Imperial Reflections

“Are you ever going to put up another post?” Jim asks.  I’ve repeatedly asked myself that very question over the last two months.  Is SRB dead?  Will I ever post again?  The answer sounded more and more in the affirmative as I remained silent on what will certainly be the biggest stories of 2010: the summer fires and the sacking of Yuri Luzhkov. The more important stories I missed, the more I was wondering if there was any point to returning to the blogging scene.  As other things demanded my attention, something had to give, and unfortunately blogging was one of them.

What were those other things?  Well, academia mostly, particularly teaching and writing.  Especially teaching.  I landed a one year visiting position at Northern Illinois University.  This required moving straight from Moscow to Dekalb, IL, that is to say from an international metropolis with all its cosmopolitan accouterments to a small rural university town that lives and dies by the price of corn. I like it here, and it’s a nice change from the urbanity of both Los Angeles and Moscow.  It’s nice to not have ghetto birds flying over my house every night (like in LA) and be able to open a window and not hear the atonal serenades of the courtyard drunks (like in Moscow).  In Dekalb, the only thing that makes noise is the wind and the crickets.


Most of my time is spent preparing lectures.  The position at NIU has me teaching three classes, Imperial Russia, 1682-1917, Stalin and Stalinism, and Europe, 1900-1945.  This has been a wonderful experience despite the intensity of the work.  Preparing for my PhD exams wasn’t this intense, though it is nice to refresh my knowledge of things I’ve all but forgotten over the last few years.  Plus, I like interact with students again (despite my periodic frustrations with them) since I hadn’t taught in well over a year and a half.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve struggled with how I would make my return to blogging.  Diving back into the Russian news cycle has proved harder than I anticipated.  So, since teaching is on my brain, I thought I would give readers some of my reflections on Imperial Russia and how it relates to politics today.

The history of Imperial Russia has been a challenging subject to distill into a course.  It’s such a vibrant history and historiography, far more intellectually innovative that anything produced about the Soviet Union.  The trouble therefore is more about what you cut out rather than include.  After surveying a number of general narratives, I decided on Geoffrey Hosking’s Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917 as the course textbook.  In retrospect, I don’t think this was the best choice since Hosking structures his book around a pointed argument rather on a general historical narrative.  It is challenging for uninitiated students simply because it is thematic rather than chronological. But Hosking’s argument is provocative and serves as a good theme to bounce a course off.

Hosking deals with an old academic question in a new way.  He asks why Russia failed to develop into a liberal nation.  Granted he never uses the trope of liberalism explicitly.  Rather, his liberalism is shrouded in a discourse of the Russian “nation,” and particularly the lack of the civic variety. Using the Russian concepts of rossiiskii and russkii as incomparable poles, Hosking seeks to narrate Russian history as how the latter consistently undermined the former.  That is to say, the effort to build and maintain a Russian (russkii) empire via a strong Russian (russkii) state prevented the creation of a civic (rossiiskii) Russian nation.  I see this as nothing more than code words for liberalism, i.e. why Russia didn’t develop a strong civic nation along the lines of say Britain and the United States.  A civic nation for Hosking is:

“A nation is a participating citizenry, participating in the sense of being involved in law-making, law-adjudication and government, through elected central and local assemblies, through courts and tribunals, and also as members of political parties, interest groups, voluntary associations and other institutions of civil society.”

Imperial Russia never became one of these. Its trajectory of reform was too moribund to fully confront the challenges of modernity, and its empire proved to be too paradoxical for internal reconciliation.  This is not to say that all of Russian shuned modernity.  One of the constant contradictions is that Russia embraced the cultures of modernity, particularly among its intelligentsia, but not its political structures.  The political base was incongruent with its cultural superstructure.

While Hosking serves as a good backdrop, my lectures intermittently intersect his thesis.  Granted, I too deal with Imperial Russia’s struggle to modernize. It provides a story that students can follow and in light of Medvedev’s mantra a good way to provide historical reflection on the present.  However, my interest isn’t why Russia failed to become just like Europe (thus avoiding 1917), but more in how reform in Russia exemplified particularly Russian characteristics.  By this I mean, the idea that the state is a modernizing force, that reform in Russia tends to be “from above,” and how the Imperial state though desiring modernization was reluctant to cede power to society. Essentially, Russia’s modernizing Tsars (Peter I, Catherine II, Alexander I, Nicholas I, and Alexander II) wanted their cake and eat it too.

Russia’s historical struggle with modernization throws Medvedev and Putin’s efforts into a new light.  There is nothing new in their efforts.  The President and Prime Minister are posing essentially the same questions that Russian statesmen did before them.  The only difference is that Medvedev, in particular, clothes his statements in democratic rhetoric.  The message, however, is for the most part out of Tsarist playbook: the need for regularized state administration, the rule of law, the improvement local administration and other institutions, stamping out corruption, etc.  This is not to say that Russia hasn’t changed in 100 years.  It is only to point out that Russia’s efforts to establish what Marc Raeff called a Rechtsstaat–a state that functions according to codified laws, rules, and procedures–is a historically elusive goal.  When I read senior officials saying things like: “Russia’s problem is that the whole population thinks ‘I can observe the law in my own way’. Modernisation means that we have to stop doing that; stop all the exceptions, and behave like Germany or France, where they have mature political and judicial systems,” I can’t help but see some of the same problems Imperial Russia dealt with.

Like Russian statesmen before them, Medvedev and Putin perpetuate the very problems they hope to solve.  Though desired, “modernization” contains dangers for the powers that be.  These dangers aren’t in giving power to the populace–this has never been on the table anyway.  The danger is in what to do about the political elite.  The Russian state has always been at odds with its elites, and the elites always at odds with itself.  Under Tsarism, as the 18th century showed, the noble elite could make or break Tsars. The 17th and 18th centuries, not to mention the Great Terror of 1937-38, proves that the Russian elite has a historical tendency to cannibalize itself.  It never, in the words of Marx, became a class for itself.  Namely, the Russian elite always considered politics as a zero sum game.  Theirs is a class that has failed to set up “gentlemanly rules” of politics like in Western Europe or the US.  Those rules include an understanding that you can steal, cheat, and exploit as much as you want as long as you understand that we’re all in this together and that despite our personal and ideological differences this is our state.  The ruling classes of America and Europe understand that outright corruption should be kept at a minimum because as the guardians of law and order they can always legalize it. The law facilitates elite power rather than undermines it.

The Russian elite in contrast see the state as mine and the law as an impediment to reaping the spoils. The lack of “rules” for elite machinations make them reliant on a strong arbiter to settle disputes.  In this sense, the Russian autocratic tradition is a product of elite politics.  The Russian elite could never get its shit together, to put it mildly, and when it did like in the Decembrist Revolt, it turned to utter disaster because of bad planning, hesitance, and cowardliness.  This is why I think that while Putin will not return as President, he will still hang around because he is still the one with enough clout to prevent his boyars from killing each other.  Now granted, Medvedev might become that guy as he further develops his “krysha,” but I doubt that it will ultimately hold without Putin’s backing.

If there is one ground rule the Russian elite must abide by is not to poke its nose in the affairs of the ruler, unless solicited.  Most Tsars never trusted the nobility and for good reason.  Boyar clans threw Russia into chaos on a number of occasions, and this is why many Tsars–Ivan Grozny, Peter the Great, Alexander I, and Nicholas I–surrounded themselves with close associates and often bypassed bureaucratic channels.  Nicholas I didn’t trust the bureaucracy, and I suspect that Putin and Medvedev don’t either, despite the former facilitating its bolstering.  This has had deleterious effects on how Russia is ruled.  It’s more personal and hands on than in the West.  The Russian President can’t really trust his underlings and must personally intercede in sometimes the smallest of issues.  The only benefit of this is that the Presidents personal involvement plays well to a kind of populism.

It was Luzhkov’s violation of the golden rule that led to his unceremonious removal.  His efforts to poke his nose in the affairs of the tandem, even if its was only a soft poke, were intolerable.  And it’s not that Luzhkov could actually split Medvedev and Putin.  The real danger is that others might follow his example.  If Luzhkov was smart he would read the writing on the wall and retire somewhere and tend to his bees.  Refashioning himself as a “democrat,” while utterly laughable, is suicide.  He knows, like everyone, that putting him, his wife, and their clients in the slammer for corruption wouldn’t be hard. In fact, making a scandal of it would do well to boost the Kremlin’s populist appeal.  Today’s announcement from Yabloko that they’re willing to work with Yuri Mikhailovich won’t earn him in favor in the Kremlin. There is one word that should ring in Luzhkov’s head as his considers his next move: Khodorkovsky.

I try to bring in some of these reflections in the classroom.  Students like history to pertain the present if only to understand its relevance.  Imperial Russia works well in this regard because when most people think of Putin they think of the USSR and unfortunately Stalin.  I’ve repeatedly maintained that Putin’s style is more like Nicholas I.  Putin, like Nicholas I, is first and foremost a Russian nationalist.  He understands the need to modernize Russia, but is reluctant to delegate the necessary power to help its facilitation.  Following this logic, one might think of Medvedev as Alexander II, the “Tsar-Liberator.”  I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.  If anything, Medvedev’s rule is more like Nicholas’ older brother, Alexander I.  Alexander talked a lot of enlightenment and liberalism.  He created commissions to talk about serfdom and modernizing Russia.  Ultimately, he did nothing besides some minor cosmetic changes.  Medvedev is similar and I doubt there will be any qualitative change even in his second term.

If Tsarist Russia is any guide, we might not look to Putin or Medvedev as key figures in Russia’s modernization.  Instead we might try to identify any “enlightened bureaucrats” among them.   They, if they exist, might be the real movers and shakers in Russia’s modernization.  That said, if the history of Russia’s political elite is any indication, the only thing standing in their way is themselves and their interclass rivals.

h/t Austere Insomniac for the image.