Belief Matrix, underpinned by sovereignty and autarky, i.e. all the classical elements of the idealized Russian Empire. Prior to Stalin’s death in 1953, the groundwork was being laid for what could have been a new purge directed against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, a euphemism for Soviet Jews, with the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ (1952) to poison Soviet leaders serving as a pretext: hundreds were already arrested by early 1953. This would have been the culmination of a steady process under Stalin in which ‘diasporic’ elements (Rationalism – poshlost) were expunged in favor of Russia’s older imperial identities (mysticism – sobornost). Examples of this process include the purges of the avant-garde artists and the old Bolsheviks; the deportations of minorities; the crushing of ‘national’ movements in direct contravention of Lenin’s liberal attitudes towards nationalities; the gradual rehabilitation of Tsarist-era ranks, symbols and old national heroes like Alexander Nevsky during the war, whose socialist credentials were highly questionable; the wartime reversal of course on Russian nationalism and the Orthodox Church, etc. There is even a story, perhaps apocryphal, that after the end of the Second World War a group of exiled Russian nobles wrote to Stalin, congratulating him on his recreation of a great Empire and offering him their services in return for clemency. He didn’t reply, of course – the Red Tsar did not tolerate heresy, even when recanted.

The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire

The Soviet Empire reached its greatest degree of sobornost during Khrushev’s reign (1956-64). The Stalinist repressions were condemned and political prisoners in the Gulag – many of whom had wept on hearing of Stalin’s death – were released. There was a degree of liberalization and even a work as controversial as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published and avidly debated. Meanwhile, there was strong economic growth, this time including in the consumption sector, as Stalin’s emphasis on the military-industrial complex was relaxed.

However, after the Khrushev thaw (ottepel’) there set in a period of stagnation (zastoi) and renewed authoritarianism, this time of a milder, rational-bureaucratic character. After 1965, the USSR came to be afflicted by a metastasizing alcoholism epidemic, and after a half-century of rapid improvement, Russian mortality rates peaked and began their long slide down. This was most pronounced amongst middle-aged men, though uniquely for industrialized countries, the phenomenon even manifested itself amongst infants from the 1970’s-early 1980’s. This gray authoritarianism was accompanied by a growth in corruption and ‘structural militarization’, in which an ever growing percentage of Soviet industrial output was diverted from the consumption and social sphere into the military sector – by the 1980’s, the military-industrial complex accounted for up to 30% of Soviet GDP[45].

Belief in socialism moved metamorphosed from pure idealism to an ironic skepticism lubricated by vodka. Structural factors strangled economic growth – the demographic transition (declining industrial workforce growth as the effects of the Stalinist fertility transition and the end of large-scale urbanization made themselves felt); limits to growth in the form of flat-lining raw resource extraction (e.g. peak oil in 1987) and the fulfillment of ‘heavy industrialization’; aging machinery (need more investment to maintain the same level of growth); the aforementioned ‘structural militarization’; the growing complexity of the late-industrial economy (the numbers of goods produced explodes and central planning becomes increasingly unviable); and the associated massive expansion of the bureaucracy (e.g. the percentage of the population who were Party members increased from 1% under Stalin to 15% by the 1980’s). There appeared an incipient rejection of Soviet tradition in favor of the West, especially amongst liberal youth, as well as growing disillusionment on the part of the dominant class – the workers. Realizing the dire straits the country was in by the mid-1980’s, the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev embarked on an increasingly radical program of economic (uskoreniye, perestroika), social (anti-alcohol campaign) and political (glasnost, demokratizatsiya) reforms.

Contrary to popular belief, Soviet collapse was not inevitable since the system itself was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant[46]; the underlying reason was lay not in its failed consumer economy, hypertrophied defense sector or general nastiness, but rather Gorbachev’s abortion of central planning and economic coercion – the system of benefits and punishments for economic performance that was the linchpin of the Soviet economy. (Though, granted, worker unrest and stagnation may have tipped Gorbachev’s hand). In the absence of evolved market mechanisms, this simply led to ruinous insider plunder, asset stripping and managerial misappropriation, all under the label of “liberalization”. Russia’s physical production system remained intact, but retreated to a much lower level of output as barter arrangements replaced central planning and the huge military resource stocks were sold off.

In principle, the Soviet economy could have been reformed if the dictator (Gorbachev) had cracked down hard on the corruption that was debilitating the USSR, undertaken efficiency and organizational improvements that had previously been discarded because of concerns over upsetting entrenched interests and labor unrest, forcefully halted and started to reverse the structural militarization of the Soviet economy (e.g. by transferring capital and R&D assets to the civilian industrial base), etc. However, perhaps the collapse really was inevitable, if the system itself was simply too myopic to imagine its own demise, and / or if a reversion to coercion could not have been made to work by the late 1980’s – a valid point because this might measure may not have won support from a nomenklatura class terrified of a return to Stalinist terror.

Whatever the answer to these questions, this debate is now entirely academic. Costs exceeded benefits; the burden of complexity became too great to bear. The Soviet state, bereft of its most powerful tool (economic coercion) yet still burdened by immense obligations (welfare and warfare), unraveled under the strain. It left behind what could be called, for all practical purposes, a void, for the development of a functioning capitalism and its legal and regulatory norms needs both time and stability – neither of which Russia had. By the early 1990’s, the Empire crumbled and Russia had again reverted to its second equilibrium position – a Hobbesian ‘natural state’ of anarchic stasis[47], or ‘Chaos’.

VII. Reading Russia Right

There are currently three major schools of thought on Russia’s post-Soviet socio-political development, which can be characterized as a) “authoritarian reversion” (a promising transition in the 1990’s that was checked and reversed by dark Kremlin forces – siloviks, chekists, etc), b) ‘convergence’ (a rough but secular convergence to Western liberal democracy) and c) the cynicism of Andrew Wilson’s ‘virtual politics’. Though b) predominated during the 1990’s, under Putin’s tenure a) became the conventional wisdom.

Though each has varying degrees of truth, they all nonetheless have major weaknesses: a) does not account for the fact that the transition period was hardly liberal or democratic, and that the scope of the Kremlin’s authoritarianism is arguably overstated[48], b) the divergence from the West has become too great – both rhetorically and in practice, and c) assumes the elite is entirely post-ideological, concerned with only power and money. The “Sisyphean Loop” model attempts to integrate these divergent worldviews into a coherent whole.

Russia’s loop is a Sisyphean one, because though at times it strives towards the bottom-right of the Belief Matrix – i.e. ‘convergence’ with the ‘rationalist’ West, it never manages to permanently settle there because of the shocks that have always disturbed it from its position there. Being a hostage to its history, it cannot end it. Throughout the stagnation under Brezhnev and Gorbachev’s reforms, society became progressively more pro-Western; however, faith in Soviet-Russian culture remained strong too, held together by decades of socialist propaganda and some real achievements. However, during the early 1990’s, as the magnitude of the Soviet failure to build a fair and prosperous society became painfully clear and the country descended into a black hole of corruption, there was a wholesale rejection of Soviet-Russian culture – society moved left towards poshlost. The period was characterized by insider plunder, rising inequality and grinding poverty, the failed First Chechen War, plummeting indexes on nearly every socio-economic measure that the government still took the trouble to collect, an ossified military reliant on brutal impressments to fill its ranks, and a near-collapsed state that lost effective control of three vital functions – legitimate violence, tax collection and monetary emissions[49].

Some of the key reasons the transition was much harder in Russia than in east-central Europe were its aforementioned geographic disadvantages, cultural proclivities and burdensome Soviet legacy (see Part I). As pointed out in Part VI, after the end of economic coercion, with no market mechanisms or rule of law in place, output collapsed. Russia’s structural disadvantages in manufacturing contributed to its 1990’s deindustrialization, which was much more severe even than the 40%+ peak-to-nadir fall in GDP (1989-1998), for the post-Soviet elites found it much more convenient to sell Russia’s mineral resources abroad, using the proceeds to enrich themselves and import the needed consumer goods from Europe and China. Despite Yeltsin’s authoritarian efforts to implement market fundamentalism with tanks on a recalcitrant Duma in 1993[50], Russia became a rent-seeking oligopoly in economic depression instead of the globalized, laissez-faire economy dreamed of by the neoliberal ideologues in the Kremlin.

No country can remain in a state of collapse indefinitely; towards the end of the 1990’s, the state began to reassert control. The tipping point came in 1998, when the financial crash cemented Russia’s disillusionment with the West and new faces from the security services[51] were brought into Russian politics, determined to clean up and restore its power. This change of course was reinforced by Russians’ angry reactions to NATO’s bombing of Serbia, which was felt to be unjust and grotesquely insensitive to Russian feelings. This marked the beginning of a long-term decline in Russians’ perceptions of the US – for better or worse, the champion of the “Idea of the West’. The human face of this shift was the accession of Putin the white rider to the Russian Presidency at the dawn of the new millennium – a strongman who restores peace and order to the Russian lands (as presented by his supporters). Russia began to move up along its Belief Matrix, away from the West, as the siloviki consolidated their power and Kremlin rhetoric became less ‘Western’ and more ‘national’ (the critics would add an ‘ist’).

Following a short dip back towards the West during the early 2000’s, when Putin cooperated with the US in the war on terror and introduced some liberal reforms (e.g. the 13% flat tax), the YUKOS Affair and increasing centralization moved Russia further away from the West, into the top-left nether regions where there is no belief in either the indigenous culture or the West. The political culture of the Russian elites transitioned from being ‘diasporic’ to ‘barbaric’, as the terms were defined in Part III. The YUKOS Affair – in Western rhetoric, a heavy-handed and corrupt clampdown on free enterprise and political participation; in Kremlin rhetoric, a necessary defense against an attempted hijacking of the state by the latter-day boyars – was the seminal moment in the break between Russia and the West. In its immediate aftermath, the US launched an information war against Russia and pushed aggressively with ‘color revolutions’ into its Near Abroad; whereas in the 1990’s Western expansionism had been aimed at stabilizing the Eurasian vacuum, now its aim was to reconstruct a cordon sanitaire around Russia to preempt the Empire’s reemergence. Russia retaliated by intensifying its efforts in the economic and intelligence penetration of Ukraine and the Baltics, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Though direct talk of it remains muted, the old strategy of active containment has resurfaced in the last five years.

Facing humiliation from Russophobe rhetoric in the West and feeling increasingly under ideological and territorial siege, the impetus to once again gather up the Russian lands and recreate the Empire has been rapidly resurfacing. On the Belief Matrix, the moral anomie or ‘barbarism’ of the top-left is an unstable state, for almost all people have an overriding need to believe in some higher ideal; once again stimulated by the Russian inferiority complex and perceived Western arrogance, or ‘Russophobia’, from 2006 Russia undoubtedly began to move to the right of the matrix at an accelerating pace, towards sobornost.

Thus we see how all three of the interpretations given at the start of this chapter – a) ‘authoritarian reversion’, b) ‘convergence’, and c) ‘virtual politics’, are to some extent accurate[52]. The concept of ‘convergence’ was popular during the late USSR and early 1990’s, when Russia was at the bottom of the Belief Matrix – its then subscription to Rationalism was taken to mean that Westernization would be inevitable, though some voiced doubts that the psychological collapse (poshlost) brought on by the post-Soviet ‘Time of Troubles’ would undermine the stability of any such transition. The doubters were proven correct, and their concept of an ‘authoritarian reversion’ fueled by popular disillusionment and the ‘traditional’ Russian craving for a strong hand gained ground amongst Russia-watchers, who found their evidence in Putinism’s alleged slide into ‘dark’ authoritarian from the rosy, ‘democratic’ Yeltsin years. This viewpoint manifested itself in lurid book titles like ‘Kremlin Rising’, ‘The New Cold War’, and ‘Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State’ and dominated – and continues to dominate – the Western journalistic and political discourse on Russia. This is regretful, since this viewpoint lacks nuance and tends to favor hyperbole over dispassionate analysis[53].

In an incisive but unfortunately little-known study[54], Andrew Wilson argues that the defining theme of Putin’s Russia isn’t authoritarianism as such, but the preeminence of electoral and media manipulation to conceal a mild, non-ideological, and extremely corrupt authoritarianism beneath a veneer of pluralistic politics. This model of ‘virtual politics’ has a great explanatory potential for the post-Soviet period of poshlost, when Russia was indeed governed by a ‘historyless’ elite; however, arguably, with the creeping return of sobornost and the ideal of the Empire as guiding lights of Russia’s foreign and domestic policies, the era of ‘virtual politics’ is waning and is about to be replaced with something different. This is the topic of Part VIII, which concludes this essay.

VIII. Return to the Future?

Since 2006, there has arguably been a discontinuity in Russia’s national life, akin to what happened in 1998; though as yet little recognized, it will come to dominate its analysis within a few years. Russia has begun to return to the Empire.

First, the state took a much more proactive role in economic and social development. National Priority Projects were launched to improve housing, healthcare and education. Subsidies to agriculture were increased, and in 2008 the grain harvest returned to its Soviet-era highs[55]. A high profile initiative to develop nanotechnology was launched in 2007. It pursued industrial policies designed to attract foreign manufacturing and hi-tech companies, with noticeable effects – for instance, automobile production increased from 1.2mn units in 2000 to 1.8mn units in 2008[56]. As noted before, a degree of ‘autarky’ coupled with state intervention is a vital prerequisite to real economic development in Russia (to a greater extent than is the case in already-developed nations and / or countries with more favorable geographies), with its concomitants in the form of increased national morale and political independence. This is a return to Russia’s traditional mode of development, in which the state harnessed its surpluses – grain during late Tsarism, oil during the late Soviet era – to support the development of strategic industries.  As Russia acquires globally competitive industries – an entirely feasible prospect given its strengths in general education and some specialized sectors like defense, aerospace, and nuclear power – the state may gradually loosen its reins. Though it can hardly hope to ever fully converge with the richest Western nations due to its embedded disadvantages, given that it no longer suffers from the Soviet-era inefficiencies of central planning and excessive militarization, it can reach an asymptote relative to the West substantially higher than its previous 1970’s peak.

Second, there has been a substantial improvement in social morale, as attested to by the demographic statistics and opinion polls. Whereas in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s Russia was losing around 750,000 people a year, today the decline has almost stabilized due to an increase in the average fertility rate (the average number of children a woman is expected to have) from 1.30 in 2006 to 1.49 in 2008 (and still rising in 2009 despite the economic crisis)[57], as well as substantial reductions in the (still abnormally high) middle-aged mortality rate. Furthermore, despite the big reduction in the size of the cohort of women of child-bearing age projected for the 2010’s as a result of the 1990’s fertility collapse, there are strong indicators that this positive trend may continue[58] into the future based on the strong evidence that Russia’s post-Soviet fertility collapse was caused by “transition shock” rather than a “values realignment” to low-fertility middle-European norms. From the other end, the mortality crisis is being attacked by a renewal of the anti-alcohol campaign after a twenty year hiatus. During the 2000-2008 period, state statistics indicate that mortality from alcohol poisonings, suicide and murder have nearly halved, though they all remain very high by international standards.  Perhaps not coincidentally, Levada polls indicate that for the first time since measurements began in the Yeltsin period, from late 2006 more people were confident in tomorrow than were not. All this indicates that a sense of sobornost is being slowly restored.

Third, Russia’s actions in the post-Soviet space, particularly towards Ukraine[59], may imply that it intends, at the least, to restore an econo-political bloc in the region, probably through organizations like EurAsEC and the CSTO. Since more Ukrainians would prefer to join those groups than either the EU or NATO[60] and considering that President Yushenko’s approval ratings hover in the single digits (he is the most pro-Western major political figure in Ukraine) and the nation’s overall disillusionment with the perceived Chaos and poshlost of their democracy (support for which fell from 72% in 1989 to 30% today[61]), this should not be a major hurdle. Russia is likewise reinforcing its influence in Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kirgizstan through a mixture of economic penetration, pipeline politics, and military bases. This foreign policy is stridently independent of the West and contributes not insignificantly to Putin’s consistently high approval ratings, which have been north of 60% ever since he launched the Second Chechen War in 1999. It is not a Western liberal democracy, but Surkov’s description, “sovereign democracy”, appears to be an apt moniker. The main idea being, of course, that Russia is politically sovereign from the West, no longer tied down in the international arena by its economic dependence and internal weaknesses.

[Gallup polls showing attitudes towards Eurasian unity in the post-Soviet space. In all countries except Azerbaijan, the median average wants at least an economic union across Eurasia. This indicates that Russia will not find it unduly hard to rebuild the Empire. Source: Gallup.]

These three trends – autarky, sobornost and sovereignty – are synergistic. Recreating an empire or something resembling one is (‘sovereignty’), apart from its inherent effect in reinforcing Russia’s geopolitical power, also complementary to the return of economic autarky (creates a larger economic space with opportunities for economies of scale) and sobornost (because the Russian national identity remains inextricably linked up with empire since the 16th century – as of today, 47% of Russians believe it is ‘natural’ for Russia to have an empire, up from 37% in 1989[62]). Likewise, a self-contained economic system (‘autarky’) increases the Empire’s freedom of action on the international stage and encourages a national (‘sovereignty’), as opposed to internationalist or diasporic, mentality (‘sobornost’). The state of sobornost underpins the fundamental unity and spiritual strength of the Empire. The analysis outlined above indicates that Russia is returning to its future rather than the end of history, a future-and-past characterized by a strong, centralizing state coordinating, if not outright controlling, the direction of development – for it is fundamentally the state guarantees all three factors that underpin the Empire, which also explains the importance of gosudarstvennost and derzhavnost in Russian history.

Following the South Ossetian War of 2008, the already popular belief that the West was a hostile power was reinforced – even the once very pro-Western intelligentsia is beginning to reject the West[63]. It is also interesting to consider that the most “anti-Western” segment of the Russian population are university-educated Muscovite men[64], i.e. the future elites; similar attitudes have filtered through to Russia’s schoolchildren[65]. The 2008-2009 economic crisis probably spells the end of the oligarchs as a class: many have lost their fortunes and become financially beholden to the cash-rich Russian state – as copper magnate Iskander Makhmudov said, “The oligarchs now have mixed fortunes, but we will all end up being soldiers of Putin one day”[66].  The banking system is being consolidated, Russian corporate dependence on Western credit has been severed (because the Western credit system has broken), and Russia’s decision to seek WTO admission in tandem with Kazakhstan and Belarus[67] indicates it places a higher priority on forming a regional economic bloc than on global economic integration.

What next? History is a guide. A fundamental feature of autarkies is that to increase their strategic self-sufficiency, they need to expand their domain – much as the Bolsheviks created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which in turn expanded it to COMECON (the idea being that a group of nations ‘liberated’ from domination by global capital is better off sticking together to preserve their new-found sovereignty). They have to expand territorially in order to acquire access to all the vital building blocks of an industrial economy and to be able to hold its own against other economic bloc. Applying this to the reemerging Russian Empire, it is very likely that within the next decade (East) Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan will again become integrated with Russia, on a spectrum of possibilities ranging from an EU-like structure to a unitary state-empire. Netting in the latter two presents no problem, given that they are already tightly integrated with Russia.

Under normal circumstances, Ukraine presents a much harder to nut to crack; however, it should be borne in mind that Ukraine’s project of Westernization – which happened to encapsulate its bid for real independence from Eurasia – has failed on almost all criteria. Its current GD, taking into account the recent 20-25% collapse during the crisis, 30-40% lower than it was in the late USSR! (Russia’s is around 0-10% lower, but it is not faced with a fiscal or political crisis). Damningly, opinion polls indicate that Putin and Medvedev are by far the most popular politicians in Ukraine. The essence of the Ukrainian Question will not be whether it chooses Russia or the West; it will be whether Ukraine will remain a united state that gets drawn back into Russia’s orbit, or whether there will be a ‘Great Split’ between its Ukrainian-speaking west and its Russophone east, with the latter fully integrating into Russia and the former becoming an independent state.

Reintegration with Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will create a state with 210 million souls and will significantly increase the economic and military-industrial power at Moscow’s disposal by at least 50%. One has to keep in mind that Eurasia’s industrial base was meant to be unified when it was constructed during the Soviet era, and as such the gains accruing from reintegration will be more than just the sum of its parts. One of Russia’s geopolitical priorities is to thwart an independent energy corridor for the proposed Nabucco oil pipeline and to link up with its ally Armenia, so it will no doubt continue pressuring a weakened Georgia to return into its orbit.

Whether Russia will choose to expand in Central Asia is more questionable. On the one hand, they have respectable energy reserves (especially gas), constitute demographic reservoirs amidst graying Slavdom, and are geopolitically important. There are few problems with radical Islam and on the whole they appreciate Russian culture. On the other hand, they will present a development burden and outside powers will oppose any overt Russian reassertion in Central Asia – although it should be noted that both Chinese and US influence is far weaker in the region than Russia’s.

Forking Paths

There are now four distinct ‘paths’ Russia could take in the next few years – ‘sovereign democratization’, ‘totalitarian reversion’, ‘return to the natural state’, and ‘liberalization’. The only (near) certainty is change; for all its apparent move back towards sobornost and the trappings of the Empire, this belies the fact that Russia today is still in an unsteady and undecided state, and as such its future is far from preordained. Let’s look at them in turn.

In ‘sovereign democratization’, Russia will retain its current geopolitical status, ‘indigenize’ or ‘assimilate’ Western liberal democracy, and will successfully develop an advanced economy, which it will gradually open as it acquires globally competitive industries. This viewpoint is argued by Nicolai Petro[68], who claims that Putin consolidated the Russian state during his first eight years, and that the second part of the ‘Putin Plan’ is to develop liberal institutions and an active civil society. State corruption will be greatly reduced – President Medvedev has already openly spoken out against ‘legal nihilism’, and perhaps the recent allied initiative on the part of Surkov, head of the GRU-related clan, and the civiliki clan, to investigate strategic companies linked to Sechin’s FSB-related clan for corruption and mismanagement is the opening shot of a coming purge. In this vision, Russia will be a prosperous, liberal, and patriotic nation by 2020 at the bottom-right of the Belief Matrix, comfortably entwined within the ‘liberty cycle’ much like France or even the US (see Part II), and the centerpiece of a Eurasian economic union. This viewpoint would also be argued by Vlad Sobell, who believes that this “new ‘USSR’ has shed its totalitarian and imperial character and is building genuine democracy à la russe”. This is the ‘optimistic variant’, and is predicated on the survival of globalization and the continuation of Russia’s economic and demographic resurgence.

In contrast, a ‘return to the natural state’ will see the reinforcement of Russia’s current authoritarian and neo-feudal features, and continuing economic nationalism, silovik cronyism, and resource dependency. A powerful Tsar will dole out transitional rent-gathering rights unto his boyars, in return for their political loyalty and tax payments. This ‘Muscovite model’ is socially unjust, Pareto inefficient, and ineffective at either generating economic prosperity or sustaining resource mobilization. This outcome is made more likely if Russia enters a renewed spiral of demographic and economic decline; the people will demand a strong hand at the helm, but one steeped in conservatism and unwilling to undertake any risky reforms. In this form, the Empire is more likely to take the form of a unitary state based on the political integration of Belarus, East Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia, as well as the strengthening of its military presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, rather than a Eurasian economic and security union as in the previous scenario. It will be underpinned by the resumption of large-scale, fifth-generation rearmament, with which the Empire will effective control and project power over the entirety of the post-Soviet space and perhaps even into East-Central Europe. The Empire will be undermined by foreign-backed dissident and national liberation movements, and subjected to a more vigorous encirclement and containment strategy by the United States. The result will be a zastoi on the model of Brezhnev’s USSR. This is the ‘middle variant’ projected by most ‘Western Russophobes’[69], who perceive that Russia is run by a gang of kleptocratic neo-Soviet revanchists and believe the country is doomed to secular decline on account of its disastrous demography and moribund economic system.

The third and most frightening outcome is a ‘totalitarian reversion’. During the 1990’s ‘Time of Troubles’, as in Weimar Germany, Russia became disillusioned in both the West and itself (Part VII), and came to long for the sovereignty, sobornost and autarky embodied in the lost Empire. This imperial nostalgia brought forth a crowd of Eurasianists, nationalists, derzhavniki, etc, who called for Russia to rediscover its faith in itself and to return to its ‘purer’ imperial past-and-future – be it Eurasian (Aleksandr Dugin), Slavophile (Solzhenitsyn), White Nationalist, or hybrids like National Bolshevism, an intellectual descendent of Strasserism (Eduard Limonov). What they all had in common was an opposition to Western finance-capitalism, to domestic stooges of ‘Atlanticism’, and to the ‘diasporic mentality’ (see Part III) – sometimes manifested in virulent anti-Semitism, which is understandable on the basis that Jews are the ‘diasporic people’ par excellence (see Part III). Free-riding on resurgent the Russian nationalism brought forth by instability, Central Asian immigration, and national inferiority complexes, such views have become much more popular since the Soviet collapse (although overall they are still very much on the fringes). However, let’s not forget that all it takes for this to change is an economic collapse, a weakened state, a profound sense of disillusionment with Rationalism, the loss of sobornost, and a well-organized Party with a skilful demagogue willing to gamble.

The fourth alternative is ‘liberalization’, which is by far the most unlikely outcome – Russia is now heading right towards sobornost along the Belief Matrix, not to the bottom and down. That said, it is not difficult to think up potential scenarios in which ‘liberalization’ can occur as a transitional stage to something else. For instance, a popular uprising topples the fragile authoritarianism of the ‘natural state’ into which Russia had degenerated by the 2020’s, resulting in a wave of poshlost and fanatical Westernization (this time based on, say, environmentalism) that again destroys Russians’ faith in themselves, as a result of which they become disillusioned with the Idea of the West and float upwards to the top-left, into ‘moral anomie’. As pointed out previously, this is an unstable state, for only madmen are capable of abandoning all beliefs. They gray dusk of disillusionment darkens… and there emerges a pure blackness, a despotism based on a new-found, mystical sobornost, united in its contemptuous rejection of Rationalism, and probably far more ‘racialist’ than during the Stalinist era[70]. And this time round, it is armed with thousands of nukes.

These darker possibilities, though currently remote, should not be dismissed. Russia’s oil production very likely peaked in 2008, along with global production[71], and there is credible evidence that this peak will be final[72]. Considering its vital role in lubricating the wheels of global commerce, the future viability of globalization is under serious question. This is just one facet of approaching ‘limits to growth’[73], for in more general terms, resource depletion and pollution threaten the very survival of industrial civilization during this century. Hoarding what remains for its own use may become a priority for rational Russian leaders, and exports only allowed on the most favorable terms, in exchange for Western technologies or German machine tools, but not US Treasuries, Chinese trinkets or oligarch mansions in London.

One consequence is that there will be a massive increase in imperial competition for resources. The industrial core (the US, Europe and China) may strike up strategic alliances to control and influence resource-rich nations, either overtly (latter-day gunboat diplomacy) or covertly (influence operations, information wars, etc). In this world, much like in the 1930’s, the strong will beat the weak. As a resource-rich nation largely spared from the ravages of projected climate change, Russia may come to view itself, with some degree of justification, as a fortress besieged by global industrialism – much as the 1928 war scare contributed to tipping the USSR towards Stalinism. In such a world, Russia’s geopolitical priorities would logically be – and all this is already happening – to a) increase its military strength, including the nuclear deterrent, b) neutralize and co-opt Europe and c) extend influence over the energy-rich Arctic, Central Asia and the Middle East. To pursue these goals effectively, Russia needs to be an Empire.

Finally, any true Eurasian Empire is almost destined to be in conflict with Atlanticism (and not just because this is an explicit aim of folks like Dugin[74]), even leaving aside the prospect of ruthless competition for resources. The economic strength of the Atlantic powers is magnified because of globalization’s opportunities for increasing the power of the whole through ‘scope enlargement’ and international specialization, strength that can – and was – used to strangle any potential Eurasian hegemon. That is the story of the Cold War, in which the USSR increasingly fell behind the West; for with its access to Japanese electronics, Saudi oil, and German machine tools, the US could more than match Soviet military efforts, while at the same time providing its citizens with a much higher standard of life. As such, an autarkic Eurasian Empire would find it to be in its best interests to oppose the Atlantic powers by trying to foment chaos within the global system, so as to shut it down and hence level the playing field to continent against continent, instead of Eurasia against the World System.

IX. The Loop

Due to its geographical and climatic features, and the cultural traditions derived from them, Russia’s economic life is traditionally based on state-driven coercion. This is incompatible with ‘rational’, Western norms, hence Russia always found it particularly difficult to Westernize. When it does try to Westernize, it becomes culturally dependent on the West, but remains backwards nonetheless – if anything, at times even more so. This breeds an inferiority complex and a sense of resentment towards the West, which the latter does little to dispel: Russians increasingly reject the West, and pine for an (imagined?) past of autarky, sovereignty and sobornost. Political leaders are ultimately powerless to resist: either they go with the flow, or they are displaced or overthrown.

The rock is pushed up the mountain with messianic fervor, but eventually the past-and-future turn out to be not as great as Russians imagined them and a long stagnation sets in. The mountain looms ever larger, Sisyphus gets tired, and Prometheus’ acolytes try to block his path; the road ahead begins to look hopeless. This again arouses an intense interest in the West: after some time, due to accumulating backwardness, the regime is no longer able to resist its tantalizing siren calls, and succumbs – often with disastrous consequences, because economic coercion also grinds to a halt, resulting in output and social welfare collapse. The loop comes full cycle, and after a period of recuperation and apathy, Sisyphus starts rolling the rock up the mountain once more with renewed fervor.

The struggle is ultimately (historically) always futile; yet it is too Romantic a struggle to abandon – indeed, Russia does not want to abandon its endless, sordid and tiring, but ultimately uplifting and self-defining struggle towards the boundless plains of universal utopia.

[1] See Почему Россия не Америка / “Why Russia is not America” (A. Parshev, 1999); Russia under the Old Regime: Second Edition (R. Pipes, 1997), Ch. 1: “The Environment and its Consequences”.

[2] Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (K. Polanyi, 1957), Ch.5: “Aristotle discovers the Economy”.

[3] V. Kluchevsky, 1956, pp.313-4: “There is one thing of which the Great Russian is sure − that a sunny summer day is valuable, that nature would allow little time convenient for agricultural work and that a short Great Russian summer can be shortened even more by a sudden untimely turn of bad weather. This would force the Great Russian peasant to hurry up and toil in order to achieve as much as possible over a short while and take the crop in good time… In this way the Great Russian would learn to take an extraordinary but short effort, would learn to do rush, hasty work and then take a rest during forced idleness in autumn and winter. No other nation in Europe is capable of such short extraordinary effort; but, on the other hand, such lack of habit to regular, moderate, constant work is unlikely to be found anywhere in Europe.”

[4] An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (A. Smith, 1776). “…all that part of Asia which lies any considerable way north of the Euxine and Caspian seas, the ancient Scythia, the modern Tartary and Siberia, seem in all ages of the world to have been in the same barbarous and uncivilised state… The Sea of Tartary is the frozen ocean which admits of no navigation, and though some of the greatest rivers in the world run through that country, they are at too great a distance from one another to carry commerce and communication through the greater part of it.”

[5] Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower (S. Rosefielde, 2005).

[6] As long as the energy and mineral resources underpinning it last, anyway.

[7] Kicking Away the Ladder (H. Chang, 2002).

[8] This refers to Russia’s well-known post-Soviet demographic crisis, during which average fertility rates and life expectancies plummeted, causing the population to fall from 149mn in 1992 to 142mn by 2008, despite the net influx of 5mn immigrants from the ‘Near Abroad’.

[9] The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (D. Landes, 1999), Ch.2: “Answers to Geography: Europe and China”.

[10] Introduction to social macrodynamics: secular cycles and millennial trends (A. Korotayev, 2006) is a comprehensive analysis and modeling of the exponential secular, cyclical Malthusian, and stochastic processes governing political-demographic and economic development in history.

[11] Even tiny differences in growth rates can lead to huge differences in the long-term.


[13] A Greek word Fukuyama interprets as “desire for spiritual recognition”.

[14] Interestingly, Fukuyama anticipates – and does not like – the relativist argument. From his “The End of History and the Last Man”: “Relativism – the doctrine that maintains all values are merely relative and which attacks all “privileged perspectives” – must ultimately end up undermining democratic and tolerant values as well. Relativism is not a weapon that can be fired selectively at the enemies one chooses. It fires indiscriminately, shooting out the legs of not only the “absolutisms”, dogmas and certainties of the Western tradition, but that traditions emphasis on tolerance, diversity and freedom of thought as well”.

[15] The Marquis de Custine and his Russia in 1839 (G. Kennan, 1971) quotes the19th century French travel writer: “I don’t reproach the Russians for being what they are; what I blame them for is their desire to appear to be what we [Europeans] are… They are much less interested in being civilized then in making us believe them so… They would be quite content to be in effect more awful and barbaric than they actually are, if only others could thereby be made to believe them better and more civilized.”

[16] Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, pp.28 (S. Matthew, 1995).

[17] Nabokov’s Otherworld (V. Alexandrov, 1991).

[18] Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (S. Boym, 1994).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Strong Opinions (V. Nabokov, 1973). See for the original interview.

[21] “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue” – La Rochefoucauld. On the one hand, admirable; on the other hand, it is the implicit deception that is intolerable.

[22] Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler (P. Viereck, 1941).

[23] Categorizing the Russia Debate (A. Karlin, 2009) at

[24] Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler (P. Viereck, 1941).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Postmodern Jihad: What Osama bin Laden learned from the Left (W. Newell, 2001) at

[27] See Поведение / “Behavior” (K. Krylov, 1996) for a good discussion of the “diaspora” and “barbarian” mentalities at

[28] Max Weber’s definitions of authority can be assigned places on the Belief Matrix – “charismatic” is the top-right, “legal-rational” is the bottom-right, and “traditional” is in between. The last is typical of premodern, Malthusian, traditional societies based on feudal / clan relations.

[29] Lev Gumilev’s semi-mystical concept of the ‘vital energy’ of a civilization, i.e. its willingness to self-sacrifice, to conquer, to succeed, etc.

[30] In a 2007 interview with the Guardian, Francis Fukuyama stated: “The End of History was never linked to a specifically American model of social or political organization…I believe that the European Union more accurately reflects what the world will look like at the end of history than the contemporary United States. The EU’s attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a “post-historical” world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military”.

[31] Europe and Mankind (N. Trubetzkoy, 1920).

[32] See Twitter Terror in Moldova (A. Karlin, 2009) for a case study at

[33] The Coming Era of Russia’s Dark Rider (P. Zeihan, 2007) writing in Stratfor (

[34] Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (J. Scott, 1941).

[35] Moscow War Diary (A. Werth, 1942).

[36] Having investigated the report of Maljuta Skuratov and commemoration lists (sinodiki), R. Skrynnikov considers, that the number of victims was 2,000-3,000 (Skrynnikov R. G., “Ivan Grosny”, M., AST, 2001).

[37] Furthermore, one must also note that the correspondence between Kurbsky and Ivan Grozny is suspected to be a forgery – see “THE KURBSKII-GROZNYI APOCRYPHA: the 17th-Century Genesis of the “Correspondence” Attributed to Prince A. M. Kurbskii and Tsar Ivan IV” (E. Keenan, 1970)

[38] Secular Cycles (P. Turchin & S. Nefedov, 2009), Ch. 9: “Russia: the Romanov Cycle (1620–1922)”.

[39] In 1547, Hans Schlitte, the agent of Tsar Ivan IV, employed handicraftsmen in Germany for work in Russia. However all these handicraftsmen were arrested in Lübeck at the request of Livonia.

[40] The End of Imperial Russia, 1855-1917 (P. Waldron, 1997), pp. 97. By 1913, adult literacy was at 38%, up from 21% in 1897; the last generation of children to have had access to the empire’s schools, according to the 1920 Soviet census, had a literacy rate of 71% for boys and 52% for girls.

[41] The international demonstration effect, e.g. see Problems of Capital Formation in Underdeveloped Countries (Nurske, 1957).

[42] By 1913, Russia had the highest average tariff rates on manufactured goods in Europe at 84% (Bairoch 1993) and enjoyed the fastest industrial growth rate on the continent. In contrast to development in the 1880’s-1890’s, which was spearheaded by a huge state-led program of railway building, after 1905 there appeared big industrial banks clustered around St.-Petersburg geared towards funding domestic manufacturers on the German model of development (Gerschenkron, 1962).

[43] When the Party Commits Suicide (S. Žižek, 1999), at

[44] Translation: The Case of the “Stalinist” Textbook (A. Karlin, 2009) at

[45] Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower (S. Rosefielde, 2005), see summary at

[46] Are Command Economies Unstable? Why Did the Soviet Economy Collapse? (M. Harrison, 2001) at

[47] What Russia Teacher Us Now (S. Holmes, 1997) at is a typical late-1990’s article from a time when the theme of Russia’s collapse was predominant in the Western media, in stark contrast to today’s talk of a ‘resurgent Russia’.

[48] Russia Through the Looking-Glass (N. Petro, 2006) at

[49] The State in the New Russia (1992-2004): From Collapse to Gradual Revival? (V. Popov, 2004) at

[50] Attempting to portray Putin as a revanchist neo-Soviet authoritarian, the Western media tends to gloss over the manifold authoritarian tendencies of the preceding Yeltsin administration, which redeemed itself by being pro-Western. Alternative newspapers have excellent sources on this, e.g. the eXile: see How do you Spell Hypocrisy? O-S-C-E (M. Ames, 2003) at, The Myth of the Democratic Model (S. Guillory, 2008) at

[51] In 2004 the Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya calculated that 25% of the Russian elite had a security or intelligence background (i.e. siloviki), which rises to 58% amongst Putin’s ‘inner circle’.

[52] “The truth is like a quantum superposition state: it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them”. – Gideon Lichfield, former Economist journalist. I feel this is especially apt when it comes to Russia-watching. Taken from Press Review: The Economist’s Three Stooges (K. Pankratov, 2007) at

[53] For examples, see my list of Top 50 Russophobe Myths at Though *some* of my refutations are in some ways as biased as the original claims, they will provide plenty of food for thought for anyone steeped in exclusively American or West European media coverage of Russia.

[54] Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the post-Soviet World (A. Wilson, 2005); see Mark Ames’ eXile review at

[55] The country’s grain market: realising its potential (D. Medvedev, 2009) at

[56] International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers

[57] Rosstat.

[58] Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography (A. Karlin, 2009) at

[59] In the past two years there have been a number of hints from Russia indicating that it does not view Ukraine as a fully sovereign state. E.g. see Putin to the West: Hands off Ukraine (J. Marson, 2009) at,8599,1900838,00.html.

[60] Would the Real Ukraine Please Stand Up? (G. Stack, 2009) at

[61] End of Communism Cheered but Now with More Reservations (Pew Research Center) at

[62] Ibid.

[63] Disheartened With the West (A. Pankin, 2009) at

[64] Russians don’t much like the West (S. Richards, 2009) at, Russia’s New Cyberwarriors (N. Petro, 2007) at

[65] Well-off Muscovite Teenagers More Inclined to View US as Enemy (P. Goble, 2009) at

[66] Russian Oligarch Special Series (Stratfor, 2009), “Russian Oligarchs Part 3: The Party’s Over” at

[67] Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan to seek joining WTO as parts of Customs Union

[68] The Great Transformation: How the Putin Plan Altered Russian Society (N. Petro, 2009) at

[69] See Categorizing the Russia Debate (A. Karlin, 2009) at for definitions.

[70] The popularity of the idea of ‘Russia for Russians’ has increased from 26% in 1989 to 54% in 2009 ( This is reflected in the proliferation of fascist movements.


[72] Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak (K. Deffeyes, 2006) and The Last Oil Shock (D. Strahan, 2007) are good introductions to the theory of peak oil. See a short, compact mathematical demonstration and quasi-proof at

[73] Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (D. Meadows et al, 2004).

[74] Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics (J. Dunlop) at


  1. Bravo, Anatoly!

    I would specially emphasize these lines of yours:

    “Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the USSR could have withstood an assault by the Wehrmacht, supported by the industrial potential of most of Europe, if it hadn’t been for Stalin’s foresight and ruthlessness in industrializing the Urals, expanding Soviet borders west, centralizing state operations, and preparing wartime industrial relocation plans.”

    Thank you for your great work, Anatoly.


    Michael Kuznetsov

  2. Fascinating article Anatoly.

    Pretty busy at the moment, but a quick point. I’d be sceptical of quoting Berdyaev as a political thinker. He was a great philosopher of existentialist Christianity and an excellent literary critic.

    However, I think he projected onto the Marxist rebellion what he thought SHOULD have been the motive for the revolution. Which was not backed up by what happened.

    Given how much has been written about the Russian Revolution, it is still a complete enigma to me and overall I don’t think that ideology played much of a role. Of course the leaders thought that they were doing it out of ideology, but I am very sceptical that people are so complicated.

    • I don’t fully understand the point you’re trying to make, Gregor. The Russian “masses” weren’t overly ideological, it is true, being more concerned with things like bread, land, and peace. The Bolsheviks were clever enough to appeal to these desires, but it was their ideology that actually made History (otherwise, it would have just been a ordinary bunt).

      The main point of the Berdyaev quote is to illustrate the eventual reassertion of distinctly Russia traditions over the superimposition of a Western-derived ideology (Marxism).

  3. @Anatoly
    This is probably something that would take a long time to deal with properly and I have little time, but put briefly, I think that Berdyaev gave the mirror image of the Richard Pipes school of thought that Bolshevism was basically Tsarism. Berdyaev vastly exaggerated Bolshevism as a nationalist ‘Russian’ ideology, because due to its failures it was barely ‘Marxist’ (given that Marx thought that the state would erode).

    It seems to me to be one of the weirdest things about nations: that they often stereotype themselves. The idea of ‘Russian Marxism’ (as opposed to Marxism in Russia) seemed based on the idea that Dostoyevskyan romanticism had gripped the Russian Empire, when in fact it was mainly the case that the Tsarist bureaucracy had failed abysmally and a utilitarian middle class bureaucracy stepped into the power gap.

    I have no doubt that the Leninists genuinely hated the monarchy, but their nation did not bear much resemblance to Marxist works: a state that poured money into Germany and where the peasants were starved to death.*

    In fact, I really don’t think that two cultures could be much more different. Yes, both had a brutal edge, but aside from that there is very little. It seems to me that people make far too much of Stalin’s speech at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa where he appealed to Russian history. This really was a last resort, and within years they had returned to their old ideology.

    These are my views, though I admit Russian history is not an area of expertise and you will no doubt prove me wrong on many counts 😉

    *Overall, I agree with some of what you wrote previously re Bolshevism. I share your view that Lenin caused a lot of damage and was essentially muddled whilst Stalin was evil but did achieve a lot. Having said that I dislike this area because ‘my side’ IE the Whites lost the civil war, I do think the idea that uncle joe was responsible for 20 million deaths is a lot of nonsense, especially as Russian farming has always suffered from its poor geography and climate.

  4. Wonderful article.

  5. Leon Lentz says:

    Before embarking into some substantial critique, I would like to note that Russian GDP as of today, has significantly surpassed that of Soviet times.
    Also, I think that the author treats the notion of the “West” as some sort of a constant entity, not unlike that of Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” in which the West is associated with everything rational and humane and the East with everything dark and irrational. But the “West” notion is a chimera, an illusion. Is it Beethoven and Mozart music played in gas chambers by the Nazis? Is it Count Torquemada’s auto da fe, the millions of Indians burned in the name of Christendom, the Michelangelo’s paintings or St. Bartholomew’s and Kristallnacht massacres? Is it Dickens’ novels or British slave trade which resulted in millions killed and treated like animals? The West surpassed the East in cruelty and in dehumanization of its populus. Americans of today are every bit as barbaric, cruel and perverted as ancient Romans. AK has aptly described the salient points of Russian history from the point of view of nominalist anthropology and pointed to Russia’s vacillation between the West and reverting to its more seclusional origins. It can be a nice theses for a graduate degree, but it won’t explain the past or predict the future.
    The Czarist Russia was doomed to a bloody collapse due to centuries of cruelty and abuse of its serfs by the landowners and the Czars, due to the anti Semitic agitation of the Church and the Nicholas II, by the foolish involvement in a no win WWI. Unfortunately, the Lenin’s New Economic Policy announced in 1922 was squelched by Stalin in the late 1920s. It would have directed USSR along the lines of State Capitalism of today’s China, it would have left agriculture privatized, would have privatized the service and light industry and established state corporations of mining and heavy industry. The Soviet Union at that time just wasn’t ready for Marxian full scale socialism, it did not have the necessary industrial base. Nevertheless, the USSR has established an impressive higly technological heavy industry, developed the best educational system in the world, sent the first man to space, created best airplanes and ballistic missiles and went to a cutting edge in the areas of physics, mathematics and nuclear technology.
    Brezhnev’s era essentially spelled the end of the country as it was. The foolishness of wasting funds in support of backward Arab States in endless hostilities against Israel, and associated anti Semitism which resulted in the brain drain in science as well as in international condemnation and internal dissent, undermined the State and created the ground for a future collapse. If we adopt a narrow definition of the “West” as simply the set of US allied countries, did the West win the Cold War, did the “good guys” now rule and the “bad guys”, the Communists are in retreat? The bad guys lost to another set of bad guys. The unipolar world which Russia first embraced could be characterized by the words of then Secretary of State Madalene Allbright: “Siberia is too rich to belong to one country”. This symbolized the wholesale creation of another banana republic out of Russia with US support of Chechen terrorism and Muslim fundamentalism as a tool to further dismember, destroy and exploit what was left of the Soviet Empire. America’s right hand men in that endeavor were Russian Mafia oligarchs. We all know what happened when Berezovsky’s appointed Putin refused to play the allotted to him role of Quisling to the American master race and the fury and the vitriol heaped upon him by the media lapdogs of the Anglo Saxon venal establishment.
    Where is the West going and what is its future? What is the future of mankind? After establishment of the unipolar world, or at least, believing that it has become such, US is trying to get rid of the thinking middle class to create an elite of super rich and barely subsisting on $10-15 an hour the rest of the populus, brainwashed, obedient and intimidated by the new NDAA and “Patriot Act” laws allowing imprisonment and indefinite detention without a trial. They are organizing “Arab Spring”, “Colored Revolutions”, etc. to take control of the world and turn all people into slaves under the guise of “democracy” . Even though US has sufficient industrial base to organize a robotic/mechanized production of surplus material goods, production is kept artificially low to create profits for the rich, which result in millions of hungry, homeless, dirt poor and sick Americans. Brainwashing the world by using buzz words like “freedom and democracy”, dumbing down educational system, turning spirituality into the American/Anglo Saxon style vulgarity, turning everybody into a slave of a fascist police American State, keeping people at a subsistence level of a low middle class/poor level while 0.1% enjoys unrestrained, tax free luxuries, is the goal of today’s policy of the West.
    What is the future? The Babylon, an ancient impregnable fortress, was taken in 538 BCE by Cyrus the Great by simply draining the river Euphrates and marching under the walls into the city. The end of US will be just as swift, not necessarily a protracted struggle, just as the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has been calculated, that around 2020, the aggregate computing power will be sufficient to solve Leontieff model equations leading to a planned economy which will be 2-3 times more efficient than laissez-faire economy of today’s Capitalism. This means a guaranteed high standards of living for all in developed countries, end of poverty and exploitation. End of fascist US as we know it.