Staunton, February 11 – Many factors contributed to the destruction of the Soviet system and the disintegration of the USSR, Mikhail Romanov says; but one of the most important if seldom discussed is that the Soviet system prevented members of the elite from passing on their wealth and power to their children, one of the most powerful motivations for human action.
By the end of the 20th century, the director of the Moscow Laboratory for the Study of Public Opinion says, “an elite, which in any political system not only rules but consumes a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth had finally formed” (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/02/11/89166-deti-katastrofy).
“The Soviet nomenklatura had definite privileges,” Romanov continues, and they were anything but modest. But the system prevented them from doing what comes naturally and passing on these privileges to their children. “In other words, the political system contradicted the interests of the elite” and the elite replaced it with one that served the elite’s desires.
“For the national elites of the union and autonomous republics, this striving to destroy a single state was completely expected,” he argues. “The disintegration of any empire is marked by the acquisition of independence by the peoples who had populated it.” But the situation of the Russian elite was somewhat different.
While the Russian elite gained the ability to pass on its wealth and power to its children, it lost most of the source of both with the falling away of the non-Russian portions of what had been the USSR.
All this wouldn’t have been a major factor if the Russian elite did not have children, if like the black clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church, only those who practiced celibacy could rise to the top positions – or if Russian elites had become eunuchs like the situation in imperial China.
Such approaches are unlikely to be adopted by elites as a whole in large countries, Romanov continues, but one must recognize that “quasi-theocratic states” like the USSR were to a certain extent doomed by their failure to come up with some alternative method of dealing with the desires of parents to pass their wealth and power to their children.
According to Romanov, “perestroika and the disintegration of the Soviet Union which followed it were initiated by the Soviet nomenklatura, were carried out by the nomenklatura, and the nomenklatura became the main beneficiary” of these changes.
“Scratch almost any representative of the present-day Russian elite and you will find someone from a nomenklatura family,” he continues. There are some exceptions from criminal or ethnic groups which were excluded earlier, but they do not make up more than 20 percent of the total.
And this is no surprise, nor is the timing of the replacement of the USSR with the Russian system. That can be seen in the case of the Gaidar family, whose three generations went from a military commander in the civil war to a popular writer to an architect of the changes in Russia after 1991. In the first part of the 20th century, people could rise; in the second, not so much.
Romanov recalls the old Soviet anecdote about the sone of a colonel “who could not become a general because the general already had a son” and suggests that by the end of Soviet times there was more truth than poetry in that observation and there is even more truth in it today.
Russians now often speak about the rise of a strata-based society in their country, but this “of course is hyperbole.” However, it is very much a fact that today, “the Russian people and the elite are separate and antagonistic worlds.”
That helps to explain the attention Aleksey Navalny has received for his exposure of elite corruption. Russians are interested and animated not by the corruption itself but rather by the feeling which “the Bolsheviks called ‘class hatred.’” They are furious that the elite is taking care of itself the way it is while they have to live paycheck to paycheck.
At the same time, many of them have accepted a situation in which children of the elite become members of the elite more than any of the broader population. In some senses, this is rational because the children of the elite know the other children of the elite and can function more effectively, Romanov argues.
Even members of the systemic opposition have been engaged in the passing of power and privilege from one generation to another as can be seen in the careers the sons of Vladimir Zhirionovsky, Gennady Zyuganov, and Aleksandr Prokhanov have made in recent times, the analyst says.
What all this means, Romanov sums up, is that “the ruling stratum of present-day Russia is not simply flesh of the flesh of the Soviet nomenklatura, it is the Soviet nomenklatura which has transformed the country in correspondence with its interests.”
As a result, he points out, “ever more often the ruling stratum of the Russian Federation is called the new nobility. But behind these words lies a dark irony: ‘the old nobles’ ran Russia for several centuries but ended as taxi drivers in Paris.”
“It is possible,” Romanov says, “that precisely this historical memory is leading current members of the Russian Olympus to purchase property in London, Nice, and Marbella, to educate its children at Yale, Harvard and Oxford, and to keep money in Swiss and British banks.”
“History is cyclical,” he says; “and its rhythm is accelerating.”