Saturday, December 31, 2016

‘Reforms Lead to Revolution’ – How Debates about Russia’s Past Will Define Its Future

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 31 – In a country where talking about the present or the future directly can land one in difficulty with the powers that be, Russians increasingly are making policy arguments in terms of events in Russian history, a trend that will only intensify in the coming centennial year of the 1917 revolutions.

            As citizens of other countries know, that opens the way not only to misinterpretations of the past in the name of policy advocacy but to the twin errors of overlearning from the past and thus committing equal or opposite errors or forgetting its lessons altogether and flying blindly into the future.

            But for good or ill, Russian policy debates are increasingly going to be cast in historical terms, and it is thus going to be a requirement that analysts both in Russia and elsewhere recall the facts about various historical events they may not have thought about for some time in order to understand what is likely to happen next.

            An article yesterday by Valentin Katonosov on the Russian nationalist Strategic Culture Foundation portal about the relationship between the reforms of Sergey Witte before World War I and the Russian revolutions of 1917 is an instructive example of such discourse (

            “The approaching centenary of the revolution in Russia is a good occasion to yet again reflect upon why in history periodically occur events called ‘time of troubles,’ ‘a turnover in state power,’ or ‘a revolution,’” Katanosov says, both as far as 1917 is concerned and what events in that year says about others.

            He then argues that one of those most responsible for Russia’s slide into revolution was Sergey Witte. “Some call him a genius and put him alongside Petr Stolypin,” the Russian analyst says; “others (although unfortunately they are a minority) consider that by his reforms Witte led Russia to the revolution.” Katanosov says he is one of the latter.

            According to him, Witte’s “’contributions’ to the destruction of Russia” are quite large and numerous, including his role in the preparation of the October Manifesto and the negotiations in Portsmouth at the end of the Russo-Japanese war.  “But his main ‘contribution’ … became the so-called monetary reform of 1897” when he put Russia on the gold standard.

            Many praise him for doing this because it triggered a massive influx of foreign capital and the growth of certain sectors of the economy, but Katanosov suggests, “this was industrialization in the framework of the model of dependent capitalism.” As a result, Russia became more indebted to foreign bankers, and it was sovereign rather than private debt.

            That debt amounted to 8.5 billion gold rubles in mid-1914 and had the effect of putting the country “under the tight control of world lenders and put it at risk of finally losing its sovereignty – and all of this is thanks to Witte’s efforts.”  Although he left the post of finance minister in 1903, he had launched “the mechanism for the destruction of Russia.”

            Whatever the truth of Katanosov’s argument, it prompts three more general comments about invoking past examples to urge a particular set of policies, as the Russian nationalist’s comments in this case clearly do.

            First, Katanosov is highly selective in the facts he adduces to make his case. Second, he does not suggest what alternative policies might have been pursued and what their effects might have been. And third, he falls victim to the fallacy of “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” of arguing that any event has been caused by whatever prior event one focuses on.

            There are going to be many more such “historical” discussions in the coming year: their limitations should be remembered not only by Russian policy makers but by analysts, Russian and otherwise, who are trying to figure out where Putin’s Russia is headed next.

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