Staunton, February 28 – Russia has almost never had a consensus about the future because the society has been and remains deeply split between individualists and collectivists, with the former dominating the big cities and the country east of the Urals and the latter dominating everywhere else, Aleksandr Auzan says.
In an essay on why Mikhail Gorbachev failed offered on the anniversary of his 90th birthday, the Moscow economist makes a series of broader points about why efforts to radically reform Russia have failed and by implication why they are likely to continue to do so given this deep division (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/02/28/89423-tretya-popytka).
“Collectivism and individualism have their own characteristics, their own pluses and minuses,” he writes, “but they generate practically opposite demands on the powers because the individualists want freedom, democracy and entrepreneurship while the collectivists want guarantees, stability and social justice.”
When one side gains too much influence, there is a reaction; and when things do not move rapidly enough in the direction that it wants, those carrying out the reform are likely to face disaster either in the form of direct attack on their persons or in a systemic collapse, Auzan suggests.
Gorbachev understood this problem and thus offered a combination of freedom and justice in the form of social democracy. In his mind, “freedom was supposed to be accepted by the big cities and justice would be a sufficient value in the country as a whole” to keep things from falling apart.
But it is one thing to proclaim an idea and another to operationalize it, the economist continues. And he did not have a plan which he could share with the divided population or the resources economic and especially in time to allow him to take action without the situation getting out of control.
Earlier attempts at radical reform in Russia had been easier because they reflected a plan or at least a consensus among the elites over where the country was going and because they had more resources in money and time than Gorbachev had. And as a result, he failed because as Mikhail Zhvanetsky said, he “wanted to achieve everything but in the end received nothing.”
Any effort at radical change inevitably runs into a problem: it requires “a simultaneous change of culture, political and economic institutions and the presence of a time for such changes.” Gorbachev tried for the first but had neither the second or third. And thus it is no surprise that he failed.
And it is also no surprise that in the wake of his failure, a leader and a generation arose that has sought to go back to what was before rather than to continue to take the risks he took and possibly suffer even more failures.