The following was written as mid-term essay for SRAS’s cultural program in St. Petersburg, “The Russians.” Students were encouraged to draw upon not only the program texts, but also on the impressions and experiences gained of Russia and Russians while on-the-ground in St. Petersburg. A select few of these essays have been chosen to be published in this issue of Vestnik.
Through my studies of Russian culture and history as well as my experiences living among Russians in both St. Petersburg and Vladimir, I have become quite familiar with many of the social mores and peculiarities of Russian life. I find the culture and national identity to be quite fascinating and multidimensional. Perhaps the most interesting trait to me is Russian society’s relationship with its government, and particularly the tendency of the Russian public to value economic and political security over human rights. This relationship has a major effect on how Russians view their world. The balance between security and human rights in Russia has always been and continues to be a complex issue in that despite constant pressure for civil liberties, Russian society favors national stability first and foremost.
In understanding why a society would place so much emphasis on stability rather than on basic freedoms, one must place the society within a historical and (particularly for Russia) a cultural context. For the past 200 years, Russia has experienced one cataclysmic event after another. From the Great Patriotic War of 1812, through the emancipation of the serfs, two revolutions, two devastating World Wars, the Soviet experiment, rapid industrialization and urbanization followed by the chaotic privatization and capitalist transition of the 1990s, it is easy to see why Russian society would prefer leadership which offers a certain constancy. In his book, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, Orlando Figes describes a few of the political views of Sergei Volkonsky, a hero of 1812 and a leader of the Decembrist Uprising, in this way:
Volkonsky’s notion of the Fatherland was intimately linked with his idea of the Tsar: he saw the sovereign as a symbol of Russia. Throughout his life he remained a monarchist – so much that when he heard about the death of Nicholas I, the Tsar who had sent him into exile thirty years before, Volkonsky broke down and cried… But Volkonsky’s tears were tears for Russia, too: he saw the Tsar as the Empire’s single unifying force…
Developed in the mid 19th century, Volkonsky’s views regarding a vertical chain of power accurately reflect many Russians’ views today, and yet this passage also displays the dual nature of Russian political orientation and the desire for human rights. The reason for Volkonsky’s exile was his push for a constitution which would have limited the Tsar’s rule and given more rights to serfs.
This duality is echoed throughout Russian literature and fine arts as well. One specific example is Pushkin’s appreciation and sympathy for the “little man,” which manifests itself in many pieces including his “Fairy Tales,” The Bronze Horseman and Eugene Onegin. Yet Pushkin later dismissed the rule of the masses as a silly notion and supported governmental censorship, even though he had been personally censored.
Another phenomenon in Russian history may be partially to blame for the predisposition toward secure, but often repressive rule. Although political maneuvering and dishonesty are definitely not specific to Russian politics, Russian society has more than once sacrificed everything, including human rights, for utopian ideals, only to be let down later. In the months prior to the October Revolution, Lenin wrote in The State and Revolution that, “Only in a communist society… will there become possible and be realized a truly complete democracy, democracy without any exceptions whatever. And only then will democracy begin to wither away.”  Although not typical of Lenin, his anti-authoritarian tone implies the temporary nature of the ideal state and a truly free society. By the time Joseph Stalin had consolidated his power as the General Secretary, all notions of this Marxist “government-free” society had completely disappeared. Stalin, in a 1939 telegram to party and NKVD officials, permitted torture and pardoned its earlier use by stating, “The Central Committee of the All-Union Party considers that physical pressure should still be used obligatorily, as an exception applicable to known and obstinate enemies of the people, as a method both justifiable and appropriate.” In the end, despite its enormous effort and sacrifice in building the new communist society, Russian society received a Soviet system which was even more oppressive than its predecessor. In addition, the temporary restriction on human rights was made permanent.
Much like the Soviet Marxist ideology, the new ideologies of democracy and market capitalism introduced during the early 1990s greatly appealed to the masses, at least initially. Stephen Kotkin, in his book Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970-2000, had this to say about Yeltsin and the new ideologies that enveloped the Soviet Union in its final years:
Yeltsin inclined toward the paternalistic identification with the ‘folk.’ Wielding the common touch Gorbachev lacked, he promised ‘radical reform’ and a market economy, about which he knew nothing but which he and his supporters imagined would provide the better life and social justice that had been the promise of socialism.
The Russian people had again been promised this justice and liberty and they desired it, but instead they received a vastly corrupt government, hyperinflation, a national identity crisis and rampant violence.
As a result of these great failures, Russians have grown more pessimistic. Today, most believe that with a well-established and powerful leader, there is some possibility for economic and social security, whether or not the rights and opinions of the individual are protected. So although many Russians criticize the current administration’s human rights record, they are still reluctant to push for something new. A instructor of mine, who is Russian, once laughed and explained to me the Russian line of thinking about the renaming of the Russian law enforcement agency from “Militsia” to “Politsia:” “We don’t like change. Every time something changes, it is usually for the worse.” His fear of change is congruent with the contemporary mindset of many Russians.
From an American or Western background, it can sometimes be very difficult to comprehend, firstly, why the current administration of the Russian Federation has so much support despite its human rights record, and secondly, why those who disapprove of such authority do not voice their opinions more vehemently. Compared with France, where citizens recently rioted against raising the retirement age, contemporary Russian society is characterized by quiet complacency. However, when looking at the historical, political and socioeconomic development of both Russia and the West, one should realize the futility of comparing the two. For Russia to eventually achieve a greater balance between stability and human rights, it will in all likelihood require significantly more time as well as further economic and social changes. Nevertheless, Russians have never ceased to surprise the world and perhaps there is some room for hope.