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Dr. Yaroslav Pylynskyi, Ukraine

Illiberalism as a Key Factor of Russian Foreign Policy

To better understand the present moment and forecast the future with some degree of certainty, it is sometimes necessary to analyze the past in depth. It is in the past where the economic and political preconditions of the contemporary world were created; where habits of thought and patterns of action were established; where attitudes toward the environment, power, and value systems were developed.

Most, if not all, experts in American studies would claim that U.S. foreign policy is basically a derivative of its domestic policy, in that it depends on the next presidential elections. The pursuit of electoral victory is often determinative of the subsequent administration’s foreign policy.

A similar dynamic, though in a somewhat different legal paradigm, can be observed in Russia as well. In the United States, foreign policy may undergo substantial or even radical changes depending on which party receives the most support from Americans and wins, creating an intrigue and essentially changing the development of the surrounding world. In Russia, on the other hand, foreign policy in general and geopolitics as its global manifestation mostly depends on long-established domestic political traditions: the mentalities and legal attitudes of the majority of its population and political elite. This remains true regardless of the their declared political views, whether they are monarchic, liberal democratic, totalitarian or other.

To understand contemporary Russian geopolitics and its main landmarks, we suggest a brief excursion into this country’s past. Here it is important not to become submerged in debates on, for instance, whether the history of Kyivan Rus’ is a part of Russian history or whether this proto-state ceased to exist long before the establishment of a properly Russian state; whether the history of the Novgorod Slavs prior to the destruction of their statehood by Ivan Grozny is part of Russian history, or whether it is properly the history of a Novgorodian state conquered by Muscovy; or, similarly, whether Tatars are “native Russians” or aliens and conquerors, taking into account that they have lived on this territory for at least 700 years and are an integral part of the state’s legal, political, and spiritual development.

Instead, what is essential to our purpose is the way these historical events have been interpreted over the last 250 years in the official historiography of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, particularly as it relates to our understanding of contemporary Russian foreign policy. To summarize the consensus position of the historical profession, history is often a somewhat arbitrary selection of facts that are interpreted in relation to the current political conjuncture.[1]

The conventional interpretation of domestic history currently popular in the Russian Federation was adopted already in the 18th century. It is worth noting that this interpretation views the feudal divisions of Kyivan Rus’, the constant state of war, and the confrontations among its prices mainly negatively.[2] Moreover, it sees this historical situation as a deviation from the proper state of affairs, in which the whole state has a single center, a single power, and a single ideology, and in which all parts of society, including boyars and serfs, resist hostile external challenges along the entirety of the country’s borders.

It is well known that during this period all of Europe (and not only Europe) was marked by feudal division, constant wars, and short-term alliances; Kyivan Rus’ was no exception in this regard and there is thus no cause for ethical censure from an objective point of view.[3] Likewise, when the Kyivan princes fought with each other and their neighbors, reconciled, married their offspring to the children of other sovereigns, and later fought with those who became their relatives for personal interests, property, territories and power, their behavior was typical of their epoch. At the time it did not make much difference whether one’s enemy was a Chernihiv prince, a Hungarian or Polish king, or a Cuman khan; the idea of Rus’ as a single Orthodox unity (and the Catholic or Nomadic worlds as hostile and alien) appeared much later.

As the centralized state—what today might be called the “vertical of power”—was developing in Moscow, a distinct and totally ideological attitude to Muscovy’s neighbors began to take shape[4]. It regarded the independent princes around Muscovy and their populations as traitors and renegades that were weakening the central power of Muscovy, threatening its absolute supremacy on territories it controlled through conquest, and ruining its foreign policy of further conquest and seizure of surrounding territories.

It is also well known that during the rule of Ivan Grozny the domestic autonomy of princely clans was abolished mostly through physical extermination, while the state machine was transformed into a strict power vertical by means of the Oprichnina and the whole population became the tsar’s serfs (or slaves).[5] At that time any disagreement with the tsar or violation of his orders began to be regarded as high treason and was ruthlessly punished with death. Moreover, in order to instill fear in the population, it was not only violators who were punished, but also their family members and even friends for their presumed complicity or failure to report. The question of whether this legal system was more a creation of Ivan Grozny or a borrowing from Genghis Khan’s Yassa, and whether the system of punishment established by the Mongols on conquered territories originated from the legislation formed by the first emperor of the Qin dynasty in the third century B.C., is debatable and goes beyond our study.[6] However, these systems are similar typologically and the results—a strict centralization of power—are also rather predictable and logical.

Despite the various events that occurred in Russia over the next centuries—the changing dynasties, the annexations of new territories with different political cultures, and significant economic improvements like the abolition of serfdom, the industrial revolution, and the establishment of schools and universities—this ideology persisted without essential changes through the February Revolution of 1917. At this time there was a determined attempt to mold a mass of subjects (serfs of the tsar regardless of property or education) into real citizens that were conscious of their free choice.

As Robert Putnam has demonstrated in trying to explain the uneven development of Italian regions in the second half of the 20th century, however, the creation of civic society is a complex and long-term process (often taking multiple centuries) that does not always succeed. In a similar way, overcoming the legacy of the authoritarian past often proves a formidable challenge.[7]

Unfortunately, after a short period of democratic disorder, during which the as-yet-unformed civic society could not cope with the complex problems of reorganizing state governance to meet democratic principles, an authoritarian tendency familiar to most of Russia’s population triumphed. Thereafter, with blood and iron and at the cost of millions of victims, a strict vertical of power was restored, as was control over the territories of the former Russian Empire, now in its authoritarian and subsequently totalitarian reincarnation as the Soviet Union.[8]

Its totalitarian character notwithstanding, the new state was (and for some still is) a paragon of freedom and prosperity for the individual person and for Soviet society as a whole.

The fact of the matter is that, from the very beginning Soviet Russia and later the USSR were characterized by a practice that Orwell so aptly defined as doublethink. This, of course, developed over time rather than immediately, and only by the end of the 1930s did it consolidate into a state policy. The well-known phenomenon of NEP is an example of this. At the beginning of revolutionary changes, the leadership of Bolshevik Russia deliberately concealed not only from ordinary citizens, but also from its closest comrades, the reality that was only a temporary concession while waiting for a proper moment to return to the previous plan of completely suppressing private property, free enterprise, as well as all political and economic freedom. This, by the way, is not the only such instance of hypocrisy.[9]

Here, it seems it would be timely to recall the words of Confucius that when words lose meaning, people lose freedom. Indeed, the residents of Russia and other republics of the USSR gradually lost even those narrow rights and freedoms they had during tsarism or had gained as a result of the February Revolution and the absence of legitimate central power during the Civil War.

For many in Russia and the West, women’s suffrage, the existence (at least on paper) of free trade unions, and the universal right to hold office (with the exception of enemies of the people) seemed manifestations of real freedoms that were unavailable to citizens of most European countries at the time. However, only a few understood that the Constitution and Soviet laws were simply a veil that concealed the actual state of affairs. The essential feature of the system was that the country lived not according to laws guaranteeing the equality of all citizens, but according to the statute of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which viewed democratic centralism (or a strict and inviolable vertical of power) as a fundamental principle on which the whole totalitarian state functioned. Formally neither a law nor a constitution, the statute of the CPSU regulated all major legal conflicts in the state, making clear the firm dependence of all communists and those outside the party on the will of the highest party leadership. In this way, the typically feudal, even slave-like, dependence of the population on authority—and of state workers on their direct superiors in the hierarchy—was restored in an even more strict form. For a time all people once again became slaves of the state, deprived of any real civil rights. And, although after the death of Stalin and especially in its last decades, the top party bureaucracy did a lot to weaken this dependence and to alleviate its pressure on themselves, the strict vertical of power remained a characteristic feature of the Soviet system through the last days of its life.

Incidentally, this system is not unique and definitely should not be considered an exclusively Russian phenomenon. In his study of Italian regions from the 1970–80s, the above-cited Robert Putnam demonstrates how a strict authoritarian system developed in Southern Italy in absolutely different historical conditions. However, as his study based on rich empirical data makes clear, the authoritarian system of values is as persistent as the atomization of society is deep. His study demonstrates that as weak as the horizontal connections are between its members, and as strong as are the vertical connections that impede civic solidarity and the cooperation of citizens to achieve a common goal. The pattern that Putnam drew from regions in southern Italy fully applies to the post-Soviet space, and especially to contemporary Russia. It is precisely this authoritarian-totalitarian past that determines the preservation of paternalistic often semi-criminal connections at the bottom and of a strict power vertical at the top that in Russia has now seemingly acquired the form of a duumvirate.

The authorities, but also the majority of citizens, are unfamiliar with a different paradigm of relations, which makes an alternative arrangement unclear and thus ineffective. This paradigm is conveyed outside of the country in everyday life, as manifested in the brutal behavior of Russian tourists abroad, and on the state level in the efforts of the Russian leadership to dictate their will to all neighboring countries, sometimes even to the detriment of their own interests and against common sense.

Another important factor that contributed to the inner illiberalism of Muscovite and subsequently Russian citizens (and which still pursues its influence) is the archaic model of the branch of the Byzantine church that is now called Russian Orthodox. Its internal organization and the configuration of its worship service utterly exclude any dialogue between priest and parishioners or debate among priests that since the Middle Ages has been characteristic for the Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations after the Reformation. Even the arrangement of pews in most Catholic churches in which priest and congregation sit facing each other provides for dialogue and exchange of opinions, interpretations of the Holy Writ, etc. In Orthodox churches, parishioners stand and listen to the priest silently. Dialogues, debates or discussions are not practiced in the Russian Orthodox Church since the condemnation of the Schism associated with Patriarch Nikon’s reforms.

The reform of Peter I struck a particularly severe blow at the church as an independent spiritual institution of society. For 300 long years the Patriarchate was abolished and the church ruled by the Holy Synod. In this way, the church became a de facto part of the state machinery, a kind of ministry for religion. At the same time, many priests were secretly turned into agents of the Third Section security police; they were forced to report about parishioners’ attitudes and sometimes even to violate the secrecy of confession, thus undermining the main moral foundations of society. The church in Russia, unlike in the countries of Europe and America, did not become an independent moral authority and a defender of citizens from the arbitrariness of power. Instead, it excused and indulged the state by all means in spreading unfreedom in Russian society. One need not even mention that during Soviet times all priests were appointed only with the consent of the KGB and party leadership.

We also contend that to clarify the genesis of illiberalism in contemporary Russian society, it is necessary to specifically address the current state of business in the country. After all, freedom is a decisive condition for the development of capitalism, and capitalism is impossible without freedom in the broadest sense, beginning with freedom of enterprise and ending with freedom of speech, assembly, and elections.[10]

Given that the Soviet period lasted in Russia for over 70 years, it might not be worth going deep into the problems of free enterprise in pre-revolutionary Russia in such a brief review. Taking into consideration the significant power of traditions, however, we should note that, although capitalism made significant strides in Russia at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, these successes did not become decisive in building a strong and self-organizing civic society nor for creating a middle class capable of winning and guaranteeing democratic freedoms for Russian society. Legal large-scale free enterprise was abolished in Russia as a result of the October Revolution in 1917 and ultimately annihilated (along with its practitioners) as a result of the Great Break and artificial famine at the beginning of the 1930s. This resulted in the triumph of a regime in which political mechanisms of economic organization totally subdued market ones.

Most non-Marxist economists (and increasingly even many Marxists) agree that the centralized planned economy, built in the Soviet manner, created for itself inherent insurmountable problems. First, it bred a huge bureaucracy that, by its nature, institutionalized inefficiency in production. The liquidation of the market and of free enterprise also deprived society of the kind of information provided only by a system of prices and of the free agents capable of promptly and effectively reacting to this information. To this inborn economic weakness, presided over by bureaucrats of the planned economy, we should also add its evidently inherent social and political properties, including gigantomania, personal profiteering, the struggle of clans, and not least of all corruption. As Leon Trotsky correctly observed, “each time someone has to distribute something, he does not forget about himself.”[11]

In addition, it was Trotsky, directly involved as theorist and practitioner in building the new order in Russia, who could precisely and reasonably define the main features of this new order, characteristics that are evidently still influencing the development of Russian society. Thus, Trotsky thought that: “Stalinism in turn is not an abstraction of “dictatorship”, but an immense bureaucratic reaction against the proletarian dictatorship in a backward and isolated country. The October Revolution abolished privileges, waged war against social inequality, replaced the bureaucracy with self-government of the toilers, abolished secret diplomacy, strove to render all social relationship completely transparent. Stalinism reestablished the most offensive forms of privileges, imbued inequality with a provocative character, strangled mass self-activity under police absolutism, transformed administration into a monopoly of the Kremlin oligarchy and regenerated the fetishism of power in forms that absolute monarchy dared not dream of.”[12]

When analyzing the functioning of the Soviet economy, most experts concluded that, although the Soviet economic model decelerated the economic development of the state and society. Although its shortcomings fell on the shoulders of the majority of the population, this system worked particularly well for the elite, which, as we now know, suffered when this system was transformed to meet the prescriptions of abstract economics, and which later on became more effective for its society. In other words, the Soviet experience demonstrated that economic inefficiency may for a long time coexist with political efficiency. The Soviet model proved to be strikingly effective at supporting the material privileges of the political elite and, what is more important, for securing its monopoly on power. The lifestyle of this elite, known in the Soviet Union as the “nomenklatura,” has been written about in great detail. The term denotes a small stratum of privileged and influential people who interacted mostly with one another, were alienated from the unwashed masses, and were provided special stores, apartments, and health resorts. It is thus the Soviet model that is ideally suited to satisfying the self-seeking interests of such an elite or another group trying to take its place. To make this system work, however, requires a political regime that is rather strictly authoritarian, if not totalitarian. This is so, because a “planned” economy requires dictatorship, and taken from another perspective, the despotic elite is inclined to control the economy on which its power rests.

As Ludwig von Mises noted in the 1930s: “The market is the focus of the capitalist social order and the quintessence of capitalism. Thus it is possible only under capitalism. It cannot be artificially counterfeited under socialism.” Why impossible? Because an “artificial market” means that the only factor controlling production is manufacturers who sell and buy goods, while demand for capital and its supply is outside of their activities. In such conditions the state continues to control capital. This means that under socialism nobody risks their own capital. Decisions on major capital investments are made by bureaucrats who do not risk anything personally because their risks are absorbed by the collective nature of coordination and decision-making. As a result, the vitality of the contemporary market economy vanishes before being born.[13]

Unfortunately, over recent decades little has changed in the structure of power, as well as in the structure of the economy. The power of bureaucracy remains unchanged, having perhaps even strengthened since there is no longer any need to hide the elite’s greed behind populist socialist slogans about the equality of all Soviet citizens, social welfare programs, the equality of economic rights, socialist property that belongs to the people, etc.

On the other hand, this bureaucracy is very strongly dependent on the country’s leaders and can be replaced in seconds for disloyalty in word, let alone in deed. And the existence of capitalists or oligarchs should not obscure the fact that all of them are personally subordinated to this supreme power and can afford to demonstrate freedom of action only as long as they do not even seemingly cross the lines that have been drawn for them. It is sufficient to recall the fates of Berezovsky, Gusinsky, and Khodorkovsky to understand that Russian capitalism is essentially a successor to the command economy, where the highest bureaucracy has found greater possibilities for personal enrichment and simultaneously gotten rid of the social obligations to society that the Soviet bureaucracy used to have. The fate of the last Kremlin political project connected with the oligarch Prokhorov provides additional evidence of this.

Putin’s nomination for President at the last congress of United Russia and his promise to appoint Medvedev prime minister after his election makes evident who really has supreme economic and political power in Russia. Meanwhile, as demonstrated by Levada Center opinion polls, public approval of the president and prime minister fluctuates around 40 percent, meaning that a significant part of the population endorses this state of affairs.

The social model of contemporary Russia thus continues the “tsar–slave” paradigm, according to which the Russian authorities can not have real and earnest friends or partners within the country or beyond its borders. Instead, they can only have loyal or treacherous serfs, on the one hand, and enemies that should be subdued or converted to serving Russian interests (i.e. those of the power vertical), on the other. Russia’s neighbors can hardly hope for a rapid change of its approach to geopolitics, since proceeding from such paradigm, before any changes can occur it would be necessary, as Maxim Gorky wrote, to squeeze the slave out of oneself drop by drop; and this is surely a long and painful process. Moreover—and most importantly—thus far it would seem that few see even the smallest need for this. It is clear that being free is much harder than being unfree, since one must then take responsibility for one’s own fate and that of the state, rather than shift it onto the government.

In conclusion, I would like to present a characteristic and illustrative example, which is related to Russian perceptions of Ukrainian history and Russian-Ukrainian relations, and which, to my mind, confirms our main thesis fairly well.

Toward the end of 2009, in connection with 300th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava, enlivened discussions about the figure of Hetman Ivan Mazepa took place in Russia and Ukraine. In brief, in his time Hetman Mazepa was the leader of a Ukrainian state that had independent courts, its own customs territory, an army, and a system of administrative governance; this state remained in union with Muscovy, meaning an agreed-upon vassal relationship that recognized the supremacy of the Muscovite tsar in matters of war and peace as well as in foreign trade. To this we would add that the 1654 Pereyaslav agreement, which inaugurated this union, itself undoubtedly, certified the legal equality of parties that is self-evident for anyone familiar with elements of jurisprudence, since treaties are concluded between parties that mutually recognize one another. On one of the telecasts devoted to discussing the figure of Hetman Ivan Mazepa and his relations with Tsar Peter I, a famous Russian historian, a professor at a prominent university in the capital offered a thesis that Hetman Ivan Mazepa as a serf of the Russian tsar (actually his slave) was certainly a traitor and a rebel who offended his master by daring to have his own opinion, not to mention acting against the tsar’s will. This historian is a typical representative of the Russian academic elite that simply fails to understand that relations with the Russian tsar can be anything other than those of serf and master.

In our opinion, this dichotomy perfectly explains why, from the point of view of the average Russian, a professor-historian, and a political leader, Russia, as a state, has no friends. Friendship involves equality of relations, mutual recognition, and the right to personal freedom in thought and action. The “serf-tsar” paradigm totally excludes such a possibility. This is why today Russian sovereigns, as in past centuries, can so easily justify in the eyes of their own population any arbitrariness committed inside or outside of the country. After all, in this paradigm punishing a slave—especially a rebellious one, is not only a right, but also a singular necessity for securing the integrity of this system and its (even if minimally effective) viability.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the “serf-tsar” paradigm could not have existed through centuries and continued its successful continuation into the 21st century if it had not relied on the great and all-embracing myth of Russian exclusiveness and superiority, from the well-known “Moscow as the third Rome” to the ironic “and even in the field of ballet we are ahead of the whole planet.”

With the help of this myth,[14] which simultaneously engaged and united representatives of different nations, ethnic groups, and tribes, the empire expanded its borders and promoted its power paradigm in new territories. It thus induced the active and ambitious representatives of local populations to voluntarily and with seeming enthusiasm join its creation. It succeeded when these local elites began to see in the strengthening of this system their life’s purpose, their security guarantee, and the source of their future prosperity. These people voluntarily agreed to personal sacrifice for the sake of its consolidation, due to their perpetual euphoria at participating in what they understood as a superior system. To this day, this myth holds the minds not only of the majority of ordinary citizens, but also of the political elite,[15] which uses it to justify the misappropriation of public property over recent decades, as well as its economic and political arbitrariness inside the country and in foreign relations.

[1] See more at: Yakovenko N. Vstup do istorii. Kyiv, Krytyka, - 2007, p 374.

[2] See, for instance Kliuchevskiy V. Kurs russkoy istorii. http://www.hrono.ru/libris/lib_k/klyuch00.php, Soloviov S. Istotiya Rossii s drevneishikh vremen. http://www.kulichki.com/inkwell/text/special/history/soloviev/solovlec.htm, Istoriya Rossii. Uchebnik dlia vuzov. http://www.bibliotekar.ru/istoriya-rossii/3.htm, etc.

[3] See more at: Blok M. Feodalne suspilstvo. Translated from French. – Kyiv, Vsesvit, 2001, 528 p.

[4] Contemporarily speaking, the “vertical of power” inherited, as known, from the state order of the Golden Horde, of which the Moscow ulus was a part, was developing and consolidating. See more about Moscow political culture in: Muscovite Political Folkways: Edward L. Keenan / Russian Review, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Apr., 1986), pp. 115-181

[5] See: Kostomarov N. Istoriya Rossii v zhizneopisaniyakh eyo glavneishikh deyateley. Glava 20. Tsar Ivan Vasilievich Grozny, http://www.gumer.info/bibliotek_Buks/History/kost/20.php

[6] On the system of punishment in Qin empire see: http://www.fermer1.ru/imperiya-tsin  

[7] Putnam R. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Tvorennia demokratii. Tradytsii gromadskoi aktyvnosti v suchasniy Italii / Tanslated from English by V.Yushchenko. – Kyiv, Osnovy, 2001. – pp. 149-199.)

[8] See more at: Malia M. Radianska tragediya. Istoriya sotsializmu v Rosii 1917-1991 / Translated from English by A.D.Grytsenko, P.S.Nasada, Z.I.Kleshchenko, V.P.Pavlenko. – Kyiv, Megatype, 2000. – p. 211-301, and Baberovski Y. Chervonyi teroro. Istoriya stalinizmu / Translated from German. – Kyiv, K.I.S., 2007. – 248 p.

[9] Valitskyi A. Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia. Stanford University Press, 1995. – 656 p.

[10] Berger P. Kapitalistychna revoliutsiya: Pyatdesiat propozytsiy shchodo protsvitannia, rivnosti i svobody / Translated from English by S.O.Makeev, I.P.Dziub, I.O.Kresina,; preface by V.K.Cherniak. – Kyiv, Vyshcha shkola, 1995, pp. 58-102. (Berger P. L. The Capitalist Revolution: Fifty Propositions About Prosperity, Equality, and Liberty . – Basic Books, INC.,Publishers. New York)

[11] Cited according to Berger P. Kapitalistychna revoliutsiya: Pyatdesiat propozytsiy shchodo protsvitannia, rivnosti i svobody / Translated from English by S.O.Makeev, I.P.Dziub, I.O.Kresina,; preface by V.K.Cherniak. – Kyiv, Vyshcha shkola, 1995, p. 180. (Berger P. L. The Capitalist Revolution: Fifty Propositions About Prosperity, Equality, and Liberty . – Basic Books, INC.,Publishers. New York)

[12] Trotsky L. Ikh moral i nasha moral. (1938) Cited according to http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/morals/morals.htm (Stalinism – A Product of the Old Society)


[13] Cited according to Berger P. Kapitalistychna revoliutsiya: Pyatdesiat propozytsiy shchodo protsvitannia, rivnosti i svobody / Translated from English by S.O.Makeev, I.P.Dziub, I.O.Kresina,; preface by V.K.Cherniak. – Kyiv, Vyshcha shkola, 1995, p. 192. (Berger P. L. The Capitalist Revolution: Fifty Propositions About Prosperity, Equality, and Liberty . – Basic Books, INC.,Publishers. New York)


[14] On the typology of creating nation-building myths see more at: Benedict Anderson.  Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism(New Edition). VERSO, London, New York.  – 2006, – 240 p.

[15] It is worth attention how in a popular tv-show “Nasha Rasha” they depict the images of Russian oligarchs that grieve for the fate of the country. Mocking at criminal behavior instead of condemning it is, in our opinion, an indisputable indicator of its public toleration, and thus giving it a status of a legal, “normal” phenomenon.