Monday, May 05, 2014

Thoughts on reading Russian in Search of Itself.

I just finished reading Russia in Search of Itself by James H. Billington. Published in 2004, the book summarizes the outpouring of ideas from Russians about the nature of the Russian Federation and the Russian people after the break up of the USSR in 1991.

I posted some thoughts on the book last week.

The book strikes me as a genre of its own, seeking to categorize contemporary writings on the nature of a political system and of a society. Billington, who is a distinguished scholar of Russian history, has read a great deal of the relevant material published during the dozen years he covers, and has had the opportunity to discuss issues with both young people and older Russians whose thinking has already influenced many of their countrymen. Still, I found the work unsatisfying.

It occurs to me that were someone to summarize views on U.S. governance and U.S. society from libertarians, tea party members, moderate Republicans, moderate Democrats, Progressives, KKK members. black nationalists, leaders of La Raza and militia leaders you would be more confused than enlightened. Add to those readings the ideas of leaders of various religions (Roman Catholics, Born-Again Protestants, Mormons, Buddhists, Black Muslims, Snake Handling Protestant Ministers, those who believe the end of the world is at hand, Jews, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Baha'i, athaists, agnostics, etc.) and the situation would not be clarified. Then consider the views of CEOs of large and small businesses in various industries, union leaders, directors of charitable foundations, leaders of the environmental movement, PETA, university presidents, and others, the result would be a cacophony. One might conclude that in the United States there was a wide diversity of opinion on the identity of the country and the identity of the American people, but little more.

I infer that Billington may feel that if and when Russians decide on their identity as a people, that will lead them to a decision on the identity of the state. Somehow by acknowledging the crimes committed by past rulers on their own people, building upon the Orthodox church that has been central to Russian life for 1000 years, integrating that with the strength of family and local community that characterized the majority of Russians, building on the Silver Age of Russian culture early in the 20th century, and selectively adopting innovations from western culture such as more democratic processes and more efficient economic institutions, by integrating them all, they will build a state. That state will evolve a new path with respect to dealing with its own citizens and with both the west and Asia.

It seems to me that the policies of this country come out of processes of government, politics and the media that form public opinion, rather than respond to it. Moreover, I think that views of the nature of the country and its society can change dramatically in only a few years. Thus I wonder if the author's quest to understand the process by which Russians are seeking to build new identities will really lead to an understanding of the way the Russian Federation will interact with the world. Perhaps, as has happened in the Tsarist empire and the Soviet empire, autocratic leaders will take dramatic actions, and foreign powers will act on Russia, and the identity of the state and of the people at that time will adjust to what it must.

When Billington wrote this book, Russia was just turning the corner economically from an economic crisis to what would become a decade of rapid economic growth. Would he have predicted that the economic picture would be much less attractive in 2014 than it was in 2004? Would he have predicted that President Putin in a new term of office would be leading a government that acts as it is acting now?

We have just seen a revision of estimates of the gross domestic product of countries, which has raised India to third in the world (following the USA and China) and demoted Russia to sixth (following Japan and Germany). So too, we are seeing Russia having fought a war in 2008 which formalized the speparation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, and having this year taken Crimea from Ukraine, is currently implicated in the crisis in eastern and southern Ukraine. How will Russia respond. I don't begin to guess.

I do guess that I understand a little more about post Soviet Russian society than I would have had I not read this book. That is not a little thing.

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