Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 21

Russia remains in the grip of a “social earthquake,” according to a leading public opinion specialist

By Boris Grushin

Of all the questions discussed in Russia today, perhaps the most disturbing is: Where is the country going? It seems to me that we are still almost entirely ignorant on this point. We do not know what it was that happened or what is happening now in, and to, Russia. All the formulas describing the changes in terms of a transition "from totalitarianism to democracy," "from socialism to capitalism," "from a planned economy to the market," turn out not only to be inaccurate but, more importantly, to reflect only part of the picture. They do not address the big picture of the historic changes that have affected not just parts of society, but society as a whole.

It is not only politics or the economy that have changed in Russia, but the deep structure of society as well. The old social stereotypes — the "party apparatus," the "hegemonic working class," the "collective-farm peasantry," the "working intelligentsia"– have passed away. New but still unknown strata are taking their places.

If I wanted to sum up this truly tectonic shift, and identify the essence of the changes taking place among us, I would speak of the fourth attempt in Russian history to replace a society bogged down for a thousand years (not just for the 80 years since the October Revolution!) in feudal servitude and slavery, and move to a civilization founded on individual freedom. We find ourselves at the turn of the millennium being drawn into the beginning (but only the beginning) of a complex, inevitably prolonged and painful transition from the kingdom of absolute non-freedom to a radically new type of human community.

As for the form of the changes taking place, it is not of course appropriate to use the word "evolution" to describe the collapse which has taken place, and continues to take place, in many spheres of society — the endless socio-political and economic crises, the convulsions, bloody scuffles, and lurches from one side to another. The term "revolution" — the second term that sociology traditionally uses to describe social changes — is equally inapplicable. Can a revolution really last for decades?! But that is the case we are faced with.

"A Tectonic Shift"

I racked my brains over this until, in 1989, I watched the California earthquake on television. And then I understood that what was taking place in Russia was the same — it was a SOCIAL EARTHQUAKE — when the ground shakes under your feet, walls come crashing down over your head, fires blaze all around and, amid the cries of the wounded, you hear the headlong rush of people trying to escape and of others trying to make a profit out of the disaster. Above all, a thick fog (the "information fog" is thickest of all) prevents you from finding your bearings. Smoke and, at times, impenetrable darkness is all around, preventing you from making out who is a savior and who is a looter, who is a friend and who is a foe, where to look for help, and whence to fear danger.

Originally, I saw this new term as just a journalistic image. Later, when I made a comparative analysis of the tectonic shifts that occur both during natural earthquakes and when the foundations of society are shaken, I realized that the term had other possibilities. The two processes share one key characteristic — extreme pain for the participants who find themselves perched between life and death. After the initial panic, however, and unlike the victims of natural disasters, the mass of the people adapts rather quickly to a social earthquake. Second, and more importantly, social earthquakes do more than just destroy; they stimulate the birth of new life forms. They last, as a result, not for a few seconds, but for decades of fits, starts, and digressions, since this is a process of forming not only new practices, but also a new consciousness, a new psychology — the essential conditions for the appearance of new social subjects.

Will Russia be able to thrive as a result of the transformations it is now experiencing? That is hard to say. After all, the first historical attempts to do this, linked with the names of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Alexander II, did not end in success, although these leaders stood more than a head higher than our present ones, and had a clear vision the final end toward which they were striving. But today’s situation gives grounds for optimism since, for the first time, transformations are taking place in the country not on orders from above but "from the ground up." They include within their orbit enormous masses of people, not as objects of government but as subjects of social behavior, pursuing their own, not the government’s, conception of happiness.

This proliferation of spontaneous processes, virtually ungovernable from any single center, is what makes it so hard to say where, concretely, all these transformations are leading, and what kind of society or state will arise as a result. After all, the chief characteristic of the process of replacing a civilization, of the death of the old and the birth of a new type of human personality, is maximum instability in society and the inevitability of conflicts. There is as a result in our country no stable civil peace, nor is there likely to be for some considerable time. Nor can there be any civil war (no matter how much our politicians try to scare each other with it). What is going on is something much more serious and prolonged, described by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan as "the war of all against all." Apparently having a similar historical situation in mind, long before Hobbes, the great Plato wrote in the Laws that "all are enemies of all in public and, in private, each is an enemy of himself." Of course it is impossible to predict today what could happen after several decades of such a war.

It is equally impossible to answer the question so frequently asked in the Russian press: what kind of state have we been building during perestroika and afterwards? In my view, the only serious answer one can give is: none yet! And that is the heart of the problem. After razing the old state — the party-Soviet apparatus — to its foundations, Russia’s political leaders have so far failed to replace it with anything that could be called a "normal" state, that is, a system of political and administrative institutions that would LEAD society, and not simply STAND IDLY BY, unable to exert any meaningful influence on the course of events, while political, economic, social and ethnic develop spontaneously.

What goals should the government set for itself in such a situation? To Russians this question appears more than a little naive. As if a regime in Russia’s present situation could act according to plan! As if the present government could set itself any goals other than enriching itself and its associates! The best one can hope for is that the government will not impede, will not slow, the real movement that is taking place outside its purview and even against its wishes.

"Too Many Words"

No matter how one interprets the term "state," this basic political institution should fulfill at least two functions: first, it should produce a system of laws and norms designed to guarantee the reliable functioning of all other institutions. Second, it should defend these laws and norms and ensure that they are obeyed by the members of society. The result of the exercise of these functions should be stability and order, safety for citizens, and some confidence in what the morrow will bring.

Yet, as we know, there is nothing like this in Russia today. This means that it is still too early for us to say that we have "built" a state. Rather, we are still in the process of building one, and I am sure that we shall remain in that condition for quite some time. We are currently building certain elements of the future structure, concentrating for the moment on the "upstairs" and various "architectural embellishments" — before, and without, laying the foundations! For the time being, therefore, we continue to live on the ruins of the old, destroyed state, and retain many of its basic characteristics, including the main one — alienation of the government from the people.

I know that few people — not just politicians in government or opposition, or "independent" journalists, but even my academic colleagues — will accept this thesis. This, I would argue, is because a myth (which has both domestic and international roots) reigns in the social consciousness of contemporary Russia, about what happened to us in 1985, 1991 and 1993, what is going on now, and where we are headed. The influence of this myth is strongest, in my view, as regards the political changes taking place in the country. Assessing their reflection in our contemporary language, one might say, with much more justification than Emperor Franz Josef in the movie Amadeus (where he complained that one of Mozart’s operas had "too many notes"): "Too many words!" And these words are striking in their senselessness and shamelessness, absurdity and falsity, and their distortion of reality.

As is well known, the present government calls itself "democratic." Many others, both those who support it and those who oppose it, share the notion that Russia has entered a democratic era, or even (!) that democracy has already prevailed in the country. In my view, this is a grave historical error, a delusion that reflects the surface appearance but makes it harder to understand the true significance of what is happening underneath.

This myth, which appeared in 1991, has found its way into the Russian language, is expressed in the political lexicon of Western democracies: "general elections," "multi-party system," "president," "parliament," even "senate," "Supreme Court," "free press," and so on. But it would seem that all these elements of political life are only real components of democracy when there is a more or less developed civil society, in which a firm system of norms and procedures regulate relations between the government and the people. If these conditions are absent — if society itself, as in contemporary Russia, is unstable — these elements, though democratic in name and appearance, will as a rule be quite different, and may even be openly anti-democratic.

This means that what we need is time and historical patience. Sooner or later, a qualitatively new government will emerge, free from the fetters of the past, and set to work in a new way. After all, the main thing has already been achieved: it is now quite impossible for Russia to revert to its pre-perestroika past. No matter how the future turns out.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Professor Boris Grushin is president of "Vox Populi," the Moscow-based public opinion research service.


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