Russia on the Brink?

Russia is on the brink of coming apart. Increasingly, its regions and ethnic republics are going their own ways, trying to secure as much independence as they can from the gridlocked politics and fraying institutions of the central government. Optimists see in this the gradual realization of Aleksandr Herzen’s nineteenth-century dream of a minimal state and a loose federation of self-governing communities. Realists see an ominous drift toward fragmentation and incipient anarchy.

The Russia of 1917 irresistibly comes to mind. The similarities between then and now seem at least to equal the differences. In March 1917 and in December 1991, successive imperial autocracies collapsed. Intoxicating periods of freedom followed, apparently opening the way to democracy and a civil society. But soon the logic of a tragically fractured political culture began to assert itself. Many groups and regions wanted to take their own particular revenge against the oppressive ways of the fallen imperial center and their representatives, but they were too diverse in their aims to be able to agree on the new order that was to replace the old one. The initially dominant forces wanted to join Western civilization in almost all respects. More traditionalist and nationalist groups insisted that Russia should not, and could not, make such a wrenching, unnatural transition. Then—in this case only in 1917—the Bolsheviks came forward to offer a “third way”: a utopian, messianic ideology that appealed to elements of the popular masses and the intelligentsia, and was to be implanted in Russia by a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Bolsheviks seized power, but the country was so divided that it soon fragmented, descending into brutal civil war, widespread anarchy, and, on the Volga, a pitiless famine that killed several million people.

Today, by contrast, none of the extremist philosophies being offered has, so far, won mass support. Evidently seventy-four years of Communist ideology have inoculated Russians for the time being against falling for a new utopia. Other circumstances, too, are different today. The outside world is much more ready—and potentially able—to play a helpful role than it was between 1917 and 1921. Moreover, whatever happens in Russia in the next few years, the rich countries will watch events there with care, in view of the large number of nuclear weapons located in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. These differences between today and 1917 may assist Russia’s Westernizing forces.

But other differences may help neo-Communist and nationalist groups. Since Russia today is not suffering from a defeat in a protracted world war, its reformist government of former Communists is at least spared the revolutionizing effects on its population of military defeats like those that buffeted the Provisional Government in 1917. Moreover, beneath the surface of the tsarist autocracy, elements of a new order—political movements, legal institutions, and industries—had been developing for some time. So when tsarism disintegrated, the collapse was decisive, and new, revolutionary institutions sprang up quickly. There was, in other words, a significant chance …

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