It’s the imperialism, stupid

Today I visited the presentation of the book with an intriguing title: The Everyday Life of the State: Russian Officialdom from Alexander III to Putin. Both presenters Eugene Huskey and Don Rowney were extremely good at presenting their findings about civil service/bureaucracy evolution in Russia. I was specifically delighted by the clarity of their English and sound argumentative framework.

The more I was struck by their response to two similar questions. One was mine suggesting, that perhaps Russia’s inability to progress administrative reforms was connected to the issue of contemporary Russian imperialism and fear of territorial disintegration (I referred specifically to the work of Dmitri Furmanov).

I quoted Furmanov saying, that unlike European colonial powers, Russia’s geography made it impossible to have political reforms in the mainland of the empire and keep its colonies away from from these reforms. So as soon as reforms started in the mainland empire, they had immediate impact on the periphery and the USSR disappeared. So my argument was that perhaps this fear of disbandment was holding back administrative reforms in Russia.

The other guy followed up with a question whether Russian Federation could remain in its present limits, when it is democratised.

The answer was astonishing. Well, Eugene Huskey recognised there was this fear, but there were also other fears and he didn’t think, that fear of disintegration was the main one or that even it played any significant role. He also said many other countries are much more heterogeneous than Russia and that as Russian populace is 82% ethnic Russian, Russia should not be worried about it, he recognised though that North Caucasus was an issue. Don Rowney went further than that, saying that any country would react to a separatist movement in the same fashion as Russia did in Chechnya.

I was really amazed by the points that these distinguished scholars made. First of all, I think, heterogeneousness only partly might explain why some countries are more prone to keep together and others less. They were saying that Nigeria was much more diverse, than Russia and had no single big nation to control the country. However, the difference is that Russia has been kept together by fear in about the same fashion as the USSR and Russian empire previously. This has become more evident after the wars in Chechnya. So fear obviously evokes either resistance, resilience or surrender or mixture of all of these, in any case it does not seem to be a very strong foundation of the state. Also Russians have the example of the Soviet Union – disintegration of a state much stronger and more influential on international scene than contemporary Russia – it was also very strong and less diverse than many other countries in the world. So why should the Russians not fear disintegration of the country and not see democracy as a way national minorities might gain their political rights including right to secede from Russian Federation?

Suppose France’s president De Gaul did not withdraw troops from Algeria, could the French have robust democracy on the mainland today and colonial system in Algeria? Maybe yes, but it certainly would be a great strain on the government to keep this situation for a long time. I don’t understand why when it comes to contemporary Russia, the scholars back off and start looking at Russia with a completely different mindset, as if Russia were not an old-fashioned colonial power.   

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