“Nothing is impossible in Russia but reform.” Oscar Wilde
I think Oscar Wilde was wrong—but it will take time to know. The efforts to transform Russia into a viable and democratic economy, one that fits comfortably with the rest of the free world, will at best jerk forward over the coming years. But it is happening. Three steps forward and two backward. Still, one residual step in the right direction is something to be grateful for in a land of such immense potential. That is an improvement over Lenin’s assessment of Russian progress, “One step forward and one back.”
History has not been kind to the Russians. Seventy years of cruel rigidity under Communism within the context of a thousand years of autocratic rule has fostered a blind dependence on central authority, as de Tocqueville says “of servitude,” a resulting lack of personal responsibility and self confidence, and a fatalistic distrust of the future.
Historically, and largely because of their geography, Russians missed out entirely on the pivotal events of Western development. A thread running through their complex political history is the fear of and acceptance of an all-powerful and sometimes arbitrary central authority, the influence of constricting medieval orthodoxy, and the mystical unifying force called the “Russian soul.”
Russians have historically been torn between two conflicting desires: wanting to be in ways like the West, and rejecting the West as intrusive on their exclusive identity. Their solution has been to play the role of being a bridge between East and West. If the truth be known, they just want to be themselves, whatever that is. A fair reading of Russian history around the turn of the 20th century reveals not only an eruption of social discontent, but also the seeds of political progress. Many speculate that the natural extension of this political maturing would have evolved into a constitutional monarchy and finally into some sort of progressive economic system that would have allowed Russia to maintain a respectable place in the family of nations. That didn’t happen.
How Russia goes forward depends on the Russians. Patience and understanding on the part of the West are critical. But, we Westerners are an impatient people. A realistic partnership of Russia with its western counterparts is vital. The obvious goal is for Russia to take its vast land area with its diverse peoples and its great natural resources, and turn itself from a centrally controlled economy into a prosperous free market that utilizes the great potential of its educated and resolute people. Their job is to demonstrate the fallacy of Lenin’s statement, still cemented in the minds of some, “When there is a state, there can be no freedom, but when there is freedom there will be no state.”
Alexis de Tocqueville said, “The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men.” Hopefully, time and experience will change these “men.” When the formation of and support of democratic civil society finally overshadows the personal interests of a few men, then a stable and predictable nation will evolve. Russia is on its way to becoming a “civilized nation” as they so often express as their goal. Contrary to the Russian habit, this development cannot be legislated or dictated from the top. It must come from the bottom and move up. Of course, Russian leadership has never accepted or trusted this. “Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us,” said The Grand Inquisitor in “Brothers Karamazov.” This evolution will take time, maybe a generation or two—or three.
In Russia, hope dies last. Only the Russians can do it. It is quite possible that Russia will even have a working political, economic, and social structure similar to that of the West, but who is to tell? And does it have to be identical to ours to bring progress and happiness? Oscar Wilde said, “Nothing is impossible in Russia but reform.” I think Mr. Wilde was wrong―in the long run.
For more read “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia”