A hundred years ago today Red Guards began occupying key installations in St Petersburg. By early tomorrow morning the Winter Palace had been infiltrated and the Provisional Government arrested. The Bolsheviks, a party of fanatical, fascistic Utopians, subsequently seized power all over Russia. Estimates of the deaths caused directly or indirectly by their tenure of power range from 15 to 66 million. Whichever figure you accept, it was the greatest known act of state genocide in history.
Responsible for executions amongst these numbers were the Bolshevik secret police from the Cheka to the KGB. Vladimir Putin was a member of the KGB under Communism and believes passionately in its so-called ethos. One can hardly expect him, then, to lose any sleep over the physical elimination of his political opponents and the shooting down of a foreign airliner causing the deaths of 298 people. Moreover, paranoia is a vocational requirement for an intelligence officer. Putin hates real democracy because he knows he could never stay in power under it, and he perceives it as merely Western. He therefore fears democracy and the West alike. He is paranoid about both and must attack them all the time. The former he can attack at home physically, the latter he is actually too weak to attack other than cybernetically, or with threats, or by proxy war.
It would be pointless to speculate on how the Putin regime will end, but I don’t think many people are confident that his successors will be much better. In any case, beneath Putinism lurk enormous unspoken and unresolved problems for Russia and its future. Psephologically, Putin may appear unassailable, but according to Die Zeit in elections to the rigged Duma only forty per cent of young Muscovites with higher education actually vote, and less than fifty per cent of Russians with an average income vote. Is this a protest against the Putin regime, or is it political apathy? A recent poll indicated that 73% of Russians don’t want to live in Russia. The population itself is shrinking. As a former Soviet dissident wrote to me in 2010: ‘Why is everything falling apart? Because there has been no repentance of the genocide, no recognition of the sins and mistakes committed.’ He was echoing Nadezhda Mandel’shtam, who said that ‘until we have made sense of our past, there can be no hope for the future’.
Nevertheless, there is a democratic movement in Russia, with a tradition of over fifty years behind it, and some of Russia’s finest people are involved. But one must be as apprehensive as Andrei Amal’rik was in 1970 that it can sufficiently survive the organised attacks of the government ever to come to power itself. Amal’rik even said that he was doubtful a democratic government could ‘stay in power long enough to solve the problems that the country is faced with’. I am as sceptical myself in 2017.
Clearly Putin is well ahead in repressing and dividing such a movement. But there are deeper problems for it than persecution. The leader of the biggest unofficial opposition party, Alexander Navalny, describes himself as a ‘nationalist democrat’. He is hoping to stand for the presidency in 2018. It is perfectly clear what Navalny is against — the corruption of what he calls ‘the party of crooks and thieves’ (Putin’s United Russia Party) — but he does not have a programme singlemindedly focussed on democratic principles such as the rule of law, freedom of the person, separation of the judiciary and executive, freedom of the media, free elections and peaceful transfer of power. He does not appeal to people to change Russia into a modern open society and democratic state.
One has to fear that this is because, as George Calderon recognised in 1896, many Russians don’t want ‘a Parliament, a free press and the rest of it’, and Navalny knows that. After 1917, Russia experienced nachatki (‘shoots’) of real democracy only once in the twentieth century, and that was for a few years following the fall of Communism. As a ‘nationalist democrat’, Alexander Navalny could vindicate yet again Amal’rik’s view that ‘the mass ideology of this country has always been the cult of its own power and size’. Despite the fact that Russia has no present equivalent to Pobedonostsev (see my post of 23 October), there are remarkable resemblances between the official religio-nationalism of the 1890-1900s and the Putin version. One may legitimately ask whether Russians today are able to live without a nationalist autocracy. Would a ‘nationalist democrat’ government be able to tolerate opposition? Would it enable and sustain a pluralistic society? Are Russians capable of embracing non-violent, democratic politics?
I know of no better expression of the challenge facing Russia and Russia’s democratic movement than a passage from an 1852 letter about Irish independence from Kittie Calderon’s father, John Hamilton, an Anglo-Irish landlord who financially ruined himself and his family by supporting his hundreds of Irish tenants through thick and thin in the Irish potato famines (not a single one died of starvation):
The people are not yet fit to rule because they are not yet capable of willing obedience to any rule for the general benefit. Till they are so they cannot rule, and it is better till then that they be ruled even by despotism; and they feel it to be so, but do not see the remedy. I am in principle a more utter democrat than any I ever met with, but before the people can govern, they must be able to govern, the test of which is willingness to be governed for the general good; for the people who govern must govern something, and in this case that something is themselves.
I must reiterate what I said in the first of these four posts on the occasion of the centenary of the Bolshevik seizure of power: I am not a Russian and it would therefore be incongruous for me to criticise, pontificate or recommend about Russia’s current system and political future. In fact I am philosophically indifferent to its fate (as opposed to that of my own country), although I may not be emotionally uninterested.
As someone who had long been persona non grata in Russia and has no intention of ever returning there, I was gratified that in 1992 the popular newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets described me as ‘a great friend of Russia’. Here, with apologies to Edmund Burke, is the utmost message that I can send my Russian friends now:
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil in a country is that good men and women emigrate.
In the last twenty-seven years about five million Russians have emigrated to the West. If I were Russian, I would call on them to rediscover their patriotism, return to Russia (along with their money), and work tirelessly to make Russia a democratic state on the German model — one that will be a threat neither to itself nor the rest of the world.