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Mar 11, 2004 11:45 pm

Politics, Culture, and Fear

I'd like to highlight another fine Chronicle of Higher Education article, which appears in this week's issue. Jonathan Brent's"Gucci Shoes and Khachapuri: Power and Belief in Russia Today" deals extensively with a topic that has preoccupied many of us: the relationship of politics and culture in the movement toward a free society. In an era when Wilsonian central planners are nation-building in Iraq, without a firm understanding of the cultural prerequisites for political change, Brent's article is a welcome addition to the literature.

Brent interviews Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev of the International Democracy Foundation. A World War II vet, former Soviet ambassador to Canada, and Columbia University graduate, Yakovlev was an"architect of perestroika during the Gorbachev years ..." Yakovlev argues that, historically, the Soviet system, from the time of Lenin through the Great Terror and beyond, was based on the"institutionalization of strakh—fear—as the ruling element in the psychology of the Russian people." This is a fear, says Yakovlev, that" continues to this day in all but the youngest generation."

Indeed, fear has even shaped the historiography of the post-Soviet era. Yakovlev tells us that"an honest textbook on Soviet history could not be written for at least a generation. Why? People are still too afraid of the consequences of telling the truth ..."

Fear. The ruling element in Russian psychology. I'd venture to say it's the ruling element in the psychology of any oppressed people.

Yakovlev is hated by those"who would like to see a return to the old Communist system." He himself fears"that the windows of reform have been closing gradually over the last several years." In Russia,"[t]he past is dead, but not dead enough."

Yakovlev is one of those visionaries who had"provided Mikhail Gorbachev with the theoretical framework for the demise of the Soviet system because he thought it was better voluntarily to give up power than to retain it illegally and ineffectively." Squeezing Communism out of Russia,"drop by drop," has required a"slow turn toward truth," which is bringing"about the collapse of an entire system of belief. Truth is dangerous still, and the masses of people remain empty and disoriented. Nothing yet has taken the system's place. There is need for a new mythology. That is partly why Yakovlev believes that only the complete debolshevization of the country can save Russia from sliding backward."

But because the central government retains control, the rule of law is forever undermined, as is liberty and productivity. In the time before collectivization, Yakovlev remembers,"people had potatoes but didn't have socialism. Afterward, they had socialism but no potatoes." Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin"has wrapped himself in secrecy, closed down the only liberal television station, and changed the way elections for the State Duma are conducted—all of which, Yakovlev points out, no one intent on democratic reform would have done." Brent continues:

The last elections, marginalizing the liberal parties and endorsing Putin's vision of a strong central government, suggest that the people themselves may want despotism in the guise of democracy. A tragic outcome. Yakovlev understands that true democracy cannot be based on force—only on the shared values of an educated public. Although the Russian population enjoys an exceptionally high level of education in many areas, history is not among them. Knowledge of the history of the Stalinist past and the cold war is particularly lacking." (emphasis added)

Unfortunately, this historical blindness to"the menacing organ of the Soviet, and now Russian, government" has led to the assertion of even"greater authority in the daily life of the people." Russia is in a downward slide, in many ways. And authoritarian traditions seem to be on the upswing."Fascist newspapers are no longer publicly on sale in Red Square, but more than 100 publish openly in Russia today. Calls for limiting the influence of Jews and members of other minority groups are a steady feature of that literature."

Yakovlev emphasizes that a democratic culture must"give heart to democratic policies. But Russia is vast, its history is long and dark, and the work of one man, or 100 men, can be swallowed up in an instant by a tide of intimidation, threat, and terror. If that happens, a precious moment for Russia and the world will have been lost."

Brent concludes:

The point at which knowledge is transformed into action is the nexus of education and political commitment. But neither knowledge nor political commitment can be sustained in a vacuum. The self-critical, democratic culture that Yakovlev seeks depends on traditions of thought that extend far beyond Russia's borders. If reform is to prevail, Russia cannot remain isolated from the West, he says. He sees Russia's sinking back into isolation as the greatest danger.

I am reminded of some points made, back in 1998, by a Hegelian thinker, David MacGregor, who sensed that my own approach to the system of thought of another"Russian Radical," Ayn Rand, had critical application to the case of Russia. MacGregor wrote:

Rand's three-tiered methodological approach, as expounded by Sciabarra, may help account for the apparent failure of unregulated capitalism in the former Soviet Union. Russia's economic and political realities are conditioned by cultural and individual factors, so that market disruption and the rise of the Russian Mafia may be traced, in Rand's schema, to cultural and personal aspects of the Russian people. The market experiment has faltered, not because of any problem inherent to it, but because residues of mysticism, collectivism, and altruism are a miserable heritage of Soviet power.

I can only add that as long as Russia is a country ruled by fear, it will never prosper. No nation can ever be built on fear. As I say in this post, there is a"reciprocally reinforcing relationship between fear, anger, hatred, dependency, malevolence, and suffering." If the Russian people, or the Iraqi people, wish to build a democratic nation, it is they who must transcend the fear. It is they who must embrace those cultural values that will sustain human life and liberty.

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