HistoryBits: Russia

HistoryBits: Russia

Bits and Pieces of History

Society

Society/Demographic Disaster

Russia is a demographic disaster: AIDS, alcoholism, tuberculosis, drug addiction–all paired with plague of organized crime and the drift toward absolutism to boot. it almost seems that its society is killing itself out of despair over peoples’ inability to adjust to the new order. I wonder if all this has something to do with the alienation and disillusionment that was brought on by the too-sudden transition from a state economy under communism to a free market system that left the most helpless members of society to fend for themselves (look at the huge protest movement that’s developing today, led by the elderly!).

Society/Drugs

Consider the exorbitant costs of treating a crack baby in our own country, along with the even more costly forfeiture of the fruits of what might have otherwise been a lifetime of productivity for that person, and it seems likely that the Russians may never have the resources to forestall their own extinction.

Society/Jews

Russia’s treatment of the Jews reminds me of how one nation’s loss of a constituent people because of persecution is inevitably another nation’s gain. And consider how America was rewarded for just that: it was in large part because Jews in Europe were forbidden to take up the occupations that were available to everyone else in their host communities that they assumed and specialized in the role of moneylender. In time, this developed into a talent for banking and finance that they brought to America, and which they used to build a prominent role in the Wall Street community. Moral of the story: the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit, and as America became a veritable orchard of distressed trees, our standard of living sweetened immensely.

Society/Moscow

The lopsided role of Moscow in the Russian ethos is typical of societies that are as imbalanced as Russia, which leaves vast stretches of its hinterland in the Dark Ages while Moscow sprints ahead into the 21st century. It’s almost Biblical, that to those that have everything shall yet more be given, and from those who have nothing shall even that be taken from them! Regrettably, though, this sort of imbalance is practically a prerequisite to the more even-handed, comprehensive development that truly brings a society into the modern age.

Soviet Union/Society/Life Under Stalin

The legacy of life under Stalin–and Russia’s many other notorious despots—seems to have conditioned Russian citizenry to accept the brutality of government as natural and inevitable, and brutishness as their lot. Russians have come to regard government not as their partner, but as predator. As a result, Russian society might seem pathologically incapable of responding to good government even if it stared them in the face (not that it will any time soon). The ordinary citizen refuses to pay taxes to or otherwise support a government he regards (with considerable justification) as predatory, and the government responds by living up to expectations. What will it take to change this dismal relationship? Lots of little confidence-building measures, as well as an economy founded on incentive and reward, a tradition of civic responsibility, a government based upon the equitable rule of law… and other such institutions that have taken the West untold generations to foster and refine. Capitalism and constitutional government don’t come in a can.

Culture

Culture/Faberge Eggs

Hardship and harassment seem to have a salutary effect on artists, and the career of the Faberge family more or less replicated the experience of countless others. Sent packing to Rome by his oppressors, Michelangelo’s talents would flourish in his sculptures of the Pieta and David, and with his paintings of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, The Last Judgment, and more. Whether Michelangelo and his contemporaries prospered in spite of the political turbulence of Renaissance Italy, or because of it, is worth considering. Against the tempestuous background of the Reformation, the Renaissance offered the sort of wonderfully lawless and chaotic time that artists best thrive in, much as the despotism of Russia seems to elicited and put the edge on the creative genius of its own incredibly talented people (who more so than Faberge?). Complacency dulls the creative edge, while chaos, like Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica, is itself a creative masterpiece that brings out both the worst and the best in man.

Power


Power/Valimir of Kiev

Valimir, the Kievan state, and Ivan the Terrible all helped set a lasting precedent for absolutism. His forced imposition of Christianity anticipated Peter the Great’s attempt to graft Western institutions and practices on a native Russian rootstock that wasn’t ready to accept it. The bill for Russia’s long habit of absolutism is falling due today in the form of a demographic disaster: AIDS, alcoholism, communicable disease, drug addiction. Now that the Russians are on their own own (relatively), it almost seems that they’re doing themselves in out of despair over their inability to contend with the new order and the attendant perils of the free market economy.

Power/Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible set a lasting precedent for absolutism, and the bill for Russia’s habit of the 800 years of absolutism that ensued is falling due today in the form of a demographic disaster: AIDS, alcoholism, communicable disease, drug addiction. Now that the Russians are on their own (relatively), it almost seems that they’re doing themselves in out of despair over their inability to contend with the new order and the attendant perils of the free market economy.

Power/Peter the Great

Peter the Great seems to have established a precedent that would eventually prove fatal for the Soviet Union of the state becoming an army unto itself. Such regimes (as with France under Louis XIV and Prussia under Frederick the Great) have it all backwards: the military doesn’t produce anything, it only consumes, and its real purpose of course is to protect the creative and productive sectors of society. When government gets it backwards, the inevitable result is national bankruptcy.

Power/Peter the Great

Peter attempted to graft foreign institutions onto a native root stock that wasn’t quite ready to accept the graft–much like the Japanese did with the Meiji Revolution (and as the American Occupation authorities did after World War II in Japan), and with what we’re trying to do now in Iraq. Societies must evolve their own political systems at their own pace, in accordance with the evolution of their cultural traditions–otherwise, the graft won’t take. Leave people alone, and they’ll generally come around on their own and respond to the desire for a better life: consider the fact that after World War II, just six nations were democracies; now, more than 120 are. Thank globalization for that.

Power/Absolutism/Features of “Old Russia”

Peter the Great seems to be have been the prototype (and perhaps the ideal) of the Soviet command economy. Russia was forever coming from behind in trying to catch up the Europe, which it saw as the paragon of culture and civilization, and Peter set up to emulate the West with no holds barred. His grand tour of Europe as an incognito shipwright gave him the opportunity to absorb the science of shipbuilding and naval technology and many of the cultural models that would figure in the building of the Russian navy and St. Petersburg. Peter’s aggressive emulation of Western models confirmed Russia’s perceived inferiority and gelled its tradition of the command economy as well as its patterns of paranoia in foreign relations.

Power/Absolutism/Legacy

I wonder if the reason people still place flowers on Peter’s grave has to do with their nostalgia for absolutism, amidst all the uncertainty of the new order. It’s hardly surprising that the weight of 800 years of absolutism in Russian government has the old ways struggling to assert themselves under Putin.

Power/Pugachev

Mired in brutish oppression, poverty, ignorance and illiteracy, and poisonously resentful of their condition, Russian serfdom was a powder keg waiting to blow. Paired with the autocracy of the Russian government, it proved to be the biggest stumbling block to Russia’s march into modernity, and Pugachev’s rebellion were the first symptoms of Russia’s social and political ills that would continue to fester until the whole thing blew sky-high in 1917. Dissent has led to the downfall of regimes in large part because of the suppression of such dissent… in the same manner that violence is the ultimate expression of helplessness. If dissent is left helpless and without a voice, violence will ensue, as inevitably befalls tyranny. The greatest strength of democracy is that it allows all voices to be heard, power to be checked, and radical sentiment to be mitigated before it transforms itself into violence.

Power/Catherine the Great

Whereas Peter the Great’s ham-handed attempt to impose Westernization onto the Russian ethos arose from crass expedience in his haste to build a military juggernaut, Catherine’s passion for Westernizing arose from a more noble motive: to cultivate, rather then bludgeon, the soul of Russian civilization. It’s no coincidence that the legacy of those virtuosi of Russian humanities–its literary, musical, artistic, and scientific giants–has outlasted the empire of the Soviet Union and its massive military edifice.

Power/Alexander II

Alexander II understood that feudalism stood in the way of prosperity. Whether he understood it to be an obstacle to peaceable political evolution is another question: mired in brutish oppression, poverty, ignorance and illiteracy, and poisonously resentful of their condition, the serfs comprised a powder keg waiting to blow. The half-baked nature of his reforms suggests that Alexander did not comprehend that it was the autocracy of the Russian government that was the biggest stumbling block to Russia’s march into modernity. His early attempts to free the serfs from the control of their landlords and give them a piece of the action, so to speak, left them worse off than ever. Naturally, they wound up with the worst land–and too little of it in any event. And while the courts were restored to a functioning condition and the army made less of a penal institution, Alexander did not believe that Russia was ready for a constitution, or an elected national legislature, or strong local government… especially since in his eyes, it was a zero-sum proposition: any gain for representative government was a loss of power for him. Russia remained autocratic, with the czar as sole arbiter of law and policy and the people merely passive recipients. But the roadblock of autocracy forced reformers to become revolutionaries, with the result that the whole thing would blow sky-high in 1917. Dissent has led to the downfall of regimes in large part because of the suppression of such dissent… in the same manner that violence is the ultimate expression of helplessness. If dissent is left helpless and without a voice, violence will ensue, as inevitably befalls tyranny. The greatest strength of democracy is that it allows all voices to be heard, power to be checked, and radical sentiment to be mitigated before it transforms itself into violence.

Power/Rasputin

The career of Gregory Rasputin speaks to the screw loose that’s long been rattling around in the tradition of Russian autocracy, from Ivan the Terrible through Vladimir Putin. That a mad monk could hold such sway over the affairs of state seems so madcap and implausible… until one stops to consider Nancy Reagan’s habit of holding her husband’s appointments hostage to her astrologer’s say-so. In a similar vein, Rasputin held the ladies of the court in his thrall, thanks to a wart on his private parts that stimulated them to new heights of ecstasy.


Soviet Union/Power/Bolsheviks

Any social order so entrenched as Russian feudalism and its ossified class structure was long destined for the dustbin of history. Russia’s nobility and intelligentsia had long identified itself with Europe—not Asia—and Russia’s old order could hardly endure once Europe’s had gone down with the defeat of the Napoleonic order and the Congress of Vienna. No nation can exist in a vacuum in this global community of ours. With the First World War, we can date the beginnings of our modern global community and the new awareness of the implications of disorder in one part of the world for nations far removed from the scene. Not even isolationist America could resist being drawn into the turmoil, any more than Russia could resist the contagion of revolution that had its inception at Waterloo.

Soviet Union/Power/Cheka

There’s a reason why Old Sayings like “absolute power corrupts absolutely” endure to become established wisdom: they’re true, and there’s no better way to say it. With politicians, the more power they have, the more they crave, and the more acute their dread of opposition. The Cheka and the Soviet secret police organizations that succeeded it were pretty good examples of the process. There was no good reason why some ten million (mostly) ordinary citizens were banished between 1935 and 1953 to prison camps without trial or evidence of wrongdoing—but then again, why are we trying to explain rationalize the irrational, and make sense of insanity? If Stalin was trying to terrorize Soviet society into complete submission, he succeeded. The legacy of life under Stalin–and Russia’s many other notorious despots—seems to have conditioned Russian citizenry to accept the brutality of government as natural and inevitable, and brutishness as their lot. Russians have come to regard government not as their partner, but as predator. As a result, Russian society might seem pathologically incapable of responding to good government even if it stared them in the face (not that it will any time soon). The ordinary citizen refuses to pay taxes to or otherwise support a government he regards (with considerable justification) as predatory, and the government responds by living up to expectations. What will it take to change this dismal relationship? Lots of little confidence-building measures, as well as an economy founded on incentive and reward, a tradition of civic responsibility, a government based upon the equitable rule of law… and other such institutions that have taken the West untold generations to foster and refine. Capitalism and constitutional government don’t come in a can.

soviet Union/Culture/Stalin’s World

It strains every sense of good taste to imagine how the colossal misery that the Soviet Union inflicted on the Baltic States and its own citizens could be repackaged as a theme park experience. But, one man’s poison is another man’s bowl of borscht… and a good belly laugh. And if you can overlook the horror, what could be more laughable than the whole misbegotten business of the Workers’ Paradise and the clods that ran it?

Soviet Union/Culture/Science

The new Soviet state was guided by an orthodoxy that decreed that science—not God—and the political creed of Marxism-Leninism were the measure of all things. With the heads of this new generation of communists bent over higher math and physics (while young Americans were boppin’ and sock-hoppin’ away in the gym), Soviet science rode its steep learning curve to its triumph in 1954 of Sputnik, a sinister development that threw Americans into a panic over the imminent prospect of Soviet missiles on the moon. But mired in their dogma, the Soviets had lost sight of the fact that the natural condition of humankind is joy, not industry, and no amount of Stalinist discipline could compete with the natural exuberance and creativity spawned by the incentives of the free market.

Soviet Union/Power/Trotsky

Any social order so entrenched as Russian feudalism and its ossified class structure was long destined for the dustbin of history. But the new order under Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin seems to have conditioned Russian citizenry to accept the brutality of government as natural and inevitable, and brutishness as their lot. Russians have come to regard government not as their partner, but as predator. As a result, Russian society might seem pathologically incapable of responding to good government even if it stared them in the face (not that it will any time soon). The ordinary citizen refuses to pay taxes to or otherwise support a government he regards (with considerable justification) as predatory, and the government responds by living up to expectations. What will it take to change this dismal relationship? Lots of little confidence-building measures, as well as an economy founded on incentive and reward, a tradition of civic responsibility, a government based upon the equitable rule of law… and other such institutions that have taken the West untold generations to foster and refine. Capitalism and constitutional government don’t come in a can.

Soviet Union/Power/Lenin

Any social order so entrenched as Russian feudalism and its ossified class structure was long destined for the dustbin of history. But the new order under Lenin–and the many more notorious despots that followed—seems to have conditioned Russian citizenry to accept the brutality of government as natural and inevitable, and brutishness as their lot. Russians have come to regard government not as their partner, but as predator. As a result, Russian society might seem pathologically incapable of responding to good government even if it stared them in the face (not that it will any time soon). The ordinary citizen refuses to pay taxes to or otherwise support a government he regards (with considerable justification) as predatory, and the government responds by living up to expectations. What will it take to change this dismal relationship? Lots of little confidence-building measures, as well as an economy founded on incentive and reward, a tradition of civic responsibility, a government based upon the equitable rule of law… and other such institutions that have taken the West untold generations to foster and refine. Capitalism and constitutional government don’t come in a can.

Soviet Union/Power/Lenin’s Tomb

Everything means something, and the Soviet obsession with the public display of their most iconic corpse would seem to be in keeping with its no less ossified system. Now that the Soviets and dead and buried, perhaps its time for their pre-eminent symbol to go the same way. The Kremlin morticians are finding it ever more challenging to keep the old boy from falling apart into a ghastly mess.

Soviet Union/Power/October Revolution/Women

For women to exert themselves in revolution as overtly as they did in the October Revolution strikes me as unusual. There’s no question that in their way, women are as tough, as durable, as combative, and as competitive as men; and, I believe that anyone who has raised girls will readily concede that femininity is an acquired behavior. The fact that there is no more formidable adversary in nature than a mother whose young are threatened suggests that these “instincts” operate in women more on behalf of protection and conservation than revolutionary change.

Soviet Union/Power/Stalin/Rise to Power

It gives you an idea of how far we’ve come from the days of tolerating the atrocities of such bloodthirsty dinosaurs as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Chiang Kai-shek—who collectively accounted for hundreds of millions of deaths—to the present day, in which we are unwilling to abet the relatively mild excesses of a Milosevich or a Saddam Hussein. But such progress will serve little purpose if it is not accomplished with the sanction of the global community; I fear that unilateral action on the part of George Bush (or anyone else) runs the risk of ranking him among those dinosaurs who, like Stalin and the other kingpins of History’s First Order of Ogres, were no less certain that they alone knew best.

Soviet Union/Power/Stalin/Purges

There could have been no good reason why some ten million (mostly) ordinary citizens were banished, between 1935 and 1953, to prison camps without trial or evidence of wrongdoing—but then again, why are we trying to explain rationalize the irrational, and make sense of insanity? If Stalin was trying to terrorize Soviet society into complete submission, he succeeded. The legacy of life under Stalin–and Russia’s many other notorious despots—seems to have conditioned Russian citizenry to accept the brutality of government as natural and inevitable, and brutishness as their lot. Russians have come to regard government not as their partner, but as predator. As a result, Russian society might seem pathologically incapable of responding to good government even if it stared them in the face (not that it will any time soon). The ordinary citizen refuses to pay taxes to or otherwise support a government he regards (with considerable justification) as predatory, and the government responds by living up to expectations. What will it take to change this dismal relationship? Lots of little confidence-building measures, as well as an economy founded on incentive and reward, a tradition of civic responsibility, a government based upon the equitable rule of law… and other such institutions that have taken the West untold generations to foster and refine. Capitalism and constitutional government don’t come in a can.

Soviet Union/Power/Stalin/Stalin’s Daughter

We all know what a monster Stalin was; murdering and brutalizing tens of millions of people is one thing… but what does it take for a man to poison the heart of his own daughter? You know what they say: hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned. Well and truly, not even the wrath of history can compare.

Soviet Union/Power/Stalin/World War II

As monstrously cynical as the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was—with Hitler’s cozying up to his avowed enemy for the purpose of dividing up Eastern Europe–it’s hard to imagine that when the axe fell on Poland, it came as a surprise to anyone, but it seems that it did. Stalin must have wondered his pact of eternal amity with Hitler could have given way so soon thereafter to war, but then again, Herr Hitler had long ago articulated an understanding of the delusional propensities of both people and nations when he said, “If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big one.”

Power/Putin

I guess it’s not surprising that the habit of 800 years of absolutism still weighs heavily on the Russian psyche, and that the old ways are trying to reassert themselves under Putin. But I take heart in the wave of protest that’s developing in Russia these days (under the leadership of the old folks, of all people!), so at least it seems that someone in Russia is raising a stink about the kleptocracy of organized crime that presently runs the country. Regrettably, though, Russia is a demographic disaster: AIDS, alcoholism, tuberculosis, drug abuse–and I suspect that as Russia goes, so will the world, somehow.

Economy


Soviet Union/Economy/Five Year Plan

Running a command economy—with everything dictated by administrative fiat rather than the dictates of the market—is a lot like force-feeding a goose to fatten up its liver for foie gras: it might produce some pretty rich eating… but it kills the goose. On the other hand, the excesses of a completely free-market are no less toxic in its effects upon the environment and society’s most vulnerable citizens. The communist experiment demonstrated that an economy rooted in the misguided egalitarian notion of “from each according to his ability, and to each according to his needs” cannot muster the incentives that spur self-interest and entrepreneurship; there has to be balance, and there must be responsible government and social welfare programs to restrain and regulate the greed and desire for the good life that goads economic growth.

Soviet Union/Economy/Stalin/Transformation of the Soviet Economy

The legacy of life under Stalin–and Russia’s many other notorious despots—seems to have conditioned Russian citizenry to accept the brutality of government as natural and inevitable, and brutishness as their lot. Russians have come to regard government not as their partner, but as predator. As a result, Russian society might seem pathologically incapable of responding to good government even if it stared them in the face (not that it will any time soon). The ordinary citizen refuses to pay taxes to or otherwise support a government he regards (with considerable justification) as predatory, and the government responds by living up to expectations. What will it take to change this dismal relationship? Lots of little confidence-building measures, as well as an economy founded on incentive and reward, a tradition of civic responsibility, a government based upon the equitable rule of law… and other such institutions that have taken the West untold generations to foster and refine. Capitalism and constitutional government don’t come in a can.

Soviet Union/Economy/New Economic Policy

Lenin’s New Economic Policy gave the lie to the Marxist doctrine that was to have girded the economic order of the Workers’ Paradise. Whereas War Communism slashed Russia’s GNP to a fifth of what it had been in 1913, the small dollop of incentive and privatization offered by the New Economic Policy quickly restored production to pre-war levels. Failing to take the hint, the clods that ran the show reinstituted “war communism” in another form, as the Soviet economy strained and groaned along for the next 70 years under the stupendous and unsustainable burden of defense spending… until the whole show collapsed in the 1990s, and there was nothing for sale in the stores but vinegar.


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