Russia: A Society in a Test Tube

My grandfather was always in the mainstream, always a part of the majority. His experience resembled the experience of most of his contemporaries. He was born in a country where most people (85%) were farmers like himself. His life changed when everyone’s lives changed— in 1929–30, when collectivization was introduced. He was at the front of the WW II, like most of his peers, but unlike many others, he survived. He was given a separate apartment at about the same time as many other workers. He died in a country where city dwellers, like himself, constituted the majority (70%). When my grandfather was born, the Russian Empire was mostly inhabited by people under 30. The country my grandfather died in was dominated by the elderly. This incredible transformation took place in less than one human lifetime.

Millions of people like my grandfather fled from villages, from hunger and the new order, and those who survived inhabited the cities. These young people, born to large families in the times of the revolution, were the first “new generation” whose lives did not remotely resemble the lives of all previous generations. Millions of new proletarians, in collective farms and cities, had to learn to live anew. Their ancestors’ way of life could no longer feed them. Large families became a burden. Their olden faith was annihilated and replaced by a new belief system.

A Controlled Social Explosion

The beginnings of collectivization, the elimination of “kulaks”, and forced construction affected the bulk of the population. The lives of over 130 million Soviet farmers were broken within few weeks. The scale and consequences of the events of 1929–1930 were in fact much more significant than those of October 1917. Historian Nicholas Riasanovsky, referring to the Baptism of Russia, termed the 1929–1930 events its “anti-Baptism,” arguing that together with the actual Baptism, these were the key turning points in Russian history.

These young, tough and homeless people who had hardly been able to get used to the old way of life were forced to master a new one. They were a blank slate: ready to listen, grasp and work their guts out. They were living proof of how much a human being can bear. Sleeping in a real bed, the prospect of getting an extra ration meant more to them than participating in the massive construction projects of the day. “Perseverance rather than enthusiasm were the norm. Perseverance cannot be considered a virtue in Aristotelian categories, but it did play a significant political role. It stopped the Germans at Stalingrad, and it helped people survive all the trials of Soviet history”—Riasanovsky writes.

Without knowing it, millions of new proletarians and collective farmers were taking part in an unprecedented experiment. The political elite sought to achieve its projected result, a socialist society, by rapidly speeding up the historical process and tightly controlling its course. This was in fact a controlled social explosion. Theorists and practitioners of communism were intent on imitating and improving the process that had taken several centuries in Europe.

Our history abounds in times when rulers sought to achieve their goals, believing that history can undergo technological processing, like metal. Peter the Great believed that it is possible to transform Russia into a European state within a single generation, and create rule of law, civil servants and the military. Soviet leaders were convinced that it is possible to create an urbanized industrial country in a test tube, skipping all the stages of its organic growth. Post-Soviet leaders reckoned that market economy can be “bred” without rule of law or the institution of property.

Inverted Modernity

Between the 1930s and 1950s, the Soviet Union witnessed rapid industrialization and urbanization. An unprecedented number of factories, mines and power plants were built; schools, universities and research institutes were established; theaters, concert halls and social clubs were opened. All this would have been impossible without the new workers—the city dwellers. By the early 1960s, the Soviet urban population was equal to the rural. This happened 100 years later than in England, but only 10 years later than in continental Europe —not that late.

A closer look at the Soviet Union’s accomplishments, however, was less optimistic. The average growth of GDP per capita during the whole experiment— from the “anti-Baptism” of 1929–1930 until the collapse of the Soviet Union—was merely 2.6% per year, despite the enormous costs, both human and material. As is shown in recent studies, the USSR noted its strongest economic performance in the late 1970s, when its GDP per capita amounted to 48% of US GDP. Moreover, the economic gap between the USSR and Europe was not substantial, and China’s GDP per capita was one-sixth of the Soviet Union’s (today it is half ). Literacy became widespread, and education and healthcare was more affordable than ever before in Russian history. An urban, educated population emerged, and due to a rapid decline of the birth rate, the size of the elderly population increased sharply. We approached “modernity” and almost caught up with it.

However, “almost” is the operative word. The results of the controlled social explosion as experienced by our grandfathers proved to differ from the results of the gradual, centuries-long development that took place in Europe. Our modernity, obtained in the test tube of a Soviet experiment, was glaringly lacking in something.

It was lacking in what was brushed aside in the process of construction. Since the historical process was controlled, the leaders of the huge project codenamed “USSR” could sweep off the table all they considered redundant, such as property rights and active participation in the country’s political affairs. What the Western societies reached in a “dirty” way, through trial and error, the Soviet ideologues sought to omit, pursuing a “clean” way of constructing their utopia according to the blueprint.

However, utopia is not an applied idea by definition. Most utopias are paper architecture, i.e. designs that are not intended to have a physical embodiment. American historian Martin Malia argued that“the Leninist adventure turned out to be what has been called a ‘mistake of Columbus’: the Party set sail for socialism but instead stumbled on Sovietism, thereby landing Russia in an inverted modernity.”

One might call this experimentally bred Soviet modernity a reflected one, and this would not contradict the idea put forward by Malia, who perceived Russia not as an “anti-West,” but as one of “Europes”: “There is no Europe as a homogeneous cultural whole, opposed to Russia. Europe should be examined as a number of ‘special ways’, including the Russian way.” The Soviet Union developed as a response to the West. And in the last two and a half decades of its existence, the Soviet modernity seemed increasingly convincing: The Soviet Union became a scientific and space power, dynamic oil and gas production started, the country imported technologies of mass production of consumer goods. The lifestyle of my parents’ generation from large Soviet cities vaguely resembled that of their peers in Europe and the US. Thanks to large-scale housing construction, more and more people could afford separate apartments. The life of an ordinary Russian was becoming more comfortable—one could spent holidays at the seaside, buy a car, travel around the country, get an education and organize leisure activities for one’s children.

Generational Capital

It has now become obvious that post-Soviet Russia lacks the rule of law ingredients that were excluded from the Soviet modernization process by the Communist Party: property rights and the right to political participation. But the program embedded in the mass consciousness by our grandfathers continues to function. The ladder my grandfather was clambering up, was made up of specific steps: To survive, subsist, find shelter, find a room, get registered, get a separate apartment, and, if you’re lucky, top the success with a dacha and a car. By the end of my grandfather’s life, a dacha and a car were within reach. He declined the dacha, he could not stand rural life in any form. He took the car: he was entitled to a “Moskvich” from the city council as a disabled war veteran. He could not get behind the wheel, though, and could only watch his car from the window. From up there, the“Moskvich” looked like a real car, and it was his own. My granddad could consider his program accomplished.

There was nothing ridiculous or mean in this chain—an apartment, a dacha, a car. My grandfather, like millions of his peers, paid too high a price for these urban achievements. He did not even know how high, because, thank God, he could not have known the contemporary studies on the Soviet economy. He had nothing with which to compare his life, it was just like the lives of those he saw around him. Whenever I asked him why they had put up with all the communists had done to them, he never answered, and it seemed he did not understand the question.

It is only now that I realize that asking him this question was cruel. My parents and I knew Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, while for my granddad and most of his peers—those who had been to prison and those who had not—their own experience was as much as they could take. The generations that went through collectivization, the camps and the war had a moral right not to know the whole truth about the Soviet history. And it is the only generation that can be excused for this; none of the subsequent generations can.

The accomplishment of his generation was not to expose an inhuman political system and rise against it. Its accomplishment was to start from inhuman conditions in which millions of people found themselves, homeless and uprooted from their native environments, and then to move on to create something that resembled human conditions. To go through that slaughterhouse and by the end of one’s life to make it seem as if there had been no slaughterhouse. A table, a carpet, china and cut glassware, an apartment, a dacha, a car—of course, these were just things. However, for our grandparents they were like a Promised Land for Moses and his generation. Moses reached this land, but did not get to live in it. Therefore, the message from our grandparents, who went through the Soviet slaughterhouse for the sake of life that resembled real life, to the next generation, could sound like this: we paid the price, now you enjoy it.

However, the successive generations also had to start their lives anew repeatedly. When life develops organically, step by step, every generation can lean on the resources accumulated by the previous ones. But in Russia, almost every generation was being derailed as if on purpose. The economist Vladimir Yuzhakov calls it the “de-capitalization of generations”: “For the bulk of the population, not only consumption, but also the possibility of accumulation was restrained. Expropriation, nationalization, collectivization, the prohibition of entrepreneurship, the mobilization economy (reduced wages, forced and virtually unpaid labor in the countryside), millions who fell victim of repressions, including the most active part of the society, not to mention the loss of population during the two wars and hunger—all this has drastically reduced the generation potential”.

We tend to say that the majority in Russia has a habit of looking up to the state for handouts. Sometimes it seems almost a part of our culture. But my grandfather, like millions of his peers, was not disposed “paternalistically.” He chose not to perish in a settlement, not to starve in the countryside, but to set off and build a new life. State collectivization deprived him of his background, of cultural and material capital amassed by his father. But for my grandfather and his son, my father, that very state became the only master and employer they knew. Therefore, the majority’s inevitable paternalism is a feature of our history rather than culture. It is our “rut effect,” our path dependence.

“With each generation, people were becoming more and more dependent on the state—Yuzhakov writes.—Their ability to solve their problems independently was declining, not increasing.” And even when it wasn’t, they often had to start from scratch—after they had lost everything during the Revolution, had been deprived during collectivization, in the war, after the collapse of the USSR. This collapse was the last “reset” of the capital of previous generations, and the losses it caused can be compared to the results of the Revolution. Life in which each generation experiences a complete loss of heritage cannot be anything but peculiar.

A Vicious Circle

There are many consequences of our explosive, regularly nullified history. First, people tend to turn to the state for help, but when disappointed, they just as easily go against the state. Second, the key discussion points are repeated from generation to generation. Of course, books are there on the shelves, but many a past consensus has been erased from our memory, so over and over again we argue about our development path, our values and Russia’s place in the world. Each generation begins to accumulate its cultural capital again, as if from scratch.

The same goes for material capital. The third consequence of our “resets” is that it creates in those who have the possibility of accumulation the urge to do so without restraint, with no regard for others and for the country. To take what they can, when they can. Whenever I think of the suburbs full of posh residences, large and small estates, all those villas purchased by Russians abroad—I can see the “accumulation program” in action. I am aware that the children and grandchildren of our ancestors keep on implementing their will and cannot stop: another renovation, another car, another country house, higher, larger, more… Huge and ornate palaces constructed by the elites are part of the same story, such as the so-called Putin’s Palace. These people are also part of the generation that was left to consume happily ever after. They took this message too literally. They seem to continue to escape from homelessness by multiplying the number of the square meters they own.

This does not mean that we are doomed to remain in this vicious circle. I’m curious about the next generations—the ones following Putin’s generation. It seems to me that those who were born in the 1970s and 1980s have more on their mind than only possessions and real estate. The power of inertia may be huge but it’s impossible to imagine that this tune will be playing endlessly.

As I have mentioned above, Russia is a modernized country, but in a very strange way. There is something clearly missing in this modernized reality. The “old,” non-modernized elements of this reality are intangible: rights are not protected, the majority of the population is deprived of representation at the state level, the state itself is archaic and corrupt. This institutional incompleteness has been used by the political and business establishment of Putin’s Russia to generate a specific kind of entrepreneurship. The “flexibility” of rights is used to redistribute property in favor of the ruling class. At the same time, even the ruling class shies away from keeping assets in the country—ownership regulations are unsteady—so they are transferred abroad.

Even if the program for the 20 post-Soviet years boiled down to the distribution of assets and making money at any cost, there must be another program ahead—i.e. the preservation and multiplication of what’s been accumulated. Fortunes were earned using any means possible, without any laws and regulations. However, in order to protect the assets gained, laws and regulations are necessary. If keeping assets, savings and families abroad continues to be the only way to keep them safe, Russia will in fact remain a colony, a resource base for those who do not live there and only earn there.

There may be different ways to interpret the message left by the older Soviet generations. How should we live? Get more apartments, houses and cars? Build larger houses? Or nicer ones? The younger Soviet—and all subsequent—generations have no right not to know Soviet history. This means that we should be interested not only in the number of meters owned, but also in their quality and aesthetic values. We should bear in mind what society was artificially deprived of during the Soviet period: protection of property rights and the representation of private interests at the public level. Without public life, private life becomes fragile. Before you know it, the state may lay its hands on your city (you will be stuck in traffic jams for hours to let the privileged cars of the elites pass), your backyard (an elite garage will be built where you once used to walk), your house or apartment (your registration will be checked), and even your bed (you will be checked for “gay propaganda” which has been banned by the parliament this year).

This is the lesson of the last 13 years, and a program for the years to come. “Decolonization” and the creation of a stable legal regime in Russia will not be an easy task and is likely to stir numerous conflicts. But if we assume that this task is impossible, making plans for living in this country will be senseless.

Maxim Trudolyubov

Editor of the “Comments” section in Vedomosti daily. This article is a part of his forthcoming book People behind the fence: Privacy, power and property in Russia.

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