Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for the ‘Other People’ Category

What Do Russians Want?

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It is clear that Americans and Russians attempting to understand each other on their own respective terms is a counterproductive effort, destined to lead to misunderstanding, misinterpretation and suspicion. Exhibit A is provided by Igor Panarin, a former KGB colonel who went on to be a political scientist and who has been predicting a US breakup since 1998. In 2008, he projected that in two years the US would split apart along these lines:

Igor Panarin's projected map of 2010 United States territory. From WSJ.

Igor Panarin’s projected map of 2010 United States territory. From WSJ.

My point here is not that this did not happen or that there are not tremendous unresolved political conflicts within the United States — although, from even a 2012 vantage point, the thought of the Eastern Seaboard joining the European Union is a bit of a hoot. What I want to draw attention to is that Panarin saw the conflicts playing out in terms that Russians would well understand:

Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar.
— Andrew Osborn, “As if Things Weren’t Bad Enough, Russian Professor Predicts End of U.S. “, Wall Street Journal, 29 Dec 2008 (the map is from the same source).

To give Panarin his due, mass immigration has become a political flashpoint this year, and parts of the country are experiencing economic decline. However, these parts are in the same states as other parts of the country that are doing relatively well. The divisions we are seeing are not along geographic lines.

I also believe there will ultimately be trouble for the dollar, but do not see the consequences playing out in sectional terms. Panarin had an understanding of the political forces at work, but viewed them through the lens of Russian political thought to make his predictions.

We also make mistakes when we look at the people of a country like Russia in American terms. Russians have different political traditions and expectations than we do. How are we as citizens to find out how to look at the world like Russians?

It is not practical for us to travel to Russia and interview a statistically significant sample of Russians, and even if we could, their political heritage would not necessarily lead them to be honest with us. Meanwhile, we have the advice of self-styled Russia experts such as Stephen Cohen, whom we know we can’t trust. It also doesn’t help that an estimated 56% of us have no plans to leave our home state, let alone visit another country. So what’s a citizen with a life and a day job to do?

Certainly, Russians do not have group minds any more than Americans do. There were 143.5 million people in Russia as of 2013, before the annexation of the Crimea added almost 3 million more people. Nevertheless, there are themes in the political currents of any country, and one has to be able to generalize somewhat in order to have a basis for understanding.

We can start by learning history and listening to actual Russians.

Snapshots of History

When times are bad, Russians say, “Things could be worse.” Often they have been.

Russia and the Ukraine were overrun by Mongols between 1237 and 1240. For the next 140 years, Russia was essentially a colony of the Mongol-Tartars. Russian princes who failed to produce enough wealth to satisfy their Tartar overlords would get a summons to the seat of the Golden Horde at Sarai; it was usually a one-way trip.

The Muscovite house of Rurik lead the reclamation of Russia from the Tartars. Ivan III (“the Great”) married a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor, and after the fall of Constantinople Moscow claimed to be the world capital of the Greek Orthodox church. There were continued Tsarist claims to be the Third Rome, after Rome itself and Constantinople.

Russia was remote and religiously disconnected from Roman Catholic Europe. The Renaissance hardly touched Russia. Western ideas such as, “treat your fellow man as an end and not a means,” never got wide circulation. Serfdom was only abolished in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II, who received his thanks twenty years later by being assassinated.

Lest you think that Byzantium is some minor cultural influence on Russia, it is, in fact, rather key. Byzantine cultural influences, which came along with Orthodox Christianity, first through Crimea (the birthplace of Christianity in Russia), then through the Russian capital Kiev (the same Kiev that is now the capital of Ukraine), allowed Russia to leapfrog across a millennium or so of cultural development. Such influences include the opaque and ponderously bureaucratic nature of Russian governance, which the westerners, who love transparency (if only in others) find so unnerving, along with many other things.
— Dmitry Orlov, “Peculiarities of Russian National Character” (

Because Russian political development missed out completely on the evolution from divine right of kings to constitutional monarchy the way Britain did, intellectual dissent developed differently as well. The well-meaning sons of the nobility who came back from study in nineteenth-century France were returning to a nation with a much more feudal starting point than the nations in Europe where they obtained their ideas. You could call the nation they were returning to “pre-Hobbesian”: the surrender of individual freedom to obtain security and order was not a rationally chosen social contract, but the condition of humanity ordained by God and instinctively preferred by any decent man. In effect, these intellectuals were attempting what we now call “nation-building” in their own country, attempting to leap from the high Middle Ages into the modern world. Where intellectuals in Britain or France might have sought greater autonomy for citizens within existing political frameworks, in Russia the development was more toward anarchism.

Russian society before World War I was very rigid, hierarchical and authoritarian.

Until Peter the Great, Russian officials were paid no salaries. They were expected to “feed themselves from official business.” And when the Marquis de Custine traveled through Russia in 1839, he encountered a member of the czarist aristocracy who said, “They tell me that in France, at present, the highest noble can be put in prison for a debt of two hundred francs; this is revolting. How different from our country! There is not in all Russia a tradesman who would dare to refuse us credit for an unlimited period.”
— P. J. O’Rourke, Eat the Rich (1998), p. 144.

All the Russian Tsars and Tsarinas remembered as “The Great” imposed themselves on the nation by force. Most of them also won wars. It is very unhealthy for a Russian government to lose a war. Nicholas II suffered a humiliating defeat by the Japanese in 1905 and was forced to accept a Parliament, called the Duma. He lost to the Germans in 1917, and paid for it with his life. From Peter the Great through Joseph Stalin to Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian regimes take action not because they want to provide their citizens with a better life, but because they don’t want to be militarily defeated by nations that can outproduce and outspend them.

The documentary War of the Century records a highly illustrative incident. In late August 1944 the Red Army crossed from the Soviet Union into Romania. Eastern Romania was hardly a wealthy area, but the Red Army soldiers saw houses with furniture and mirrors and thought, “This is where the rich people live!” Most of the soldiers had no such conditions at home. They shot up the villages and sacked the houses.

.. the Russian reaction to terrorist attacks, which is, typically, “They can’t kill us all.”
— Dmitry Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse, p. 148.

Because the Russians have low expectations of life, their worlds are less likely to be thrown out of kilter when trouble strikes. Americans seem to believe that, if something bad happens, it is someone else’s fault and that someone else should be prosecuted, tortured or at least professionally ruined. Russians are used to having bad things happen, and are prepared to ride them out. Things could always be worse.


Since the New Deal, we have become used to taking our problems to the government. In most of the world, including Russia, you stay away from the government or you will have more problems.

Taxation is the price which we pay for civilization, for our social, civil and political institutions, for the security of life and property, and without which, we must resort to the law of force.
—  Special Committee Report to the Governor of Vermont, 1852.

Most Russians would spit their vodka across the room if they heard somebody say that. They live under the law of force most of the time, and they expect to. Much as they did in the time of the Golden Horde, Russians see taxes as tribute and government as a racket.

Central authority, in the form of security, regulatory and judicial bureaucracies, then tends to become the most effective protection racket available. As long as it remains powerful enough to suppress its competitors, it can keep random, opportunistic violence in check at the expense of perpetuating a system of organized, legally enshrined violence. In recognition of this, even those whose fortunes are continually eroded by central authority come to support it, because they come to see the alternative as being even worse.
— Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse, p. 173.

What the Russians want out of a government is the best bargain: the most benefits for the least amount of tribute. A government that imposes violence on its own people but cannot hold its own with other governments is a travesty, unworthy of respect.

Russians would burst out laughing at a bumper sticker that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” They live in a world where stronger people can take away your toys any time they want.

Consider the romanticism around the memory of Stalin. Who would want that? Well, imagine your parents made it through the Stalin regime without having been slung into a concentration camp (no mean feat). You grew up in a nation that had defeated the Germans (with material assistance from the Americans, sure, but you did the bleeding) and asserted its parity with the United States. Since 1990, everything seems to have fallen apart. Drunken gangsters rule the streets of Moscow, the economy is shrinking and the West wants to push your country around. Wouldn’t the Stalin era seem like a period of national greatness to you?

Moral Degeneracy

Periodically, as exemplified in the Panarin pronouncement, Russians in positions of authority will make references to “moral degeneracy.” They do this in the expectation that this will be understood and resonate with the Russian people who are their audience. If you want to understand Russia, you have to get your mind around this.

Because of Russia’s history as an intellectually isolated nation, disconnected from European political and social developments, there is very limited support for the idea of personal autonomy, which is essentially an Enlightenment innovation. It is not your life to live as you want, unless you want to exclude yourself from the community and die an early death. If you’re going to live among other people and be able to rely upon them for protection against the various social predators roaming the landscape, then they have to be able to rely upon you as well. If you are going to reject community norms, the community can reject you, and watch how long you last on your own.

To Russians, individualism in general is a moral degeneracy. The biological purpose of predators is to cull the herd of the weak, and inability to function as a part of a community, performing one’s responsibilities to the community in exchange for mutual protection, is seen as a weakness. Many Russians do not want such weak people around, seeing them as parasites, and applaud efforts by the state to squash them.

After the suffering of many years of violence and oppression, the human soul longs for things higher, warmer, and purer than those offered by today’s mass living habits, introduced by the revolting invasion of publicity, by TV stupor, and by intolerable music.
— Aleksandr Solzenitsyn, 1978 Harvard commencement speech (

Even Solzenitsyn did not understand the West. He, like many outside the West looked at the randomness of Western society and saw only weakness. How could there be strength in a society in which people were free to do anything they wanted, to chase after nothing higher than their own happiness?

This means that the mistake must be at the root, at the very basis of human thinking in the past centuries. I refer to the prevailing Western view of the world which was first born during the Renaissance and found its political expression from the period of the Enlightenment. It became the basis for government and social science and could be defined as rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy: the proclaimed and enforced autonomy of man from any higher force above him. It could also be called anthropocentricity, with man seen as the center of everything that exists.
— Solzhenitsyn, 1978.

I am rather partial to individualism and autonomy myself, but this is not about me or us. This is about Russians. If we are to understand them, we must do so on Russian terms.

Dmitry Orlov is a follower of Prince Pyotor Kropotkin, who is remembered as an anarchist. However, he did not advocate individualism, but only absence of central control. In this anarchism, the communities would be free to self-organize and barter without interference from a higher authority (including the authority to coin money). Do not confuse this with some kind of radical libertarianism, which would make no sense in Russia. Orlov went so far as to present a “human relationship guide pyramid,” which he describes as analogous to the food pyramid.

Healthy and unhealthy human relationship pyramids, from Dmitry Orlov.

Healthy and unhealthy human relationship pyramids, from Dmitry Orlov.

The base of my pyramid, representing a royal share of a healthy human interaction diet, is made up of family, extended family, clan or tribe — those people who are closest to you, and whom you have known all your life (or all of their life if they are younger). These are your people — those before whom you have irrevocable obligations, who you can trust completely and will support, defend and protect unconditionally as a matter of family honor. This is the context in which all of the most important social interactions, such as nurturing, social grooming, teaching and learning, take place. Next, a somewhat smaller slice is made up by friends and allies — those people with whom you are united by bonds of friendship or solemn promise, but who are not your people. Next, an even smaller sliver is made up of strangers: those with whom you are drawn together, not through blood relations or personal allegiance but through accident or necessity or fleeting circumstance. While accident and necessity are to be avoided, a fleeting circumstance such as hosting a performance by an itinerant musician may be pleasant, but it cannot be prioritized above the needs of those who are not strangers.
— Orlov, The Five Stages of Collapse, pp. 85-86.

Note well: family are “your people — those before whom you have irrevocable obligations …” To think that you have no irrevocable obligations is, in this view, moral degeneracy and will lead to expulsion, oppression and a lonely death.

Over the past five years, there has been a lot of hand-wringing among the chattering classes in the West about illiberal democracy. Many Russians see little to recommend liberalism as it has come to be understood, only offering alienation, isolation and moral degeneracy.


Written by srojak

August 14, 2016 at 11:03 pm