Published in September 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Welcome to a Prospect landmark—our 150th issue. Flicking nostalgically through some early editions, I came across the following (in issue 8) from the late Czech-born philosopher of nationalism Ernest Gellner: “The dismantling of the Russian revolution may come to be seen as a disaster comparable with the revolution itself. I write as a life-long anti-communist. Yet I deplore the disintegration of the Soviet Union… because of my concerns about the need for continuity. Marxism had provided the societies under its sway with a moral order—a set of values which helped people to orient themselves. They knew what the rules were… The astonishing and unexpected collapse of communism has left people naked and undignified…What or who are they now?” Gellner may have been overstating his case, but recent events in Georgia—and the cultural background to them, discussed in Arkady Ostrovsky’s cover essay—bear out some of his fears. Russians, like everyone else, need to believe in something. After the collapse of their civilisation and empire, they needed a robust liberal or social democratic ideology, rooted in Russian traditions, to take its place. When this did not happen, and post-Soviet political discourse collapsed into cynicism and self-loathing, the vacuum was filled by imperial Russian nationalism decorated with trappings from the Soviet era. This does not mean a return to the status quo ante. Communism is dead. Russians enjoy far more personal freedom and wealth than 30 years ago—and one of the first people to pay his respects on the death of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the literary scourge of Stalinism, was Vladimir Putin himself. But the failure of Russian liberalism has made it harder to integrate the country into the global system, and makes it a resentful and sometimes aggressive neighbour, as the Georgians have discovered. Ostrovsky is a bit hard on Russia’s “failed” liberal intelligentsia. After all, there was not much of a liberal tradition to draw upon after 1991, and everything happened so quickly that it is not surprising that the most influential factions simply reached for ready-made western models—especially economic ones. The west itself is not blameless, encouraging a rapid and lop-sided transition to a market economy and then appearing to take advantage of Russian weakness. The lesson seems to be that all countries have to find the path to an open market democracy in their own way, drawing upon their own traditions. Richard Dowden makes the same point about Africa’s need to establish its own kind of democracy, after the evident failure of the current European models. It’s early to be thinking of stocking-filler books. But you need look no further than the collection of the best of our “In fact” column.