Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Russia’s Binary Character

In the introduction to his new survey of Russian history, Professor Geoffrey Hosking describes the geopolitics and the ecology of the Eurasian landmass and highlights features of the national character of the Russian people, features that have developed over their thousand-year history. One of these insights in particular stands out, as it is an insight I also observed during my years studying Russian history.

Peter the Great
Professor Hosking notes the “binary nature” of Russian culture, its tendency to seek extreme solutions to problems and to lurch from one set of cultural patterns to their diametric opposite. He gives three examples from Russia’s history to bolster this argument: the abrupt replacement of an eclectic paganism with Orthodox Christianity during the reign of Prince Vladimir toward the end of the tenth century; the radical reforms of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, when the young tsar forced Westernization on his people; and the Communist revolution of 1917, when radical Marxists announced the formation of a new socialist state with its “new Soviet man and new Soviet woman.”
Vladimir Lenin

Hosking then suggests that the post-Soviet transformation in Russia in the 1990s may come to be judged as yet another of these radical, binary actions. “In each case,” Hosking writes, “the new was presented as the complete supplanting of the old, the dismissal of absolute evil and the introduction of absolute good.” As he studied Russian history, Hosking observed the problems this caused over time. “In a society marked by such extreme discontinuities, the elites, animated by one kind of mentality, would try to introduce reforms, conceived as being for the benefit of everyone, but would come up against the mistrust and conservatism of the masses.”

For the bulk of the Russian population, struggling for survival in a harsh climatic and geographic milieu, novelty and experimentation could be hazardous, even disastrous. Their resistance caused conflict between the elite ruling classes and the masses, and, as a result, rulers resorted to force and violence to make the changes they wanted. Such a society, Hosking claims, tends to generate utopias and anti-utopias.

Hosking notes that the same duality is present in Russian folksongs and folktales. Very often, the tragedy or humor evident in folklore is the contrast between a world of order and culture and another world characterized by poverty, hunger, nakedness or disorderly conduct. In Russian popular culture, the world of darkness is often used as a device to shed light on the world of morality and convention.

Russia’s Cultural Life

Interestingly, Dr. James Billington, in his book The Face of Russia, makes a similar observation. Billington notes that the Russians produced “a culture of explosion,” of unpredictable outbursts – “flash fires in endless snow, sensational creativity amidst senseless suffering.”

Billington’s book analyzes five periods of Russian art and concludes that, in each period, Russian artists followed a similar binary pattern. First, without much warning, Russian artists took over some new type of creative enterprise from a more advanced foreign civilization that they previously reviled. Second, having taken over someone else’s art medium, they suddenly produced a stunningly original and even better version of their own. This often happened, Billington notes, at the same time people elsewhere had given up on the artistic medium suddenly embraced in Russia. Finally, after having established a new and higher art form, the Russians threw it down and broke it apart, leaving only fragments behind for later generations.

Billington’s book and accompanying video trace this pattern through the lives and work of five innovative Russian artistic pioneers – the medieval painter Andrei Rublev, the early modern architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the early 19th century writer Nicholas Gogol, the late 19th century composer Modest Musorgsky, and the 20th century filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

Insights Gained

Understanding this characteristic of the Russian people provides helpful insights and may give us some hints concerning how Russians are addressing their current problems. Will the Russians, having taken over the democratic model of their previous enemy, create a new and distinctive Russian variant that will serve their country in the decades ahead? Or will they destroy their own experiment and revert back to the authoritarian tradition of the past?

After reflecting on these insights, I interpret them in a positive light. The Russians are the ones who will shape their own future. While outside forces can have limited impact on the margins, it will be the Russians themselves who will figure out what path to follow. If the West is waiting to see their institutions copied and transplanted in Russia, there will be much disappointment ahead. The most important change that is needed in Russia, in my judgment, is for the welfare of the people to be determined by the people themselves. Russia’s history has been one of “reform from above,” reform forced on the masses. When change begins to generate on the grassroots level, and slowly builds support among the people, then perhaps the extreme swings of Russia’s binary character can be moderated and a healthy civil society built.

References: Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A History (Harvard University Press); James H. Billington, The Face of Russia: Anguish, Aspiration and Achievement in Russian Culture (TV Books).

Originally circulated in July 2002


  1. JB - good insight in the Russian character and history. True that we love going to extremes here and then things get slow, at least on the surface. I think the move from democracy to a centralized rule has already happened, and the way to a more efficient civil society lies via more efforts at the local / regional level to take charge or at least influence day-to-day things (education, transport, etc).



  2. Sergei: Change from the grassroots level is of critical importance, since top-down reform (which has been the "Russian way") leads to these erratic periods. Whether Russians are ready to not just be "consumers," but also "citizens" is the big question.