Thursday, October 31, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Russia Divided by Two Very Different ‘Unifying’ Ideas, Shiropayev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 31 – The Kremlin has long talked about finding a unifying idea for Russia, but in fact the two unifying ideas on offer are mutually exclusive, cannot be combined, and threaten to drag the country into chaos, civil war and disintegration, according to Aleksey Shiropayev.

            One of these ideas, which seeks secularism, democracy and federalism, unites the forces of modernization and Westernization, the Russian regionalist writer says. “In essence, this is the idea of a peaceful bourgeois-democratic revolution” and is being advanced by lliberals, national democrats and the non-totalitarian left.”

            The other, which wants to “hold Russian in a permanently medieval state” in which the imperial state is paramount and the population its subjects, is supported by “the forces of regression and reaction” which are in power now and which know that if they yield their power, they will lose their own raison d’etre (

This situation explains the second group’s “hatred to the West as a civilized redoubt of democracy,” “its playing with tsarism” ideologically, its “pathetic slogan of ‘a single and indivisible Russia,’”and  its use of the Russian Orthodox Church as “a universal spiritual anesthetist.”

Russian society is deeply split as a result, Shiropayev says, a situation which “of course is worse than the victory of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, but all the same better than a civil war.”  It is unstable given how much at odds the two ideas are, “but what will happen next,” the regionalist writer says, “no one knows.”

Russian leaders have been looking for a single all-embracing and all-unifying idea for years, but “it is obvious that all attempts of this kind have proved unsuccessful” because Russia is simply too divided for that in terms of the values that its people have. And that situation, acute a century ago, is only getting worse.

At the start of the 20th century, the Russian Empire “entered into a decisive stge of crisis.” It had to federalize itself or face disintegration like Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Porte. But the Bolsheviks by the use of terror held things together, and despite “having lost enormous territories after August 1991, the Russian Empire in essence has been preserved.”

“More than that, now [the Russian state] openly declares its revaunchist goals and even seeks to expand its territory as was the case in August 2008.” But even as the Kremlin does so, it has engaged in an effort to find a unifying national idea, an effort that in the circumstances is doomed to failure.

None of the unifying ideas or events work effectively across the entire society: those who accept one set of ideas or versions of ideas do not accept the others and vice versa. The regime cannot use Stalin because too much is known about what he did, and even Victory Day divides almost as much as it unites, Shiropayev argues.

As far as the Russian Orthodox Church is concerned, it has not become and will not gain “unqualified universal authority” given its obscurantism. And tsarism, “nostalgia for which [the regime] is now promoting” for “the moral strengthening of Putin authoritarianism,” is offputting to many interested in a more open Russia.

This fundamental conflict is very much on view in the arguments over hat a new single school history textbook should look like, one that would seek to present Russian history as a single unified flow. Some divisions like that between the Reds and the Whites can be overcome “on an imperial basis” bcause both sides believed in that, albeit in different ways.

But it won’t be possible to fuse together Novgorod and Moscowbecause they represented “two completely different civilizational choices.”  In the official Moscow history, Novgorod with its democracy and Western ties remains a threat.  And it won’t be possible to unite Leontyev with Pobedonostsev or Stalin with Vlasov.

In reality, Shiropayev writes, “the authorities can fashion a universal conception of Russian history only by minimizing the components of Russian freedom.” That they won’t do because “the current imperial power simply by its nature isnot capable of offering society another Russian hstory besides the history of the state” and that won’t unite the country.

If Russia is to move forward, it needs a new conception of history, one that will be “the history of the liberation struggle of the peoples of Russia,” with stress not on the names of tsars and secretaries general but on those of the many in Russia’s regions who have fought for democracy and a genuintely federal Russia.   

In an ideal world, such a history would be based on the idea of Russia as “a secular democratic federation,” one that would allow Russia to become “a Russia for all, Russians and non-Russians, believers and unbelievers.” But unfortunately it is impossible to combine this idea with those of Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky and Putin.

The opposition of such people to a new history is easily explained: “the nomenklatura-chekist caste knows very well that in such a Russia it would in the best case face lustration.” Consequently, these people seek to defend themselves behind the ramparts of reaction and obscurantism.

And the unified history they seek is thus about only one thing: the latest effort to find “yet another instrument for the enslavement of society.”

The situation is truly “pathetic,” Shiropayv continues.  Despite all the power of the side of reaction, it is “not in a position to put down advanced society,” even though that society is not yet in a position to cast aside the reactionary powers. Instead, there are today, “two Russias, two societies, and they cannot (or almost cannot) be connected by system values.”
Faced with this situation, the Kremlin is trying to play a game of divide and rule, setting “the simple people” against “the creative ones,” “the poor provinces” against “rich Moscow,” even as it engages in discussions about “a unifying idea,” discussions that in the context of the real divides in Russian society are leading to extraordinarily “dangerous speculations.”

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