The Russian historian speaks about how myths about the Russian Empire and its rulers are perpetuated and invented on a dramatic scale
At the invitation of The Ukrainian Week and the Ye Bookstore Yuri Afanasyev, a Russian historian, ideologue of the anticommunist movement in the USSR and a founder and co-chairman of the Democratic Russia movement, came to Kyiv to meet Ukrainians. In past issues of The Ukrainian Week, Afanasyev analyzed the processes taking place in contemporary Russia and in particular disclosed the nature and essence of Russian neo-totalitarianism. Here are new thoughts from this Russian intellectual on this topic which he voiced at his most recent meeting.
Russiahas never existed as a non-empire. It has never had this kind of historical experience. It was formed as a state, in my opinion, at the time of the Golden Horde, was based on the Horde and took shape as an empire that opposed the Horde. The Horde was also an empire, but it was already declining and dying. It was on the foundations of the Horde’s statehood and its experience of interaction between the authorities and the population that Russia was built. Let me emphasize once again – it emerged as an empire. But it originated much earlier, in the 12th century, and the foundation was laid by Andrey Bogolyubsky.
Imperial Russia has always pursued the ideal of becoming the Third Rome. It built an entire Christian faith on this foundation. The Bolsheviks came and the ideal seemed to have changed: they were for a proletarian revolution, internationalism and atheism. What could be more different, you would think. But look what happened in the 1920s and later. Part of the white Russian émigrés suddenly declared that the Russians had to be supported because they had restored the empire and the fact that they were communists was unimportant. In other words, the émigrés sensed that the empire was revived. It was very clear in Lenin’s time but was less obvious under Stalin. Lenin, after all, was in favour of internationalism, while Stalin was building socialism in one country. But the essence, the foundation of the state turned out to be the same – it was an empire.
Russiahad a “red project” – a global project to establish communism and turn it into capitalism. Many people in the USSR were thought about this idea. Ordinary citizens were secretly immersed in the imperial ideal, even though they sang: “We would like to put all people on this cart.” They laid down their lives with praise of Stalin on their lips, and the “project” moved ahead on corpses and blood. Hence the killer famines in the 1920s and the 1930s. By the way, there was another killer famine, horrible and fierce, which is usually ignored and which took place in 1947-48.
The main outcome of the “red project” was the grinding of the human dough, literally every living being, under the Bolsheviks. Everyone had to stop being an artisan, merchant, self-employed individual or even agricultural worker and intellectual. They all had to turn into servants of the state. They were kept on the short leash of a salary too small to make both ends meet.
The social outcome of the imperial “red project” was that society was stripped of all things human, humanity was eradicated and culture was degraded. These things were committed on the social and moral level. Society was maimed physically, while the surviving remnants of the community continued to live with maimed souls. That's the tragedy of this ideal.
In the 1990s, when the Soviet system fell apart, it again seemed that the imperial essence disappeared forever and only Russia remained. Slogans like “market economy,” “open society” and so on were chanted, and a nation state replaced the empire. But if you take a closer look, things were exactly like before. The human mass was ground once again during voucher privatization, mortgage auctions, the national default, etc. What Russia are we talking about? The imperial syndrome remains – it has manifested itself a number of times with regard to Ukraine, the Baltic states, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. It was embodied even by war criminals. Think about Georgia. Regarding the citizens of the Russian Federation, the essentially criminal actions of the authorities against them are ubiquitous and crime is rampant.
The Russians who came out to protest in Moscow in December 2011 are an indicator that the imperial syndrome is failing. After all, Russian society has witnessed, in the course of just a few generations, the collapse of the imperial ideal, then the Soviet ideal and now yet another one. (The latter two also have imperial nature.) Where do we go now? Citizens of Russia have grasped today that the West is no ideal. Capitalism is in a quandary: it is either in a dead end or in a hopeless crisis. Many people in the world say that the train of capitalism has come to its final stop.
How can the concepts of Russia’s sovereignty, independence and unity be combined? They are incompatible. It’s one or the other, which, in fact, was shown by Chechnya and later by the entire Northern Caucasus. Look, Chechnya has sharia, murders, kidnappings and total lawlessness. Ramzan Kadyrov’s forces succeeded in completely subjugating the Chechens. Those who were in Chechen forests moved to the Northern Caucasus. They cannot breathe in their own country. It is now ruled by a bandit like them – Kadyrov. He is in complete control of the situation.
What happened before that? Steppe republics sprang up across Russia, such as in Kalmykia or the Urals Republic in Sverdlovsk. This reflects the attitude of the masses. Both Kalmykia and the Urals Republic do not limit their rights in any way. They opened many embassies abroad and began to sign trade agreements bypassing the federal level.
These sentiments are evident also in the Far East. In fact, this is a consensus, albeit not clearly articulated, regarding the central authorities and the regions. Moscow provides budget money and in exchange demands unreserved loyalty. Moscow does not pay much attention to what exactly is going on in the Far East – do whatever you like. It’s the same with the Maritime Territory. They began to catch fish from Russian vessels and sell it to the Japanese right there in the sea for hard currency. They set up channels to smuggle gold and precious metals out of the country. Vladimir Putin sometimes replaces top officials in some regions, but the consensus with the center remains forever: we give you budget money in exchange for your loyalty.
Kirov Governor Nikita Belykh got a telling off from Putin for hiked-up utility prices. But it was Belykh who actually identified these violations back in November and fixed the situation in December. Now, in January, Putin presented the whole thing as if he himself disclosed what was going on in the provinces. These lies, wriggling and PR have been broadcast across Russia. Many people take it at face value. However, sooner or later they will understand that Putin is lying.
The level of mass consciousness in Russia is still largely mythological. This is the level on which the imperial ideal sat and continues to sit. It cannot be eliminated overnight by some edict or decision. It took Europe around 400 years to shed its mythology. It would be an exaggeration to say that this type of consciousness does not exist in Europe at all. But rational consciousness still prevails. The transformation was a difficult journey which lasted perhaps as long as 500 years and went through several stages. There was the stage of Renaissance, the stage of the Reformation and the stage of the Enlightenment. Each lasted almost 100 years or even more. This is how Europe eradicated mythological consciousness and religious concepts about some absolute that exists somewhere outside. I believe this has yet to take place in Russia. It is not even palpable, because Russian mass consciousness is mythological and traditionalist.
The relations between our countries are now nearing the limit which if crossed, will determine many things. Russia says: We will sell you gas worth $500 for $200 in exchange for your transport system and infrastructure as territory and space, which are, in fact, Ukraine's priceless assets. Part of the problem is that we are close to a point after which oil and gas resources will not play an important strategic role. The need for Russian gas will simply disappear. What peace can we talk about in this case? Some people believe that from the economic point of view, Ukraine may even benefit from Russia’s rip-off proposals. In other words, if you have gas at $200+, what else do you need? But this inevitably means that Russia will have technological dominance in the territory of Ukraine. And it will dominate everything in your country. You will be forced to watch Russian technologies. But this is a trick number. It is impossible to be independent and, at the same time, completely dependent on them. Because Russia will not stop there. It will negotiate with your oligarchs, starting with metallurgy.
The Russian intelligentsia remains the Russian intelligentsia. Its social-moral and intellectual phenomenon is superbly described in the VEKHI collection published in 1909. Nothing better has been written since. The Russian intelligentsia is special in that it was guided by an idea that was known for a long time but not connected to Russian realities. It remains the same today. There is a loss of connection between some ideal, dream or a certain longing and reality. In other words, an ideal comes before analysis and synthesis. That is why the Russian intelligentsia is immersed in dreams, philosophical contemplations and searches. Of course, there are people that do not fit into this category. But the Russian intelligentsia continues to be politically oppressed to a large extent.
In my opinion, the middle class as a social and social economic category (perhaps even on the political level) does not exist in Russia. There are highly paid employees in this country. There are many of them, and they belong to very different categories – government officials, military men and law enforcement officers. In terms of salary they seem to be on some middle level between those who are on the brink of survival, fighting to preserve an ability to be guided by something else than animal instincts, and an extremely well-paid category. But this is not enough to call them the middle class, I think. The middle class engages in activities based on private property and in production even if it is intellectual. And of course there has to be self-development and self-guided progress toward some goal. In Russia, there is no middle class of this type.
The most horrible thing in Russia now is that villeins are wielding power over state-owned enterprises and access to resources. A villein — historically a feudal tenant entirely subject to a lord or manor to whom he pays dues and services in return for land — is a frightening animal. The class of villeins was conclusively formed under the Horde, when they were willing to crawl on their knees to the khan in order to obtain a jarlig empowering them to rule over a province. When they saw, on the way to his palace, their countrymen or even their blood brothers who were bleeding, they pretended not to notice them. These cases are known. They completely destroyed anything human in a person. Now these villeins have top offices in the economy and state management in Russia.
Putin is a creature of the oligarchs. They brought him to power. He would not have been able to do anything on his own, so he created an inner circle around himself. It is called the Ozero (Lake) cooperative society. There are only a few billionaires that are members of his inner circle, and he, in turn, completely relies on them. It is anyone's guess who gives orders to whom there. No outsider has access to this circle. I would not even offer any conjectures. I can only see that there is a rift among the elites in Russia today. It is obvious: there are people who are discontent with this cooperative society and Putin. In fact, the fact that Mikhail Prokhorov and Kseniya Sobchak (even though she is not in the same category as Prokhorov) came to the square where protests were taking place in December 2011 was an unusual phenomenon. Such oligarchs as Aleksandr Mamut and Aleksandr Lebedev also said: We want you, Mr. Putin, to listen to us. The discontent with this cooperative society is prevalent even among oligarchs. It can be seen in the press and is gradually turning into a public thing.
Ukrainehas never been perceived in Russia as something non-Russian. Back in the early 19th century, they sometimes, though not often, spoke about the nobility that had to be somehow tamed. The question about who it was made of did not even arise. Nikolay Karamzin – a smart man with European education – did not even stop to think about who exactly lived in Ukrainian territories. No, he was more concerned with taming the nobility he saw there. And so he gave advice to the czar about the best ways to do it. Regarding the myth that Ukraine is part of Russia, it would be a small loss if such views were held only by the ruling class. But this perception has become part of Russian mass consciousness.