One of the most prominent and perceptive experts on the former Soviet Union, the French historian, philosopher and political scientist Alain Besançon, once suggested that “failure to understand the soviet regime is the principal source of its successes.” More than that, Besançon went on to add that it was difficult to find in any one Western country at any one time “more than a dozen minds capable of understanding the soviet phenomenon and of translating what they know into politically useable terms.”
Curiously, Alain Besançon’s disciple Françoise Thom, a history lecturer at Sorbonne, added fairly recently that never before has misunderstanding of Russia in Western Europe been as huge as it is now. According to Thom, a sort of self-inflicted blindness fuelled by sweet lies and the charms of self-deception, it results in shutting the eyes before the fact that Russia provoked the war against the sovereign state of Georgia, and then occupied and annexed parts of Georgia’s territory. No matter how strongly we agree that Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili is hardly a model democrat, the fact remains that the West has swallowed this déjà vu episode that came straight from the geopolitical repertoire of the 20th century.
We are tempted to believe that Russia is on the way to reforming its economic and political systems. Yet we tend to forget, as Thom points out, that all the waves of modernization in Russia have come as a reaction to its defeats and losses. Peter the Great undertook his reforms after Russia was defeated by Sweden near Narva, Alexander II after the painful loss of the Crimean War, Nicholas II after the disastrous war against Japan. Let me add Mikhail Gorbachev to this chain: he had good reason to make a desperate attempt to modernize the military and economic potential of the Soviet Union after its disgrace in Afghanistan.
As with China and other Asian autocracies that try to combine free-market economies with zero political liberties and pluralism, “modernization” in Russia continues to be, as it has always been, the development of technology and military potential. True, perhaps for the first time in modern Russia’s history, the political and industrial elite of the country agreed to import new weapons and warfare technologies—just recall France’s Mistral, not to mention Israeli war intelligence planes, and so on—, rather than relying exclusively on exporting weapons, which suggests a paradigm shift in strategic planning and thinking about the future.
But it does not change the essence of this issue, as modernization, in Russia, is in no way related to such core Western values as the individual’s autonomy and dignity, fundamental liberties and human rights, political liberty and pluralism, subsidiarity and the rule of law. To put it simply, the model of what may well be perceived as a potential club of emerging rival powers, from China to Russia, that position themselves as a new ideological and civilizational alternative to the West, is based on authoritarian capitalism, or capitalism without liberty, a sinister phenomenon of the post-Cold War world.
What does modernization signify for present-day Russia and its political elite? How does Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev understand modernization? In theory, he appears to be a new modernizer, inclined to talk about the emergence of a new, democratic Russia, whereas the omnipotent Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, avoids this word, preferring “stabilization”—and understandably so, as democracy will never “stabilize” the world in the sense that he is so fond of, that is, imposing a once-and-for-all order and arresting social and political change.
Unfortunately, never has the will to misunderstand Russia been as strong in the EU as it is now. If it had not happened to me in Brussels, I would never have believed that such a pearl of wisdom could come from the lips of a ranking official from the European Commission, yet this bureaucrat made himself very clear, and in presence of academics and exchange students, regarding the role of Russia as a “prime stabilizing factor in such areas as Caucasus.”
The EU has failed to understand critical aspects of Russia’s politics today. As in those old days when soviet dissidents were a lifetime ahead of all Western politicians and political scientists put together in terms of a clear understanding of the logic of power in the USSR, Russian journalists and human rights activists cannot stand the rubbish about Russia they hear in the EU.
One legendary soviet dissident and Russian human rights activist, Sergei Kovalev, once told me that the supposed naiveté of the West is merely an illusion. They understand everything. Didn’t they understand what kind of anti-fascist Stalin was when another anti-fascist, Lion Feuchtwanger, brought the West good news about the paradise-on-earth in the Soviet Union? They did, and their naiveté was just a trick and self-deception. And then Kovalev aptly summed it up, challenging Alain Besançon: “They do not tolerate fascism of their own, but they tolerate it elsewhere.”
A sincere belief that anything is so, makes it so, as William Blake’s winged phrase suggests. A sincere belief that gas and oil are more important than human rights can be supported by the theory that we have to respect “the people’s choice.” Yet we know that there was no choice—and that there never will be any, if we keep applying double standards, requiring legitimacy and respect for human rights only from the small, while thinking of the big and powerful as “trying to catch up and improve”—even when the record shows the opposite.