Tragic Russia

by , May 05, 2007

The death of Boris Yeltsin, who might be described as the first and apparently the last relatively democratic leader of Russia, makes one wonder whether Russia will ever have anything approaching decent governance. (I’m not sure there is any such thing as good government, but some governments are less bad than others.) When I called Arnold Beichman, the venerable former journalist and historian, to get his thoughts on Yeltsin, that was his almost plaintive refrain throughout the conversation. Russia has never had a decent government and probably never will. From the time of the tribal chieftains through the czars through the communist era and on into the Putin period, its leaders have been autocratic and brutal.

One might argue that bad governance leads to inspired art. I have long been fond of Russian music. From the unaccompanied choral liturgical music that seems to arise from the depths of the earth and ascend to the heavens in unrelentingly minor keys that impart a sense of the tragic even to the celebratory and joyous, through the melodic lyricism of Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Borodin, the polished perfection of Rimsky-Korsakov, the deeply felt drama of Mussorgsky, to the angular and sometimes downright weird melodic phrases of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, there’s something in Russian music that speaks to me at a visceral level. Russian literature, from Pushkin through Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, and beyond, uniquely evinces a tragic sense of life that still can celebrate the potential of humanity to find meaning and purpose even in a constricted and controlled environment.

Some might say – indeed, some have theorized – that such profound artistic expressions arise in part from the strictures imposed by authoritarianism and censorship. When a writer, for example, must deal with censors and control by philistines, he or she is forced to become more imaginative in order to find a way of getting across a hidden meaning in a way that will not raise an immediate red flag in the minds of the censors, but that the intelligent and imaginative reader, alert to metaphor and symbolism, will be able to decipher. Control and constriction, in this understanding, lead to the necessity to create art that has several layers of potential meaning and significance.

The sad implication of this theory – and there is probably something to it, though I refuse to accept it whole – is that a culture without constriction, without authorities against whom the artist must strive while avoiding too heavy a censorial hand, is likely to yield only superficial expressions that work only on a single level rather than in layers. I still think the major determinant of artistic quality is the individual artist’s commitment and creativity, so Russian artistic genius would still flourish, and perhaps even thrive more expansively, in an environment of freedom and openness.

Unfortunately, my hope is unlikely to be put to the test anytime soon in Russia.

Boris Yeltsin is worthy of celebration for the several moments when he acted decisively and did so on behalf of more freedom. In 1987, when all the world – or at least the bien pensants most fashionable in Western intellectual circles – was having Gorbasms, lauding the idea of mildly reformed communism or "communism with a human face," Yeltsin stood up and said it was not enough and not fast enough, not a radical enough break from the stultifying communist system. That immediately made him a popular and populist figure and changed the tone of Russian (Soviet) political discourse. Gorbachev instituted glasnost and perestroika with the notion of reforming and preserving the Soviet system (I suspect he still regrets that he was unable to do so).Yeltsin opened up the possibility of moving beyond communism, of eliminating the Soviet system.

In August 1991, when a cadre of hard-line, old-time communist lackeys tried a coup against Gorbachev and his reforms, it was Yeltsin who stood on a tank and rallied the people, defeating the effort to return to the bad old days – an action that required physical as well as moral courage. Perhaps the coup attempt was so clumsily contrived that it would have failed anyway, as most historians now believe. But it was Yeltsin who ensured that it would fail when the outcome hung in the balance.

During the first few months of his presidency, Yeltsin institutionalized, at least for a time, the concepts of freedom of speech and of the press, even while knowing that some of that freedom would be used to criticize him. He began moves toward a more free-market economy. There were negative results – eliminating price controls led to dramatic increases in the prices of some necessities that wiped out the savings of millions – but it’s worth noting that Yeltsin never claimed to be an economist and relied on the advice of those who claimed to be in the know on such matters, including some highly overrated Western economists (think Jeffrey Sachs).

Despite some notable accomplishments and what seems to have been a genuinely democratic spirit, Yeltsin’s presidency was almost bipolar. State enterprises were privatized, but in a way that allowed politically connected insiders to take control and reap huge unearned fortunes. He unilaterally let go of Ukraine (which Russia had ruled for 300 years or more) and other "republics," yet he started a war when the province of Chechnya wanted to break away. Russians are still suffering from the effects of that ill-advised intervention. His probably genuine democratic spirit and attitude were combined with a deep streak of authoritarianism and impatience with anyone or anything that blocked him from getting his way. He may have had good political instincts and considerable charisma, but he was far from being a deep thinker. He could rouse himself to decisive action when needed, but poor health and an unhealthy taste for the bottle led him to be out of commission for weeks at a time, leaving the country in the hands of all-too-often corrupt cronies.

We didn’t really need another illustration of the old saw that revolutionaries should not become rulers, but Yeltsin seemed determined to provide one. Then, after bungling the conversion to capitalism – he brought in crony capitalism, instead, which combines the worst features of capitalism and statism – Boris Yeltsin resigned, in 1999, and handed the reins over to Vladimir Putin, a former high KGB official unfortunately attuned to the ways of secret police forces. Whereas Yeltsin had undertaken a certain amount of decentralization (not always coterminous with more freedom, but usually), Putin has increasingly moved authority toward the center.

Undoubtedly shrewder and more of a hands-on ruler than Yeltsin, Putin has re-taught the Russian people – perhaps it was what they have known all along, given Russian history – that stability can be established, but the price is repression. The tentative moves toward freedom of the press under Yeltsin have been replaced by government consolidation of media control. Journalists who probe too deeply into corruption or the effects of the brutally renewed war in Chechnya somehow end up dead, often enough blatantly killed execution-style.

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who had been an unusually outspoken critic of the previous communist regime, participated in a recent demonstration critical of the regime. He ended up detained, and a number of demonstrators were beaten. The demonstration was no real threat to the regime, but the crackdown served as a different kind of demonstration – that when it comes to the ability to mete out brutal punishment, the state still holds most of the cards in Russia, and it isn’t shy about using them.

Unfortunately, this has been the pattern for most of Russian history. Ivan the Terrible started out as something of a reformer and critic of the aristocratic class before becoming one of the cruelest and most brutal rulers in all of history. Catherine the Great began as an exemplar of enlightenment (big-E and small-e) but reverted to cruelty and arbitrariness long before her time in power was out.

Power corrupts, as Lord Acton reminded us, but it seems to corrupt with special fierceness in Russia.

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