Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Russia and the Pattern of Revolutionary Change

Yeltsin & Gorbachev
The level of frustration that many in the West have regarding Russia’s post-Communist transformation is unreasonably high, and this frustration is evidence of a lack of historical perspective. As a historian, I am often troubled by the views of journalists who apparently never took any history or political science classes and suffer from a disease best described as “presentism.” “Presentism” is a preoccupation with current developments without any comparative frame-of-reference or any understanding of historical context or antecedents. Reading the work of these writers, it is as if Russia does not have a past, only a present.

Russia’s Revolutionary Experience

The dramatic changes that occurred in the Soviet Union when Communism imploded are truly remarkable. Russians experienced five revolutions simultaneously: a political revolution, when the one-party Communist system was replaced by free elections and new parliamentary institutions; an economic revolution, when the planned economy was replaced by a free market; an imperial revolution, when the Russian government freed up its Eastern European satellites and the USSR dissolved into fifteen independent nations; a social revolution, when all of the supporting social systems maintained by the Communist Party dissolved, leaving families without the only assistance they knew; and finally, a moral and spiritual revolution, when Marxist ideology was discredited, leaving a moral vacuum and ending seventy years of official atheism. Few nations in the world have ever experienced trauma of this magnitude. Few nations have ever gone through radical changes like this without considerable bloodshed.

Medvedev & Putin
To expect Russia to become a democracy with a free market economy in fewer than twenty years shows little understanding of the complexity of change on this scale and demonstrates a lack of sensitivity to the legacy of history and how characteristics and qualities in Russian culture need to change before political, economic, social and moral transformations can occur.

America’s Revolutionary Experience

Think about American history. Twenty years after the American Revolution, the United States was engaged in its first foreign war against the Barbary States, and opponents of Thomas Jefferson were fighting against his plan for a national navy for fear that the federal government might use this military force against the states.

From its birth, Americans had a Constitution and a country before they had a nation. Until the Civil War, as historian Jay Winik has noted, America remained a fragile artificial state, or to be more exact, a series of states and potential separate nations. It is no accident that the word “nation” appears nowhere in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Forty years after the Revolutionary War, the election of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, confirmed the nation’s support for a strong and unified federal government. Forty years later, not twenty or thirty. It took time – decades – for America to develop into a unified country.

There’s a Pattern Here

Forming a new nation and building its infrastructure of laws and governing agencies is never a quick process. Professor Richard W. Bulliet of Columbia University made this argument very convincingly a few years back when he pointed out the following historical parallels:
  • Twenty years after the surrender of Charles I to Parliament in the English Revolution, Charles II was back in power. But forty years later, the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 ended the Stuart Dynasty and established a firm new relationship between the ruler and the people of England.
  • Twenty years after the French Revolution, Napoleon had transformed the First Republic into an autocratic empire. But forty years later, the principles of the French Revolution were inspiring similar revolutions all across Europe in 1830.
  • Twenty years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the USSR was experiencing Stalin’s purge trials and the decimation of the Red Army officer corps. But forty years later, the USSR put the first Sputnik into space and openly challenged the United States for world leadership.
  • And finally, twenty years after Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist revolution, the People’s Republic of China was being torn apart by the violence of the Cultural Revolution. But forty years later, the country was experiencing a successful transition to the free market and prosperity was spreading across this huge nation.

The writings of many commentators make it clear to me that they have little understanding of the difficult process involved in creating democratic and free market institutions. Democracy and capitalism cannot be generated in any nation without the construction of a moral base upon which these political and economic systems can be built. Systematic change of this magnitude does not happen quickly, certainly not in fewer than twenty years.

We need patience and an understanding of history. For those of us who are Americans, it would also help if we knew the history of our own country.

Originally circulated in November 2007


  1. John...thanks for this. Insightful and yes I agree perspective is really lacking in most commentaries....Yet one thing is really different from the other historical narratives... the internet and modern communications that I think condense things. So perhaps now 20 and 40 years are cut in half or quarter time....neil

  2. John: Well done. There are many concerns about the diminishing strength of political diversity in Russian and the continued corruption. However, you give a helpful historical perspective. We Americans are lousy at context. My remaining concern is that the young Russians that I have talked to have little interest in systemic change, saying it's best to stay away from politics. Rich

  3. I appreciate your insight John. Russian history, like any history is propelled so many factors. I think there is certain historical clockwork that repeats in the history of all nations, a certain consecutive process takes place. This also reminds me of a theory I once heard that major crises happen in Russia about every 12 years, 1905 being the military/political crisis, 1917 the systemic crisis of, 1929 the cultural/economic crisis, 1941 the military crisis, 1953 the political crisis after Stalin, 1965 the systemic crisis under Khrushchev, 1977 I can’t think of it... 1989 the systemic crisis triggering soviet collapse, 2001 the beginning of Putin’s era... I suppose in 2013 we are on the brink of the next crisis? It’s interesting how cyclically history repeats itself.

  4. Thanks friends for your comments. Neil, you are right -- modern communications surely do shrink the perspective we bring to these historical events. It is a case of "presentism" with little sense of historical context.

    Rich, it is true that many of the young Russians we work with have little interest in politics. They feel that their voice makes no difference, so why get involved. I would say they are Russian consumers, but not yet Russian citizens.

    Petr, I am not sure about the theory of 12 year cycles in Russia, but the dramatic transitions Russia has experienced in the 20th century is unprecedented in my opinion. For example, 2 and one-half "Great Depressions" in twenty years -- how do you survive this? "Social resilience" in Russia is amazing.