Monday, September 25, 2017

Russians Can Change Radically and Rapidly and aren’t Condemned by Any ‘Cultural Code,’ Gontmakher Says

 Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 25 – Many, including those who would like to see a civilized European future for Russia, nonetheless believe that Russians are so restricted by their “’cultural code’ of serfdom and paternalism” that the only way forward is to rely on “an enlightened ruler who bases himself on a group of elite intellectuals,”  Yevgeny Gontmakher says.

            Such people believe that what must be done is to create “a certain autocratic Singapore, only a thousand times larger,” but “in fact,” the Moscow economist and commentator says, history shows that Russians are not so constrained by their cultural code and that reformers should proceed in exactly the opposite way (

                Those who want to move in a European direction, he continues, must use “all possible means of freeing people from the sense of hopelessness and passivity that to a large extent has been artificially created” and promote participation in elections, civic enlightenment, and any other forms of public involvement they can think of.

            To do otherwise, to act as if only an enlightened ruler can set these right, Gontmakher says, is to “condemn Russia to another round of heavy tests” but even more it is to ignore the history of the last century which shows that Russians can and do change radically and rapidly on occasion.

            If any nationally specific cultural code existed before 1917, he says, it was eliminated or at least radically transformed by the Soviet system which moved people about, attacked religion, encouraged inter-ethnic marriage, and generally undermined what most had assumed were the core values of this or that people.

            And except for a few small national groups, most of the population of Russia today represents a mixture of things, a levelling of group distinctions in Russian society, and justifies speaking more often about the “international, non-religious, and extra-territorial” nature of the population of the country.

            Moreover, Gontmakher argues, the population of what is now the Russian Federation has shown itself capable of rapidly and radically changing many of its behaviors in response to change in the environment, something that one would not speak of if it were the case that everything is predetermined by a cultural code.

            When the Soviet system collapsed, Russians neither defended it nor responded with risings against the new order.  They were not even driven to protest by the default of 1998. Instead, they adapted to new conditions, recognized they couldn’t depend on the state and began to act in ways those who believe in the cultural code would say were impossible.

            And then when the economy began to grow in the early years of this century, a development that reflected not only the rise in the price of oil but also in the way in which Russians chose to act and spend money, they changed again and would have changed more but for the decisions of the Kremlin.

            Instead of promoting the kind of reforms that would finally undermine paternalism and that the new wealth had made possible, Vladimir Putin and his regime moved in the opposite direction, taking ever more of the economy under state control and promoting the paternalistic values they should have been combatting.

            The Russian people again adapted, Gontmakher says; and that again shows that “the behavior of the large masses of people can be changed very quickly both toward a positive or toward a destructive side.” The state plays a big role in this, but it can’t control everything as 1991 showed.

            Consequently, he says, he very much hopes that “the current attempt to reduce people to a gray mass of ‘human capital’ will end much more quickly than did the communist experiment.” And he points to what is happening in the North Caucasus and in the emigration to the possibilities of rapid adaptation and change.

            Despite what many in Moscow think, Gontmakher points out, “the spirit of entrepreneurialism is developed in the North Caucasus more than ever before.”  And it is thus a serious mistake to overstate “’the special nature’ of our North Caucasus from the point of view of prospects of successful independent economic and social development.”

            And the new emigration also testified to the ability of Russians to adapt.  It is another mistake, he says, to exaggerate how much longing it has for Russia. In fact, its members have gotten to work, put down new roots, and are adapting as rapidly as almost any other peoples to the situations they find themselves in.

            In short, Gontmakher concludes, Russians can and will change if the powers that be and their intellectual critics stop assuming that they can’t and won’t and that the only way to deal with what some call “the dark people” is to keep them under the tightest of control. Just the reverse is the course that is needed.   

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