An extremely amusing discussion popped up on poemless’ blog the other week. One of Robert Amsterdam’s editors dropped in to make a few specific points about Georgy Satarov, former Yeltsin crony and a recent dabbler in the Other Russia movement. Sean Guillory stopped by and offered some historical context, plotting a line from Stolypin to Stalin to today’s “modernization.”
The general terms of the debate coalesced around a death-round slugfest between the 1990s and the 2000s: chaotic liberalism versus stable authoritarianism. Which are you for?
In conversations with a couple of extremely talented Soviet historians, whom I’m lucky to have as close friends, it’s been pointed out to me that there exists a danger here. It’s this: American leftists criticize Washington’s hegemony on the grounds that Washington’s aims are (neo)imperialist or somehow otherwise pernicious and evil, and, as a result, rally to the defense of anybody on the international scene bold or crazy enough to stand up to Uncle Sam. But, as it happens, the people running these ‘spoiler’ states are themselves often anathemas to the values that characterize the fuzzy, tree-hugging liberals of America.
So what about Vladimir Putin? There are ostensible reasons to argue in leftist terms that he’s the better choice for Russia. In his eight years at the helm, Putin came to embody a statist approach that sharply contrasts Boris Yeltsin’s laissez faire, sell-the-kitchen-sink style of governing. Putin has supposedly helped reign in the destructive forces of an unfettered market, restoring confidence, restoring predictability, restoring, restoring, and so on. He’s repairing the bad done by the liberalizations. And that’s good.
There is also an international-level analysis here: namely, that Russia is good when it functions as a counterweight against the United States. My understanding of leftism is that this position would be a moral stance — a belief that states exercising their own interests in competition with the U.S. is an international public good (to be celebrated and defended).
Thus, the Russian resurgence (both internally and externally) should be greeted as something positive. It is, people who engage in this debate would seem to suggest, a moral issue.
I have a difficult time knowing what exactly to think here. As I said at the outset of this blog, I don’t think social science (or social scientific blogs) benefits from the infusion of ethics or moral imperatives. Presumably, the 1990s were ‘bad’ because the vast majority of Russians slipped into poverty, as the oligarchs made a killing. The 2000s would therefore be ‘better’ because the Russian state regained some control of the nation’s wealth, and did a slightly better job distributing that money. On the international scene, there are similar normative claims to be made about Russia protecting its sovereignty against the encroachment of NATO expansionism or U.S. interference, and so on. The whole of human history, not just Russia’s last twenty years, is wide open to the scalpel that divides the world into good and bad guys, or good and bad times.
And so nearly everyone seems to agree. “There is no time in Russia’s past or present that one can declare to be 100% awful or 100% terrific, and I think we are cheating ourselves out of a better debate when we succumb to such comforting dualities,” writes the Robert Amsterdam editor. “The reality is that both systems are shit for the majority of Russians who live outside of the fantasy land of Moscow,” says Sean Guillory.
And yet we cry about the cancelation of Kukly. Or we shyly point out that “at least Putin’s system has given Russians something to believe in.” We moan and we squabble, entertaining exactly the moral calculus that we ruled out a moment before.
I think this is perfectly human, but I’d like to foolishly attempt to articulate why we should resist this urge: it’s completely and utterly irrelevant.
Russian liberals and Western neoconservatives are forever forecasting the collapse of the Putin ‘regime.’ Believing they ‘got it right’ with the Soviet Union, these people are convinced that history moves according to a set of moral absolutes, one of them being that market values will and must penetrate to every corner of human existence. (This is a good thing, according to them.) This they believe because they are ideologues, and the destiny they prognosticate for the planet is their ideology. It is moral determinism in one of its more fantastical forms, and it has very little to do with the realities and daily lives of anybody living in Russia.
Thus, Khodorkovsky is a man of the people; the nation’s one-company-towns are on the cusp of revolt; Medvedev is gearing up for a second perestroika; and, every day of the week, Vladimir Putin escapes collapse. The Russian status quo is ‘bad,’ and so it, by definition, it will one day, likely very soon, become ‘good.’
On the other hand, Kremlin-supporters inside Russia and abroad respond to this critique with beggar thy neighbor ethical points: Putin punished the criminal capitalists of the 90s; Putin increased social spending — he spread the wealth more; stability is more valuable than liberty, and so on. But this, it seems to me, is to fall into a trap. Defending events in Russia has no point. The social scientist, or even the casual blogging observer, can only document and try to explain events. Actual justification is so infinitely subjective that what really would be the point?
Sure, both the 1990s and the 2000s “were shit.” But, more importantly, they just were. When Putin’s dominance in Russian politics ends, that, too, will be an event. There will be reasons and explanations galore — but among them will not include “because it was bad” or “because it was worse.”
The more we can avoid language like this, the better.