Staunton, May 24 – “The thinning out of the Russian ‘cultural stratum’ and, as a result, the degradation of elites who have turned out to be incapable of responding to new historical challenges,” Vladimir Pastukhov says, is the underlying cause of the current decline of the country. All other causes, technological, societal and demographic, are “secondary.”
Any positive fundamental change will thus only be possible if an alternative culture with alternative leaders emerges, one that could arise either from “a mutation of part of the existing elites or from the development of marginal counter-cultures,” the St. Antony’s College historian argues (novayagazeta.ru/politics/73194.html).
Pastukhov suggests that Russia will develop along one of three main scenarios, which he identifies as “an ice age,” ending in extinction if there is no elite resistance, “an emergency landing,” involving disintegration as the result of a struggle among existing elites, and “an alternative Russia,” which would create a new paradigm in place of the existing one.
The probability of each will depend on the level of elite resistance, with the higher the elite resistance the greater the chance that the situation will be turbulent but with the lower the elite resistance meaning that while people will live calmly for a time, they may become “the last generations of Russia.”
That means, the Russian historian says, that scenarios which promise to be calm for Russia and the world in the short and medium turn will turn out to be without good prospects for the longer one, and vice versa as well. To make his point, he considers each of his three scenarios in turn.
The “glacial” or “ice age” scenario is the one the current leadership of Russia is pursuing. It is “stable” but not strong: “Contemporary Russia is like a ball frozen at the top of its course: if no one touches it, it will stand their eternally … but if anyone does push it from its place, it will never return to its original position.”
In this scenario, the regime’s survival strategy is to limit as much as possible any foreign pressure or internal anger. To the extent it succeeds in doing so and it has resources, nuclear weapons in the first case and Russian “patience” in the other, there is no reason that it cannot survive for a long time to come, but at the price of further degradation.
Putin, Pastukhov says, “has clearly mastered one of the lessons of Thatcherism: a weak government is most vulnerable when it begins reforms. So, no reforms and the avoidance at any price of anything extreme.” That is something that neither his foreign nor his domestic critics fully understand.
Putin has not restored “the evil empire” and has instead pursued a relatively moderate approach, one considerably more liberal than many others in the post-Soviet space now. Freedom of speech at least by Russian historical standards is fairly protected. And the Kremlin leader’s repressions have been both “targeted and selective” rather than something more.
Moreover, Pastukhov continues, “despite aggressive rhetoric and actions in foreign policy, the Kremlin in the final analysis is seeking exclusively the preservation and support of the status quo as the condition for its own self-preservation.” Putin doesn’t have any global ambitions and his approach is “an unending poker game” based on bluffing.
He is forced to play up to the edge but is careful not to go beyond it, hoping to get his way because of the fears of others rather than because of his own actions, the St. Antony’s College historian says. And if this conditions, the Putin period may be remembered as “’a silver age’” linked with Brezhnev’s “’golden’” one.
Most importantly, Pastukhov says, “this age can last significantly longer than it seems to many today.” There are no existential foreign threats, he suggests, and the Kremlin does everything to prevent the rise of conflicts within the elites over domestic policies. All that puts off the day of reckoning with Russia’s fundamental problems: it doesn’t solve them.
But Pastukhov suggests that those who wish Russia ill “should seek to preserve Putin and his regime with all their powers … [because] in essence, he is a genius at social euthanasia” and has kept Russia from causing even more problems for its own population and for the rest of the world.
“The glacier is slowly melting, and after a certain time among its endless waters will be discovered several islands more or less suitable for habitation, on which relicts of what was one the great Russian culture will settle themselves.”
The second scenario, which Pastukhov calls “the emergency landing” involves so many risks that the current Russian elite seems prepared to maintain its current “suicide pact” to avoid those threats, but the longer it is able to do that, the greater these risks will become and the more conflicts addressing them will involve.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “the resistance of existing elites within the framework of the current cultural paradigm not only will not improve but will even make the situation worse,” creating far greater challenges and threats not only to Russia but also to the rest of the international community.
Not surprisingly, there is evidence that within the ruling elite, there are various wings; and conflict among them can be “initiated by any side” and will not necessarily be by those committed to “democratic transformations,” especially if one or another part of the elite seeks to involve outside actors as has often been the case in Russian history.
“If the boat begins to rock,” he continues, “then the weakest link will turn out to be the relations between the center and the periphery.” That is already the case given that the center has made itself into a hostage of what the regional leaders do. But if these leaders sense a weakening of the center, they will seek more power – and that will involve not just non-Russian republics but ones formed in predominantly Russian areas.
The “false” federation will begin to fall apart, and over the course of several years, may decay into its constituent parts which will naturally “be oriented toward the major geopolitical platform closed to them” with the remaining Central Russia becoming “a small second-tier peripheral European country, suffering from all the well-known symptoms of a failed state.”
These emergent states are unlikely to have good relations with each other, and what is likely to occur would be “the Balkanization” of the Russian space. This would give Ukraine, which would certainly appear at that point to be an island of stability, its greatest opportunity to get Crimea back.
But such “an emergency landing” of the Russian space would “undoubtedly be the worst scenario and involve the most serious challenges to the entire world community.”
Pastukhov’s third scenario is the formation of a new Russian elite offering a new paradigm. The current elite, he says, isn’t capable of offering anything other than “’semi-collage’” or “’collapse’” and thus one can only hope as improbable as it may be that there will be “a cultural and ideological mutation” that will result in change.
It is at least possible that ‘if revolutionary shifts all the same begin in Russia, then one of the currently marginal counter-cultures could form a new cultural matrix,” something on the order of that offered by the Bolsheviks a century ago. In that event, “the twilight of one Russia could become the prelude to the dawn of another one.
Such a new elite, he says, “would be forced to cut through a Gordian knot of problems inherited from the old regime which cannot be resolved in the framework of the imperial paradigm.” And it would be forced to “destroy the imperial structure of Russian society and move toward a deal and real federalization” with “no more than 20 major and independent subjects which would have significant autonomy.”
According to Pastukhov, “this is the only chance to preserve the Russian world not only as a cultural but as a political phenomenon.” The formation of “a Russian nation state” would require “a lengthy transition period” that would become a battle ground for those attached to the “old” and “new” orders.
The Russian historian sums up by saying that in the long term, there are only two scenarios, not three. Either Russia must disintegrate into several “independent states” or its leaders must undertake “a deep federalization of Russia.” Disintegration would involve not just Russia but the powers around its periphery and would likely be dangerous.
Moreover, the remaining “core” Russia would for a long time be “the sick man of Europe,” with the control of its nuclear weapons being a major problem and with Russia being tempted at various points to “provoke military conflicts of various intensity” around its periphery and further afield.
Unfortunately, Pastukhov continues, “the formation in place of the existing Russia of a new Russian national and democratic state appears today to be almost a utopia, but it cannot be completely ignored as a possibility.” But “the preservation of state unity for Russia in its current borders will be impossible without real federalization.”
What will that look like? According to Pastukhov, “in this case, the future Russia will be something between the US and the EU.” But he argues that despite its improbability, “the preservation of Russia undoubtedly is the cheapest and most secure scenario not only for the Russian people but for the entire world community.”