Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Russia Now Threatened by Something More Ancient than a New Middle Ages, Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 25 – “Not feudalism but something more ancient is knocking on Russia’s door,” according to Ulyana Nikolayeva, an economist at Moscow State University; and unless Russians face up to that, they are certain to draw the wrong conclusions about what should be done.

            In a 3800-word essay in “Nezavisimaya Gazeta-Stsenarii,” she argues that while many are inclined to assume that Russian society will go back to one of the immediately preceding stages, in fact, there is a risk that it may go much further back to the extreme diversity and violence of even earlier times (ng.ru/stsenarii/2016-10-25/9_6843_middleages.html).

            When in the 1990s, it became obvious that Russia, having ceased to be communist, wasn’t immediately going to become a liberal democratic free market system, many like Vladimir Shlyapentokh, David Satter and Simon Kordonsky expressed the view that Russia was on its road to a kind of neo-feudalism.

            They suggested that what were appearing in Russia at that time were “not capitalist classes but semi-feudal strata, that is, social groups which not only have different financial possibilities and economic resources but also possess in fact a different legal and power status” over all.

            In fact, Nikolayeva  says, what was and is going on is a far more thoroughgoing turn to the past, one that is best called “archaization,” which “is accompanied by the rebirth of social relations and forms typical for the very earlier stages of social development” including primary, pre-class and early class society.

            Far more than more modern societies, “archaic societies,” as ethnographers and anthropologists have shown, “were quite varied.” And what is significant now, she continues, is that “practically all these forms in one way or another are being reanimated in contemporary ‘transitional’ Russian society.”

            While many recognize aspects of this, few take them as pointing to a particular model, especially among social scientists who remain divided between those who believe in social progress and in a more or less common path of social development for all societies and those, a minority, who see each society as being unique throughout its developmental sequence.

            Despite that division, Nikolayeva continues, “all the basic discussions among economists and sociologists” are about the inter-relationship of economics, the political system and culture.  And when these discussions concern Russia, one must ask whether now any productive social activity can take place without archaic personal ties and the rituals that go with them.

            Those informal networks “give rise as well to the specific forms of social inequality in Russia. Only by belonging to power hierarchies and informal networks can an individual have the chance to be socially and economically successful,” even though many of these networks are taken from the distant past.

            But just as the Soviet system revived more than just the immediate past in the course of its construction, so too since 1991 the new Russian system has turned to some of the same more archaic forms of aggression, force and fear; and these things “touch ever more segments of life” in the country.

            As a result, she continues, there has been “a rebirth of a special mythological form of public consciousness of a form which arose at the earlier archaic (primary) stages of the development of society.” In it, “form always dominates over content,” a point of view that Russian media do much to promote.

            Such primitiveness of thought,  Nikolayeva suggests, “we see everywhere in present-day Russian realities from television and the football match … It only seems that we are all living in the 21st century.” In reality, “from the point of view of structure and content,” our consciousness “is not simply in the Middle ages but in primitive society.”

            “An individual with such an archaic consciousness isn’t capable of critical thought, calm analysis or the use of any complex logic. And this black and white vision of the surround world in today’s super-complicated one does not bode anything good for us,” the Moscow scholar argues.

            The reason that the Russian population was so disposed to turn to such primitive understandings is an outgrowth of the collapse of the Soviet system. That involved a collapse “not only of ideology and the country but a destruction of the entire existing system of values and customary norms of life.”

            It created a situation characterized, to use Emile Durkheim’s term, of anomie.  That involves a vacuum of values in which an individual finds it difficult if not impossible to live. “In such periods, the population begins to be drawn to the most readily available mental forms which have existed in a given culture during its past levels of development.”

            In Russia’s case, “this immediately threw social consciousness several levels back,” Nikolayeva says. Moreover, this trend “has been intensified also by the fact that the powers that be welcomed this” and promoted it by employing slogans that played to this primitive understanding of the world because that made Russia easier to rule.

            Tragically, she says, “for Russia with its complex history, such a strategy contains within itself an enormous danger because together with these archaic or pseud-historical forms of consciousness can be reborn and strengthen archaic and pre-law forms of social interaction”  that lead to the disintegration of society as such.

            Russia’s “present situation is far from unique.” It is true of many economically underdeveloped countries which have sought to impose market economics without market cultures.  Such “peripheral capitalism can turn even a comparatively flourishing country into poverty, lengthy economic stagnation, anomie, and spiritual degradation.”

            While it is not widely understood even among scholars, Nikolayeva says, Russia is on its way “not only and not so much to feudalism as such but to the most genuine archaic” forms, with many things people had though long discarded returning with new force.

            Of course, she says, Russians do not have to accept this. But they will only be able to fight against it if they understand what is going on.

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