Staunton, August 21 – “Is Russian identity possible without great power content?” Historian Irina Pavlova asks rhetorically and quickly answers “Only theoretically.” Had the country moved toward real federalism in 1991, it might have been possible; but instead then and later, Russia has moved in exactly the opposite direction.
In a wide-ranging two-part interview in Kyiv’s “Den’” newspaper this week, Pavlova says that in 1991, Moscow did not promote federalism but rather “inflicted enormous harm on the very idea of federalism” (day.kiev.ua/ru/article/podrobnosti/rossiyskaya-identichnost-est-li-alternativa-velikoderzhaviyu and day.kiev.ua/ru/article/podrobnosti/rossiyskaya-identichnost-est-li-alternativa-velikoderzhaviyu-2).
“Instead of a clear delimitation of the powers of the center and the regions,” she argues, everything was left unclear, something that “ended with the war in Chechnya and the strengthening of the autocratic institution of the presidency,” something that both Boris Yeltsin and now even more Vladimir Putin have exploited.
“The federalist principle of national-state construction of Russia hardly means the disintegration of the country” as Moscow has encouraged Russians and others to think, Pavlova continues. “On the contrary, the realization of this principle presupposes the presence of a strong center to which the regions delegate power to represent their interests in the international arena and to define the main directions of the development of the country.”
Had federalism been adopted as a clearly defined system, it “would have immediately changed the occupation nature of Russian statement. A state system which presupposes the independence of the regions and their voluntary unification for the solution of common tasks represents a more organic one for countries as large as Russia.”
Moreover, she continues, “when the people will not be a controlled population but the master of their country and region, the term ‘great power’ will have entirely different content than now and mean the greatness of the country and not the unlimited nature of the powers of the ruling hierarchy.”
But that is precisely the problem in Russia today, she says: “this ruling hierarchy never wants to lose its power” and therefore will not take the steps that would ensure the development of the country by dispensing with the great power qualities that up to now have been part of Russian identity.
This problem has deep roots, Pavlova continues. “The idea of great powerness is very seductive and few have been able to withstand its temptations.” Thus, Pushkin, often considered in Russia to be the “ideal of a free man” welcomed the suppression of the Polish uprising in 1830-1831.”
And “in the 1920s and 1930s, many White officers and intellectuals who had been struggling with Soviet power accepted it seeing it in the revival of Russian statehood. In the final analysis, Russian statehood was embodied for them in Stalin’s great power ideas. Nikolay Ustryalov even returned to Russia to see its flowering,” a step he “paid with his life in 1937.”
Since the mid-1990s, Pavlova continues, the Kremlin has promoted the image of Stalin as the great ruler of a great power in order to root “in the consciousness of Russians” the notion that only such an authoritarian and hyper-centralized regime can give the country back its “greatness.”
Given the Putin regime’s skill in using the media, how can this be opposed? The Russian historian argues that “for experts it is necessary to study, call things by their own names, and understand that this is not simply ‘an authoritarian regime’ or ‘an authoritarian regime moving toward a totalitarian one’ and so on but rather a post-modern type of dictatorship which one must learn how to analyse.”
And for each individual Russian the task is this: “to learn how to be free. Russian reality at each step shows how important this task is for the fate of the country and how difficult it is as well,” Pavlova says.
“Neither in the country nor in the world until very recently,” she says, did people want to notice that “the Russian authorities long ago passed to the language of confrontation with the West. There, they seriously hoped that Russia ‘slowly but truly is progressing,’ that the West, by integrating Russia into Western international institutions ‘in this way will civilize it.’”
There have been some steps in this direction both in Russia and the West, but in Russia, the Putin regime’s clever use of the media has made them more difficult. And in the West, many who either make compromises to gain access to archives in Russia or because of the continuing influence of the left in universities have failed to pay attention to what is going on.
All too many Westerners “educated under conditions of democracy and an open society … approach Russia by studying only visible processes and remain incapable of considering and analyzing what stands behind them and deconstructing the false or shell-like phenomena. That is why for the majority of them, the collapse of the Soviet Union was something unexpected.”
Moreover, many refuse to focus on what is happening in Russia because a critical position is viewed by many as “a manifestation of the syndrome of the cold war.” Consequently, they “prefer to believe the official press and listen to pro-Kremlin commentators who in their opinion possess some exclusive information.”
Among the things such people are most unwilling to see is that Moscow has been “an occupation force not only in Ukraine but in Russia as well,” Pavlova says. Russia is a unitary state despite the word “’federation’” in its name, a “supra-national system of power which involves the subordination of all krays, oblasts and autonomous formations to the direct rule from Moscocw and total enslavement of the subjects.”
The creation of a genuine federation, she concludes is “the first step toward a democratic and law-based Russia.” But that is not the direction Moscow has been moving in recent years. Instead, it has strengthened “the criminalization of the state” and “the degradation of society,” a combination that will make Russia a place of “chaos and destruction.”
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