Exposing Russian Narcissism

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.


6 responses to “Exposing Russian Narcissism

  1. How would any Russian react upon being told that his country is inherently aggressive and incorrigbly corrupt and dictatorial? Probably the same way most Americans react to the campus Leftists after 9/11 who said chickens had come home to roost, and that America ought to just apologize and grovel before the Islamic world. Basically, the Streetwise Professor feels like Russians should accept that the chaos and humiliation they experienced in the 90s was inevitable and move on, while Poles, Czechs and Hungarians were showered with EU aid as historically Catholic nations (and don’t pretend that had nothing to do with it, especially with the overnight German recognition of Croatia in spite of its dubious borders with the Serbs). All of these countries also benefitted from relatively open borders with the EU nations. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to govern a tiny country like Estonia than a huge nation spanning eleven time zones. So cut this crap, you might as well constantly compare the U.S. to Switzerland or China to Sweden. As a fellow Texan someday me and the Streetwise Professor are going to have a talk.

  2. Dan, you clearly missed the entire point of the post. The problem was that the 90s were not the fault of Yeltsin and the reformers, but the lousy system that had been established under the Communist regime.

    Why were the 90s so difficult? Well, lets do a bit of Economics 101. The same Russian that bemoan the 90s are also the same Russians that rushed out to buy Japanese televisions and a variety of other imported goods. This led to the closure of the factories making televisions, and refrigerators, and everything else that Russians were forced to buy in Soviet times if the stores actually carried them.

    Also, the Soviet Union left Russians with many rubles. Every babushka had thousands of rubles in her bank account. However, it was easy to save in Soviet times as there was not much to buy. You would have had a really hard time to spend all the rubles you received: the big item purchases (a car for example) involved putting yourself on a waiting list for years and years. As consequence, when goods could be easily imported, you had too many rubles in circulation chasing these goods and consequently the ruble dropped in value and the babushki were left with bank accounts and worthless rubles. You can either blame Yeltsin or you can blame the Soviets that created a sham economy. That is the point that the Streetwise Professor is making, and I agree with him.

  3. Dan, beside what Michel said, the difference is truth. Look at all indicators like the corruption index, press freedom, business environment; all the Eastern countries like Estonia are way ahead of Russia. The point is Eastern Europe didn’t cop out in response to the 90’s turmoil and embrace the lawlessness of a corrupt Putin like regime. The Eastern European looked at the past and said it wasn’t the way to go. However Russia’s with its megalomania did the complete opposite nursing real and mostly perceived grievances. I thought as a Texan, you wouldn’t subscribe to the moral equivalence and victim hood ideology, but guess not.

  4. Dan: re: Russia’s “humiliation”

    There was excellent article by Cathy Young regarding this topic in Weekly Standard: Don’t Cry for Russia or The world’s unlikeliest “victim”

  5. Oh…dear. Someone is to actually hitting nail onto the head (no joke about the по-Engiespeak intended as much as a much-begged-for hat flattening via all that Moiseevian Эгоист-ism). I watch this and marvel, mostly that such nonentities- to a point- can blag their way into positions of presumed credibility in the World (which is that one not of their own fantasy). Not to put down the already sincere, humble ones. I have Russian family who are, by all observation, down-to-Earth types of some integrity, maybe ironically a КПСС propagandist among them. At least she’s honest as to the limits of her honesty… but the rank and file expat (I found none in company among the natives to have such a hangup when I lived there)… О, Боже. Somehow maybe beyond that humiliation aforementioned, what seems to bear parallel to other 3й World (yes, other), developing identities is the copious application of facade. Start with those little aluminum ордена, price of about 14k. on the backs (helps to flog to the unknowing as gold, I guess), for everything from having built a rocket to washing one’s feet that day. Add to it the numerous returns on a search of “купить диплом” via yandex- for your 16k-р you can be a nuclear wizard from your choice of dead school, unique, bogus doc registry number to thwart verification, a list of defunct universities from which to have “earned” it (whose records were no doubt used to wrap lacquerware anyway)… and get to America. Now, the women can busy themselves with some fonctionnaire employ, but the men are almost invariably “I am consultant”, usually the one staying home and living on the missus’ meager income, while faking up some deeply profound erudition and trying to hustle it to the Unsuspecting as some stellar insight worth, of course, many $$$. [Another one is the “Народний артист”. “He is very famous! Related to this and that Tolstoi (none of which is the one we all know; his excusers say “Well, Tolstoi is a large family” to give any substance to the claim).] Then, to add weight to their overwhelming greater-than-youness, they’ll look at you with disdain, bark and put you down when you stand up to them. Having spent a lifetime in a Global profession, and gaining positive repute from this, I am always vindicated in expecting to be treated like some kind of lackey nobody by even the babysitters (or whoever they are) who think they amount to no less than Glory herself. Part of this, no small part, I suspect, is in the common dynamic of relative nobodies when thrust into the pool of reality’s swimming competition. Alike as to those figurative jungle kings who buy a Cadillac to park at their huts for show (with no means to use them), the West represented an endless buffet of fare from which to take on the physiognomy of an actual modern culture- architects, weapons designers, artists, philosophers- all from whom to borrow this or that idea, steep it in the samovar, and withdraw it with that unmistakable smoky flavor of well-aged BS as “our great idea!”. The something-for-nothing, actually gypsy (a reference they’ll hate you for, being, of course, so much better) hustle- adding this or that demand to their interactions, with belittlement as their response for being told of the unreality of those demands (“what do you mean it is the way I am doing it? You are not professional!” (well, actually it is your doing, look at this…..), as only true совки can offer any sincere person attempting to deal with them as grownups. Of a half-dozen men I know, all of them, in some position in the local community, have always lived off their mothers or wives (one is about 60- at mom’s since day one). This affectionate, supportive and unrealistic bond translates to narcissism supreme in the Outside World, with their mothers saying (of someone else’s work) “And all this was done by my wonderful son (lie)!”, “He was drinking vodka because that’s all they gave him while he worked (doesn’t explain the brandy bottles found lying about his workspace at other times, does it?)”, on and on. The big little boys, in turn, say “Responsible for all (really none) of the xxxxx on the project”, “I’m an engineer (right out of high school)”, etc. At the corner of Bluster and Swagger улитци, our friends the Great Ones.. They’ll tell you so themselves.

  6. [please to making that улици. Correct keyboard is to melting in Chernobyl. These B’s and N’s are not correct product, of inferior designers, no doubt. I will take now my орден for this research of keyboards. С. Большой]

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