Streetwise Professor reports:
Konrad Adenauer once quipped that Prussians were just Belgians with megalomania. After following Russia closely for several years now, I am convinced that Adenauer’s mordant observation is easily adapted to Russians: Vast numbers of Russians are just Poles with megalomania. Or maybe, they are Poles with narcissism.
This thought has come to mind frequently in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian War, Russian rationalizations thereof, and especially in the often heard lament of the humiliations that Russia endured in the 1990s, and how these humiliations justify Russian pugnacity and revanchism.
The humiliation narrative has two main strands–the collapse of the Russian economy in the 1990s, and the loss of the Soviet empire. Most Russians have a tendency to blame the West–and Americans in particular–for each. But the first was almost exclusively homemade, and the second presumes that Russia has some God given right to rule over others.
With respect to economics, the Soviet Union collapsed because its economy collapsed. Its economy collapsed because one of its main props–the price of oil collapsed; because it could not feed itself (and could no longer pay for food imports because its oil export revenues had collapsed; because it was suffering from a huge repressed inflation; because military expenditures were out of control; because it was technologically backwards; and because socialism and central planning were inherently dysfunctional.
The full effects of the economic collapse of the Soviet Union were not fully felt until after the Soviet Union dissolved politically. Attempts to reform the economy were doomed to failure, in the sense that it was inevitable the living standards of Russian citizens would plunge regardless of what economic policies the Yeltsin government adopted. The huge ruble overhang meant that if price controls were continued, shortages would persist, and if price controls were ended, inflation would skyrocket and wipe out the value of the rubles Russians had hoarded for lack of anything to spend them on. The allocation of labor and capital resources was completely inconsistent with world prices and the preferences of consumers, meaning that any liberalization would lead to wrenching adjustments. The extensive concentration of the economy meant that any privatization would lead to (a) serious monopoly problems, and (b) acute transactions costs between firms at different levels of the marketing chain. (True story. The final exam of my Business Economics 300 course at Michigan in December, 1990 asked students to predict the efficiency and distributive effects of the elimination of price controls in a monopolized economy like that of the USSR. The answer: the welfare effects of the changes were ambiguous as inefficiently high prices would replace inefficiently low ones, and the changes would lead to a redistribution of wealth from consumers to those with control rights over enterprises.) There were no property rights and no functioning legal system capable of governing contractual relationships. Given all these factors, catastrophe was inevitable.
The lack of formal property rights and a legal system meant that the collapse of Soviet political authority would inevitably lead to a race to grab assets. Informal control rights were extremely valuable, and given the uncertainty about the durability of these rights, those holding them had an incentive to grab and exploit today with little thought of the future. The lack of formal institutions created the demand for informal contract enforcement and property right definition mechanisms–namely, the mafia and the krysha. In the absence of formal rules and a deficiency of social capital, it was inevitable that force and fraud would rule.
Western governments and academics certainly offered advice. Some of it was good. Some of it was bad. Most of it was ignored or irrelevant. Western governments offered the mendicant Russian government some aid, but no realistic level of aid could have addressed the deep systemic defects in the economy that Russia inherited from the USSR.
The worst effect of the involvement of Westerners in the post-Soviet economy, and the liberalization (unavoidable given the unsustainability of the command economy) that followed 1991 was that they led Russians to associate their economic agony with economic liberalism. The Yeltsin government and its Western supporters argued that they were implementing a capitalist economy. All the average Russian saw was grinding poverty and economic chaos. The poverty and chaos were the unavoidable consequences of the collapse of an non-viable command economy that could not survive as such, but which could not be magically transformed into a market system without wrenching dislocations and changes. But most Russians didn’t–and don’t–see it that way. To them, their humiliation was the result of some Western plot, aided and abetted by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. (I have met many Russians, including several of my students, who seriously believe that Gorbachev was a CIA mole. Yeltsin too. )
So insofar as economics is concerned, Russian humiliation is self-inflicted–but the conventional wisdom in Russia is that it was imposed on them by the West.
With respect to the pretensions to empire, many Russians–arguably a vast majority–believe Russia should rule over an empire by right. The idea of derzhavnost (typically translated as “great-powerness”) is ubiquitous. Russians from all walks of life take tremendous pride in the fact that the USSR, and before it, the Russian Empire, ruled myriad nations. The loss of empire gnaws at the pride and self-regard. The independence of upstart, pipsqueak nations like Estonia and Georgia is an affront, a violation of the natural order. Hence the over-the-top outrage at the impudence of Estonia in moving the Statue of the Unknown Rapist, and the jingoistic, nearly orgasmic rapture over the humbling of Georgia.
In its insistence that Russia has “privileged interests” in the near abroad, that the outspoken advocate of “sovereign democracy” should be able to limit and compromise the sovereignty of its neighbors, the Russian government is asserting that Russian pride trumps the independence–and pride–of other nations. The subjugation of others is nothing; Russian self-esteem is everything. The stubborn refusal of Russia to acknowledge crimes like Katyn, or the Great Famine (which affected Russia, to be sure, but which devastated Ukraine) is merely just another symptom of this Russocentric worldview. To paraphrase Lincoln, many Russians do believe that some are born booted and spurred, and others are born to be saddled and bridled–three guesses as to who should wear the spurs, and who the bridle, and the last two guesses don’t count.
So Russia confronts the world with the following ultimatum: Russia has its pride; its pride must be respected; and the only way its pride can be served is if the polygot nations of the near abroad defer to its wishes.
In the post-Soviet world, all of the nations formerly in the USSR, or under the thrall of the Soviet Union, suffered economic dislocation nearly as bad as that that afflicted Russia. (Ukraine, for instance, suffered as much or more economically from the collapse of the USSR.) Moreover, these nations had suffered the ignominy and humiliation at suffering under foreign–that is to say Russian, in Soviet guise–domination. But for the most part, all have seem to gotten over it. None resent these “humiliations” with the rage, the intensity, exhibited by the Russians. None are looking for revenge, for a return to the past. None harbors fantasies of the restoration of past imperial glories. In brief, just about everybody east of the Iron Curtain endured suffering that was not all that different from that suffered by Russia, but nobody–other than Russia–thinks that entitles them to special treatment, or to revenge today.
So, the experiences are similar, but the responses are different. That’s why Adenauer’s wicked description of Prussians seems an apt characterization of many Russians too. There is a fundamental difference in mindset, an inflated self-regard, a narcissism, a sense of exceptionalism, messianism, and megalomania, that differentiates many Russians from the millions of others east of the Oder whose world was shaken to its foundations by the collapse of the USSR.
Why does this matter? As Faulkner said of the South, to Russia, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Perceived historical humiliations must be avenged in the present. The lives and liberties (tenuous as they are) of Georgians, Poles, Ukrainians, Estonians, and myriad others are secondary to Russian national honor and pride.
Ironically, this megalomania is self-defeating. Russia rages against the expansion of NATO. But in reality, it is not that NATO is coming to Georgia or Ukraine. Georgia and Ukraine and Estonia and Poland and all the others have come, or are coming, to NATO. And they are clamoring for NATO protection precisely because they don’t want to sacrifice their sovereignty to assuage Russian pride, to feed Russian narcissism and megalomania. If Russia doesn’t want NATO at its borders, perhaps it would be well advised to put to rest all fears that it intends to push its borders (de facto or de jure) to meet NATO’s.
I’m not holding my breath on that last one. So, prepare for years of tension. Samuel Huntington said that Islam has bloody borders. For similar reasons, Russia has had bloody borders in the past, and may well in the future. Ironically, a return of economic chaos in Russia–a less than probable, but not inconceivable outcome–is the best hope for a respite in revanchist pressures. But only a respite. For if history is any guide, such chaos will only add further grievances to be revenged in the future.