Staunton, September 10 – Just as revolutions breed counter-revolutions, so too counter-revolutions breed revolutions, and thus the fate of Vladimir Putin’s “anti-modernist consensus,” however strong it may appear today will be to give way to one committed to modernization in the future, according to Vladimir Pastukhov.
In a lengthy essay in yesterday’s “Novaya gazeta,” the St. Antony’s College historian points out that this rotation is the norm for Russia. “Twenty-five years ago, the failed putsch provoked a dangerous and unnecessary acceleration of a revolution which became the source of many contradictions and disproportions” (novayagazeta.ru/politics/74498.html).
That ultimately provoked Putin’s counter-reforms which in turn led “five years ago” to “the unsuccessful attempt [by Dmitry Medvedev] to restart perestroika” and that failed effort then “provoked a deep reaction which has sent Russia into a political tailspin that many take for a flight to the stars.”
The depth of that reaction, one stimulated by the rising of “angry urban residents” in 2011-2012 can be judged, Pastukhov says, by the following fact: “For the first time in the last 300 years, the powers that be have cast doubt on the very necessity of modernizing Russia and not on one or another aspect of that process.”
“In essence,” he continues, “the Putin restoration is a denial not of the Yeltsin or even the Gorbachev paradigm as it appears to many but at a minimum of the ‘Petrine’ paradigm” and it is one that, by throwing Russia back centuries, “would be a catastrophe for Russia were it not for the fact that main characteristic of this ‘anti-modernist consensus’ was primitive utilitarianism.”
The “nucleus” of this consensus is formed by “Orthodox clergy who have come in place of the communists” and “’the force bureaucracy.’” According to Pastukhov, “the only thing that interested these groups” is not anti-modernism as such but rather “the preservation of their power.”
As a result, he argues, “if the first edition of Bolshevism was a tragedy for Russia, its second edition looks like a farce.”
Putin’s anti-modernist consensus is hardly “something exclusively new in the history of Russia,” the historian continue. “It arises every time at the end of a definite ‘modernization cycle’ as a defensive reaction of the regime from a revolution which in the final analysis it has provoked by itself.”
In the 1880s, this was “’the Pobedonostsev doctrine;’ in the 1980s, ’the Suslov doctrine;’ and “now apparently, ‘the Petrushev doctrine.’” In each case, the basic problem of this consensus is that “it contradicts the ‘basic’ modernization trend to which the logic of Russia is subordinated,” a logic based on the notion that Russia is a part of Europe, albeit a special part.
“Russian modernization,” the historian points out, has been “discreet and one-sided.” That is, it is “realized in cycles, each of which while a historical ‘step forward’ looks like ‘two steps backward.’” It moves in one direction, generates a move in the opposite direction, which then starts the cycle over again.
“All these ‘bubbles’ are formed into a chain of ‘Russian civilizations,’ tsarist, imperial, soviet, and post-communist. Each link in it seems reactionary but, taken together, they at one and the same time testify that the development of Russia over many centuries was subordinate to the logic of modernization.”
Peter I established the empire but at the price of serf slavery, something that led to the Bolshevik revolt, “a peasant version of European modernization” intended to replace “’the bad’ and ‘incorrect’ Empire with a ‘correct’ and ‘good’ one.” Bolshevism was “a brave effort to job to modernity through the archaic with the help of a utopia that ended in tragedy.”
The Bolshevik system represented a combination of “powerful technical progress with a deep moral regress” and would have ended with the great terror had it not been for a war “which turned out to be a more serious challenge than a revolution” and that had the effect of awakening in the peoples of the USSR “powerful forces” that returned the country to a path of development.
That development, Pastukhov says, “was made not thanks to but in spite of bolshevism and Stalinism. The war became a factor of national genesis, and out of it the Russian people came in the form of ‘a proto-nation.’” And that in turn predetermined the emergence of the thaw under Khrushchev and with variations under his Soviet successors.
Under this form of rule, the historian argues, “a Soviet middle class” and the precursers of a civil society emerged, and “sooner or later these social changes had to lead to a change in the political system.
According to Pastukhov, “Perestroika became the second attempt of the Russian people to reject the Empire as a form of its political existence and to form its own national state.” Indeed, one can say that perestroika was “a continuation of the line of the February  revolution.”
Perestroika thus “spiritually returned Russia to Europe but it contributed to the disorganization of the socio-economic and political infrastructure of post-communist society. It gave the peoples of Russia freedom but it didn’t create the institutions through which these freedoms could be realized.”
Not surprisingly, given Russian history, Pastukhov continues, “all this made practically inevitable the counter-reforms which followed and the attempt at Soviet restoration, the temporary flourishing of which we have the chance to see with our own eyes today.” But this is a temporary thing because Russia is being pushed by circumstances toward a new modernization.
A Russian leader can block the window to Europe for a time, but Europe will come in another way. And the greater the efforts to restore the past, to turn away from this impulse, Pastukhov suggests, the more rapid will be the rise of pressures to move the country in the opposite direction.
Like Sysyphus, Putin is pushing a rock up the hill that will inevitably role back over him and his successors, Pastukhov concludes. And those like Medvedev who support modernization will sooner or later become the dominant players, subordinating those who appear to be in power forever.