A Soviet syndrome, not an imperial one

In the recent pages of the Ukrainian news and current affairs analysis service UNIAN there’s an interesting interview with the Russian philosopher Igor Chubais in which he discusses the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a clash of two incompatible systems: Ukraine’s, which is based on a painful but liberating movement towards Western Europe, and Russia’s, which is essentially a revisiting of the totalitarian past. While the political and social change in Ukraine is accompanied by special problems that have not been encountered by its citizens before, the crisis in Russia is leading to a revival and reinforcement of “old” psychology. This was evidenced in the recent poll of “great Russian names”, in which that of Stalin proved to be near the top of the list. “Perhaps,” the interviewer suggests, “the Russians are guilty of being unable to abandon the idea of their ‘elite status’ and Messianism, and it’s easier to revive the idea of rebuilding the empire on such sentiments.” Chubais disagrees [my tr.]:

One can’t put the blame on Russian culture, Russian history and the Russian mentality. Because we’re not actually in Russia any more. It’s called the Russian Federation now. After 1917, a break occurred … It was Rozanov who said in 1918 that an Iron Curtain [my link, DM] had descended on Russian history. We were torn up from our own roots.  And everything that happens in our country is Soviet and post-Soviet history: for us it’s still 1917.

We made no attempt to break free from the shackles of totalitarianism until 1991 – but we failed, and since 2000 the Soviet symbols and Soviet values are once again being  inculcated in us.



  1. Question: Just how critical is the understanding of the current soul of Russia to the interpretation of its recent history, say from Gorbachev onward?

    Was there any real change in the soul of the Soviet leaders or KGB as the “collapse” of the Soviet Union took place? If so, was it merely a blip in history that returned to “baseline” at some point? And what is that baseline?

    It is important for the West to know these things. If the Russian Federation is still in 1917 mode, then we should organize our geopolitical strategy with that in mind. Unfortunately, we are far from that understanding, and therein lies a certain danger. The degree of danger is arguable, but it should not be dismissed.

  2. What Chubais is saying – as many Russian thinkers, philosophers and poets did long ago – is that in 1917 Russia ceased to exist. The rest of the world still hasn’t caught up with that fact (viz. the constant Western confusion between “Russia” and “Soviet Union” during the Soviet era).

    As you point out, the notion, still widespread in the West, that the original, historical Russia somehow mysteriously returned to life in 1991, is the one that needs to be challenged.

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