Contemporary Russia's split personality

Posted in Russia | 09-Jul-05 | Author: Norman Levine

Professor Norman Levine taking over the key for St. Petersburg, Russia, in a symbolic act: "Today people over 65 are…
Professor Norman Levine taking over the key for St. Petersburg, Russia, in a symbolic act: "Today people over 65 are a lost generation, the old communist welfare state is gone, and besides living in poverty the are discredited as political mishaps from a bygone era."
World historical revolutions leave the effected country psychologically traumatized. The sudden lose of customary politico-social environments creates a state of psycho-social disorientation.

Communism was installed in Russia by the Leninist Revolution of 1917, and Leninism was extinguished by the Yeltsin Revolution of 1991. The Soviet Union lasted for 74 years, a span of time in which four generations lived their lives, in which the structures of a communist society were incorporated by individuals as behavioral norms.

Fourteen years now separates the Yeltsin Revolution from contemporary Russia, but the population is still disquited. A gap between pre-and post Yeltsin generations is easily discernible, and the confusion between the politico-social rules of communism, and the unexpectedly triumphant demands of capitalism leapt from the lips of Russians to whom I talked during my recent visit to Russia. Politically and psychologically, the aftershocks of the revolution of 1991 reverberates throughout Russian society.

“Fourteen years ago we were the second greatest superpower in the world,” Dr.. Elizaveta Isaev, Professor of Russian Politics, said to me. “Today we fear the expansion of NATO to the east, the Islamic Revolution on our Southern Flank, and the encirclement by the US with its military bases in Uzbekistan, and Krygystan, or Central Asia.”

“Fourteen years ago seniors enjoyed a social safety net that gave them dignity in later life,” Prof Isaev continued. “Today people over 65 are a lost generation, the old communist welfare state is gone, and besides living in poverty the are discredited as political mishaps from a bygone era.”

From the international perspective, the current Russian Malaise encompasses three geographic pivots: On its Western border Russia fears EU and NATO expansion eastward, on its Southern Flank Russia worries about Islamic Fundamentalist secession, and on its Eastern border it is concerned about US encirclement from Central Asian bases.

The Yeltsin Revolution not only denuded Russia of all territorial gains made by Bolshevism, but also by Tzarism, or a Double Imperial Extinction.

On its Western Pivot the collapse of the Soviet Union extinguished the Bolshevik empire in Eastern Europe. The fall of the Soviet Union amounted to the cancellation of the Yalta Agreement, and Red soldiers evacuated Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania, and Bulgaria.

But the Double Imperial Extinction also entailed the simultaneous eradication of Tzarist territorial acquisitions. The Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia gained their freedom from Moscow in 1991, and the Baltic expansion of 1791 of Peter the Great was concurrently annulled.

Tzarina Catherine the Great suffered the same affront. This Empress absorbed the Ukraine and Crimea from the Turks in 1783, and by participating in the three Partitions of Poland moved Tzarist Russia’s Western borders to Warsaw.

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union also involved the synchronic loss of Catherine’s conquests. Although Russia retained the Crimea, the Ukraine slowly gained its independence from Catherine’s initial 18th Cent. grasp.

This Double Imperial Extinction meant that on its Western Pivot post-1991 Russia retreated to the boundaries of 17th Cent. Russia. Approximately 300 years of territorial annexations were reversed.

“This was Gorbachev’s great failure, “ Prof. Asaev emphasized. “He did not negotiate a Second Yalta. When he decided to pull Red troops out of Eastern Europe he should have bargained for a Second Yalta with the West setting hard limits to the advance of NATO and the EU into Eastern Europe.”

“Without a Second Yalta Russia was forced to accept a Second Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.”

The Double Imperial Extinction is also manifested on the Southern Flank of Russia. The First Imperial Enlargement in the Caucasus and Central Asia was carried out by the Tzars. In the 1880's in the Caucasus the Tzars had seized Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan from the suddenly collapsing Persian Empire, and in Central Asia in the same decade the Tzars took control of these mostly tribal territories. Power vacuums in the Caucasus and Central Asia opened the way to Tzarist penetration into the Islamic world.

After the Leninist Revolution the Communists Imperial Enlargement simply absorbed the Tzarist Imperial Enlargement in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Like a carpet the Bolsheviks took the conquests of the Tzars and swept them under the Communist rug, which was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Imitating the events in Eastern Europe, the Yeltsin Revolution witnessed the erasure of the Communist Imperial Enlargement, which was simultaneously the evaporation of the Tzarist Imperial Enlargement in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The dismemberment of the USSR in Dec. 1991 led to the Balkanization of the Caucasus. Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, all non-Slavic peoples, followed the Slavic Ukraine into declaring their independence. In Chechnya the Russians attempted to suppress an ethnically non-Slavic, and religiously Islamic secessionist movement.

The implosion of the USSR also resulted in the Balkanization of Central Asia. In the area between the mineral rich Caspian Sea, and China, where the Mongol Emperor Tamerlane established his capitol in Samarkand, five states emerged from under the Soviet imperial rug: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikstan, Krygystan, and Uzbekistan. All these countries are non-Slavic in terms of ethnicity, and Islamic in terms of religion.

The threat to the Eastern Pivot of Russia does not entail the Balkanization, but rather US military bases. With the coming of the US invasion of Afghanistan, with the need of the Pentagon for airbases in Uzbekistan and Krygystan to supply troops in Afghanistan, with the desire of the governments in Uzbekistan and Krygystan to move closer to the US to safeguard their independence from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, both Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan permitted the US Air Force to use former Soviet airports in their territories. The presence of US aircraft in Central Asia, like a dagger pointed to the arteries of Russia and China, opened the Moscovite heartland to the threat of a US air assault. It is approximately 1500 miles from Uzbekistan to Moscow and Beijing.

Golf - a game for the new rich ?
Golf - a game for the new rich ?
The decapitation of the USSR intensified the psychology of vulnerability in contemporary Russia. From the security of the Warsaw Pact entrenched on the Elbe River, the Russians now contend with NATO satellites on the Baltic about 200 miles from Peter the Great’s capitol, St. Petersburg, and this has deepened their neurosis of defencelessness and potential violation.

In terms of the Western Pivots of Putin’s Russia Prof. Asaev was convinced of an aggressive intent in the policy of inviting Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to become members of NATO. “The purpose can only be an aggressive one,” she asserted.” The principle reason for the eastern expansion of NATO is to negate any Russian presence in Europe.”

Prof. Asaev was equally suspicious of the NATO courtship of the Ukraine. With a population of 52 million Slavs a Ukrainian entrance into NATO would act as a cordon sanitaire against Russian influence in the South Balkans, the Straits of the Dardanelles, and Turkey. The stationing of NATO troops along the northern border of the Ukraine would position these American-European forces less than 500 miles from Moscow, and the threat of a NATO incursion only magnifies the neurosis of security deprivation in Russia.

On the Southern Flank Russian touches the Islamic World from Azerbaijan to Tajikstan. “America is separated from the Muslim world by oceans, but Russia sits on top of a volcano,” Prof. Isaev pointed out. “ Because Russia lies north of the centere of the Islamic World we have 300 million Muslims on our Southern Flank”

Adjoining the Muslim World makes Russia vulnerable both to Islamic secessionism and Islamic Fundamentalism. For a decade now Russia is battling an Islamic Separatist movement in Chechnya, and the threat of secessionism raises the specter of a further reduction in the already diminished territory of Russia.

The recent overthrow of the president of Kyrgystan, and the May 13th massacre of protestors in the Uzbekistan city of Andijon are indications that revolutionary Fundamentalist Islamic groups are active in Central Asia. One Fundamentalist Islamic group, the Hizb-Ut-Tahrir, or the Party of Liberation, seeks to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Tashkent, the capitol of Uzbekistan.

Events in Central Asia, along the Southern Sector of Russia, are suggestions that Russia’s war in Afghanistan is not over. These recent events are aftershocks of the Osama bin Laden resistance to Communist rule, Gorbachev’s treaty in 1988 appears now to be only a truce, and the religious Fundamentalism and political separatism of the 1979-1988 Afghan war could infect Uzbekistan, and Kyrgystan.

“Just like the US cannot control its border with Mexico so a radical Islamic victory in Uzbekistan, coupled with our Chechnya insurgency, would create a cancerous Islamic threat to Russia,” Prof. Isaev speculated. “How would American feel if Che Guavara were reincarnated on the US-Mexican border.”

The significance of the Caucasus and Central Asia to US geostrategic planning was not lost on American diplomatic theorists. Referring to this whole region as Eurasia, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski specified the exact territories in this vast portion of the earth’s surface that America must penetrate. In his 1997 book, THE GRAND CHESSBOARD, Brzezinski recognized that the excision of the Soviet Union changed the international dynamic from a bipolar to a unipolar world, and that the new American world hegemony necessitated the insertion of US power un Eurasia.

Faced with these threats along the entire circumference of her borders Russia is suffering from a diplomatic ego default. In the brief period of 14 years she has passed from a Superpower to the ego impairment of Super-Demoralization.

* * *

In the region of their international self-identity the Russians suffer from a sense of emasculation, and in the region of their domestic policy they are afflicted with a split personality. A generational gap fragments Russian society, and the line of demarcation is between the pre-and post-Gorbachev Era.

“My monthly pension was cut under Yeltsin, and I now receive US $100 dollars a month,” Nona Pavlova, my guide in Moscow, confessed to me. “I am 65 years old, it is impossible for me to live on that money, and I am forced to work. That is what I am doing here.”

Nona was 50 years old when the Soviet Union deconstructed, and she belongs to that pre-Gorbachev generation that came to maturity in a Communist society. She accepted the Communist ideology of a classless and egalitarian society, and she recalls from the depth of her memory that Bolshevism promised seniors pensions to maintain them above penury, and afford them pride.

“That’s all gone,” she lamented. “I must pay $50 a month in rent, and that leaves me with $50 for food, clothing, medical care, and transportation. Sixty-five year old people cannot survive on$50 a month, and all of us must work. Formerly I was a teacher of English, and now I am a guide for English speaking tourists.”

Contemporary reality has disenchanted Nona. She is a transitional figure living into the post-Gorbachev Generation, and she feels betrayed. The Communist expectations of her youth are contradicted hourly by the capitalist reality of the Yeltsin Counter-Revolution. In her mind the past and present are now in constant disequilibrium.

“I am cramped in a four room apartment with four other families. I had to find a cheap flat so I live on the very outskirts of Moscow and it takes me almost two hours one way to get to my job. Even veterans of the Great Patriotic War live today in poverty.”

The post-Gorbachev Generation were those young enough to take advantage of the Yeltsin Counter-Revolution, the capitalization of Russia. The Yeltsin Generation witnessed the emergence of a new social type, the Yeltsin Conquistadores.

The marketization of the Soviet economy was initiated under Gorbachev, but when Yeltsin took over the leadership of Russia he endorsed the “Big Bang” theory that called for the immediate sprint to privatization. Like a Wal-Mart post-Christmas bargain day Yeltsin dispensed with the state property constructed by the Soviet people over 74 years of hard labor. This was the biggest close out sale in human history.

The instrument used by Yeltsin to implement this privatization shopping spree was the voucher system. Every citizen received a voucher that could be used to transfer a share of state property into their private ownership. Such a system, however, was an open invitation to manipulation, and corruption.

Old, poor and homeless - the losers.
Old, poor and homeless - the losers.
A new class emerged in Russia, the Yeltsin Conquistadores. Like the Spanish privateers who plundered South America, these former apparatchiki of the Soviet Government employed their insider knowledge of the Soviet economy to use the voucher scam to gain control over the most lucrative enterprises of a dead Communism.

Yeltsin privatization created KGB capitalism. It allowed KGB officials, former Politburo functionaries, to exploit their insider knowledge and become Russia’s first billionaires. In his desire to excise Communism the Yeltsin “Big Bang” gave rise to a capitalist oligarchy.

Boris Kotlyarsky is a child of Russian privatization, and is now an entrepreneur who owns PETER THE GREAT CRUISE LINES, which ferries tourists up the Volga from Moscow to St. Petersburg. “I made out well from the Yeltsin reform,” Boris admitted. “But I must say that the multi-billionaires who raped the Russian economy are shameful.”

“Oil, TV, newspapers, are all in the hands of the oligarchs.”

“Many live outside of Russia now,” Boris continued. “They plundered this country, abandoned their homeland, and invest the fortunes in business opportunities outside of Russia. They are greedy people who did not even reinvest their booty back into their mother country.”

In the defunct Soviet Union a contradiction existed between ideology and power. On the ideological level Soviet propaganda extolled a classless society, social egalitarianism and social idealism. In terms of power the ruling class in the Soviet Union was the Communist Party. Contradicting their official ideology the Soviet Union was a class state, but class was not delineated by wealth, but by the political oligarchy.

In terms of power the Yeltsin Counter-Revolution generated a new Robber Baron class. Russia is still a class society, but the Yeltsin Conquistadores of Wealth replaced the Politburo oligarchy.

In terms of ideology the Yeltsin Counter-Revolution substituted inequality for the Communist dream of social egalitarianism. The Yeltsin Yuppies sing the hymn of economic greed, of Donald Trumpism, and the Soviet affirmations of social idealism are muted

The Yeltsin Catechism of Wealth resonated during a shopping reconnaisance along Old Arbot Street in Moscow. My guide, Nona Pavlova, took me to some upscale antique stores, and in several I found 18th Cent. Russian ear rings selling for US $30,000 dollars. For the New Rich it is Tiffany’s on Old Arbot Street.

The GUM Department Store monopolizes the eastern side of Red Square, and is just across from Lenin’s Tomb. During the Soviet Union the GUM specialized in Russian dolls and Vodka, but today it is refurbished with new chandeliers, and bulging with Yeltsin Yuppies who only look at Gucci, Sergio Armani, Versace, and Dolce and Gabbana. . Just 50 yards from the embalmed Lenin, sixty yards from where Stalin greeted Soviet troops during May Day celebrations, the reign of capitalist consumerism is coronated. The underground shopping mall at the Louvre in Paris pales in comparison.

As the transition from a Communist society to the post-Gorbachev Generation unfolded Russian society developed a generational schizophrenia. The under 30's, the Yeltsin Yuppies, embrace the catechism of riches and give a good imitation of Madison Ave. As they frantically scamper with lap-tops and cell phones. The pre-Gorbachev Generation is inflicted with a split personality. One side of their social schizophrenia is happy that the Soviet police state is gone, happy at the victory of glasnost, or the recognition of free speech. The other side of their psychological bipolarity condemns KGB capitalism, the enormous class divisions that characterize contemporary Russia, or the Yeltsin version of perestroika. Even though the official ideology of the Communist party was a fiction , the pre-Gorbachev Generation still is haunted by the dreams of social egalitarianism and economic justice.

“In Russia today Gorbachev is considered a traitor,” Prof. Isaev explained. “Glasnost was good, but in every other way he was incompetent. Russia needed to change, but Gorbachev was intellectually incapable of directing the forces of reform.”

“Yeltsin is hated,” Prof. Isaev stated candidly. “He opened the way to the rape of Russia, and was an accomplice in the despoilation of the country. His daughter is worth a fortune.”

The mass suspicion of the Robber baron class was one reason that Putin’s prosecution of Mikhail B.Khodorkovsky received popular consent. The sentencing of Khodorkovsky, the owner of the Yukos oil company, to a seven year prison term for fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion sent a signal to Russian citizens that the epoch of the Yeltsin Conquestadores was over.

“But we are never going back to a Stalinist dictatorship, “Prof. Isaev concluded. “What we expected when the reforms started in 1986 was Scandinavian style social democracy. What we got was the hegemony of Enron , or capitalist kleptomania.”

Signs of the social decay unleashed by the Yeltsin Conquestadores abound. The divorce rate is about 75%, and family stability is in decay. There are between 2 and 4 million homeless children. Abortiomn is high, couples are afraid to have children, and the population declines by 1 million a year. Alcoholism, drugs and AIDS are rampant. It is almost impossible to find a pregnant women on the streets of Moscow or along the Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg.

The pre-Gorbachev Generation is disillusioned. Their past tutored them in social idealism, and economic democracy. While they rejected the politics of the dictatorship of the party, they accepted the culture of the socialist dream. Their present now teachers them that conspicuous consumption, and class bipolarity are the accepted standards of the moment. While the post-Gorbachev Generation ended political authoritarianism it also destroyed the hope of socialist humanism. And disillusionment is the womb of depression.


Given the sensitivities of the Russian government and people, it is prudent for American policy makers to speak in a soft voice to the Kremlin. The encirclement of Russia is an accomplished fact and it is a sign of diplomatic maturity for the US not to flaunt its supremacy. This is particularly true in the Central Asian region, in Uzbekistan and Krygystan, which are equidistant to Moscow and Beijing. The US must not recreate the Cold War Sino-Soviet Alliance, and it must be aware that both Russia and China have important interests in Central Asia. Like Russia, China has an Islamic problem on its western border which is heavily populated by Islamic peoples who might secede from China to unite with a Central Asian Islamic state. For the US to be too aggressive, to be arrogant in Central Asia, would drive Russia and China together into a new Sino-Russian Entente. The old diplomatic adage of divide and conquer is still a valid foreign policy tactic, and it is self-defeating for the US to take any action that creates conditions for a Russian-Chinese rapprochement.