Nikolai Biryukov and Victor Sergeyev

Dualism and Sobornost’

The Crisis of Traditional Political Culture and the Prospects for Russian Democracy

Institutional Innovation and Transition to Modernity.

The postperestroika politics in Russia call for a thorough revision of our ideas that relate to the nature of the Russian society and, more specifically, to the extent to which the schemes of modernization tested in a number of Third World countries of Latin America and the Arab East, apply to the postcommunist world.

The very notion of a universal model of transition seems suspicious if only because the experiences of Czechia, Poland and Russia, the three countries that have followed it, have been so different – not to mention the fact that it would be unrealistic even to try to “activate” a similar process in some postcommunist countries, simply because the necessary political conditions are lacking. Does not this dissimilarity of consequences hint at more profound differences in history and culture?

We would argue that political culture is of utmost importance here, for it must be realised that modernization is not just a new approach on the part of the leadership to this or that economic or political situation. Modernization is a profound change in the institutional structure, and, as far as the postcommunist transformation is concerned, there is hardly an institution, social or political, that is likely to be left untouched (certainly not in the field of economics).

This leads us to the more general question of how new social institutions are introduced and how one is to judge their chances of survival in a cultural environment that differs from the one that saw their birth and initial development.

Social institutions are by no means simply rules of game. They involve beliefs about society, social structure and social norms. Differences in political cultures, therefore, may prove to be fundamental barriers that prevent transplantation of social institutions to an alien social soil.


The Legacy of Sobornost’.

In our recent book1 we have dealt with one such episode of contemporary history, viz. the Soviet leadership’s attempt to institute a parliament-like representative body in the USSR between 1988 and 1991. Our central argument has been that the traditional Russian political culture – with its presumption of an inherent consensus between all participants in a political process and by its aspiration to political decisions that would be objectively true and, therefore, same for all and binding on all – has effectively deterred representation of specific interests in the would-be parliament and has prevented it from becoming an arena where a genuine social consensus based on compromise between diverse interests and competing visions of the country’s future might have been worked out. The attempts, on the part of the leadership, to impose what they saw as “objectively correct” decisions proved, under conditions of apparent social discord, disastrous to both the parliament and the entire country.

The political future of Russia will doubtless depend on whether it will be successful in instituting Western-type parliamentarianism based on procedure-oriented process of negotiation between different political forces and in thwarting claims, on the part of any such force, to represent the entire Russian society – in short, whether it will succeed in developing political culture of the kind known to Western Europe.

Political events that took place in Russia between 1990 and 1993 and, especially, the crisis over the Supreme Soviet indicate that the second attempt to create a parliamentary institution modelled on Western patterns proved ineffective again. This time the failure almost drove the country on the verge of a civil war.

It seems therefore vital to review this predicament of Russian parliamentarianism in order to assess the cultural restraints any potential reformer of the Russian society is likely to encounter.

However, some methodological remarks appear necessary before we turn to this problem. If the conclusions drawn in our book, viz. that the political culture of sobornost’ was one of the major factors that made for the failure of perestroika and the disintegration of the USSR, is to be taken seriously, a fundamental question to be asked about the Russian parliament of 1990-1993 is to what extent this representative body had inherited that political culture that had been responsible for the fiasco of its predecessor? Another question is whether this traditional culture has undergone any substantial change under the influence of perestroika, the dramatic events of August 1991 and the radical market reform of 1992?


Disintegration of Sobornost’: Individual Emancipation versus Institutional Innovations.

Two alternatives appear plausible when one considers the possible disintegration of the mentality of sobornost’. One is individual’s emancipation from the totality of the community. When pressed to its extreme, this is likely to bring about utter decomposition of the society and transform it into a chaotic aggregate of egoistic individuals, thus reproducing Hobbes’ classic metaphor of a “war of all against all”.

It must be noted here that disintegration of the “organic whole” postulated by the mentality of sobornost’ (“the moral/political unity of the Soviet people” in the communist jargon) started long before perestroika. It suffered its first blows in the years of Khrushchev’s thaw. True, that celebrated “moral/political unity” had, by no means, precluded the existence of all sorts of “renegades” and “turncoats”, who were seen as the people’s adversary in its desperate war against its apostates fought in the spirit of classic dualism.

However, the sixties seemed to indicate an alternative course for this process of disintegration of the traditional culture, viz. emergence of social institutions of a new (non-sobornost’) type, particularly in the field of the so called “shadowy economy”. It would be interesting to observe here that the institutions of the “shadowy economy” (“tsekhoviki”) acted at that time primarily as producers, not as intermediaries. Besides, it was the period when economic cooperation with West seemed more and more attractive – a characteristic change that would eventually pave the way for the “joint ventures” of the early perestroika years.

An alternative to the individualistic emancipation is thus substitution of modern procedure-oriented institutions for the institutions of the traditional sobornost’.

It is worthwhile to observe here that these alternatives were also made manifest in Western Europe at the time when European medieval society and its political culture, that had so much in common with what we have described as the culture of sobornost’, were approaching their end. They appeared then as the difference between Renaissance and Reformation. Whereas the emancipation of personality that the Renaissance exalted as the ultimate goal of cultural transformation failed to guarantee the realisation of the ideals of political freedom and proved, moreover, instrumental in the emergence of tyrannical regimes that indulged in all sorts of atrocities, the countries that embarked on Reformation (England, the Netherlands etc.) witnessed the growing role of parliaments and the flourishing of institutions that were to shape the economic life of modernity. Moreover, they proved able to introduce a fundamental cultural innovation by inventing an entirely novel mechanism of social integration that invoked operational experience and procedures rather than ontological beliefs and values.


The Renaissance Model and the Allure of Authoritarianism.

It was this dilemma that Russia faced in 1990. The initial period of perestroika, before 1989, was characterised by manifest attempts at institution-building (constitutional amendments, the new representative assembly, legislation on the cooperatives), but then different tendencies prevailed. In our opinion, the turning point was the Second Congress of People’s Deputies and the coinciding death of Academician A. Sakharov (December 1989). The democratic movement has since shifted toward populism, rallied round the charismatic figure of B. Yeltsin, and sought power as its primary objective, a precondition for the future reforms the program of which it never cared to elaborate in advance.

“The Democratic Russia” was basically forged as a movement contra. In this capacity it managed to unite all those who rejected the values and institutions of the Soviet society. However, if failed to provide a consolidating idea pro. The result was inevitable: immediately after its impressive success in the elections of 1990, the movement split, and some of its former candidates, like I. Konstantinov and S. Baburin, rapidly shifted toward extreme “patriotism”. The electoral campaign staged and won in the spirit of populism produced a deputy corps, whose members felt more at ease at mass rallies than in parliamentary committees. As to the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet, the most dramatic of their sessions were obviously modelled after mass rallies in Luzhniki or Manege Square.

On the other hand, proclamation of “radical” bourgeois values, such as absolute freedom of economic activity, the obvious tendency, on the part of the official state structures, to shirk responsibility for maintaining social stability under the pretext of opening a new chapter in the relations between the state and the civil society (all quite remote, indeed, from the actual values and activities of the renowned Western prototypes) has served to create a peculiarly nihilistic social atmosphere (nihilistic toward new social institutions, that is) that closely resembled the social atmosphere in tiny Italian states of the Renaissance period.

It was not, perhaps, too surprising that in an atmosphere like this distinguished democrats began to advocate authoritarianism and former champions of social justice and fighters against immoral privileges turned blind to the growing corruption. The political culture of sobornost’ was obviously in crisis, but it has been supplanted by the culture of dualism, of which the focal point is relentless struggle between Good and Evil, whether the latter is identified as the gloomy heritage of communism or the anti-national, “occupationist” regime of pro-Western reformers.

This uninspiring outcome is a natural consequence of the elite’s refusal (or inability) to embark on the course of institutional innovations. This is not to say that the country has seen no activity in the field of institution-building. It saw too much of it, perhaps, but those were mainly unsystematic improvisations that tended to produce helpless and ephemeral mongrels which managed to combine the incompatible: most obsolete features of the old regime with stunning elements of a radically new social order. The nation, however, gained very little from this fanciful monsters. Both parliamentary acts and presidential decrees often proved to be out of touch with realities, and were consequently never realised. It was customary for bills of law to be passed unsupported by secondary administrative acts and even regardless of their economic cost, that is without due consideration of their practical feasibility.

The ideology of the radical economic reform was confined to a couple of trivial monetarist maxims that never rose above textbook level and fell desperately short of the enormous social and economic problems that faced the reformers. Not only was the program of the reforms never discussed (the parliament was no exception, despite the insistent demands on the part of some of its members), it has never been even clearly stated.


From Sobornost’ to Dualism.

This paradoxical situation was the natural outcome of the parliament’s initial refusal to assume responsibility for the results of the economic reforms. The Fifth Congress of People’s Deputies (October-November 1991) chose to delegate the entire authority in this field to the President who was also to act as Prime Minister. In practice the job was to be done by a small team of hitherto almost unknown people who lacked both administrative experience and administrative connections. In essence, they have remained alien to the state apparatus they were called to head at so dramatic a moment.

Besides, the Democratic Russia, or rather what had by the time remained of it, that took ideological responsibility for the reforms was quickly losing its mass support which fell from almost 50 per cent in 1990 to 7 per cent in December 1993.

So it happened that in the critical post-August situation the Russian parliament behaved as a typical Sobor would do, viz. invested the executive with the maximum of authority. The deputies however failed to realise that power is easy to give, but hard to take.

The subsequent political developments followed the pattern set by reformers of a different sort, viz. the Bolsheviks. The reform started as promised in January 1992. However, the other promise – to stabilize the situation by autumn 1992 – was not fulfilled. Moreover, it was already clear by April 1992, when the Sixth Congress of People’s Deputies was convened, that the goal was not to be achieved and that the reforms had practically failed.

The practical retreat from the monetarist course in May 1992 was disguised by anti-communist rhetoric ever growing harder and louder. Simultaneously a campaign was opened in the press aimed at discrediting the Supreme Soviet and parliamentarianism in general and full of eulogies for regimes like South Korean or Chilean. It would repeatedly be asserted that without a “strong hand” Russian economic reform was doomed. The regime was obviously aiming to become populist.

There was nothing particularly surprising in this. Political development along these lines had already taken place once, viz. when the Bolsheviks, upon failure of their economic policy and the ensuing collapse of the national economy, had abandoned what had been left of the democratic rhetoric used by them in their struggle for power and had established a purely totalitarian regime in an attempt to escape responsibility for the disastrous consequences of their rule.

However, our new reformers could not follow that example if only because a populist basis for their regime could not be consolidated in so short a time (if, indeed, it could be anyway, provided the ideology and methods of the reform). Besides, the reformers of 1992 lacked the organizational resources that the Bolshevik leaders could rely upon.

Another important factor that hindered the regime’s transformation toward authoritarianism was its pro-Western orientation. As social tensions were building up and the regime’s internal support was vanishing, the economic and political support of Western democracies was becoming crucial and the government in Moscow simply could not afford to openly discard conventional democratic practices.


The Phenomenon of Russian Centrism.

In this respect the phenomenon of “centrism” assumed a new dimension. Russian “centrists” claim to distance themselves from both radical democrats and radical “patriots”. Political fortune has played remarkable tricks on them, now acclaiming them as the most likely winners of the political race, now throwing them into complete oblivion. Centrist ideas were readily endorsed by politicians who, like A. Volsky, had had close ties with the old apparatus establishment. The time is still fresh in memory when, on the eve of the Seventh Congress (December 1992), the Civic Union, of which Volsky was one of the leaders, appeared a likely candidate for the role of Russia’s leading political force. However, after V. Chernomyrdin was appointed Prime Minister by that Congress, it was the government that served as the centre of gravity for all the centrist forces in the country.

This is a clear sign that centrism on the Russian soil must be distinguished from its Western namesake: it should be regarded as a traditional establishment party that withstands marginal radicals of all kinds, rather than a position in the centre of the political spectrum. Significant in this respect are V. Chernomyrdin’s repeated claims that he does not engage in politics and prefers to do a real job (of governing the country). We have demonstrated elsewhere, that this technocratic attitude, for all its modern jargon and apparent rationalism, is easily married to the beliefs in the existence of objectively true social order that constitute the ontological background for the political mentality of sobornost’2.

Summing up Russia’s political development between 1990 and 1993 it seems essential to note that in all these years not a single force has emerged on the country’s political scene that took on the vital task of institutional modernization of Russian society. The heated political debate invariably followed the traditional pattern oscillating between dualism (as exemplified by the struggle between radical romanticism of laissez-faire, on the one hand, and communist fundamentalism cast as patriotism, on the other) and sobornost’ in its late bureaucratic disguise.

Meanwhile, it is hard to deny that the future of Russia will eventually depend on its ability to initiate social innovations that could help bring out a system of institutions able to cope with the problems that face a modern society. It is unrealistic to expect that so enormous a task can be accomplished in the course of a few years, but it is precisely in this field that Russia needs Western aid: if it comes, it better come in the form of social know-how transferred to facilitate the critical social innovations and the emergence of stable and effective democratic institutions, and not in the form of an unconditional support, political as well as financial, for this or that political figure that appears to best satisfy today’s needs, whether this particular leader’s domestic policy meets the standards of modern democracy or not.


1                  Victor Sergeyev, Nikolai Biryukov, Russia’ Road to Democracy: Parliament, Communism and Traditional Culture (Aldershot, Hants: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 1993).

2                  Ibid., pp.67-8.

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