Russia Must Escape from Hyper-Centralization to Flourish, Pastukhov Says

Kremlin and Environs Aerial View

(Paul Goble – Window on Eurasia – Staunton, October 15, 2018)

Both supporters of the Putin regime and its opponents share a belief that a hyper-centralized state is the only basis for Russia’s survival, with the first thinking that the way things are being done now will ensure that outcome and the latter certain that with new rulers such an outcome will be possible, Vladimir Pastukhov says.

Such an assumption, however, the London-based Russian historian argues, is not only wrong but dangerous because it is leading both defenders and opponents of the all-powerful state in directions that will ultimately put the survival of Russia and the Russian nation at risk or at the very least marginalize both (

This faith in the all-powerful state keeps people from facing up to the real challenges, leaving them wallowing in nostalgia or dreaming about utopias that will never happen. “What frightens me today in Russia most of all, Pastukhov says, is “the lack of courage of thought, of a wealth of imagination and of a depth of fantasy.”

According to the historian, the challenges Russia today face “cannot be called unprecedented either in their nature or their extent.” Russia has had to face them in the past, but then unlike now, Russian elites had sufficient strength and courage to try to change directions. Now, on the most important characteristic of the state, they don’t.

“The problem is hardly in the size of the challenge but in its uniqueness when makes impossible the application to Russia of ready-made decisions.” Russia has to come up with its own approach, and it has done that more than once. “But not now: present-day Russian elites seek answers” either in something in the country’s past or from other countries so different as to make these answers irrelevant for Russia.

Those who look to the Russian past for models “are inclined to explain the civilizational catastrophes of the past by accidental circumstances, most often by the subjective mistakes of leaders,” Pastukhov continues. “Those how operate on ‘European innovations'” in fact do the same, blaming failures on the fact that this or that leader did not finish the job of reforms.

“In both cases,” he says, “the depth of ‘analysis’ of the past collapses down to the level of primitive conspiracy thinking and suggestions for the future” are based on recommendations to act forcefully either to defend what exists or to introduce something else, with no reduction in centralization or state power.

Trapped in this paradigm, neither side gets it right, Pastukhov says, because neither is willing to face up to more fundamental problems lest they have to do something about them. In reality, he argues, “Russia has exhausted itself as an empire, having ceased to be competitive in that regard a century ago even when it tried to adopt Western approaches.

That is because, Pastukhov suggests, “there are no recipes in the experience of Western democracy which could help easily to transform an enormous continental empire,” that is extremely diverse and includes extensive colonies, “into a contemporary nation state. But there are no such recipes in the archaic experience of old Russia either.”

That means that Russians must come up with something really new rather than continuing to rely on approaches that have compromised themselves in the past and even now. But “neither the powers that be, nor ‘the reformers,’ nor ‘the preserves’ seem ready to do that,” the historian says.

“Russian society lacks the courage to imagine something different” and thus escape from its current sad state – and this lack is reflected in the fact that all parts of the political spectrum have made the super-centralized all-powerful state into “a holy cow” whose continued existence cannot be questioned.

The only difference is the color of that cow, Pastukhov says. “The ‘imperialists’ are proud that their cow is ‘black,’ while the liberals believe that it can be pained a different color and then it will be ‘white and fuzzy.’ In this sense,” he continues, “‘the imperialists’ are even preferable because their views ae less utopian.”

“As long as Russia remains bound to the wheel of a hyper-centralized power, it cannot be other than a more or less qualitatively covered autocratic empire. The rejection of ‘the single channel’ of the power vertical is thus the moment of truth for present-day Russian society,” the historian says.

According to Pastukhov, “if society preserves such a vertical, then it will along with preserve all its ‘autocratic’ derivatives.” Those who think otherwise and believe that the state can be “humanized” or “Europeanized” or “democratized” are engaged in “a dangerous act of self-deception.”

“Either autocracy ‘as it is’ or the decentralization of power and the transition …to a consistent federalization [of their country] is the only real strategic choice which the Russian people must make in the 21st century,” the Russian historian argues. No compromise is possible despite what both those who support authoritarianism and those who say they are against it say.

Neither the autocrats nor the democrats “believe that Russia can exist without the Kremlin holding things together. The only difference is that “‘the autocrats’ consider this binding ideal while ‘democrats’ believe that it can be cleaned up and polished by democracy.” But neither really wants to break with the past: both are afraid they could lose everything.

But, Pastukhov insists, “the salvation of Russian civilization lies in the creation of a new civilization. It is senseless to pray to gods which have died. Neither imperial nor Soviet Russia is going to be reborn. They died because in a natural way, they both completely exhausted their possibilities.”

At the same time, however, no imported idea, be it from Europe or China, will help Russia because Russia is too big, too diverse, and too conflicted for any of those ideas to work without being transformed into something they are not, a pattern that has all too often occurred in Russian history.

To move forward, Pastukhov argues, Russia must break with the idea that a hyper-centralized state is the only way to save Russia and recognize that such a state will in fact lead to the country’s decay or even demise. And then, it must courageously move to create a genuine federation, however wrong or risky that may seem to current elites.

That won’t be easy. It is likely to take decades and to be marked by many false starts, the historian says. “It is not excluded that the Russian federation at some point will begin to remind everyone of an asymmetric confederation like the project to which the European Union has striven but not been able to realize.”

Pursuing such a goal is risky – it could lead portions of the country to depart on their own, “but it is the single possible path for the social and historical creativity” that could lead to the appearance of a new but “great” civilization in Russia, Pastukhov argues. But this pursuit is made even more difficult by the fact that in the end, Russians have no other choice.

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