Sunday, January 14, 2024

For More than a Century, Russian and Western Experts have Repeatedly Failed to Predict Russia’s Future, Shelin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Jan. 11 – For more than a century, both Russian experts, especially those in the emigration, and Western ones have repeatedly failed to predict both the general direction and specific actions of Russian rulers, a tendency that has become especially pronounced in Putin’s time, Sergey Shelin says.

            The reason behind this lies “not only in the general desire to predict what is desired rather than what is probable” but also in “an exaggerated belief in the rational and material motives” of Russian rulers and “a constant disregard for the Russian pagan spirit,” the commentator adds (

            But there are two additional causes that also play a major role in the history of these errors. On the one hand, there has been a near constant interest in “presenting Russian life as one of enmity between the people and the regime even though the regime not only has been “almost always stronger than the people and has again and again radically re-educated them.”

            And on the other, there has been an equally powerful desire by Russian and Western analysts to consider Russia through the prism of Eurocentrism, even though, Shelin argues, “the experience of China, Iran or Turkey is often far more important” in explaining why Russia doe what it does.

            It is long past time, Shelin argues, for both groups “to recognize the uniqueness of Russian power, the fundamental distinctiveness of its historical course, and in any analysis always proceed from the fact that this uniqueness will continue to exist into the future” rather than be replaced by commonality with someone else.

            Shelin traces this history of mistakes over the last century, beginning with the Russian emigration, passing through Kennan’s long telegram, and then up to the present. He devotes particular attention to the collapse of the Soviet empire, something that “almost no one, especially in the West” foresaw, and to succeeding failures as well.

            Because so few Western analysts thought the Soviet system would collapse and collapse so quickly, they were not ready for when it happened and “the actions of Western powers in response were both improvised and mostly erroneous,” the Russian commentator argues.

            “The 1990s thus became a time of missed opportunities,” he continues, “because ideas about the near future were inadequate not only at the mass level but among the experts. Even in the second half of the decade, analysts still seriously believed Russia was repeating the economic and political trajectory of Eastern European countries … albeit with a three- or four-year delay.”

            Experts both in Russia and the West “understood the 1996 presidential elections as a choice between the Western past and the path of imperial reconquest and xenophobia, although in reality they were only a choice about the time and speed of movement along the second of these paths, either recklessly and quickly or with hesitations and smoothly.”

The myth that the rise of the economy and living standards would eventually make the Russian masses adherents of democracy was extremely persistent,” he writes. “And right up to February 24, discussions about the supposed absence of ideology in the Putin regime and its pragmatism were popular.”

To put it bluntly, Shelin concludes, “those who job is to make forecasts about Russia and again and again failed to respond to the challenge of history. Over the last century, almost none have managed to predict not only the next zigzag in Russian behavior but even to lay out the range of possibilities within which this zigzag would take place.”

As a result, he says, “Russia remains a constant surprise to its analysts” -- and he made add to itself.

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