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In Search of Wealth and Power by Benjamin Schwartz, published in 1964. Rating: 4/5.


In Search of Wealth and Power is a very dense but richly rewarding tome by Benjamin Schwartz, a noted China scholar. He focuses on the life of the translator Yan Fu to illustrate the culture clashes that arose when traditional Chinese civilization came into contact with Western philosophies.

Yan Fu was a translator and thinker who was one of the first Chinese to engage with Western thought at a deep level. He rejected contemporary thinkers like Zhang Zhidong, who aimed to integrate Western technics onto Chinese cultural foundations – not for him was the slogan “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Nor was he a Marxist, to consider society as a mere superstructure to underlying economic realities. Instead, Yan Fu emphasized that if anything there was “more materialism (in the ethical sense)” among Chinese than in the West, whose own material foundations were built on innovative legal, political, and spiritual foundations. In a nutshell, the purpose of Yan Fu’s lifework was to foster the evolutionary growth of these Western qualities, many of them quite intangible, so as to “enrich the state and strengthen the army.” Yet in so doing this through his translations and commentary he ran into many paradoxes, and grew disillusioned with Western thought in the last decade of his life – as did admittedly many Western intellectuals as well. At the end he (re)turned to a form of Taoist mysticism.

At the start it is important to note that Yan Fu was intimately acquainted with all major strands of the Chinese philosophical tradition. Confucianism had been the bedrock of the Chinese state since the Qin dynasty. It stressed the importance of filial piety, of the ruler setting a virtuous example of the people, and of keeping laws and regulations light; however, Yan Fu and numerous other members of the Chinese intelligentsia during that time were coming to see it as a regressive influence keeping China backward. For his own part Yan Fu has little patience with it, beyond keeping its few good parts – mostly those to do with family organization – and extending it to the masses, the armies and factories (much as he perceived Christianity to have laid the groundwork for English public spirit despite its purported theological errors).

The other strand that he drew on is Legalism, a far more practical doctrine that contained the Chinese version of balance of power theory and Machievallian ideas about the state. Furthermore, Schwartz writes, “while the immediate aims of the Legalists may be narrowly fiscal, the germ of a notion of economic development is latent within this mode of thought.”

Finally, there was Taoism; although the least practical of the three, Yan Fu was extremely influenced by it. In its attribution of a deep and incomprehensible driving force he found deep parallels with the monist Western philosophers, as well as a metaphysical lattice to hold together the evolutionary process and the “ten thousand things”. It did not proscribe a frozen feudal order like old-school Confucianism, and it was the polar opposite of the crass materialism of Legalism. As such, Yan Fu considered it the ultimate anchor on which Western philosophical concepts could be moored, even going so far as to argue proto-democratic tendencies in the works of Zhuangzi.

Of course while finding a balance between Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism seems to be hard enough, meeting the challenge of Western ideas is all the more so. Possible consequences include the very extinction of certain Chinese intellectual traditions, for whereas “one could conceive of wealth and power as an outer rampart for the inner sanctum of essential Confucian values and institutions only so long as the requirements of one were not incompatible with the demands of the other.” But what if it was impossible to build the new fort, bristling with modern weapons, without also “destroying the sanctum”?

This dilemma reflects one universal to all non-Western conservatives who realize their country’s backwardness. For instance, Nikolai Trubetzkoy would lay out precisely this dilemma in his seminal 1918 tract Europe and Mankind, where he noted that whereas Romano-Germanic nations could “move along a well-worn path, looking neither to the right nor left and concentrating its efforts on the coordination of elements from a single culture” and the rest of the world had to manage the culture clash of its own traditions with these European imports. Staying still is not an option because of the West’s military threat; on the other hand, the permanent culture clash involved in copying the West, the so-called “duel logique”, expends precious energy and reinforces the permanent gap between the Romano-Germanic world and the country attempting to modernize. Eventually the situation becomes desperate and the lagging country attempts a “long leap”, covering in a few years what took decades or centuries of organic development in the original countries. But the consequences of these leaps tend to be terrible, according to Trubetzkoy, because it is followed by “a period of apparent (from the European standpoint) stagnation, when it is necessary… to coordinate the results achieved by a leap in a particular area with other elements of the culture.”

Yan Fu stares this dilemma straight in the face. On the one hand, it is necessary to modernize, and – he believes – modernization has to be full-spectrum, and not in just the narrow military sense that he senses will lead to ruin, as with Peter’s Russia. He is a proponent of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, and applying biological laws to that of society; individuals and nations are evolving, competing, progressing… unfortunately, the process hadn’t taken off in China. So paradoxically, China had to kick-start it via Great Men and legislators, a hopeless task according to at least two of Yan Fu’s Western philosophers – the Master himself, for Spencer believed that social evolution was a natural process that was outside human influence; and Montesquieu, who held that riverine civilizations located on great plains have a natural tendency towards despotism. No wonder then that Yan Fu cardinally reinterpreted Spencer to create a kind of “Evolution and Ethics with Chinese Characteristics,” and vigorously argued against Montesquieu’s crude geographic determinism and understandable lack of foreknowledge about technological changes that would shrink the world and make it more generally conductive for the evolution of democracies. It is stressed throughout the book that Yan Fu’s commentaries on these Western philosophers, his attempts to reconcile them with contemporary Chinese realities as well as its own intellectual tradition, were every bit as significant or even more so to the intellectual atmosphere in China than the actual translations that he performed.

Personally conservative and patriarchal; supporter of a strong state, but also one with liberal elements and public spirit – one gets the impression that disillusioned as he was by the 1910’s, Yan Fu would have had his faith restored by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. The state there was not a full democracy, but a managed democracy that maintains fairly strict social mores under a liberal economic environment. He would not have had too many issues with Taiwan either, where a dictator governed until the 1980’s, when – as he might see it – the people had become advanced enough to run the country themselves. As a man who loathed the idea of sudden, jolting changes he would have been aghast at the Maoist model, which developed by Trubetzkoy’s playbook: Importation of a Western ideology (Marxism) in one of its more extreme forms, and its attempted marriage to Chinese cultural traditions (some, like Confucianism, were repressed; others, like Legalism, were not, as Mao indeed was an admirer of Shang Yang’s methods); attempts to “leap forwards” (literally so, in 1959-62); a period of cultural clashes (Cultural Revolution 1966-76) and relative stagnation.

Even so, in a way the Communist Party did introduce important elements of Western thought and habits. There was a real emphasis on development, even if in practice was very inefficient until the late 1970’s. Concepts such as subsistence as the ideal were decisively rejected (in theory if not quite in practice). And one can even argue that the Communists introduced a kind of public spirit with the economic system of rural collective farms and urban danwei system and Maoist songs such as Comrade in Arms and The East is Red (equivalent in some ways to choral songs under Christian civilization). However this sense of community broke up pretty quickly after the 1970’s, people no longer call each other 同志, which formerly meant comrade but now denotes homosexuals in popular parlance, but things such as corruption and greed are also believed to have increased under the new capitalist order. Ironically however a similar process took place in the West, e.g. community life and public spirit is held to have declined since the 1960’s on most metrics both statistical (e.g. wealth inequality, incarceration rate, crime rate, etc) and intangible. So in a sense China and the US are converging towards being richer, more atomized societies. Perhaps Yan Fu would have seen this as a vindication of Spencer’s original vision after all, though then again, it’s not like the “power” part of “wealth and power” is exactly irrelevant today what with an incipient naval race between the US and China in the West Pacific.

What this book exudes in academic dryness it easily makes up in lucidity and erudition. (This is a 1960s Harvard man, writing well before it became widely acceptable to substitute genuine research with meaningless PoMo-babble). Unfortunately the Wade-Giles system is used throughout, but again that’s standard for that time. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, unlike Arthur H. Smith’s Chinese Characteristics, but definitely recommended for those who wish to delve into modern Chinese intellectual history, China’s “encounter” with the West more general, and the interplay of traditional Chinese philosophies with interloping Western ideas.

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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waterloo“[Poker] exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made [the United States] so great.” Just consider the array of similarities:

1. Though there are rules and etiquette loosely associated with it, otherwise everything goes: in other words, its fundamental nature is profoundly amoral. (This is contrary to the ideologues who claim that capitalism is either A) “moral” / God-sanctioned / Rand-sanctioned / etc or B) “immoral” / “imperialist” / etc; newsflash, it’s NEITHER).

2. Players governed by emotions that cloud out calculation lose out in the long run. Blocking out emotions is harder than it sounds, because as in real economies, even able and rational poker players are sometimes overcome by the “animal spirits” of the moment.

3. It is important to maintain a good reputation: for instance, if you become known for bluffing too much (or not bluffing at all), you are going to get called out on it and lose money. Under advanced capitalism every major corporation maintains a PR department.

4. The majority of people in many capitalist societies such as the US believe that they are good enough to get well ahead, whereas in practice that is rarely the case (e.g. median household incomes have been more or less stagnant since 1973). Likewise in poker, most players believe they’re really good at it – ask around and you’ll find that 75%+ of people who play poker say they win on average, despite the mathematical impossibility – but in real life, only <10% end up corralling most of the gains.

5. Those who do lose attribute it to bad luck, rigged games, etc. -anything but their lack of ability. Likewise with the losers of capitalism.

6. The Matthew Principle: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”. Just as there is a tendency in capitalist economies for wealth to become concentrated, so the players with the biggest stacks have a major advantage.

7. Poker doesn’t make money, it only redistributes it. Likewise with capitalism, which doesn’t generate wealth per se, which only comes from labor, capital, (finite) natural resources, and the efficiency with which said factors are converted into useful work. The idea of capitalism (or of bankers, at least prior to 2008) as somehow generating value out of thin air, bypassing the laws of thermodynamics, is one of its most powerful myths. Poker players at least aren’t subject to this delusion.

8. As with effective capitalist systems, there is a lot of scope for social mobility based on specific talents; however, the adjustments can be very big from round to round in no limit poker. (More regulated capitalist systems are akin to limit poker; less regulated to no limit). Bad capitalist systems, e.g. ones dominated by oligarchs or monopolies, are akin to rigged games with insider dealings.

9. However, if you’re ruined, you can sometimes get back into the game. For instance, through buy-backs. But that is rare. More frequently, you are simply ruined.

10. Obviously, the elites at the top that run the poker games benefit through the casino rake, which they use to maintain their sites or brick-and-mortar casinos. This is equivalent to the government taxing capitalists in order to maintain the state apparatus (courts, police, etc) to sustain capitalism itself.

One exception I used to think existed is that there are no “fat tails” in poker, i.e. totally unexpected events that can completely upend normal risk assessments, whereas capitalism positively teems with them (e.g. the chaotic collapse of global stockmarkets on Black Monday in 1987; the collapse of Long Term Capital Management due to their models neglecting the risk of a Russian default). But whereas you can get “bad beats” in poker – in which your opponent plays wrong but beats your stronger hand by lucking out – they would still be within the realm of plausible expectation to anyone familiar with the rules of the game. Your Internet connection may snap, causing you to lose a big hand, but these events can be foreseen (and taken into account in calculations of hourly rate) and will in any case fail to cardinally change the size of your bankroll.

Today, the Feds proved me wrong by shuttering the three companies that dominate online gambling in the US and issuing arrest warrants for their CEO’s, in the latest display of creeping authoritarianism by the Obama regime. (The government only wants you to be able to gamble under their roofs – it’s a pretty sick deal, you get taxpayer funded bonuses for losing money and buy-backs are on the house – though granted, the entrance fee to that casino is just a bit too high for most people). It’s not clear if the players at those sites will be able to cash out their online chips; in fact, it’s even possible that the resulting panic will unleash an exodus that will bankrupt them before players from Europe and Asia can take up the slack. So I guess Black Swans can appear in gambling dens too.


Gambling card games as metaphors for political economic systems can be extended further. For instance, central planning / command economy can be productively compared with blackjack.

In the long-run, even assuming perfect play with *no* tricks, you are going to lose more than you win. Or, constrained Pareto optimality. This is certainly not the case for good poker players.

Of course, most people will never know how to play perfectly, and while they may get lucky and profit from the system, the long term expectation is always one of loss.

There is a solution to this: card-counting. The equivalent would be something along the lines of running a black market, or organizing a covert operation to buy up resources at (cheap) domestic prices and sell it at (higher) international prices. This is hugely destructive to the casino-state, of course, hence the penalties – both at the card table and in real life – are stiff. Card-counting is against the rules in casinos and can get you banned from them. Black marketeers in command economies can expect to get prison, hard labor, or even shot, if uncovered (to avoid this they usually co-opt corrupt members of the nomenklatura of the casino-state, sending them a slice of their profits in exchange for theirs turning a blind eye – or even aiding their operations).

Since it is the casino-state that wins out in the long-run, it is logical to scramble into its ranks. Hence the typical, intense competition for entrance into the nomenklatura seen in planned (and heavily socialist) economies from the USSR to modern Venezuela. But getting in by pure talent rarely works. In most cases, you need connections within the casino staff.
This is it for now, but I’m sure one can make plenty of other points, both pro and contra.

Finally, what about Communism? Well, it’s a utopian state that has never been close to achieved anytime, anywhere; it is a state where scarcity vanishes. Perhaps something like playing poker with stacks of (fake) money. Like Zynga on Facebook?

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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It is now nearly 20 years since market reformers began liberalizing the economies of Eastern Europe, or as some smart-ass put it, trying to revive the fish in the centrally planned fish stews. These stews, cooked to diverse recipes from goulash socialism to Soviet “structural militarization“, were subjected to a wide spectrum of overlapping treatments ranging neoliberalism (the Baltics), market socialism (Belarus), and mercantile corporatism (Russia). Other fish stews just stagnated in anarchic stasis (Ukraine). Twenty years on, it is time to observe the oft-surprising results.

I used Angus Maddison’s historical statistics, CIA figures for 2009 growth except where available the results from national statistical services (Belarus & Russia), and the IMF projections for 2010 (adjusted upwards for non-Baltic nations with sharp recent falls in GDP to account for their stronger-than-expected recoveries) to create GDP (PPP) per capita indices for post-Soviet nations and Poland (generally representative of Visegrad) where the output levels of 1989 – the year of peak Soviet GDP – are set to 100.

So which national ponds look like they’ve been subjected to grenade fishing, and which ones have the liveliest fish? Drumroll…

Belarus! At least amongst the industrialized nations, this market socialist economy – mocked and despised by proponents of the Washington consensus – is now substantially more productive than it was in 1989, beating out all its peer competitors. Furthermore, unlike the Baltics or Russia, it remains one of the most equal societies on Earth. Belarus suffered less of the “catabolic collapse” observed in neighboring Russia and Ukraine in the 1990′s, and strong growth resumed earlier. This included growth in manufacturing – Belarus did not suffer from the widespread deindustrialization from which Russia has only recently, and just barely, recovered from in 2007 (and then lost again in 2009!) – and the country even developed a competitive micro-electronics industry. Interestingly, Belarus is also the only CIS nations with whom Russia had a negative migration balance (until 2005). It seems that the stability and benefits offered by Bat’ka outweighed his collective-farm-boss chique.

That said, Belarus’ relative success – shocking as it would be to neoliberal ideologues – should not be overstated. First, in 1989 it was one of the poorer members of the “industrialized nations”, and in standard macroeconomic theory, faster economic growth is, ceteris paribus, easier when you are further behind. Second, whereas Belarus is great for ordinary workers and pensioners, the more talented find it unpromising, even oppressive. Intertwined with an authoritarian political structure, the economic system is largely closed to those who don’t like toeing the party line.

Despite its economic depression from 2007, Estonia seems to have performed very well too. Enfused with post-independence optimism, it carried out its liberal reforms earlier and more completely than any other post-Soviet nation. As a result, it enjoyed a fast revival of growth from 1993, giving it a 2-year head start over Belarus and a 5-year one over Russia. Estonia is far richer and more transparent than Belarus, has a vibrant hi-tech sector, and more political freedoms (with the important exception of disenfranchised Russophones). Latvia has been somewhat less of a miracle economy. After the recent economic collapse, its economic output is now little bigger than the Soviet-era peak, and is much less equitably distributed.

In the bubbly days of 2006-2007 (and by bubbly, I do mean bubble), these economies became known as Baltic Tigers. Their liberal economic policies, balanced budgets, favorable geography, and low-wage skilled labor attracted huge credit inflows. This enabled a debt-fueled consumerist orgy, resulting in awning current account deficits. As the 2008 global credit crisis unfolded, investors took fright and capital inflows turned into capital flight. The house of cards fell down. The Baltics embarked on brutal wage deflation and budget cuts, especially in the worst-hit Latvia, to maintain their currency pegs against the Euro, acquire much-needed IMF financing, and reattain competitiveness. This is projected to take years – and that’s discounting both further shocks to the global financial system and political discontinuities (e.g. after the last Great Depression the Baltic nations became soft dictatorships).

The Balts cannot rely on a renewal of the old bubble, rising foreign protectionism precludes an export-led recovery, and the prospects for strong domestic consumption are dim because of the huge rise in debt levels. The IMF now forecasts prolonged below-trend growth, with GDP per capita only approaching their 2007 peaks by 2014 for all three Baltic nations (the same projections show Russia and Belarus converging to or overtaking the Baltic economies by that date). Just as for the old chasm between Marxism and “actually existing socialism”, whatever the merits of neoliberalism as a theoretical construct – its proponents will have to answer for its real-world disappointments.

Now we come to Russia, which has the region’s biggest and most important economy by far. It’s post-transition history is also highly complex. First, it cannot be stressed enough that the USSR did not collapse economically because of its inherent internal contradictions. It collapsed because Gorbachev aborted central planning, or more accurately ditched the coercive mechanisms that made central planning work (though granted the observable evidence of worker unrest and economic stagnation may have tipped his hand). In the absence of evolved market mechanisms, the “dictator’s surrender” only led to ruinous insider plunder, asset stripping and managerial misappropriation, all under the slogan of “liberalization” (true liberalizing reforms were far less wide-raging and generally implemented much later than in the Baltics). Output plummetted as barter arrangements replaced late Soviet scientific socialism.

As a result, Russia’s new capitalism developed in the most anarchic and perverse ways; indeed, it arguably had a greater resemblance to old Muscovite patrimonialism. A weak Tsar (President Yeltsin) bestowed rent-gathering rights unto his new boyars (the oligarchs) in exchange for their political support – a compromise he was driven to by the combination of 1) state weakness and 2) the perceived need to prevent the Communists coming to power at all costs. Putin’s cardinal achievement in his first term was to decisively shift the balance of power between Tsar and boyars back to the former, a fact confirmed by the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of Khodorkovsky – the power-hungry robber baron who didn’t realize that the days of oligarch rule had passed. The economic crisis of 2008 led to the further reassertion of Kremlin power over the oligarchs – bailed out by a Russian state grown cash-rich from foreign energy sales, many are now little more than its glorified, well-compensated servants.

In the past decade, Russia has been in flux, metamorphosing from the chaotic, boyar-dominated, “appanage” atmosphere of the 1990′s, to the brave new world of Kremlin modernization dreams that are opening up the 2010′s. Three trends are now becoming dominant: 1) the state is becoming much more central in pushing Russia’s modernization through mercantilism (e.g. industrial tariffs), industrial policy (e.g. economic zones), and targeted investments in strategic and “sunrise” economic sectors (e.g. nanotechnology), 2) there is a concurrent, measured economic liberalization – from the 2001 flat tax reform to the raising of internal energy prices, and 3) there is a renewed attempt at social mobilization to fulfill the state’s development plans. In sum, a latter-day replay of the Petrine “revolution from above” (albeit one altered with the benefit of hindsight – Putin is careful to emphasize, even exaggerate, his Russian cultural patriotism, so as to avoid recreating the social divisions and unrest that tends to occur when a ruler is popularly seen as being in thrall to foreigners).

Russia’s post-1990 performance was far from stellar, though it should be noted that in overall per capita welfare it is still comparable to Belarus and only slightly behind Latvia (possibly ahead now) – not that much changed from the late Soviet period. Russia essentially lost two decades, like Latvia or Lithuania – and performed worse than Belarus, Estonia, and Poland (included in the graph for comparison).

This is not too surprising, since 1) Russia spent much of the 1990′s in “anarchic stasis”, a semi-failed state that had trouble maintaining any meaningful monopoly on violence, tax collection, and monetary emissions (the three vital functions of a state), 2) like the Baltics, Russia started from a relatively high base (it was already an industrialized nation), so it could hardly expect particularly rapid growth, and 3) the Kremlin only really began to focus on modernization as a priority in the mid-2000′s, as before it had been too preoccupied with consolidating the Russian state.

As I wrote in an earlier post on the Russian economy at the dawn of its late-2008 crisis (which was basically correct with the exception of the far too optimistic 2009 GDP forecast), Russia’s greatest weakness during the credit crunch was that its major corporations, the vast majority of them state or quasi-state, had come to rely on Western intermediation for accessing cheap credit. When the global credit wheel ground to a halt in late 2008, the first countries to be cut off were the emerging markets. (Having access to deep indigenous credit systems, nations like Brazil and China weathered the storm far better than Russian corporations and consumers who were suddenly cut off from cheap credit). Though the initial economic collapse was steep, Russia does not possess the long-term ailments of the Baltic states – debt has nowhere near the same level of penetration, the state remains incredibly cash-rich, and its strategic depth makes it largely invulnerable to any further retreat of globalization. Many forecasts now say that Russia will grow by 4% to 6% in 2010. In the longer-term, it has a comprehensive development plan and arguably good prospects for effecting an economic catch-up to the West.

Finally, far and away the worst post-Soviet performer amongst the industrialized nations is Ukraine. It never managed to reattain its Soviet-era level of per capita output, and that goal is now further away than ever. Comparable in its level of economic development to Belarus, Poland, and Russia in the late 1980′s, it is now far behind all three. Why? True, Russia had the gas reserves, but until the mid-2000′s Ukraine received vastly subsidized gas anyway. Furthermore, unlike Russia, Ukraine was nowhere near as burdened by “structural militarization” at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, nor did it retain prodigally expensive military forces or Great Power ambitions. It was also closer to Europe, directly bordering Poland. And besides, Belarus was in a similar position to Ukraine, but landlocked and shunned by the West to boot; but it nonetheless managed to do incomparably better.

I think the only good explanation for this retrogression is that Ukraine simply never left its 1990′s conditions of anarchic stasis. Its Tsar (or Hetman?) was always weak, Ukraine’s cultural cleft between Russian Orthodox East and Uniate West putting a glass ceiling to any ruler’s level of popular support at around 50% of the population. This constant problem with political legitimacy, experienced by both pro-Western and pro-Russian Presidents, stymied reform efforts and attempts to reign in oligarch power. Ukraine lagged well behind Russia, not to even mention the Baltics, in its economic liberalization, and its politicians remain representatives of oligarchic clans, not their puppet-masters as in Russia. Any sustained state-backed modernization scheme (e.g. on Putin’s Russia model) is doomed from the outset, while private investors and entrepreneurs are scared off by the unending political instability and lack of liberalization (in this respect, if Russia or Belarus is purgatory, Ukraine is hell). Long-term development is thus impossible under Ukraine’s conditions of anarchic stasis.

Below is a graph plotting the economic fortunes of the USSR’s less-developed nations (again per capita).

Azerbaijan‘s success is almost entirely tied up with the massive expansion of its oil production, especially from the mid-2000′s. Azerbaijan’s oil output rose from 0.2mn barrels a day between 1992 and 1998, to 0.4mn in 2005, and skyrocketed to 1.0mn by 2009, and as shown in the graph, the years of rapid increase were accompanied by amazingly high rates of GDP growth (up to 20-30% in a couple of years). A similar explanation would probably hold for why Kazakhstan‘s post-Soviet performance was substantially better than Russia’s, despite the many similarities between their economic systems – Kazakh oil production was 0.4mn barrels from 1992-95, 0.6mn in 1999, and 1.5mn by 2008.

(Russia produced only 22.6% more fuel energy in 2008 than in 1992. Its oil production went from an all-time peak of 11.5mn barrels in 1988, to 7.9mn in 1992, 6.0-6.5mn during 1994-99, 9.3mn in 2004, and 9.8mn by 2008 – i.e., correlated with general growth trends in its real GDP. Whereas the recovery in oil production accounted for a very substantial share of its GDP growth / recovery from 1999 to 2004, these effects became small after increases in oil production flattened out post-2004 due to geological factors (i.e. peak oil) and the political factors (the YUKOS affair); from the mid-2000′s, the main drivers of growth became retail, construction, transportation, manufacturing, and finance.)

Summation – Russia was recovering lost ground in oil production; Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan were gaining massive new ground. Translated into GDP growth over the entire transition period, Kazakh and Azeri growth appears much more impressive, even though it was much more narrowly based on increasing resource extraction.

Armenia showed impressive growth, despite that it has no such resource windfall and is a mountanous, landlocked nation bordered by unfriendly Turks to the west, the hostile Azeris to the east who are closely related to Turks (with whom it fought a war in the early 1990′s), a Georgia up north that dislikes its alliance with Russia, and with Iran to the south, which is friendly, but is an international pariah. How the Armenians managed this I don’t know, but kudos to them!

Despite the pro-Saakashvili rhetoric, Georgia is not that impressive on objective terms. The average, post-Rose Revolution 2004-2008 growth was 8%, which although ostensibly impressive was not exceptional by regional standards. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean very much for a nation 1) starting from a low economic base and 2) recovering from a massive prior GDP collapse. True, somewhat better than trainwreck Moldova, but left in the dust by its Caucasian neighbor Armenia (likewise wracked by blockade and the occasional war), and only slightly better than Russia – a nation that has a GDP per capita that is three times bigger than Georgia’s.

According to an alternate, non-rosy view, The Georgian Economy Under Saakashvili (Irakli Rukhadze and Mark Hauf), much of Georgia’s recent growth was one-off, being based on state asset sales and government lay-offs. This was accompanied by accelerating deindustrialization, continued emigration and poverty, and the destruction of all remaining safety nets. The authors say the government acquired the habit of pressuring independent businesses to provide “voluntary contributions” in return for not bankrupting them under corruption prosecutions. This is not to singularly condemn Georgia’s weak rule of law. After all, politicized interference in the economy, widespread corruption, and corporate raiding are the rule rather than the exception throughout the former USSR. The only thing that’s special about the Georgian economy is the chasm between the gushing, star-speckled rhetoric emanating from Saakashvili and his neocon cheerleaders – and the actually existing reality.

Finally, we can note that Uzbekistan saw much better growth than Tajikistan. Uzbekistan is an unreformed economy, as well as land-locked, poor, and truly authoritarian (i.e. an extreme version of Belarus). But starting from a low base really helps, I guess. On the other hand, Tajikistan saw a devastating civil war between Communists and Islamists that killed 100,00 people during the early 1990′s, and it is the post-Soviet republic that is least advanced in the demographic transition (capital diverted to sustain new mouths and remember that we are measuring GDP per capita in this post). Growth performance in Kyzgyzstan was in between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, whereas Turkmenistan’s was as good as Uzbekistan’s.

What to Expect?

Russia has a comprehensive modernization plan, the human, administrative, and financial resources needed to implement it, and the Kremlin’s siege mentality should give it the impetus to force it through. Thus, I am reasonably confident that Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will continue to see relatively fast growth. These countries have relatively high human capital (a necessary prerequisite for economic catch-up), and their recent customs union will enable bigger economies of scale. As I said before, there are many reasons to suppose that Ukraine will (re)join this Eurasian space within the next few years, at which point its anarchic stasis will finally end.

As I observed above, economic openness and transparency are not as important to economic catch-up as they are sometimes made out to be (this is NOT to imply they’re bad, however – obviously, imitating North Korea’s Juche principle or Equatorial Guinea’s kleptocracy is not the way forwards). However, they shouldn’t be treated as the be all and end all of things either. Moderate levels of corruption are nothing more than an additional tax, and it is even possible to think of situations where it can be positive (for instance, nations with impossible, idiotic regulations). Meanwhile, excessive economic openness can leave one too open to the vagaries of global casino capitalism – observe Latvia today, or Argentina 2001, for good examples. Furthermore, the next decade will likely see the retreat of globalization in tandem with peak oil and the waning of Pax Americana. In this new environment of “scarcity industrialism“, states that carve out self-sufficient dominions will fare best. Russia is aware of this, and has begun to regather its former Empire, and so is China with its fevered buyout of mines, land, and political elites around the world.

The Baltics may slowly recover under business-as-usual, though in the more globally pessimistic scenarios favored by S/O the general pattern will be stagnation, political unrest, and authoritarian reaction (especially possible in the most vulnerable member, Latvia). Central Asia does not really have the capacity for generating its own sustainable development. Far from potential markets and tyrannized by extreme climes and distances, the region is doomed to perpetual backwardness, except in so far as outside Powers like Russia or China find it in their interests to subsidize their development. In the Caucasus, the threat of instability and violence hangs permanently in the air, making any attempts at prediction even more of a futile endeavor.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Thesis. The current capitalist-industrial System is incapable of surmounting the limits to growth on planet Earth because markets and technology, today’s salvation gospel, are no deus ex machina to the energy-and-pollution predicament of industrial civilization. Nor is this System in principle capable of preventing ecological overshoot because growth in physical throughput is the very basis of its existence. As such, we need to transition to an entirely new way of thinking about politics, society, and the economy – Green Communism. This is a system based on technocratic planning using the latest tools of operations research and networking; political control based on ubiquitous 2-way sousveillance to detect corruption and free-riding; and spiritual succor from transcendental values linked to ecotechnic sustainability, instead of today’s shallow materialist values embodied in the System’s “myth of progress”.

By repressing the economic potential of eastern Europe and China throughout much of the 20th century, one of Marxism-Leninism’s greatest legacies is to have indirectly postponed humanity’s reckoning with the Earth’s limits to industrial growth in the form of resource depletion and AGW. Had Eastern Europe and Russia become industrialized, consumer nations by the 1950′s-1960′s instead of the 2010′s-2020′s; had China followed the development trajectory of Taiwan; had nations from India to Brazil not excessively indulged in growth-retarding import substitution, it is very likely that today we would already be well on the downward slope of Hubbert’s curve of oil depletion, and burning coal to compensate – in turn reinforcing an already runaway global warming process.

Though one might refrain that socialist regimes tended to focus on heavy industries and had a poor environmental record, this pollution tended to be localized (e.g. acid rain over Czechoslovakia, or soot over industrial cities); however, CO2 per capita emissions – which contribute to global warming – from the socialist bloc were substantially lower than in the advanced capitalist nations. Furthermore, it should be noted that the overriding spur to heavy industrialization in the first place was the encirclement by capitalist powers, which created a perceived need for militarization (most prominent in the USSR from the 1930′s, and now North Korea). This process also distorted other aspects of those regimes, e.g. the inevitable throwing aside of universal pretensions (in practice, though not in rhetoric) in favor of nationalism, and what could be called a reversion to the “Asian mode of production” with industrial overtones, which could be used to describe Stalinism, or the militarized neo-feudalism of the Juche system of North Korea. So one cannot point to those countries as “proof” of the superiority of capitalism; to the contrary, we should take away the lesson that any anti-capitalist transition should be universal if it is to survive.

The Real Contradictions of Capitalism

Capitalism was a viable and successful system when there was still plentiful land, labor and cheap resources to be exploited (even Engels acknowledged the primacy of nature in powering history’s march forward, for it “supplies [labor] with the material that it converts into wealth”). The cheap resources are now ending, so a system predicated on debt-financed perpetual growth is no longer tenable; this became visible in Japan from the early 1990′s, and is now becoming clear in Europe and the US too, where economic collapse in 2008-09 was only checked thanks to a massive transfer of private losses and bad debts onto the public account (socialism for the elites, capitalism for the rest). The neoliberal era underwritten by cheap oil, global finance, and the US Navy is coming to an end.

Given that oil production peaked in 2008, and the decreasing EROEI of other energy sources, willingly or not we are going to return to the zero-growth of pre-industrial times: then we can either 1) successfully get out of our overshoot predicament and restart conventional development (unlikely), or 2) we can effect a “sustainable retreat” to lower levels of physical throughput and increased efficiency, or 3) we can with ever more coercive state efforts, with the help of modern cybernetics and electronic technology, use the tools of the industrial era to try to maintain the industrial infrastructure and its associated institutional-cultural superstructure.

Most likely we will choose the latter, but it will almost certainly fail; all the Limits to Growth models all suggest that both markets and technology – Mammon and the Machine – are powerless to solve the fundamental predicament that a limited world can support unlimited growth, and they don’t even take further negative feedback loops such as the debilitating effects of political populism and geopolitical competition; nor do those models incorporate the observation that the technological base is dependent on the economic-industrial base for its support, so once the latter fails, technologies from plant bioengineering to energy efficiency also go into retreat.

Thus we see the emergence of capitalism’s real contradictions – not so much the impoverishment of the workers (that, too, will come eventually as industrial civilization approaches collapse), but ecology. Throughout the pre- Industrial Revolution era, peasants all over the world have traditionally viewed merchants with suspicion, since capitalism’s profit motive undermined the egalitarian village social relations and support mechanisms necessary to guarantee community survival in a Malthusian world predating modern economic growth (K. Polanyi, 1957). These attitudes will resurge with a vengeance in the coming neo-Malthusian future. Capitalism will have dug its own grave by eating away the basis of its own existence.

Socialist Sustainability

To avoid collapse, by far the safest route is to kickstart a transition to sustainability – not sustainable development, because it’s far too late for that (we should have started on that during the 1970′s), but sustainable retreat – cutting down on real “living standards” (or at least as measured by the deeply flawed measure of GDP, which counts prisons and environmental cleanup as wealth), to transition to a way of life that is compatible with Gaia.

In practice, this will probably imply a transition to a roughly Cuban way of life. The tropical island is, by one measure (developed level of HDI, low ecological footprint per capita), the world’s only sustainable society.

Predictably enough, there will be several heated objections to living like Cubans, but they can all be effectively countered.

1) Poverty. Don’t they try to swim to Florida? Yes, some do. But Cuban poverty is in part the result of US sanctions, and their punishment of foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Furthermore, it is still far more comfortable than any Malthusian-age, pre-industrial society (or any conventional Third World society). The perception of poverty is created by the “international demonstration effect”, in which images of Western consumerism (based on unsustainable exploitation of Gaia) create false needs and frustrations in poorer societies, a false consciousness hoisted upon all humans connected to the System.

If the rest of the world embraced the concept of sustainable retreat and accepted Cuba as a valid example, then it will become to look much more attractive as 1) it regains access to leading global technologies technologies and know-how, and 2) because its people will no longer be encouraged to judge success by the standards of how new and how big their SUV’s are, but by their ecological wealth, social harmony, and cultural output.

2) Political repression. Yes, Cuba locks up dissidents and is, in Western terms, an unfree society. However, note that the US has been fighting a decades-long information war against Cuba, that the Western media has an incentive to exaggerate its human rights abuses, and that Cuba’s rulers themselves have to fight against this information war and international demonstration effect to maintain Cuban sovereignty. Given that they are much poorer and less influential, the tools at their disposal are much cruder.

Furthermore, as argued by Zizek, the main impact of the communist idea (a secular successor to Christianity’s chiliastic fantasies of salvation) so far was not so much the perfection of the societies acknowledging the idea, as the elucidation of the historical laws (dreams?) by which the perfect society is to appear.

As Alain Badiou pointed out, in spite of its horrors and failures, the “really existing Socialism” was the only political force that – for some decades, at least – seemed to pose an effective threat to the global rule of capitalism, really scaring its representatives, driving them into paranoiac reaction. Since, today, capitalism defines and structures the totality of the human civilization, every “Communist” territory was and is – again, in spite of its horrors and failures – a kind of “liberated territory,” as Fred Jameson put it apropos of Cuba. What we are dealing with here is the old structural notion of the gap between the Space and the positive content that fills it in: although, as to their positive content, the Communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure, generating terror and misery, they at the same time opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations which, among other things, enabled us to measure the failure of the really existing Socialism itself. What the anti-Communist dissidents as a rule tend to overlook is that the very space from which they themselves criticized and denounced the everyday terror and misery was opened and sustained by the Communist breakthrough, by its attempt to escape the logic of the Capital. In short, when dissidents like Havel denounced the existing Communist regime on behalf of authentic human solidarity, they (unknowingly, for the most part of it) spoke from the place opened up by Communism itself – which is why they tend to be so disappointed when the “really existing capitalism” does not meet the high expectations of their anti-Communist struggle. Perhaps, Vaclav Klaus, Havel’s pragmatic double, was right when he dismissed Havel as a “socialist”…

The difficult task is thus to confront the radical ambiguity of the Stalinist ideology which, even at its most “totalitarian,” still exudes an emancipatory potential. From my youth, I remember the memorable scene from a Soviet film about the civil war in 1919, in which Bolsheviks organize the public trial of a mother with a young diseased son, who is discovered to be the spy for the counter-revolutionary White forces. At the very beginning of the trial, an old Bolshevik strokes his long white mustache and says: “The sentence must be severe, but just!” The revolutionary court (the collective of the Bolshevik fighters) establishes that the cause of her enemy activity was her difficult social circumstances; the sentence is therefore that she be fully integrated into the socialist collective, taught to write and read and to acquire a proper education, while her son is to be given proper medical care. While the surprised mother bursts out crying, unable to understand the court’s benevolence, the old Bolshevik again strokes his mustaches and nods in consent: “Yes, this is a severe, but just sentence!”

It is easy to claim, in a quick pseudo-Marxist way, that such scenes were simply the ideological legitimization of the most brutal terror. However, no matter how manipulative this scene is, no matter how contradicted it was by the arbitrary harshness of the actual “revolutionary justice,” it nonetheless provided the spectators with new ethical standards by which reality is to be measured – the shocking outcome of this exercise of the revolutionary justice, the unexpected resignification of “severity” into severity towards social circumstances and generosity towards people, cannot but produce a sublime effect. In short, what we have here is an exemplary case of what Lacan called the “quilting point [point de capiton],” of an intervention that changes the coordinates of the very field of meaning: instead of pleading for generous tolerance against severe justice, the old Bolshevik redefines the meaning of “severe justice” itself in terms of excessive forgiveness and generosity. Even if this is a deceiving appearance, there is in a sense more truth in this appearance than in the harsh social reality that generated it.

We must still undergo a trial, a Great March, of sustainable retreat, at the end of which (due to the elimination of materialist thinking) we will transition into what could be called Green Communism – a sustainable, steady-state human existence founded on the (ever-elusive) reconciliation between freedom and equality. How?

Roads to Green Communism

1) The hippies, Green Parties (including Green Party USA), authors of LTG, etc, stress the importance of the grassroots, of Gramscian infiltration, of gradualism – all couched in fluffy, cuddly polar bear-language like “ecological wisdom” or “community-based economics” or “respect for diversity”. The end state is to be a kind of “gift economy”, perhaps in practice encouraged into being through social engineering and widespread psychosomatic therapy. All well and good, but none of this is going to motivate many people to make real change, even in progressive enclaves like the Bay Area (people here mark “Earth Hour” and marginally tone down their CO2 emissions for one hour every 24*365 hours – news flash! it ain’t gonna do much!). Lacking any real drive or force, the elites will ignore these movements at will, and the new Caesars of the coming collapse era will suppress them.

2) The revolutionary extremist road: Alinsky-style activism, propaganda of the deed, catechism of the revolutionist, etc. Problem is that it will not win over the people, and as long as the state remains strong it will take coercive actions against these movements. Unlikely to succeed, but may be the only real chance for change. For capitalism-usury is founded on perpetual growth, by forsaking this tenet the System annihilates itself, so it will not willingly do that.

Second, most analysts are either part of, or suborned by, the System – the sum total of the texts and power relations that make up a society’s set of beliefs. The former category, which includes government policy-makers and corporate strategists, suffers from an “institutional myopia” which gives answers in advance and precludes all questions questioning the legitimacy of their own institutions.

For instance, what can a rational, capitalist state – interested in self-preservation, predicated on unlimited economic growth, and confronted with irrefutable evidence of the dire consequences of business-as-usual greenhouse emissions on the world’s climate – do to resolve these contradictions? The answers are buzzwords like “green growth”, “skeptical environmentalism”, or geoengineering; the forbidden question relates to the efficacy of industrial capitalism as a system to confront the imminent challenges of man-made climate change.

The Gramscian approach of 1) may be doomed by this Bolshevik-Zizek argument that “a political intervention proper does not occur within the coordinates of some underlying global matrix, since what it achieves is precisely the “reshuffling” of this very global matrix”. Yet even if the Revolution is successful, power corrupts; any state formed on the foundations of any such “intervention” may well degenerate into its own nemesis.

3) The laws of history tend to be follow the laws of dialectical materialism – opposites, negation, and transformation – on a route that may lead to a technological singularity, assuming that the ecological base remains intact long enough to sustain the transformation of the industrial System onto a higher plane of existence.

The following extract I found in one of my texts:

The history of the universe is accelerating evolution. A cursory examination of the past reveals growth to be exponential over any sufficiently long period, as can be measured by the frequency of paradigm shifts. Hence, biological life has evolved over a period of billions of years; advanced organisms over several hundred million years. The appearance of intelligent life took place ushered in a technological epoch, which also shows overwhelming evidence of exponential growth – it took ten thousand years from the beginnings of agriculture to catalyse modern economic growth, which has yielded the information revolution in just two hundred years. There are credible prognosesthat posit the appearance of molecular nanotechnology and intelligent machines within the first half of the twenty-first century.

There exist patterns to the evolutionary process itself. According to futurist-inventor Ray Kurzweil, ‘each stage or epoch uses the information-processing methods of the previous epoch to create the next’. Life emerged due to the chaotic interplay of increasingly complex carbon-based compounds. Its DNA-driven evolution eventually gave rise to agents with information-processing capabilities, which culminated in the human ability to create abstract models of reality within their brains. This capacity to conduct mind experiments created the concepts of technology and machines – the bedrock upon which modern material civilization is built. Futurist pundits, extrapolating current trends in computing, predict the coming of a ‘singularity’ that will result from a merger of human and (exponentially expanding) machine intelligence, leading to a universe saturated with intelligent life.

All epochs are based on integrated networks that can be described and mathematically modelled. The first network was based on atomic constituents, governed by physical forces. The universe’s
fine-tuned physical constants made life possible, which was born as the biosphere on planet Earth, which lies in a narrow ‘zone of habitability’. The biosphere (or Gaia) took over the geosphere as the primary architect of its own evolutionary path by evolving a feedback system which seeks to optimize the environment for life. Later, technological growth was able to increase the carrying capacity of the land, leading to demographic growth, greater scope for innovation and therefore faster technological growth in a positive feedback cycle. Agriculture permitted the uneven but inexorable coalescence of complex, stratified societies that in the long-run vanquished the biosphere, be it embodied in forests or hunter-gatherers; the world entered the Holocene, in which the environment – land, and increasing air and water – is shaped by the collective will of the noosphere. Basically, networks in evolution build upon each other. A consequence is that later, more complex superstructures, like intelligence, depends for stability on its biological foundations that regulate the geosphere – something we’re putting in jeopardy via environmental damage.

If we manage to unleash a technological singularity – and avoid its various perils and pitfalls – then the super-abundance produced by self-assembling nanotechnology will eliminate scarcity, the “dematerialization of production” will make classes obsolete, the borders between reality and virtual reality will fade into oblivion as the Earth metamorphoses into Tlön, modern society’s atoms in the iron cage will become avatars of e-Gods in an electronic cage (like on online forums), based on horizontal networks, instead of the power verticals of today. This form of Green Communism is not of the material, but of the cyber-ethereal.

However, the projections suggest that a singularity-driven transition to sustainability may elude us, for both “singularitarians” and “doomers” / “kollapsniks” mostly place their respective events (Singularity or civilizational collapse) in the 2030-50 timeframe.

So which trend will win out? Will we “transcend” just as industrial civilization begins to finally collapse? Or will the world’s last research lab be burned down by starving rioters just as the world’s first, and last, strong AI pops into super-consciousness inside?

What is to be Done?

One idea would be to look at the manifesto of the Collapse Party!, whose goals, essentially, are to ascertain and pursue the optimal road to Green Communism out of those presented above. It is quoted below in full:

The Collapse Party Manifesto

The world is finite, and so the resource stocks and pollution sinks that sustain industrial civilization (“the System”) are limited. We have been in a state of “overshoot”, beyond the “carrying capacity” of the Earth, since the 1980′s (The Limits to Growth, 2004). Limited resources have been drawn down much faster than they could be replenished, and the Earth’s pollution sinks have been overfilled much faster than they could be regenerated.

Elements of this overshoot can already be seen in phenomena as diverse as plateauing crop yields, topsoil loss, accelerating climate change, peak oil, collapsing fisheries, the depletion of higher-EROEI energy sources, dying rivers, global dimming, the proliferation of “failed states”, neo-colonial exploitation, and rising antibiotic resistance. But things are yet going to get much worse…

Based on paleoclimate reconstructions of CO2 levels, an eventual global warming of above 2C is already inevitable. This will set off a cascade of climatic disasters that will speed up the rate of warming, leading to the desertification of much of the world’s land and oceans, the drying of the great Asian rivers, and massive inundations of the low-lying coasts and deltas that harbor humanity’s heartlands. States will collapse into anarchy, spawning Biblical-scale famines and floods of climate refugees.

Meanwhile, the energetic resources that power the System will be coming under severe strain. Oil production has already peaked, and natural gas and coal will follow in a few more decades. The remaining resources are much harder to extract, since the easiest pickings have already been exploited. We will have to divert ever more energy, labor, and capital towards mitigating the effects of both energy depletion (renewables, remote hydrocarbons) and runaway climate change (adaptation, geoengineering).

This will starve agriculture and the consumer sector, ushering in disillusionment, social discontent, and a longing for a strong hand at the helm of power. This will undermine liberal democracy’s political legitimacy, leading either to anarchy (“failed states”) or increasing coercion (authoritarianism). Geopolitical rivalries over the remaining energy resources will intensify, extinguishing the already dim prospects for international cooperation. Long-term thinking will recede into irrelevance, for political leaders will have their hands full with much more pressing issues – building sea walls, feeding the military, and placating (or dispersing) angry mobs.

Our only way to escape this trap is to rapidly effect a global transition towards “sustainable development”. The imperative of such a transition was recognized as early as the 1970′s, but we have yet to see any truly meaningful action. Nor are we likely to, since the defining feature of industrial-capitalist civilization is indefinite growth, based around the taking of loans against (higher) future returns. There’s a reason why Malthusian societies suppressed usury – and should we continue business-as-usual, we will soon rediscover why.

Though the System is very effective in some ways, it cannot foresee its own demise; nor can its servants even ask questions that hint at the unpalatable answer. However, the casual, detached, and informed observer can. Yes, in a purely technical sense, disaster can still be averted if one could convince people to make, or more likely force through, drastic reductions in First World overconsumption, a full-scale retooling of the industrial system towards renewables and recycling, and a global system of “contraction and convergence” on CO2 emissions.

Achieving this, however, is unlikely in the extreme; any transition to sustainability is going to be stymied by social myopia and geopolitical anarchy, as well as innate human psychological features such as the conservative bias, the denial complex, hedonism, and susceptibility to “creeping normalcy” and “landscape amnesia”. Unless we overcome these failings, or discover a technological silver bullet, we will collide with planetary limits to growth sometime around 2030 to 2050.

In that scenario, the System as a whole will become increasingly fragile, such that a large enough perturbation – say, a major war or global climatic disaster – will send it into a self-reinforcing spiral down into chaos. The electrical-industrial infrastructure supporting modern technology, especially the massive repositories of information entombed within cyberspace, will crumble away into oblivion.

After a short period of unprecedented violence, famine, pestilence, and death known as “the Collapse”, the world will get larger once more, and society will retreat back into the comforting blackness of a new Dark Age.

Faced with these grim prospects, we see it fitting to launch a multi-pronged initiative to if not avert a Collapse (as is the purpose of the global Green movement), then at least to attempt to mitigate, as best we can, its catastrophic humanitarian consequences. We do not wish on the demise of technological civilization, for we recognize that for all its ecological obliviousness and social injustices, it has enabled tremendous progress in science and many aspects of culture and human welfare. That said, we recognize that sometimes, the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the tendency for all closed, complex systems to decay – cannot be sidestepped.

We propose a program of “sustainable retreat”, to be characterized by the following policy planks:

  • use the remaining high-EROEI fossil fuel stocks in a crash program to build as large a nuclear and renewable energy infrastructure as possible.
  • clean up radioactive and toxic installations while we still have the technologies and resources to do so.
  • work on fostering global unity and a common human identity to encourage cooperation and discourage competition and resource wars.
  • preserve as much as possible of the world’s stock of technologies, bioresources, and knowledge in dispersed repositories (“lifeboats”) in durable, physical format.
  • retool the education system to disseminate practical skills and democratize it using the power of the Internet (as long as it continues to exist).
  • liberalize copyright laws.
  • promote communal-agrarian values, while ditching the individualist and accumulative mentality that is spelling our doom.
  • unite all social groups under different wings of the Party – conventional Greens, as well as socialists, feminists, right-wing survivalists, etc – that are amenable to the kollapsnik message.
  • eschew militarism, dismantle overseas military bases, and repatriate the troops; but maintain a minimal nuclear deterrent.
  • nationalization and / or regulation of the commanding heights of the economy to optimize resource conservation and pollution control.
  • establish a network of self-contained “resiliencies” across the nation and the world, modeled on the Kibbutzim, that will provide physical, mental, and spiritual nourishment to those who need it.
  • allow mostly-unimpeded free enterprise for small, non-strategic, and low-material throughput businesses, for it will still be necessary to keep the consumerist urgings satiated.
  • the Party is to be aim to operate on a horizontal and democratic basis, in which promotion and honors are to be based on the judgments of peers on one’s competence and commitment to the cause.
  • the winding-down of the prison-industrial complex in a controlled manner; the nature of law and order to be determined in further internal debate.
  • general debt amnesty to wipe the slate clean and start from Year Zero in our quest for sustainability.
  • expand resources into research on areas such as sustainable energy, geoengineering, and artificial intelligence to increase the chances of achieving a technological “silver bullet”.
(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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The welfare state, or what we conceive of as such today, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although pre-modern states did perform some pro-welfare functions such as regulating prices and wages, maintaining workhouses for the poor and even a limited form of targeted social support [1], this spending was framed not in terms of the state’s fulfillment of defined obligations to its citizens, but as “wholly-discretionary state charity”. The state’s only incentive to do this, admittedly a powerful one, was to buy off revolt and preserve community cohesion; otherwise, these extremely hierarchical societies harbored no ethical concerns about empowering the individual or ensuring equality of opportunity. This meant that the prime means of social support remained one’s family and clan, friends, and local community institutions like the Church. The modern definition of a welfare state, such as the one provided by Robert Goodin – 1) it a) “intervenes in a market economy b) to meet certain of people’s basic needs c) through relatively direct means” and 2) is “a system of compulsory, collective, and largely non-discretionary welfare provision”[2] – has its early antecedents in Bismarck’s social insurance reforms (1889), the genesis of Swedish socialism in the 1930’s, and the US introduction of social security measures in the New Deal to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression.

Drawing on Goodin’s work, let us clarify the definition of the democratic welfare state. First, welfare states are explicitly market-based (ranging the gamut from America’s relative laissez-faire to Belarus’ “market socialism”) – according to Marshall, it “did not reject the capitalist market economy, but held that there were some elements in a civilized life which ranked above it and must be achieved by curbing or suppressing the market”[3]. Second, it does not (necessarily) aim for radical economic or social transformations; its goals are more modest – “the characteristically welfare statist approach is to opt for readjusting final distributions [primarily to relieve those in the most distress through direct provision of basic needs like food, shelter, etc], rather than altering the pattern of property rights in productive resources that gave rise to undesirable distributions in the first place”[4]. Third, welfare is enshrined in law and viewed as a universal civil right for those deserving of it, in contrast to private charities and the “public charity” embodied in the English Poor Laws (their aid being viewed as gifts and humiliating to have to accept).

This concept of a welfare state, contractually obliged to succor the destitute while retaining its capitalist market-based infrastructure, was disparaged by the right and scorned by the left. Classical liberals and the neoliberal “New Right” abhorred the welfare state for what they saw as its encouragement of indolence, forced redistribution of wealth, and disincentives to hard, honest labor. Social conservatives in this category also lambasted it for contributing to family breakdown. On the other side of the spectrum, Marxists regard it as both a window dressing for capitalism and proof of its inferiority, since it needs to be patched up so in order to survive its internal “contradictions”[5].

Now we will examine the validity of the arguments for and against a welfare state from the perspectives of Robert Goodin [6], Milton Friedman [7] and Roland Huntford [8]. Goodin believes there is a case to be made for at least a minimal welfare state on ethical grounds, namely as a device for shielding the poor and vulnerable from exploitation by those who have discretionary power over the resources they need. His thesis is that “the problem to which the welfare state is the solution is the risk of exploitation of dependencies”, which could occur both in “the course of interactions in ordinary markets” and “between benefactor and beneficiary in the context of old-style public or private charities”. By using legislative power, the state can mitigate the former by “removing a wide range of interactions from the market” and the latter by “tightly defining the legal rights and duties of welfare claimants and welfare dispensers”. In other words, the market is part of society and likewise market power inevitably seeps into social and political power, and hence a Leviathan is needed to check the worst depredations.

The classical liberal and libertarian Milton Friedman, unsurprisingly, disagrees [9]. Though not an anarchist – he believes government has an essential role as a ‘rule-maker and umpire’ (based of course on the democratic consent of the population), he strongly opposes its interference in all but the most pressing cases (e.g. madmen, children). However, a liberal like himself has difficulty accepting government action on paternalistic ground for “responsible” people, since it involves “the acceptance of a principle – that some shall decide for others – which he finds objectionable in most applications and which he rightly regards as a hallmark of his chief intellectual opponents, the proponents of collectivism in one or another of its guises, whether it be communism, socialism, or a welfare state”. It undermines the “free man’s belief in his own responsibility for his own destiny”

Furthermore, Friedman stresses the importance of guarding against creeping complacency about government intervention, quoting Dicey, “the Mental Deficiency Act is the first step along a path which no sane man can decline to enter, but which, if too far pursued, will bring statesmen across difficulties hard to meet without considerable interference with individual liberty”. Growing acceptance of government intervention on economic liberties is self-sustaining and may spill over into the restrictions on political and social rights that are necessary to enforce the economic regulations which are in the ostensible service of welfare and egalitarianism. These arguments are not dissimilar from Schumpeter’s (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942) fears – and prediction – that a welfare state is but a stepping stone to socialism, and even Hayek’s (The Road to Serfdom, 1944) argument that soft forms of collectivism have a tendency of evolving into totalitarianism.

In comparing Goodin’s and Friedman’s arguments, it becomes obvious that the main debate is about two choices – to have a welfare state (Goodin) or not to have one (Friedman), for the moment discounting any gradations between them. However, this is a simplification, for there are numerous flavors of welfare state. We will list the three major ones [10]. First, there is the “liberal welfare state” (the US, Australia), which regard markets as the primary guarantors of welfare with government only stepping in to restrict un-competitive practices, streamline market distortions and assume only minimal relief obligations from private charitable and religious groups. This setup, based on the “freedom to choose” (or “freedom to lose” according to left-wing critics), is one Friedman would have probably been at peace with as a compromise, even though he argues private monopolies are preferable to public monopoly or public regulation and considers many arguments for state support on the basis of “neighborhood effects” to be just special pleading. On the other hand, Goodin would defend this system as the absolute minimum mandated by societal and humanitarian ethics.

Second, there is the “corporatist welfare state” prevalent in continental Europe (France, Germany), a socially conservative philosophy in which the provision of welfare is tied to the imperative of maintaining social stability. According to Mahmud, Goodin and Parpo [11], “corporatists see freedom in more Hegelian terms, in which people are freed to realize their true nature as fundamentally social beings living in organic groups (first and foremost, the family)”. Third, and the most radical one, is the “social democratic welfare state” (Sweden), which completely eschews the negative liberties of non-intervention embodied in classical liberalism, and instead aggressively pushes (self-defined) social progress and egalitarianism through state institutions and regulations – they define economic freedom not as “to choose” (liberals) or “to lose” (leftists), but as “freedom from [want]” rather than “freedom to [do almost whatever you want]”. Friedman would regard the former system as corrupt and the latter as outright dangerous and quasi-Orwellian. Speaking of which, Huntford makes this argument explicitly, asserting that “welfare [is] an instrument of control”[12].

In his book The New Totalitarians, Huntford points a rather dystopian, “Brave New World” picture of Sweden, the social democratic welfare state par excellence. He acknowledges that welfare has not undermined the Swedes’ industriousness, since it’s geared towards “[dispelling] need without crossing the threshold of prosperity”; near full employment is attained, because “social security will guarantee bread and butter, but you must earn the jam yourself”. He argues its effects are far more pernicious in a social, psychological and spiritual sense. Swedes regard social security as a hallowed privilege bestowed unto them by a beneficent state, requiring the adoption of a “serf mentality” and homage in return. Citizens’ behavior is supervised by social workers for their own good, and their rights can be restricted if deemed necessary (e.g. in the case of alcoholism) for society’s – and their own – good. “Social security, having been turned into a component of the collective and individual personality, is a channel of subconscious manipulation”, to keep the Swedes intimidated into conformity, like clerical threats of hellfire of old; the Swede, made docile by a long statist tradition – “he is like a man who, never having stood against a blizzard, hides from a flurry of snow” – easily succumbs. Crime is a sickness, as is dissidence, but a transgressor can be redeemed because it is all a product of the environment, and hence they are personally not responsible. Furthermore, the Swedish welfare state continues to metastasize, from a mechanism designed to give basic help if asked when incepted in the 1930’s, to the idea that welfare is a right in the 1960’s, and the active propagation of welfare onto people by the 1970’s, with architects now optimizing town plans to make welfare offices maximally accessible. Emigration stats are concealed, for in the “new totalitarianism”, apostasy is “the only sin”.

Considering the dramatic language Huntford uses, it is not hard to decipher his opinions about the welfare state. In this polemical book, he emphasizes how Sweden is the most efficient of totalitarian states because its population of slaves is not coerced, as in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, but conditioned into acceptance of the collective will; Sweden’s positive achievements in building a fairer and economically stable society are neglected (even as early as 1936, the commentator George Soloveytchik wrote in The New Statesman and Nation that Sweden had found a “middle way between collectivism and individual free enterprise”, forming a “unique example of a controlled capitalism that works”[13]). Second, as an example of his hyperbole he claims that sexual libertinism only emerges as liberty recedes, using Sweden as an alleged example – however, this isn’t backed by the historical evidence, since Nazi Germany and 1930’s Russia were far more socially, including sexually, conservative, than their respective predecessors – Weimar Germany, the country of Cabaret, and the early USSR, which was the first state to legalize abortion in 1920 [14]. Third, Sweden substantially liberalized its economy during the last two decades (although it retained a comprehensive welfare system) and has been classified as a full democracy every year from 1946 to 2008 [15], both of which would be surprising if Sweden really were the totalitarianism of the collective Huntford portrays it as.

In conclusion, the modern welfare state is a construct designed to harness the power of markets, while buffering society’s indigents from their excesses. However, it is criticized as an infringement on personal liberties by classical liberals, condemned as an enabler of indolence and immorality by social conservatives, and scorned by the hard left which sees it as a bourgeois ploy to alleviate capitalism’s “contradictions” while preserving the essence of exploitation. This reaction is almost all down to the commentator’s own, subjective values.

Friedman’s belief in the autonomy of the individual, the near-untrammeled power of markets to reach Pareto-optimal outcomes, and in the perniciousness of big government colors his attack on the welfare state. Huntford is a champion of individualism, risk-taking and moral upstanding – and the perceived absence of this in Swedish society, along with its alleged Brave New World of collective consensus, surveillance, conditioning, weaponized psychiatry, licentiousness, etc – causes him to hyperbolically label it as a new totalitarianism. Goodin is an ethicist who believes society has an obligation to feed, clothe and educate its neediest, if nothing else, so he confines himself to defending the moral foundations of at least a minimal welfare state, and does not believe it necessarily leads to tyranny (Friedman, Hayek, etc) nor makes an issue about its supposed effects on society’s morality (Huntford, Limbaugh, Mark Steyn, etc).

Establishing the real linkages between freedom, democracy and welfare in an objective way is really difficult, if at all possible. It is further muddled by which definitions to use. Freedom can be either negative (freedom from restraint) or positive (freedom to achieve one’s potential). The welfare state, by requisitioning a large portion of the population’s resources and having to rigidly enforce transparency and punish corruption (given the greater size of government, corruption is far more damaging than in a classical liberal state), obviously impinges on negative liberty. There is however evidence that welfare enables greater positive liberty – although poorer than the US, most European countries have lower absolute poverty rates and much lower relative poverty rates [16], and a 2005 LSE report concluded that “Britain and the United States have the lowest levels of cross-generation mobility, lying well below Canada and the Nordic countries”[17] – mostly thanks to better education opportunities for the poor in welfare states. This may constitute a rather damning indictment of the continued relevance of the “American Dream” for ordinary Americans. On the other hand, the US can still pride itself on having one of the world’s best conditions for doing business [18] and extensive civil liberties – a fact not lost on the millions of immigrants who continue coming to its shores.

Democracy is an altogether trickier concept to define and analyze. Although today it implies a society holding frequent, fair elections to choose its representatives in an atmosphere of rule of law, commentators from Plato to de Tocqueville described it as either anarchy or tyranny of the majority [19]. A provocative thought-experiment: in early 2008, President Putin ruled over a Russia that was less-developed in terms of civil and political rights than the US and was portrayed as an old-style autocrat by the Western media, yet his approval ratings in Russia (c.70%) were higher than those of Bush (c.30%). So who was the more democratic? By the modern definition, Bush; by the older, Putin. I will take the latter view (because the modern definition of democracy is rather similar to the concept of negative liberty we already discussed – both imply an existence free from the depredations of the state), hence the relationship between democracy and welfare will be neutral. The community itself, to its maximum possible ability, will exert its will on the political system as to the amount of welfare it wants. Though one may add the caveat that historically democracies tended to increase social welfare (see Schumpeter’s attempted explanation for it), there are also significant reverses like Reagan in 1980’s America and Germany’s 2009 election that reinforced fiscal conservatism; in contrast, during the recent economic crisis the US opted for a candidate leaning towards greater welfarism.

Finally, we should note that these election results – an increase in support for welfare in the US, a shift to the right throughout most of Europe [20] – reflects a deeper and far more consequential implication for the welfare state than theoretical discussions about its effects on freedom and democracy. Much of the continent, especially in Central Europe, Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, is wracked by very low fertility rates and rapidly aging populations. To take Germany as an example, its total fertility rate (TFR), the number of expected children per woman in a lifetime, fell below the replacement level rate of 2.1 in the early 1970’s and hovered at around 1.2-1.5 since, which decimated the amount of new laborers entering the workforce today. Meanwhile, its high and rising life expectancy will impose a huge burden in pensions and medical costs [21]. Projecting to 2050, it would need annual immigration of 487,000 people just to keep the labor size constant and 810,000 to maintain a 3:1 ratio between workers and retirees (UN), which is politically unfeasible (furthermore, in recent years Germany’s net immigration rate was much less than 100,000). Facing a declining consumer base, falling demand for exports from a US which needs to save more, soaring sovereign debt, an aging population, and an uncertain energy future [22], Germany is facing great economic uncertainties – and much the same analysis could be extended to the rest of the European Union. The European electorate may have subconsciously realized that.

Napoleonic France introduced pensions for civil servants, Bismarck’s Germany invented the social security system, and Sweden developed the social-democratic welfare state in the 1930’s. The modern welfare state reached its apogee on the European continent on the back of the post-war economic miracle and demographic expansion. Both have come to an end, and so too may the modern welfare state as we know it.

[1] E.g. see Miller, Timothy, The Orphans of Byzantium: Child Welfare in the Christian Empire (2003).

[2] Goodin, Robert, Reasons for Welfare: The Political Theory of the Welfare State (1998: Princeton University Press).

[3] Marshall, Thomas, Class, Citizenship and Social Development (1963: University of Chicago Press).

[4] Goodin, Robert, Reasons for Welfare: The Political Theory of the Welfare State (1998: Princeton University Press).

[5], accessed 15th Oct 2009.

[6] Goodin, Robert, Reasons for Welfare: The Political Theory of the Welfare State (1998: Princeton University Press).

[7] Friedman, Milton, Capitalism and Freedom (1962: University of Chicago Press).

[8] Huntford, Roland, The New Totalitarians (1971: Allen Lane).

[9] Friedman, Milton, Capitalism and Freedom (1962: University of Chicago Press).

[10] Rice, James Mahmud; Robert E. Goodin, Antti Parpo (September-December 2006). “The Temporal Welfare State: A Crossnational Comparison Policy 26 (3): 195″. Journal of Public–228 (

[11] Ibid.

[12] Huntford, Roland, The New Totalitarians (1971: Allen Lane).

[13] Hale, Frederick, Brave new world in Sweden? Roland Huntford’s The New Totalitarians, published in Scandinavian Studies, volume 78, issue 2, pp. 167(24), (2006: Thomson Gale).

[14] The Soviet Encyclopedia (, accessed 15th Oct 2009).

[15] Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions, 1800-2008 (, accessed 15th Oct 2009).

[16] Bradley, D., Huber, E., Moller, S., Nielson, F. & Stephens, J. D. (2003). Determinants of relative poverty in advanced capitalist democracies. American Sociological Review, 68(3), 22-51.

[17] Blanden, Jo, Paul Gregg, and Stephen Machin. Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America. Department of Economics, University College London, Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics, University of Bistrol, London School of Economics. London, 2005. 1-20.

[18] See the World Bank’s Ease of Business ratings (

[19] Janos, Andrew, Authority and the Political System, PS 2 reader.

[20] A conservative result in the European elections, The Economist (July 11th, 2009).

[21] Demographic statistics at

[22] Germany’s Energy Watch Group ( and several other commentators believe the world is close to or has already passed “peak oil” production.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Russia’s Sisyphean Loop

The Eternal Return to the Future?

In this article I attempt to explain Russia’s historical cycles of failed Westernization and to project its future socio-political trajectory. First, I note the nature of and linkages between Russia’s geography, cultural traditions and imperial cycles. Second, using a ‘Belief Matrix’ model and drawing on historical observations, I accumulate evidence that Russia is caught in a ‘Sisyphean Loop’ in which all its attempts to Westernize – for a panoply of economic, cultural, and political reasons – merely end returning it to its imperial Eurasian past-and-future. In this century, there are three possible ‘steady state’ outcomes: either the Loop will continue as Russia returns to authoritarian stagnation or even succumbs to ‘totalitarian reversion’, or it will break – resulting in Russia’s entwinement within a ‘liberty cycle’ in which it finally manages to anchor liberal values onto its population.

I. The Curse of Geography

Russia’s physical geography can be characterized in three words – big, cold, and flat. This unique combination has left an indelible mark on the national character and the nature of the Russian state that cannot be ignored in any work on its political economy [1]. Let’s consider the deleterious effects of each of them in turn.

The early Rus’ state emerged in the coldest region to ever produce a settled population, a problem compounded by its post-16th century eastern expansion into Eurasia. Growing seasons are short, late spring droughts are recurrent and grain yields are low. This made Russian agriculture outside the southern Black Earth regions, where the cold is mitigated by exception soil fertility, unproductive and barely sufficient for population subsistence. Peasants throughout the world have traditionally viewed merchants with suspicion, since capitalism’s profit motive undermined the egalitarian village social relations and support mechanisms [2] necessary to guarantee community survival in a Malthusian world predating modern economic growth. The especially precarious nature of Russian peasant life further amplified these psychological attributes, making Russia deeply averse to the development of capitalist enterprise, with its emphasis on individual initiative and steady capital accumulation [3].

The resultant low per capita surpluses and the difficulties of taxation rendered old Russia incapable of supporting an extensive institutional superstructure. Instead, it assumed the form of a “patrimonial state” based on absolutist rule, capable of concentrating scarce resources to fulfill crucial national tasks such as defense, “defensive modernization”, and the provision of food security. Even though industrialization and fossil energy reserves have somewhat mitigated the economic effects of the severe cold in Russia, the costs remain substantial: the construction and maintenance of infrastructure is far more expensive than in temperate regions, and the Soviet legacy of large population centers in deepest Siberia and the High Arctic necessitate subsidized energy flows to avert humanitarian catastrophe.

These climatic problems are compounded by Eurasia’s huge, unconnected landmass, a feature noted as early as the 18th century by Adam Smith [4]. The low population density, relative lack of navigable rivers and distance from the seas starved Russia of capital, necessitating coercive state intervention in economic development. Though it is true that in the post-agrarian age the railways, telegraphs, telephones, radio, TV, and the Internet mitigated these factors, Russia continues to incur great costs on road and railway maintenance and the opportunity costs of missing out on the cargo freighter revolution of globalized late industrialism.

Furthermore, not only was Russia in a perpetual natural state of economic backwardness, but it was also surrounded by foreboding plains dominated by Asiatic horsemen to the east and Teutonic, Scandinavian and Polish encroachers to the west. This induced an acute sense of insecurity, at times overspilling into paranoia, in its rulers. Russia was impelled to expand from its Muscovite heartlands to suborn weak border regions (Ukraine, Poland, Central Asia, etc) and seize and hold natural buffers against powerful neighbors (the Caucasus, the Carpathians, etc). As Catherine the Great pithily put it, “I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them”. However, the initial economic gains of conquest were worn down as Moscow was forced to maintain strong standing armies on every potential front, administer the new lands and fund an extensive internal security apparatus, all of which constituted a constant drain on scarce resources and the productive labor pool.

The reasoning behind Catherine the Great's claim, "I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them".

[The Kremlin's view of the world - its strategic rear secured by the frozen Barents Sea, it feels “natural” to expand up to the Tien Shan, the Iranian border, the Caucasus, the Carpathians, and as far down the North European Plain as possible. Source: Stratfor].

Adding these factors together, it becomes clear why imperial overstretch, economic inefficiency and primitive consumer markets are features, not bugs, of any Eurasian empire. Although industrial, technological, and fossil energy sources have mitigated the curse of Russia’s geography during the last century, they were reinforced in the other direction by the Soviet physical legacy of “city-forming enterprises”, industrial “gigantism”, remote population centers, a metastasized military-industrial complex and “structural militarization”[5].

Much has been written on how developing nations can get locked into ‘dependency’ relations with the advanced ‘core’, in which a misguided focus on comparative advantage (bananas, oil, etc) contributes to the growth of strong structural and institutional barriers in the developing nation towards long-term, industrial growth – the only sure path to sustainable wealth [6]. It has also been pointed out that the only nations to have successfully ‘caught up’ with the original ‘leading’ industrial economy, Britain, were those which developed their indigenous manufacturing capabilities with active, large-scale state involvement (e.g. Germany, Japan, the Asian NIC’s)[7].

Not only does Russia suffer from the classic problem of economic backwardness (along with its associated tendency to develop unhealthy dependency relations), but its economy is further burdened by the aforementioned cold climate, huge landmass, poor riverine connections, strategic vulnerability, and a Soviet physical legacy which (somewhat) worked in the context of central planning, but which is a liability now that the Eurasian economic space has been opened up. In its open condition, the Russian economy is structurally uncompetitive on the world stage, relative to Europe, the US, and China; because manufacturing is inherently loss-making on the Eurasian plains, it is much more economically ‘efficient’ to just ship out Russia’s mineral resources to fuel manufacturing in warmer, coastal regions such as the Rhineland or the Pearl River Delta. No more than 20mn Russians are needed to service the pipelines and grow fat from the proceeds. The other 120mn are free to eke out a subsistence living on Russia’s marginal lands, or die out (as indeed many did during the post-Soviet era of neo-liberal reforms [8]).

Hence, it is hard to escape the conclusion that to achieve real, long-term economic growth and political sovereignty, as opposed to transitory commodity-bubble booms and political dependency, Russia needs to implement a degree of economic autarky – protective barriers, state backing of sunrise industries, buying (or stealing) of key industrial technologies, etc. True, this will doom it to eternal backwardness relative to the developed West. But so will openness – and at a far steeper social and political price, as will be demonstrated below.

II. Clash of Beliefs

Despite all the superficial similarities, Russia is most certainly not America. The US has a temperate climate, no significant external threats, abundant land, and excellent navigable river systems and sea ports on both coasts, all of which enabled its long legacy of free-wheeling capitalist development. Though the individual European nations tend to be strategically insecure and heavily-populated, entailing a more state-centered pattern of development, the continent’s geographical endowments – fertile river valleys, easy access to the sea and differentiated climatic zones – made it highly favorable for the development of commerce and capital accumulation [9].

These differences in starting conditions manifested themselves in lower growth rates for Russia relative to Europe. Although their absolute differences were infinitesimal and overwhelmed by the “noise” of annual climate / harvest variability and longer-term Malthusian cycles [10], this nonetheless led to a growing development gap between the two civilizations on a millennial timescale [11]. Russia’s historical backwardness was already evident by the 15th century in the contrast between the achievements of Renaissance Europe, which was by then building up the foundations of the modern world – the printing press, mechanical clocks, caravels, etc – while medieval Muscovy, the precursor to the Russian Empire, was only beginning to emerge from its long Tatar-Mongol night. Thus, the Russian state’s first interactions with a self-confident, more advanced, and frequently predatory Europe, set the template for the next five hundred years of its tortuous relations with the West. This relationship made it into a “torn nation”, to use Samuel Huntington’s term from the Clash of Civilization – forever torn between succumbing to Western civilization and returning to its Eurasian legacy.

This takes us to the crux of the problem. Russia’s seemingly-permanent backwardness ignited a prolonged debate between groups that would come to be known as its “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles” / “Eurasianists”. One of the current and most influential iterations of the former is the argument set forth in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which in the heady, triumphalist days of 1992 proclaimed, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

First, this is backed by the empirical evidence. According to the Polity IV database, the number of countries qualifying as democracies rose from around a dozen before World War One, to more than ninety by 2008 [12]. Second, Fukuyama noted the increasing influence of the “Mechanism” of natural science on societies, which emphasizes the primacy of rationalism and the desirability of optimal socio-economic arrangements. Third, he appropriated the Hegelian master-slave dialectic to argue that liberal democracy is the system best geared towards managing the conflicting thymias[13] of both “isothymiacs” – whose desire for equality is satisfied by classical liberalism and rule of law; and “megalothymiacs” – whose desire for power over others is satisfied through capital accumulation and the thrills of democratic politics. The theory goes that as nations embrace the scientific method and industrialize – whether to enjoy the fruits of consumerism, or only just to preserve their political sovereignty – the likelihood of their convergence to liberal democracy and integration into the “international community” approaches one.

These theories of secular progress have developed in an uneasy conjunction with the “civilizational school”, which believes that free markets and liberal democracy are specific features of Western civilization, i.e. of the Latino-Germanic peoples, and therefore cannot easily take root in other societies. One of the most powerful arguments against wholesale Westernization was made by Nikolai Trubetzkoy in Europe and Man, published in 1920 amidst the postwar disillusionment and revolutionary turbulence of those years. He states that the idea of world progress, with European civilization naturally at its forefront, is nothing more than a baseless assumption of European cosmopolitanism (which is itself merely a euphemism for “egocentric” “pan-Latino-Germanic chauvinism”). This is because “the scientific nature of the proof is illusory”, since to “reconstruct the evolutionary scheme, we must know its beginning and end points, and to ascertain its beginning and end points, we must reconstruct the evolutionary scheme”. Through a deft combination of psychological and philosophical arguments, he comes to the conclusion that all cultures – including “savages” – are essentially equal and should be evaluated on their own merits. Though cultural relativism is well-known today, at least on liberal university campuses, such ideas were ground-breaking at the time [14].

Following his reflections on the non-universality of Western culture, Trubetzkoy asks whether it is possible for a non-European culture to a) completely assimilate with it and b) whether doing so is desirable. To do so, he draws on the work of the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, who argued that all cultures are defined by “the uninterrupted emergence of new cultural assets” (legal codes, political structures, scientific ideas, artistic styles, etc). All cultural assets are either “inventions” – a product of the indigenous culture, or “propagations” – imports from another culture. The former is much easier to assimilate because it is an organic product of the society in question, whereas the latter is copied from another society and whose transplantation will result in a clash with older pre-existing values, resulting in a long and bitter duel logique for supremacy.

When a culture like Russia tries to Westernize, the result is cultural schizophrenia. A good half of its inventions – those stemming from its “old Russian” side – will now be rejected out of hand for not conforming to the dominant European paradigm. Because of its “cultural dependency” on Europe, paralyzing social clefts develop across classes and generations – for instance, during the 18th century “trivial, demeaning aping of Europe”, when the French-speaking upper classes were often unable to even understand their Russophone serfs. (Furthermore, “[Russia] must accept without protest everything that genuine Romano-Germans create and consider valuable, even if it conflicts with its national psychology and is poorly understood”. This basically defines Russia’s unsuccessful attempts to create a Western style free-market economy in the early 1990’s, which was carried out by ideologues and hijacked by insiders).

The resultant internal weaknesses and wastage of ideological energy on internal debates and conflicts cement a permanent cultural lag behind Europe. This breeds a burning inferiority complex within Russians, and causes Europeans to look down upon Russians, whom they criticize for either a) not Europeanizing far enough – for Russia’s indigenous cultural assets can never be fully extirpated, absent a full “anthropological merger” with the Romano-German world, or b) deceitfully repressing their “true nature” under a European veneer [15]. This further reinforces Russians’ disillusionment with the West.

The failure of Westernization, growing social tensions, and simmering ressentiment against the West, occasionally reach a critical point in which Russia attempts to “leap” the gap separating it from the West, as happened during the Bolshevik Revolution (leapfrogging from feudalism to socialism) or the 1990′s (from socialism to market fundamentalism) – i.e., to whatever utopian end-of-history the West appears to be moving towards at the time. However, these leaps are extremely enervating and result in long periods of stagnation as Russian society sets about resolving the contradictions opened up by its Sisyphean attempts to catch up to the West.

III. The Belief Matrix

One way to understand changes in a society’s belief systems is to graphically represent it within a Belief Matrix, as shown below for a ‘Sisyphean loop’ (encounter with the West).

The horizontal axis represents the degree of society’s faith in its own indigenous culture, which can be (roughly) proxied by measures such as demographic health, social solidarity, levels of social trust, the crime rate, and faith in the future. The rightmost part represents a state of “sobornost” (соборность) – a catch-all term for a deep sense of internal peace and unity between races, religions, sexes, etc, within a society, or in the words of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Lossky, “the combination of freedom and unity of many persons on the basis of their common love for the same absolute values”[16]. An example of such a period in Russian history could be the Khrushchev thaw (1956-64), which saw the ebbing of the class war and Stalinist repressions, rapid industrial growth, and symbolic achievements in space; but before the onset of the Brezhnev stagnation, with its drunkenness, corruption and cynicism, which dimmed the lights of faith in a bright socialist future.

Its opposite is another untranslatable Russian word, poshlost (пошлость), which according to different commentators is a kind of “petty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity”[17], “triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality”[18], “not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive”[19], and “corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature”[20]. This is another good catch-all term for categorizing declining cultures that have, or believe they have lost, their faith in themselves, prominent 20th century examples being Weimar Germany and 1990’s Russia.

The vertical axis of the Belief Matrix represents a society’s degree of belief in Rationalism, that is, Enlightenment values such as liberalism, the rule of law, the scientific method, etc, or what Samuel Huntington ethnocentrically labels as the “Idea of the West”. Several caveats must be added. Rationalism does not necessarily imply democracy, for as thinkers from Aristotle to de Tocqueville pointed out, democracy has a tendency to degenerate into an (irrational) tyranny of the majority. However, some democracy, or at least some degree of popular consent, is needed to sustain a rational society, i.e. for ‘liberal democracy’ to become so ‘embedded’ as to be accepted as an integral part of the national culture, as it is in countries like France or the US.

That is much harder than it sounds. The scientific method is alien and unfamiliar to the peasant mind filled with images of rain gods and trickster demons. The rule of law cannot sit well in human societies based on on communal coercion, “big man” rule and sacrificial scapegoating. As pointed out in Part I, rational market forces are anathema in subsistence societies. Thus, reconciling sobornost with rationalism, or ironing out the internal contradiction inherent in ‘liberal democracy’, is a long and tortuous process that necessitates the development of economic surpluses, and consequently of a culture of tolerance and an argumentative tradition, for its fulfillment. The only nations that managed to fully accomplish this in their pre-industrial phase were Great Britain and the US. However, once a society resolves these contradictions it enters a powerful liberty loop, which ensures the long-term survival of liberal democracy within its territories, at least in the absence of very severe exogenous shocks. Finally, it should be emphasized that the “Idea of the West” is only an absolute ideal to which humans can only aspire to, but never reach unity with; as such, it should not be conflated with individual “Western countries” (France, the US, etc), which are composed of humans and hence frequently, understandably, and inevitably fail to fully live up to their Rationalist ideal.

This explains the frequent Russian, Muslim, Third World, etc, accusations of double standards and hypocrisy [21] on the part of the “West”, which presents itself as a universal, end-of-history civilization, but in reality often acts in ways to further its cultural and economic hegemony. Though part of the critique is accurate and justified, another part veers into being a Romantic reaction against the West, which Gustav Pauli tried to define as “irrationalism, the mystic welding together of subject and object, the tendency to intermingle the arts, the longing for the far-away and the strange, the feeling for the infinite and the continuity of historic development”[22] – much like postmodernism, it is very hard to define Romanticism, for (rational) definition is contrary to its very spirit!

I have designated this over-reaction in Russia’s context as Russian mysticism (Romanticism) or skeptical Russophilia[23], noting that their adherents share a common belief in the non-universality of the Western project and in Russia’s unique civilizational identity and destiny – be it of a Slavophile, Eurasianist, or some other hue. Contrary to the ‘Western Russophobe’-imposed definition of a ‘Russophile’ as someone who uncritically praises Russia and its government, their defining trait is a simple acceptance of Russia for what it is; for unlike the case for (rational) Western civilization, resolving its own contradictions is not part of Russia’s historical mission – and one could add that attempts to do so on the part of its elites have led to usually led to tragic results. The essence of Russian Romanticism can be summed in just four lines by the famous Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev.

Умом Россию не понять, | You can’t understand Russia with intellect,
Аршином общим не измерить: | You can’t measure her with a common scale,
У ней особенная стать — | She has a special kind of grace,
В Россию можно только верить. | You can only believe in Russia.

This anti-Western reaction can sometimes spiral out of control, transcending its aesthetic, mystical origins into the realm of ‘metapolitics’[24]. The intersection between sobornost and mysticism is the dark region where totalitarianisms arise and democides are unleashed, as their spiritually tortured societies attempt to go back to an imagined past using the most modern tools – as Goebbels himself said, “National Socialism has understood how to take the soulless framework of technology and fill it with the rhythm and hot impulses of our time”. Speaking of which, the prime example of this during the 20th century is German Nazism, which ‘scorns personal freedom and objectivity and all universal, unnational values as being the “superficial” civilization of the sunny Mediterranean, in contrast with the “deeper” Kultur of northern fogs, that misty metapolitics, that “queer mixture of mysticism and brutality”’[25]. A modern example would be the Islamists using modern technology (bombs, airplanes, etc) and modern ideology (Islamized ‘Third Worldism’) to recreate their vision of a pure, idyllic imagined past [26].

In conclusion, there are four utterly distinct socio-psychological states on the Belief Matrix. First, at the bottom right (rationalism / sobornost), we have stable societies where liberalism enjoys a substantial degree of popular consensus, locking them into self-perpetuating ‘liberty cycles’. Second, at the bottom left (rationalism / poshlost), we have peoples with minimal internal social solidarity and a rational mindset, which one could call “diasporic[27] (in that it is typical amongst “diaspora peoples” like the Jews, Armenians, the Chinese ‘bamboo network’ in East Asia, etc). The diaspora mentality cannot be sustained within a non-diasporic society, for a society cannot be a parasite on itself indefinitely; it will have to move upwards, towards a state of “barbarism”, whose essence is a principled stand for pure parasitism – the top-left of the Belief Matrix (mysticism / poshlost), which is a form of nihilism. Yet this too is an unstable state, since it needs to feed off a functioning civilization for its material and cultural survival (i.e. one with a certain degree of sobornost), hence it will eventually come to an end – either when it is crushed by the civilizations it necessarily stands in opposition to, or when it conquers them itself but whose demise likewise eliminates the rents the barbarians had previously relied upon to sustain their civilization, thus forcing them into generating their own productive capabilities. Fourth, the region of the top-right (mysticism / sobornost) is the aforementioned realm of metapolitics, of the “charismatic authority”[28], of high “passionarity”[29], of the national will, of totalitarian despotism.

IV. The Sisyphean Loop

We are all prisoners of the belief matrix and its laws, even the ‘post-historical’ Europeans [30] entrenched within transnational liberalism. As such, it is imperative to understand these laws, especially as they apply to cultures in an uneasy relationship with the West. I will now try to put together a general model of how traditional cultures react to the Western challenge, before applying it to Russia’s five hundred year history of alternating acceptance and rejection of the West in Parts V-VII. I will be referring to the ‘Sisyphean Loop’ chart in Part III throughout.

As attested to by numerous chronicles, first contact with Westerners by less advanced civilizations typically results in a certain fascination with the strange, new Westerners, as well as a determination to catch up – especially to acquire the Western military-industrial technologies to defend against Western predation. (There are many exceptions, of course; for instance, 19th century China believed the Europeans had nothing to teach them, and retreated in on itself to its cost. But in the long-term, the reality of Chinese stagnation and its exploitation by Western powers – including by a Western-armed Japan – eventually forced a tectonic shift). The two cleanest examples of countries repeatedly opting for ‘defensive modernization’ are Japan during the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, and successive incarnations of the Russian Empire under Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Alexander II, Stalin, Putin?

Many indigenous traditions are seen as incompatible with modernization and are rejected by the ruling elites – and as noted in Part II, since a Westernizing nation “borrows its evaluation of culture from the Romano-Germans”, it must then “accept without protest everything that genuine Romano-Germans create and consider valuable, even if it conflicts with its national psychology and is poorly understood”[31]. This creates internal tensions, conflicts, and unrest within society. There occurs a growing gap between the Westernizing elites and the traditional mass of society, a theme that typically comes to dominate vast swathes of its culture and literature, a classic sign of poshlost. Society moves to the bottom- left of the belief matrix, embracing Rationalism (synonymous with Westernization) at the expense of faith in itself. Social trust erodes, there is more internal strife, and society takes on a “diasporic” mentality – the debasing feeling of being a foreigner in one’s own land.

The cosmopolitan elites come to be seen as foreign leeches on indigenous soil, decadent and degenerate, by the common folks – many of whom retain, let us remind ourselves, peasant mentalities valuing egalitarian collectivism, and many of whom are now being uprooted from the soil to swelling cities, made literate and capable of reading agitprop, and made mobile by the new railways, as happened in the last decades of Tsarism (in modern times a similar role may be played by the spread of electronic social networking technologies [32]). Furthermore, these grievances tend to have more than a grain of truth, as the elites do tend to slavishly follow foreign manners (e.g. see the French-speaking Tsarist aristocracy, many of whom could not even understand their Russophone serfs) and exploit the indigenous population in the name of Western-associated ‘modernization’, forcing the country into a humiliating ‘dependency’ relationship with the already-developed core.

Over time these problems begin to discredit further Westernization, especially once the easiest (and ostensibly most useful) task of military modernization is completed. The people and the elites lose faith in the West – the former because they associate it with degeneracy and corruption (e.g. the Russian workers and peasants most aware of it: because of the development of the national railway system during late Tsarism, even a peasant from a rural backwater could now observe the parasitic decadence of the Court); the latter because of the shallow nationalism born of reinvigorated military, economic and cultural strength accruing from a limited modernization. Intellectually, there is a gradual movement back towards embracing indigenous culture, like the late Tsarist intelligentsia’s (narodniki) fad towards Slavophilia, with its (rather risible) idolization of Russian peasant life.

But now one of two things happens. A part of the elite realizes that their decadence is politically dangerous (a large gap between the masses and the elites presages revolution), and tries to move back towards indigenous traditions – back to the people, so to speak. This is opposed by another part of the elite that has gotten used to its perks and privileges, despite the spiritual anomie in which they are stuck because of this. The ruling elites become disunited and weak; the masses are increasingly disillusioned with the whole system; new ideologues appear, preaching about total rejection of the West (e.g. the Bolsheviks) and a return to an imagined past of purity and virtue, i.e. to tradition (e.g. amongst whom there were many admirers of Russian peasant communal traditions; non-Russian examples would be fascist movements or the radical Islamists who overthrew the Iranian Shah).

There appears a crisis, further straining divisions in the government and polarizing society in general (e.g. World War One). Eventually the government is forced to reform, but alas and alack, as per de Tocqueville, the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform. By reversing course and showing weakness, it delegitimizes itself in the face of crisis; furthermore, it frequently becomes more democratic just when the people (and newly-enfranchised electorate) are becoming more hardline, and extremists (the Bolsheviks in 1918, the Iranian Islamists in 1979, etc) are waiting in the wings. The extremists moderate their positions to win over the people and consolidate their control; after that they unleash terror, taking their captive nation into the far-top fringes of uncompromising rejection of Rationalism and anti-Western reaction.

On the other hand, if the elite remains united; if the crisis is not that severe; if the people retain a firm belief in Rationalism and the Idea of the West and are unswayed by the extremists, then a more moderate outcome can be expected – a reversion back to the past, the state of stasis (“traditional authority”), yet having assimilated some elements of the Idea of the West during its loop so that society is now “better” and perhaps “fairer” than before (by the yardstick of more Westernized states). They remain in this inert state until another shock (e.g. defeat in war by a more Westernized nation, or recognition of weakness) forces them to act, restarting the loop.

Why do I call this a Sisyphean loop? Because while it lasts, this basically explains a tortured nation’s attempts to catch up with “the West” (roll the rock to the top of the mountain), but never managing it (the rock keeps going back downhill). This is very pronounced in Russia – its entire history since gunpowder Muscovy has been one of quixotic attempts to catch up to and surpass the West, yet which all too often ended in catastrophes wrought of messianic delusions, followed by prolonged periods of frustration, stagnation, and collapse.

V. The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Russian Empire

The hand of the Muscovite Leviathan lay heavy on a people always near the edge of subsistence, creating strong centrifugal forces that further reinforced the state’s natural penchant for coercive centralization and intensive legitimization (the main instruments in these endeavours being the Army, the bureaucracy, and the Church). This resulted in Russia oscillating between two equilibrium states – 1) a centralized autocracy attempting to consolidate state power over the Eurasian vastness – “Empire”, and 2) a natural state of illiberal, anarchic stasis – “Chaos”.

This is how this imperial cycle works. Following Russia’s cyclical collapses (the Mongol conquest, The Time of Troubles, the Civil War and the post-Soviet transition), in which the state withers away and foreign powers and their Russian proxies move in to take advantage of the Eurasian vacuum (the Poles during the ‘Time of Troubles’, the Civil War era interventions, Western ‘financial advisors’ during the 1990’s), there eventually emerges a messianic “white rider” who heavy-handedly drives out the usurpers, and restores order and national morale (the 15th- and early 16th-century princes of Muscovy, Peter the Great, Lenin). Putin is the current white rider, intimately cognizant of Russia’s weakness from his intelligence background and determined to once again play state-driven catch-up to the West.

However, this is rarely successful – these developments are stymied by the baleful economic and social effects of Westernization on Russia (see Part II). Disappointed by slow and stunted progress, the white rider “realizes that the challenges ahead are more formidable than he first believed and that his (relative) idealism is more a hindrance than an asset”[33]. Into this society riven by internal divisions and disillusionment (poshlost) – in steps the ‘dark rider’, who unburdens himself of the white rider’s moral restraints in an all-out drive to fulfil the state’s goals through strict internal controls, subjugation of the economy and military expansionism – he recreates the Empire, driving Russia to the (metapolitical) top-right of the Belief Matrix. The most famous examples are Stalin and Ivan Grozny in his later years.

This empire-building is accompanied by intense efforts at state legitimization (the “Third Rome”, the socialist future, etc – i.e., reincarnations of the mystical, messianic Russian ‘national idea’) and state coercion (from oprichnina to OGPU). Yet the people tend to go along willingly with this project, because of unfavorable memories of the era of collapse and disintegration, and their perception that this regime, though harsh, is a necessary and ‘national’ one. In his visit to the 1930’s USSR, John Scott noted that Stalin himself was regarded as a kind of beneficent Tsar, a father of the nation, and a competent ‘captain of state’ like the propaganda posters portrayed him [34]; the regime enjoyed popular support and Stalinist industrialization was fuelled not only by fear, but by immense enthusiasm and fervor too. The war correspondent Alexander Werth noted similar sentiments in 1941, e.g. Stalin was viewed as a paternal bashka (thinker)[35].

After the dark rider dies, his ‘charismatic authority’ is replaced by more traditional and bureaucratic institutions, i.e. a more rational order. However, his legacies and achievements – sobornost, autarky, sovereignty, i.e. the Empire – linger on, and continue legitimizing the regime. For the Empire is, at root, a social preservation mechanism to allow Russians to enjoy the benefits of sustained socio-political complexity – internal peace, a degree of security from foreign marauders, a large contiguous market space permitting economies of scale and autonomous economic development, and the aesthetic trappings of imperial splendor.

However, cursed with a geography highly unfavorable for settled life (let alone civilization), imperial overstretch, economic backwardness and primitive consumer markets are features, not bugs, of any Eurasian empire (see Part I). Furthermore, the dark rider also sows the seeds of destruction by overextending his realm, which eventually ushers in a period of stagnation and increasing socio-economic strains. Russia’s imperial cycles are basically a permanent struggle against dissolution. Sometimes, the costs of maintaining the imperial superstructure exceed the benefits, by which point a systemic shock could unravel the entire system – a good example would be Kerensky’s Russia in 1917, which collapsed once its coercive (military) and legitimizing (the Church) power was destroyed by defeats, defections, and Bolshevik propaganda.

Half-hearted attempts of the ancien régime at reform fail and the country slides from decline into a new collapse, thus closing the cycle. Though crises are generally rarer in Russia than in most European countries, once they occur – given the amount of stress holding the system together – they tend to be extremely catastrophic. Even as newly-empowered ideologues set about fulfilling their dreams of leapfrogging the West from within the collapsed shell of state, the real Russia outside the Kremlin crumbles reverts back to its natural state – the natural state, an anarchic state of stasis, decentralized Chaos; abandoning its cities, laws, and other accoutrements of civilization for the primeval mysticism of its endless plains, dark forests and Slavic skies.

VI. Patterns of the Past

In this and the next chapter, I will be putting together the above observations on Russia’s geographic-climatic idiosyncrasies, the derived cultural traditions, its special path along the Belief Matrix, and its imperial cycles, trying to link them together and apply them to its past. There appear to me to be several ‘Sisyphean Loops’ in the history of the post-Tatar Russian state, periodic ‘waves’ in which it actively tried to reconcile rationalization with its indigenous traditions – most intense under the rule of Ivan IV (‘the Terrible’), Peter the Great, Lenin and Stalin, and Yeltsin and Putin (though also identifiable under Catherine the Great, and Alexander II and Alexander III).

Thunderstorms over the Third Rome

First off, the reason I put apostrophes around Ivan IV’s epithet – in Russian, it is “Grozny”, an adjective formed from the Russian word “гроза” – “thunderstorm”. Not necessarily cruel and unjust; more appropriate translation are ‘fear-inspiring’, ‘mighty’, ‘superhuman’, ‘sublime’; an unpredictable force of nature that can bring the rains that save the harvest, or kill and destroy everything in its path.

Following Ivan IV’s recognition as ‘Tsar of All Russia’ in 1547, he proceeded to build a diverse, Eurasian empire – and thus cementing Russia’s conception of itself as an Empire ever since. Though criticized for his ‘repressions’, including the violent suppression of the Novgorod insurrection [36], most of the ‘evidence’[37] for his ‘tyranny’ comes from Andrei Kurbsky, the first Russian ‘dissident’ and traitor who turned to Poland-Lithuania in 1564. Actual historical records record only 4,000-5,000 executions under his reign, most of them recidivists who betrayed Ivan Grozny a second time; furthermore, in any case the numbers pale besides the violence seen in Western Europe at the time (e.g. St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in France with 5,000-30,000 dead, and Henry VIII’s anti-vagrant laws that resulted in the execution of 72,000 peasants misappropriated of their lands).

Ivan Grozny made a series of far-reaching reforms, some of which were surprisingly advanced for their time – e.g. the introduction of elected juries from the lower ranks, local self-government, medical quarantines for combating plague, a standing military (strel’tsy), and rationalizing reforms of the Church, the law code, tax collection, the bureaucracy (formation of permanent chanceries, or prikazy, in 1553), nobles’ service obligations (the 1553 ‘decree on service’), and the convocation of zemskie sobory (‘land assemblies’) drawn from merchants and artisans to build consensus for state modernization policies.

Many of the reforms were based on those prevailing in the Ottoman Porte, in particular those concerned with the military structure, tax collection, and noble obligations. However, the attempt to copy the Ottoman system of land division (private, clerical, state, and ‘sovereign’) – known as the institution of oprichnina (1565-1572), meant to create a personal fiefdom subject to Ivan’s direct rule in order to extirpate treason and reduce boyar power – backfired. The black-cowled, sinister oprichniki, riding on black steeds with a broom and dog’s head to “sniff out and sweep away treason”, were more interested in personal enrichment and settling personal vendettas than in pursuing their task of consolidating Ivan Grozny’s power. They proved powerless to defend Moscow against a devastating raid from the Crimean Khanate in 1571, and were disbanded soon after – but not before inflicting severe damage on the Muscovite heartlands. By now Ivan’s transition from a white rider to dark rider was complete, as he steadily slipped into mental insanity, and Russia was wracked by famines and depopulation, and an unsuccessful war with Livonia. Following his death, Russia would slip into deep stagnation (in which state predation would be displaced by boyar predation) and within two decades, the ‘Time of Troubles’, an era of conspiratorial politics and internal strife (poshlost), depopulation, and foreign (Polish) intervention. Much of the 17th century was spent in recuperation from the depopulation and weakening of the state during the late 16th century; although pointedly, it was during this time, relatively free from Malthusian stress and predatory state alike, that Russians enjoyed some of the highest per capita surpluses and consumption in their pre-industrial history [38].

The reign of Ivan IV, ‘the Terrible’, set the template for all of Russia’s consequent ‘defensive modernizations’. Realizing Russia’s backwardness upon coming to power, the white rider, or strongman saviour, begins to rapidly implement a revolution from above involving centralization, social mobilization, and technical and cultural borrowings from abroad, i.e. an embrace of Rationalism. Yet eventually it is noticed that results aren’t progressing as fast as they ought to and need to, and the white rider is replaced by a much stricter dark rider, who rules with an iron fist and possesses an overinflated perception of Russia’s capability to assimilate his changes and reforms. The pursuit of modernization takes on a mystical, quasi-spiritual hue.

Ivan Grozny is special in that in his case, both riders were the same person; it’s just that under the pressures of sabotage and treason from his boyars, he metamorphosed from being a white rider to a dark rider. Under his later rule, efforts at legitimization, coercion, mobilization, etc, were pushed to such extremes that they of themselves critically undermined Russian power. Furthermore, Russia’s rising power and expansionism brought it into conflict with Poland-Lithuania to the west, which sought to check its advances, attempted to block Muscovy’s technological imports from Western Europe [39], and allied itself with the Crimean Khanate to the south (an Ottoman protectorate) – a move that could be seen as a precursor of Britain’s and American’s strategies of ‘containment’. This illustrates a recurring theme of Russian expansionism mentioned in Part I – there are always limits to imperial growth in the form of mounting resistance from bordering Powers, which impinges on the Empire’s economic base. Just as it Russia’s neighbours made it difficult for it to acquire modern gunpowder weapons, so the US during the Cold War would try its best to restrict exports of advanced technologies to the Soviet Empire.

And so it went for more than three hundred years more of Tsarism, during which time Russia suffered from a dependency relation with Europe, both economically (grain exports for luxuries) and culturally (a Francophone, ‘foreign’ elite). Ironically, the single greatest attempt to break out into modernity through mobilization and centralization (despotism?), pursued under Peter the Great, had its greatest impact on the reinforcement of (development-inhibiting) serfdom. The aristocracy soon wriggled out of its state service obligations after Peter’s death, but retained despotic power over their serfs until 1861, using their surpluses to fund lavish lifestyles devoted to the ‘trivial, demeaning aping of Europe’, as characterized by Trubetzkoy (see Part II). A renewed state-led industrialization campaign from the 1880’s would eventually generate the massive reaction – both Western and anti-Western, rational and irrational – known as the Bolshevik Revolution. It is to this event and its consequences that we now turn.

“The Third International is not an International, but the Russian national idea”

Late Tsarist Russia was a highly polarized, divided and turbulent society, as noted in Part IV. Peasants were drifting into rapidly expanding, unsanitary industrial cities riven by inequality. The railways and the spread of literacy – contrary to later Soviet propaganda, already well advanced [40] by that time – gave Russians unprecedented mobility and access to new, radical ideas and a glimpse of the aristocracy’s (and foreigners’) la dolce vita. In its last decade, Tsarist Russia was wracked by constant labor unrest in the factories and political violence, which were harshly suppressed. The workers, aware of and seduced by the consumption habits of Europeans [41] and their elites, demanded a bigger piece of the consumption pie, as did a younger, more ambitious segment of rural society. This conflicted with the state’s need for rapid industrial development, which by now it was taking seriously [42] – high tariff rates on manufactured goods, state involvement, the railways, and a cheap, suppressed labor force contributed to the late Empire’s rapid industrial expansion. But for all that, it should be noted that the Tsar retained the support of the vast majority of people, the extremist elements like the Bolsheviks were regarded as traitorous internationalists, and Russia’s growing power bolstered national self-confidence. At the genesis of modern total war in 1914, the Russian Empire was waxing, not waning; indeed, fearful projections of its future strength were an important factor in Germany’s decision to cross the Rubicon into Belgium.

The war exposed the Empire’s underlying weaknesses, as the initial outburst of patriotic euphoria degenerated into pessimism and anger. The war effort was prosecuted incompetently and an ill-supplied and demoralized Russian Army met defeat after defeat at the hands of the Germans. The privileged elite refused to share the war burden with the workers, alienating them through their ostentatious splendor – manifested above all in the Tsar, whose German wife, English lifestyle, and tolerance of the dissolute Rasputin discredited him in the eyes of the people. These transgressions were made to seem all the more egregious due to the Tsarist regime’s war propaganda, which only served to reinforce Russia’s sense of national consciousness. By 1917, the railway system was breaking down, and along with it food supplies to the cities and the front.

Following the collapse of the three-hundred year old Romanov dynasty in early 1917 and the cessation of political repression under the weak Provisional Government, the socialist-revolutionary movement sensed its historical moment. The radicalization of the urban workers, the discrediting of the old order, and the Bolsheviks’ skilful representation of themselves as the solution to the people’s problems (Land, Bread, Peace), laid the groundwork for the October Revolution of 1917. Utilizing their control of Russia’s main urban centers, instilling iron discipline in their followers, strangling the early Revolutionary freedoms in their cradle, and portraying the White forces as being corrupt and in cahoots with dark foreign forces (i.e., playing on the nationalism which they had rejected in their older, theoretical days), the Bolsheviks won the Civil War and set about building Communism – ‘Soviet power plus electrification of the country’, in Lenin’s memorable phrase. This was in essence another Russian attempt to ‘leap ahead’ of the West, similar to that attempted by Ivan Grozny, Peter the Great and even the late Tsars; yet married to industrialism, far more radical and ‘total’ in its scope and ambitions. Incubated within this apparent, radical Westernization – for Marxism was developed by a German in London, and had its antecedents in the Western dialectical tradition – was a profound resurrection of the mystical and sublime element of Russian history (e.g. the spiritual rehabilitation of Eurasia symbolized by the return of the capital to Moscow from Petrograd).

After the radicalism, insecurity and terrors of the Civil War period, the 1920’s saw a significant liberalization and social modernization – the fruits of the latest Western Rationalism. Abortion was legalized in 1920 and divorce laws were reformed. Austere ‘war communism’ was replaced with the New Economic Policy, which grudgingly granted the right to make private profit. There was more freedom in the arts, typified by the Russian avant-garde movement, which reached its peak in the 1920’s before being forcibly displaced by ‘socialist realism’ from 1932. This was part of a general return to ‘tradition’ spearheaded by Stalin, who pushed the idea of ‘socialism in one country’ in opposition to Trotsky’s internationalist concept of ‘permanent revolution’ and Bukharin and Kamenev’s social-democratic leanings. These old Bolsheviks were to be later condemned as heretics, and extirpated during the Stalinist ‘show trials’ of the mid-to-late 1930’s along with their ideas as Russia drifted back towards a socially-conservative, neo-imperialist state based on mobilization, militarization, and messianic fervor. As the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev put it in his 1937 book The Origin of Russian Communism, “the Third Rome, Russia managed to bring about the Third International, on which were imprinted many of the features of the Third Rome… The Third International is not an International, but the Russian national idea”; the Soviet state represented a transformation of the “ideas of Ivan the Terrible, a new form of the old hypertrophied state of Russian history…Russian Communism is more traditional than people usually think, and is nothing more than a transformation and distortion of the old Russian messianic idea”. That said, the social revolution nonetheless irrevocably changed Russia: as Slavoj Žižek noted, for all their arbitrariness, ‘terror and misery’, nonetheless socialism “opened up a certain space, the space of utopian expectations which, among other things, enabled us to measure the failure of the really existing Socialism itself”[43]. In other words, Russia’s inevitable failure to fully assimilate this latest Western propagation (see Part II) would in time psychologically contribute to the late Soviet disillusionment and collapse because it opened up a space for its own refutation; just as previous radical ‘revolutions from above’ overseen by strongmen like Ivan Grozny and Peter the Great ended up undermining the Empire.

As noted in Part V, for all the privations (repressions, economic coercion, etc) forced on the Russian people as the Empire was built up during the 1930-1950’s – and defended at phenomenal cost during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) – the regime retained a great degree of support throughout. Sometimes the regime went too far in its paranoia and ended up undermining itself, as during 1936-37 when the repressions spiraled out of control and became of themselves the greatest source of ‘sabotage’ in the Soviet economy. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the USSR could have withstood an assault by the Wehrmacht, supported by the industrial potential of most of Europe, if it hadn’t been for Stalin’s foresight and ruthlessness in industrializing the Urals, expanding Soviet borders west, centralizing state operations, and preparing wartime industrial relocation plans.

For if the USSR had lost the Great Patriotic War, this would have resulted in the partial extermination, Siberian exile and helotization of the Slavic and Jewish populations of eastern Europe, as envisaged under Generalplan Ost, Nazi Germany’s genocidal scheme for conquering Lebensraum in the East. This partly explains why Russians today hold such conflicted and contradictory views on Stalin, the despotic Messiah who led and ruled them like the God of the Old Testament – according to a February 2006 opinion poll, 47% of the population are positive, whereas 29% are negative [44]. During the postwar decades, Victory was the greatest single legitimization of the Soviet regime, and even today, it cleanses away the other manifold sins of Stalin’s regime in the minds of many of Russia’s citizens – attesting to its lasting power as Russia’s national myth.

After the poshlost of the 1920’s to the early Stalinist period, in which Russia moved in an upwards arc along the left side of the Belief Matrix, after 1938 – and especially after the spiritual boost of Victory in 1945 – Soviet Russia returned to a state of sobornost at the top-right position of the Belief Matrix, underpinned by sovereignty and autarky, i.e. all the classical elements of the idealized Russian Empire. Prior to Stalin’s death in 1953, the groundwork was being laid for what could have been a new purge directed against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, a euphemism for Soviet Jews, with the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ (1952) to poison Soviet leaders serving as a pretext: hundreds were already arrested by early 1953. This would have been the culmination of a steady process under Stalin in which ‘diasporic’ elements (Rationalism – poshlost) were expunged in favor of Russia’s older imperial identities (mysticism – sobornost). Examples of this process include the purges of the avant-garde artists and the old Bolsheviks; the deportations of minorities; the crushing of ‘national’ movements in direct contravention of Lenin’s liberal attitudes towards nationalities; the gradual rehabilitation of Tsarist-era ranks, symbols and old national heroes like Alexander Nevsky during the war, whose socialist credentials were highly questionable; the wartime reversal of course on Russian nationalism and the Orthodox Church, etc. There is even a story, perhaps apocryphal, that after the end of the Second World War a group of exiled Russian nobles wrote to Stalin, congratulating him on his recreation of a great Empire and offering him their services in return for clemency. He didn’t reply, of course – the Red Tsar did not tolerate heresy, even when recanted.

The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Empire

The Soviet Empire reached its greatest degree of sobornost during Khrushev’s reign (1956-64). The Stalinist repressions were condemned and political prisoners in the Gulag – many of whom had wept on hearing of Stalin’s death – were released. There was a degree of liberalization and even a work as controversial as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published and avidly debated. Meanwhile, there was strong economic growth, this time including in the consumption sector, as Stalin’s emphasis on the military-industrial complex was relaxed.

However, after the Khrushev thaw (ottepel’) there set in a period of stagnation (zastoi) and renewed authoritarianism, this time of a milder, rational-bureaucratic character. After 1965, the USSR came to be afflicted by a metastasizing alcoholism epidemic, and after a half-century of rapid improvement, Russian mortality rates peaked and began their long slide down. This was most pronounced amongst middle-aged men, though uniquely for industrialized countries, the phenomenon even manifested itself amongst infants from the 1970’s-early 1980’s. This gray authoritarianism was accompanied by a growth in corruption and ‘structural militarization’, in which an ever growing percentage of Soviet industrial output was diverted from the consumption and social sphere into the military sector – by the 1980’s, the military-industrial complex accounted for up to 30% of Soviet GDP [45].

Belief in socialism moved metamorphosed from pure idealism to an ironic skepticism lubricated by vodka. Structural factors strangled economic growth – the demographic transition (declining industrial workforce growth as the effects of the Stalinist fertility transition and the end of large-scale urbanization made themselves felt); limits to growth in the form of flat-lining raw resource extraction (e.g. peak oil in 1987) and the fulfillment of ‘heavy industrialization’; aging machinery (need more investment to maintain the same level of growth); the aforementioned ‘structural militarization’; the growing complexity of the late-industrial economy (the numbers of goods produced explodes and central planning becomes increasingly unviable); and the associated massive expansion of the bureaucracy (e.g. the percentage of the population who were Party members increased from 1% under Stalin to 15% by the 1980’s). There appeared an incipient rejection of Soviet tradition in favor of the West, especially amongst liberal youth, as well as growing disillusionment on the part of the dominant class – the workers. Realizing the dire straits the country was in by the mid-1980’s, the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev embarked on an increasingly radical program of economic (uskoreniye, perestroika), social (anti-alcohol campaign) and political (glasnost, demokratizatsiya) reforms.

Contrary to popular belief, Soviet collapse was not inevitable since the system itself was fundamentally stable, albeit stagnant [46]; the underlying reason was lay not in its failed consumer economy, hypertrophied defense sector or general nastiness, but rather Gorbachev’s abortion of central planning and economic coercion – the system of benefits and punishments for economic performance that was the linchpin of the Soviet economy. (Though, granted, worker unrest and stagnation may have tipped Gorbachev’s hand). In the absence of evolved market mechanisms, this simply led to ruinous insider plunder, asset stripping and managerial misappropriation, all under the label of “liberalization”. Russia’s physical production system remained intact, but retreated to a much lower level of output as barter arrangements replaced central planning and the huge military resource stocks were sold off.

In principle, the Soviet economy could have been reformed if the dictator (Gorbachev) had cracked down hard on the corruption that was debilitating the USSR, undertaken efficiency and organizational improvements that had previously been discarded because of concerns over upsetting entrenched interests and labor unrest, forcefully halted and started to reverse the structural militarization of the Soviet economy (e.g. by transferring capital and R&D assets to the civilian industrial base), etc. However, perhaps the collapse really was inevitable, if the system itself was simply too myopic to imagine its own demise, and / or if a reversion to coercion could not have been made to work by the late 1980’s – a valid point because this might measure may not have won support from a nomenklatura class terrified of a return to Stalinist terror.

Whatever the answer to these questions, this debate is now entirely academic. Costs exceeded benefits; the burden of complexity became too great to bear. The Soviet state, bereft of its most powerful tool (economic coercion) yet still burdened by immense obligations (welfare and warfare), unraveled under the strain. It left behind what could be called, for all practical purposes, a void, for the development of a functioning capitalism and its legal and regulatory norms needs both time and stability – neither of which Russia had. By the early 1990’s, the Empire crumbled and Russia had again reverted to its second equilibrium position – a Hobbesian ‘natural state’ of anarchic stasis [47], or ‘Chaos’.

VII. Reading Russia Right

There are currently three major schools of thought on Russia’s post-Soviet socio-political development, which can be characterized as a) “authoritarian reversion” (a promising transition in the 1990′s that was checked and reversed by dark Kremlin forces – siloviks, chekists, etc), b) ‘convergence’ (a rough but secular convergence to Western liberal democracy) and c) the cynicism of Andrew Wilson’s ‘virtual politics’. Though b) predominated during the 1990′s, under Putin’s tenure a) became the conventional wisdom.

Though each has varying degrees of truth, they all nonetheless have major weaknesses: a) does not account for the fact that the transition period was hardly liberal or democratic, and that the scope of the Kremlin’s authoritarianism is arguably overstated [48], b) the divergence from the West has become too great – both rhetorically and in practice, and c) assumes the elite is entirely post-ideological, concerned with only power and money. The “Sisyphean Loop” model attempts to integrate these divergent worldviews into a coherent whole.

Russia’s loop is a Sisyphean one, because though at times it strives towards the bottom-right of the Belief Matrix – i.e. ‘convergence’ with the ‘rationalist’ West, it never manages to permanently settle there because of the shocks that have always disturbed it from its position there. Being a hostage to its history, it cannot end it. Throughout the stagnation under Brezhnev and Gorbachev’s reforms, society became progressively more pro-Western; however, faith in Soviet-Russian culture remained strong too, held together by decades of socialist propaganda and some real achievements. However, during the early 1990′s, as the magnitude of the Soviet failure to build a fair and prosperous society became painfully clear and the country descended into a black hole of corruption, there was a wholesale rejection of Soviet-Russian culture – society moved left towards poshlost. The period was characterized by insider plunder, rising inequality and grinding poverty, the failed First Chechen War, plummeting indexes on nearly every socio-economic measure that the government still took the trouble to collect, an ossified military reliant on brutal impressments to fill its ranks, and a near-collapsed state that lost effective control of three vital functions – legitimate violence, tax collection and monetary emissions [49].

Some of the key reasons the transition was much harder in Russia than in east-central Europe were its aforementioned geographic disadvantages, cultural proclivities and burdensome Soviet legacy (see Part I). As pointed out in Part VI, after the end of economic coercion, with no market mechanisms or rule of law in place, output collapsed. Russia’s structural disadvantages in manufacturing contributed to its 1990’s deindustrialization, which was much more severe even than the 40%+ peak-to-nadir fall in GDP (1989-1998), for the post-Soviet elites found it much more convenient to sell Russia’s mineral resources abroad, using the proceeds to enrich themselves and import the needed consumer goods from Europe and China. Despite Yeltsin’s authoritarian efforts to implement market fundamentalism with tanks on a recalcitrant Duma in 1993 [50], Russia became a rent-seeking oligopoly in economic depression instead of the globalized, laissez-faire economy dreamed of by the neoliberal ideologues in the Kremlin.

No country can remain in a state of collapse indefinitely; towards the end of the 1990′s, the state began to reassert control. The tipping point came in 1998, when the financial crash cemented Russia’s disillusionment with the West and new faces from the security services [51] were brought into Russian politics, determined to clean up and restore its power. This change of course was reinforced by Russians’ angry reactions to NATO’s bombing of Serbia, which was felt to be unjust and grotesquely insensitive to Russian feelings. This marked the beginning of a long-term decline in Russians’ perceptions of the US – for better or worse, the champion of the “Idea of the West’. The human face of this shift was the accession of Putin the white rider to the Russian Presidency at the dawn of the new millennium – a strongman who restores peace and order to the Russian lands (as presented by his supporters). Russia began to move up along its Belief Matrix, away from the West, as the siloviki consolidated their power and Kremlin rhetoric became less ‘Western’ and more ‘national’ (the critics would add an ‘ist’).

Following a short dip back towards the West during the early 2000′s, when Putin cooperated with the US in the war on terror and introduced some liberal reforms (e.g. the 13% flat tax), the YUKOS Affair and increasing centralization moved Russia further away from the West, into the top-left nether regions where there is no belief in either the indigenous culture or the West. The political culture of the Russian elites transitioned from being ‘diasporic’ to ‘barbaric’, as the terms were defined in Part III. The YUKOS Affair – in Western rhetoric, a heavy-handed and corrupt clampdown on free enterprise and political participation; in Kremlin rhetoric, a necessary defense against an attempted hijacking of the state by the latter-day boyars – was the seminal moment in the break between Russia and the West. In its immediate aftermath, the US launched an information war against Russia and pushed aggressively with ‘color revolutions’ into its Near Abroad; whereas in the 1990’s Western expansionism had been aimed at stabilizing the Eurasian vacuum, now its aim was to reconstruct a cordon sanitaire around Russia to preempt the Empire’s reemergence. Russia retaliated by intensifying its efforts in the economic and intelligence penetration of Ukraine and the Baltics, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Though direct talk of it remains muted, the old strategy of active containment has resurfaced in the last five years.

Facing humiliation from Russophobe rhetoric in the West and feeling increasingly under ideological and territorial siege, the impetus to once again gather up the Russian lands and recreate the Empire has been rapidly resurfacing. On the Belief Matrix, the moral anomie or ‘barbarism’ of the top-left is an unstable state, for almost all people have an overriding need to believe in some higher ideal; once again stimulated by the Russian inferiority complex and perceived Western arrogance, or ‘Russophobia’, from 2006 Russia undoubtedly began to move to the right of the matrix at an accelerating pace, towards sobornost.

Thus we see how all three of the interpretations given at the start of this chapter – a) ‘authoritarian reversion’, b) ‘convergence’, and c) ‘virtual politics’, are to some extent accurate [52]. The concept of ‘convergence’ was popular during the late USSR and early 1990’s, when Russia was at the bottom of the Belief Matrix – its then subscription to Rationalism was taken to mean that Westernization would be inevitable, though some voiced doubts that the psychological collapse (poshlost) brought on by the post-Soviet ‘Time of Troubles’ would undermine the stability of any such transition. The doubters were proven correct, and their concept of an ‘authoritarian reversion’ fueled by popular disillusionment and the ‘traditional’ Russian craving for a strong hand gained ground amongst Russia-watchers, who found their evidence in Putinism’s alleged slide into ‘dark’ authoritarian from the rosy, ‘democratic’ Yeltsin years. This viewpoint manifested itself in lurid book titles like ‘Kremlin Rising’, ‘The New Cold War’, and ‘Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State’ and dominated – and continues to dominate – the Western journalistic and political discourse on Russia. This is regretful, since this viewpoint lacks nuance and tends to favor hyperbole over dispassionate analysis [53].

In an incisive but unfortunately little-known study [54], Andrew Wilson argues that the defining theme of Putin’s Russia isn’t authoritarianism as such, but the preeminence of electoral and media manipulation to conceal a mild, non-ideological, and extremely corrupt authoritarianism beneath a veneer of pluralistic politics. This model of ‘virtual politics’ has a great explanatory potential for the post-Soviet period of poshlost, when Russia was indeed governed by a ‘historyless’ elite; however, arguably, with the creeping return of sobornost and the ideal of the Empire as guiding lights of Russia’s foreign and domestic policies, the era of ‘virtual politics’ is waning and is about to be replaced with something different. This is the topic of Part VIII, which concludes this essay.

VIII. Return to the Future?

Since 2006, there has arguably been a discontinuity in Russia’s national life, akin to what happened in 1998; though as yet little recognized, it will come to dominate its analysis within a few years. Russia has begun to return to the Empire.

First, the state took a much more proactive role in economic and social development. National Priority Projects were launched to improve housing, healthcare and education. Subsidies to agriculture were increased, and in 2008 the grain harvest returned to its Soviet-era highs [55]. A high profile initiative to develop nanotechnology was launched in 2007. It pursued industrial policies designed to attract foreign manufacturing and hi-tech companies, with noticeable effects – for instance, automobile production increased from 1.2mn units in 2000 to 1.8mn units in 2008 [56]. As noted before, a degree of ‘autarky’ coupled with state intervention is a vital prerequisite to real economic development in Russia (to a greater extent than is the case in already-developed nations and / or countries with more favorable geographies), with its concomitants in the form of increased national morale and political independence. This is a return to Russia’s traditional mode of development, in which the state harnessed its surpluses – grain during late Tsarism, oil during the late Soviet era – to support the development of strategic industries. As Russia acquires globally competitive industries – an entirely feasible prospect given its strengths in general education and some specialized sectors like defense, aerospace, and nuclear power – the state may gradually loosen its reins. Though it can hardly hope to ever fully converge with the richest Western nations due to its embedded disadvantages, given that it no longer suffers from the Soviet-era inefficiencies of central planning and excessive militarization, it can reach an asymptote relative to the West substantially higher than its previous 1970’s peak.

Second, there has been a substantial improvement in social morale, as attested to by the demographic statistics and opinion polls. Whereas in the late 1990′s and early 2000′s Russia was losing around 750,000 people a year, today the decline has almost stabilized due to an increase in the average fertility rate (the average number of children a woman is expected to have) from 1.30 in 2006 to 1.49 in 2008 (and still rising in 2009 despite the economic crisis)[57], as well as substantial reductions in the (still abnormally high) middle-aged mortality rate. Furthermore, despite the big reduction in the size of the cohort of women of child-bearing age projected for the 2010’s as a result of the 1990’s fertility collapse, there are strong indicators that this positive trend may continue[58] into the future based on the strong evidence that Russia’s post-Soviet fertility collapse was caused by “transition shock” rather than a “values realignment” to low-fertility middle-European norms. From the other end, the mortality crisis is being attacked by a renewal of the anti-alcohol campaign after a twenty year hiatus. During the 2000-2008 period, state statistics indicate that mortality from alcohol poisonings, suicide and murder have nearly halved, though they all remain very high by international standards. Perhaps not coincidentally, Levada polls indicate that for the first time since measurements began in the Yeltsin period, from late 2006 more people were confident in tomorrow than were not. All this indicates that a sense of sobornost is being slowly restored.

Third, Russia’s actions in the post-Soviet space, particularly towards Ukraine [59], may imply that it intends, at the least, to restore an econo-political bloc in the region, probably through organizations like EurAsEC and the CSTO. Since more Ukrainians would prefer to join those groups than either the EU or NATO [60] and considering that President Yushenko’s approval ratings hover in the single digits (he is the most pro-Western major political figure in Ukraine) and the nation’s overall disillusionment with the perceived Chaos and poshlost of their democracy (support for which fell from 72% in 1989 to 30% today [61]), this should not be a major hurdle. Russia is likewise reinforcing its influence in Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kirgizstan through a mixture of economic penetration, pipeline politics, and military bases. This foreign policy is stridently independent of the West and contributes not insignificantly to Putin’s consistently high approval ratings, which have been north of 60% ever since he launched the Second Chechen War in 1999. It is not a Western liberal democracy, but Surkov’s description, “sovereign democracy”, appears to be an apt moniker. The main idea being, of course, that Russia is politically sovereign from the West, no longer tied down in the international arena by its economic dependence and internal weaknesses.

[Gallup polls showing attitudes towards Eurasian unity in the post-Soviet space. In all countries except Azerbaijan, the median average wants at least an economic union across Eurasia. This indicates that Russia will not find it unduly hard to rebuild the Empire. Source: Gallup.]

These three trends – autarky, sobornost and sovereignty – are synergistic. Recreating an empire or something resembling one is (‘sovereignty’), apart from its inherent effect in reinforcing Russia’s geopolitical power, also complementary to the return of economic autarky (creates a larger economic space with opportunities for economies of scale) and sobornost (because the Russian national identity remains inextricably linked up with empire since the 16th century – as of today, 47% of Russians believe it is ‘natural’ for Russia to have an empire, up from 37% in 1989 [62]). Likewise, a self-contained economic system (‘autarky’) increases the Empire’s freedom of action on the international stage and encourages a national (‘sovereignty’), as opposed to internationalist or diasporic, mentality (‘sobornost’). The state of sobornost underpins the fundamental unity and spiritual strength of the Empire. The analysis outlined above indicates that Russia is returning to its future rather than the end of history, a future-and-past characterized by a strong, centralizing state coordinating, if not outright controlling, the direction of development – for it is fundamentally the state guarantees all three factors that underpin the Empire, which also explains the importance of gosudarstvennost and derzhavnost in Russian history.

Following the South Ossetian War of 2008, the already popular belief that the West was a hostile power was reinforced – even the once very pro-Western intelligentsia is beginning to reject the West [63]. It is also interesting to consider that the most “anti-Western” segment of the Russian population are university-educated Muscovite men [64], i.e. the future elites; similar attitudes have filtered through to Russia’s schoolchildren [65]. The 2008-2009 economic crisis probably spells the end of the oligarchs as a class: many have lost their fortunes and become financially beholden to the cash-rich Russian state – as copper magnate Iskander Makhmudov said, “The oligarchs now have mixed fortunes, but we will all end up being soldiers of Putin one day”[66]. The banking system is being consolidated, Russian corporate dependence on Western credit has been severed (because the Western credit system has broken), and Russia’s decision to seek WTO admission in tandem with Kazakhstan and Belarus [67] indicates it places a higher priority on forming a regional economic bloc than on global economic integration.

What next? History is a guide. A fundamental feature of autarkies is that to increase their strategic self-sufficiency, they need to expand their domain – much as the Bolsheviks created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which in turn expanded it to COMECON (the idea being that a group of nations ‘liberated’ from domination by global capital is better off sticking together to preserve their new-found sovereignty). They have to expand territorially in order to acquire access to all the vital building blocks of an industrial economy and to be able to hold its own against other economic bloc. Applying this to the reemerging Russian Empire, it is very likely that within the next decade (East) Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan will again become integrated with Russia, on a spectrum of possibilities ranging from an EU-like structure to a unitary state-empire. Netting in the latter two presents no problem, given that they are already tightly integrated with Russia.

Under normal circumstances, Ukraine presents a much harder to nut to crack; however, it should be borne in mind that Ukraine’s project of Westernization – which happened to encapsulate its bid for real independence from Eurasia – has failed on almost all criteria. Its current GD, taking into account the recent 20-25% collapse during the crisis, 30-40% lower than it was in the late USSR! (Russia’s is around 0-10% lower, but it is not faced with a fiscal or political crisis). Damningly, opinion polls indicate that Putin and Medvedev are by far the most popular politicians in Ukraine. The essence of the Ukrainian Question will not be whether it chooses Russia or the West; it will be whether Ukraine will remain a united state that gets drawn back into Russia’s orbit, or whether there will be a ‘Great Split’ between its Ukrainian-speaking west and its Russophone east, with the latter fully integrating into Russia and the former becoming an independent state.

Reintegration with Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will create a state with 210 million souls and will significantly increase the economic and military-industrial power at Moscow’s disposal by at least 50%. One has to keep in mind that Eurasia’s industrial base was meant to be unified when it was constructed during the Soviet era, and as such the gains accruing from reintegration will be more than just the sum of its parts. One of Russia’s geopolitical priorities is to thwart an independent energy corridor for the proposed Nabucco oil pipeline and to link up with its ally Armenia, so it will no doubt continue pressuring a weakened Georgia to return into its orbit.

Whether Russia will choose to expand in Central Asia is more questionable. On the one hand, they have respectable energy reserves (especially gas), constitute demographic reservoirs amidst graying Slavdom, and are geopolitically important. There are few problems with radical Islam and on the whole they appreciate Russian culture. On the other hand, they will present a development burden and outside powers will oppose any overt Russian reassertion in Central Asia – although it should be noted that both Chinese and US influence is far weaker in the region than Russia’s.

Forking Paths

There are now four distinct ‘paths’ Russia could take in the next few years – ‘sovereign democratization’, ‘totalitarian reversion’, ‘return to the natural state’, and ‘liberalization’. The only (near) certainty is change; for all its apparent move back towards sobornost and the trappings of the Empire, this belies the fact that Russia today is still in an unsteady and undecided state, and as such its future is far from preordained. Let’s look at them in turn.

In ‘sovereign democratization’, Russia will retain its current geopolitical status, ‘indigenize’ or ‘assimilate’ Western liberal democracy, and will successfully develop an advanced economy, which it will gradually open as it acquires globally competitive industries. This viewpoint is argued by Nicolai Petro [68], who claims that Putin consolidated the Russian state during his first eight years, and that the second part of the ‘Putin Plan’ is to develop liberal institutions and an active civil society. State corruption will be greatly reduced – President Medvedev has already openly spoken out against ‘legal nihilism’, and perhaps the recent allied initiative on the part of Surkov, head of the GRU-related clan, and the civiliki clan, to investigate strategic companies linked to Sechin’s FSB-related clan for corruption and mismanagement is the opening shot of a coming purge. In this vision, Russia will be a prosperous, liberal, and patriotic nation by 2020 at the bottom-right of the Belief Matrix, comfortably entwined within the ‘liberty cycle’ much like France or even the US (see Part II), and the centerpiece of a Eurasian economic union. This viewpoint would also be argued by Vlad Sobell, who believes that this “new ‘USSR’ has shed its totalitarian and imperial character and is building genuine democracy à la russe”. This is the ‘optimistic variant’, and is predicated on the survival of globalization and the continuation of Russia’s economic and demographic resurgence.

In contrast, a ‘return to the natural state’ will see the reinforcement of Russia’s current authoritarian and neo-feudal features, and continuing economic nationalism, silovik cronyism, and resource dependency. A powerful Tsar will dole out transitional rent-gathering rights unto his boyars, in return for their political loyalty and tax payments. This ‘Muscovite model’ is socially unjust, Pareto inefficient, and ineffective at either generating economic prosperity or sustaining resource mobilization. This outcome is made more likely if Russia enters a renewed spiral of demographic and economic decline; the people will demand a strong hand at the helm, but one steeped in conservatism and unwilling to undertake any risky reforms. In this form, the Empire is more likely to take the form of a unitary state based on the political integration of Belarus, East Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia, as well as the strengthening of its military presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia, rather than a Eurasian economic and security union as in the previous scenario. It will be underpinned by the resumption of large-scale, fifth-generation rearmament, with which the Empire will effective control and project power over the entirety of the post-Soviet space and perhaps even into East-Central Europe. The Empire will be undermined by foreign-backed dissident and national liberation movements, and subjected to a more vigorous encirclement and containment strategy by the United States. The result will be a zastoi on the model of Brezhnev’s USSR. This is the ‘middle variant’ projected by most ‘Western Russophobes’[69], who perceive that Russia is run by a gang of kleptocratic neo-Soviet revanchists and believe the country is doomed to secular decline on account of its disastrous demography and moribund economic system.

The third and most frightening outcome is a ‘totalitarian reversion’. During the 1990’s ‘Time of Troubles’, as in Weimar Germany, Russia became disillusioned in both the West and itself (Part VII), and came to long for the sovereignty, sobornost and autarky embodied in the lost Empire. This imperial nostalgia brought forth a crowd of Eurasianists, nationalists, derzhavniki, etc, who called for Russia to rediscover its faith in itself and to return to its ‘purer’ imperial past-and-future – be it Eurasian (Aleksandr Dugin), Slavophile (Solzhenitsyn), White Nationalist, or hybrids like National Bolshevism, an intellectual descendent of Strasserism (Eduard Limonov). What they all had in common was an opposition to Western finance-capitalism, to domestic stooges of ‘Atlanticism’, and to the ‘diasporic mentality’ (see Part III) – sometimes manifested in virulent anti-Semitism, which is understandable on the basis that Jews are the ‘diasporic people’ par excellence (see Part III). Free-riding on resurgent the Russian nationalism brought forth by instability, Central Asian immigration, and national inferiority complexes, such views have become much more popular since the Soviet collapse (although overall they are still very much on the fringes). However, let’s not forget that all it takes for this to change is an economic collapse, a weakened state, a profound sense of disillusionment with Rationalism, the loss of sobornost, and a well-organized Party with a skilful demagogue willing to gamble.

The fourth alternative is ‘liberalization’, which is by far the most unlikely outcome – Russia is now heading right towards sobornost along the Belief Matrix, not to the bottom and down. That said, it is not difficult to think up potential scenarios in which ‘liberalization’ can occur as a transitional stage to something else. For instance, a popular uprising topples the fragile authoritarianism of the ‘natural state’ into which Russia had degenerated by the 2020’s, resulting in a wave of poshlost and fanatical Westernization (this time based on, say, environmentalism) that again destroys Russians’ faith in themselves, as a result of which they become disillusioned with the Idea of the West and float upwards to the top-left, into ‘moral anomie’. As pointed out previously, this is an unstable state, for only madmen are capable of abandoning all beliefs. They gray dusk of disillusionment darkens… and there emerges a pure blackness, a despotism based on a new-found, mystical sobornost, united in its contemptuous rejection of Rationalism, and probably far more ‘racialist’ than during the Stalinist era [70]. And this time round, it is armed with thousands of nukes.

These darker possibilities, though currently remote, should not be dismissed. Russia’s oil production very likely peaked in 2008, along with global production [71], and there is credible evidence that this peak will be final [72]. Considering its vital role in lubricating the wheels of global commerce, the future viability of globalization is under serious question. This is just one facet of approaching ‘limits to growth’[73], for in more general terms, resource depletion and pollution threaten the very survival of industrial civilization during this century. Hoarding what remains for its own use may become a priority for rational Russian leaders, and exports only allowed on the most favorable terms, in exchange for Western technologies or German machine tools, but not US Treasuries, Chinese trinkets or oligarch mansions in London.

One consequence is that there will be a massive increase in imperial competition for resources. The industrial core (the US, Europe and China) may strike up strategic alliances to control and influence resource-rich nations, either overtly (latter-day gunboat diplomacy) or covertly (influence operations, information wars, etc). In this world, much like in the 1930’s, the strong will beat the weak. As a resource-rich nation largely spared from the ravages of projected climate change, Russia may come to view itself, with some degree of justification, as a fortress besieged by global industrialism – much as the 1928 war scare contributed to tipping the USSR towards Stalinism. In such a world, Russia’s geopolitical priorities would logically be – and all this is already happening – to a) increase its military strength, including the nuclear deterrent, b) neutralize and co-opt Europe and c) extend influence over the energy-rich Arctic, Central Asia and the Middle East. To pursue these goals effectively, Russia needs to be an Empire.

Finally, any true Eurasian Empire is almost destined to be in conflict with Atlanticism (and not just because this is an explicit aim of folks like Dugin [74]), even leaving aside the prospect of ruthless competition for resources. The economic strength of the Atlantic powers is magnified because of globalization’s opportunities for increasing the power of the whole through ‘scope enlargement’ and international specialization, strength that can – and was – used to strangle any potential Eurasian hegemon. That is the story of the Cold War, in which the USSR increasingly fell behind the West; for with its access to Japanese electronics, Saudi oil, and German machine tools, the US could more than match Soviet military efforts, while at the same time providing its citizens with a much higher standard of life. As such, an autarkic Eurasian Empire would find it to be in its best interests to oppose the Atlantic powers by trying to foment chaos within the global system, so as to shut it down and hence level the playing field to continent against continent, instead of Eurasia against the World System.

IX. The Loop

Due to its geographical and climatic features, and the cultural traditions derived from them, Russia’s economic life is traditionally based on state-driven coercion. This is incompatible with ‘rational’, Western norms, hence Russia always found it particularly difficult to Westernize. When it does try to Westernize, it becomes culturally dependent on the West, but remains backwards nonetheless – if anything, at times even more so. This breeds an inferiority complex and a sense of resentment towards the West, which the latter does little to dispel: Russians increasingly reject the West, and pine for an (imagined?) past of autarky, sovereignty and sobornost. Political leaders are ultimately powerless to resist: either they go with the flow, or they are displaced or overthrown.

The rock is pushed up the mountain with messianic fervor, but eventually the past-and-future turn out to be not as great as Russians imagined them and a long stagnation sets in. The mountain looms ever larger, Sisyphus gets tired, and Prometheus’ acolytes try to block his path; the road ahead begins to look hopeless. This again arouses an intense interest in the West: after some time, due to accumulating backwardness, the regime is no longer able to resist its tantalizing siren calls, and succumbs – often with disastrous consequences, because economic coercion also grinds to a halt, resulting in output and social welfare collapse. The loop comes full cycle, and after a period of recuperation and apathy, Sisyphus starts rolling the rock up the mountain once more with renewed fervor.

The struggle is ultimately (historically) always futile; yet it is too Romantic a struggle to abandon – indeed, Russia does not want to abandon its endless, sordid and tiring, but ultimately uplifting and self-defining struggle towards the boundless plains of universal utopia.

[1] See Почему Россия не Америка / “Why Russia is not America” (A. Parshev, 1999); Russia under the Old Regime: Second Edition (R. Pipes, 1997), Ch. 1: “The Environment and its Consequences”.

[2] Trade and Markets in the Early Empires (K. Polanyi, 1957), Ch.5: “Aristotle discovers the Economy”.

[3] V. Kluchevsky, 1956, pp.313-4: “There is one thing of which the Great Russian is sure − that a sunny summer day is valuable, that nature would allow little time convenient for agricultural work and that a short Great Russian summer can be shortened even more by a sudden untimely turn of bad weather. This would force the Great Russian peasant to hurry up and toil in order to achieve as much as possible over a short while and take the crop in good time… In this way the Great Russian would learn to take an extraordinary but short effort, would learn to do rush, hasty work and then take a rest during forced idleness in autumn and winter. No other nation in Europe is capable of such short extraordinary effort; but, on the other hand, such lack of habit to regular, moderate, constant work is unlikely to be found anywhere in Europe.”

[4] An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (A. Smith, 1776). “…all that part of Asia which lies any considerable way north of the Euxine and Caspian seas, the ancient Scythia, the modern Tartary and Siberia, seem in all ages of the world to have been in the same barbarous and uncivilised state… The Sea of Tartary is the frozen ocean which admits of no navigation, and though some of the greatest rivers in the world run through that country, they are at too great a distance from one another to carry commerce and communication through the greater part of it.”

[5] Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower (S. Rosefielde, 2005).

[6] As long as the energy and mineral resources underpinning it last, anyway.

[7] Kicking Away the Ladder (H. Chang, 2002).

[8] This refers to Russia’s well-known post-Soviet demographic crisis, during which average fertility rates and life expectancies plummeted, causing the population to fall from 149mn in 1992 to 142mn by 2008, despite the net influx of 5mn immigrants from the ‘Near Abroad’.

[9] The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (D. Landes, 1999), Ch.2: “Answers to Geography: Europe and China”.

[10] Introduction to social macrodynamics: secular cycles and millennial trends (A. Korotayev, 2006) is a comprehensive analysis and modeling of the exponential secular, cyclical Malthusian, and stochastic processes governing political-demographic and economic development in history.

[11] Even tiny differences in growth rates can lead to huge differences in the long-term.


[13] A Greek word Fukuyama interprets as “desire for spiritual recognition”.

[14] Interestingly, Fukuyama anticipates – and does not like – the relativist argument. From his “The End of History and the Last Man”: “Relativism – the doctrine that maintains all values are merely relative and which attacks all “privileged perspectives” – must ultimately end up undermining democratic and tolerant values as well. Relativism is not a weapon that can be fired selectively at the enemies one chooses. It fires indiscriminately, shooting out the legs of not only the “absolutisms”, dogmas and certainties of the Western tradition, but that traditions emphasis on tolerance, diversity and freedom of thought as well”.

[15] The Marquis de Custine and his Russia in 1839 (G. Kennan, 1971) quotes the19th century French travel writer: “I don’t reproach the Russians for being what they are; what I blame them for is their desire to appear to be what we [Europeans] are… They are much less interested in being civilized then in making us believe them so… They would be quite content to be in effect more awful and barbaric than they actually are, if only others could thereby be made to believe them better and more civilized.”

[16] Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, pp.28 (S. Matthew, 1995).

[17] Nabokov’s Otherworld (V. Alexandrov, 1991).

[18] Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia (S. Boym, 1994).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Strong Opinions (V. Nabokov, 1973). See for the original interview.

[21] “Hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue” – La Rochefoucauld. On the one hand, admirable; on the other hand, it is the implicit deception that is intolerable.

[22] Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler (P. Viereck, 1941).

[23] Categorizing the Russia Debate (A. Karlin, 2009) at

[24] Metapolitics: From Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler (P. Viereck, 1941).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Postmodern Jihad: What Osama bin Laden learned from the Left (W. Newell, 2001) at

[27] See Поведение / “Behavior” (K. Krylov, 1996) for a good discussion of the “diaspora” and “barbarian” mentalities at

[28] Max Weber’s definitions of authority can be assigned places on the Belief Matrix – “charismatic” is the top-right, “legal-rational” is the bottom-right, and “traditional” is in between. The last is typical of premodern, Malthusian, traditional societies based on feudal / clan relations.

[29] Lev Gumilev’s semi-mystical concept of the ‘vital energy’ of a civilization, i.e. its willingness to self-sacrifice, to conquer, to succeed, etc.

[30] In a 2007 interview with the Guardian, Francis Fukuyama stated: “The End of History was never linked to a specifically American model of social or political organization…I believe that the European Union more accurately reflects what the world will look like at the end of history than the contemporary United States. The EU’s attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a “post-historical” world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military”.

[31] Europe and Mankind (N. Trubetzkoy, 1920).

[32] See Twitter Terror in Moldova (A. Karlin, 2009) for a case study at

[33] The Coming Era of Russia’s Dark Rider (P. Zeihan, 2007) writing in Stratfor (

[34] Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia’s City of Steel (J. Scott, 1941).

[35] Moscow War Diary (A. Werth, 1942).

[36] Having investigated the report of Maljuta Skuratov and commemoration lists (sinodiki), R. Skrynnikov considers, that the number of victims was 2,000-3,000 (Skrynnikov R. G., “Ivan Grosny”, M., AST, 2001).

[37] Furthermore, one must also note that the correspondence between Kurbsky and Ivan Grozny is suspected to be a forgery – see “THE KURBSKII-GROZNYI APOCRYPHA: the 17th-Century Genesis of the “Correspondence” Attributed to Prince A. M. Kurbskii and Tsar Ivan IV” (E. Keenan, 1970)

[38] Secular Cycles (P. Turchin & S. Nefedov, 2009), Ch. 9: “Russia: the Romanov Cycle (1620–1922)”.

[39] In 1547, Hans Schlitte, the agent of Tsar Ivan IV, employed handicraftsmen in Germany for work in Russia. However all these handicraftsmen were arrested in Lübeck at the request of Livonia.

[40] The End of Imperial Russia, 1855-1917 (P. Waldron, 1997), pp. 97. By 1913, adult literacy was at 38%, up from 21% in 1897; the last generation of children to have had access to the empire’s schools, according to the 1920 Soviet census, had a literacy rate of 71% for boys and 52% for girls.

[41] The international demonstration effect, e.g. see Problems of Capital Formation in Underdeveloped Countries (Nurske, 1957).

[42] By 1913, Russia had the highest average tariff rates on manufactured goods in Europe at 84% (Bairoch 1993) and enjoyed the fastest industrial growth rate on the continent. In contrast to development in the 1880’s-1890’s, which was spearheaded by a huge state-led program of railway building, after 1905 there appeared big industrial banks clustered around St.-Petersburg geared towards funding domestic manufacturers on the German model of development (Gerschenkron, 1962).

[43] When the Party Commits Suicide (S. Žižek, 1999), at

[44] Translation: The Case of the “Stalinist” Textbook (A. Karlin, 2009) at

[45] Russia in the 21st Century: The Prodigal Superpower (S. Rosefielde, 2005), see summary at

[46] Are Command Economies Unstable? Why Did the Soviet Economy Collapse? (M. Harrison, 2001) at

[47] What Russia Teacher Us Now (S. Holmes, 1997) at is a typical late-1990’s article from a time when the theme of Russia’s collapse was predominant in the Western media, in stark contrast to today’s talk of a ‘resurgent Russia’.

[48] Russia Through the Looking-Glass (N. Petro, 2006) at

[49] The State in the New Russia (1992-2004): From Collapse to Gradual Revival? (V. Popov, 2004) at

[50] Attempting to portray Putin as a revanchist neo-Soviet authoritarian, the Western media tends to gloss over the manifold authoritarian tendencies of the preceding Yeltsin administration, which redeemed itself by being pro-Western. Alternative newspapers have excellent sources on this, e.g. the eXile: see How do you Spell Hypocrisy? O-S-C-E (M. Ames, 2003) at, The Myth of the Democratic Model (S. Guillory, 2008) at

[51] In 2004 the Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya calculated that 25% of the Russian elite had a security or intelligence background (i.e. siloviki), which rises to 58% amongst Putin’s ‘inner circle’.

[52] “The truth is like a quantum superposition state: it is not one version or the other, but a strange combination of all them”. – Gideon Lichfield, former Economist journalist. I feel this is especially apt when it comes to Russia-watching. Taken from Press Review: The Economist’s Three Stooges (K. Pankratov, 2007) at

[53] For examples, see my list of Top 50 Russophobe Myths at Though *some* of my refutations are in some ways as biased as the original claims, they will provide plenty of food for thought for anyone steeped in exclusively American or West European media coverage of Russia.

[54] Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the post-Soviet World (A. Wilson, 2005); see Mark Ames’ eXile review at

[55] The country’s grain market: realising its potential (D. Medvedev, 2009) at

[56] International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers

[57] Rosstat.

[58] Through the Looking Glass at Russia’s Demography (A. Karlin, 2009) at

[59] In the past two years there have been a number of hints from Russia indicating that it does not view Ukraine as a fully sovereign state. E.g. see Putin to the West: Hands off Ukraine (J. Marson, 2009) at,8599,1900838,00.html.

[60] Would the Real Ukraine Please Stand Up? (G. Stack, 2009) at

[61] End of Communism Cheered but Now with More Reservations (Pew Research Center) at

[62] Ibid.

[63] Disheartened With the West (A. Pankin, 2009) at

[64] Russians don’t much like the West (S. Richards, 2009) at, Russia’s New Cyberwarriors (N. Petro, 2007) at

[65] Well-off Muscovite Teenagers More Inclined to View US as Enemy (P. Goble, 2009) at

[66] Russian Oligarch Special Series (Stratfor, 2009), “Russian Oligarchs Part 3: The Party’s Over” at

[67] Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan to seek joining WTO as parts of Customs Union

[68] The Great Transformation: How the Putin Plan Altered Russian Society (N. Petro, 2009) at

[69] See Categorizing the Russia Debate (A. Karlin, 2009) at for definitions.

[70] The popularity of the idea of ‘Russia for Russians’ has increased from 26% in 1989 to 54% in 2009 ( This is reflected in the proliferation of fascist movements.


[72] Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak (K. Deffeyes, 2006) and The Last Oil Shock (D. Strahan, 2007) are good introductions to the theory of peak oil. See a short, compact mathematical demonstration and quasi-proof at

[73] Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (D. Meadows et al, 2004).

[74] Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics (J. Dunlop) at

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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During one conversation at Sean’s Russia Blog, the commentator Evgeny referred me to a work by Russian political analyst & nationalist Konstantin Krylov, Поведение (“Behavior”). In it he tries to classify the world’s civilizations into four ethical systems (South – tribal, East – collectivist, West – individualist, North – kind of like communism?, and not yet reached anywhere). He makes some good observations, though they are certainly not new to sociology and he simplifies too much. However, I found his last chapter, Civilization and its Enemies, to be a really incisive characterization of two major social groupings “outside” conventional civilization – international diasporas and barbarians. [Go here for Google translation].

Krylov characterizes the diaspora mentality thus:

Мне нет дела до других, как и им – до меня. Как другие ведут себя по отношению ко мне, пусть так себя и ведут. Как я веду себя по отношению к другим, так я и дальше буду себя вести. Все действуют так, как считают нужным, и я тоже действую, как считаю нужным.

[I don't have any cares for others, just as they have no cares for me. Let others continue to behave towards me just like as already do; as for me, I will continue behaving towards them just as I always have. Everyone acts as they consider necessary, and I too act, as I consider necessary.]

According to Krylov’s thinking, diaspora peoples follow a “minimal ethical system”, expecting, and thus accepting, anything at all from others, both within and without their diaspora. They tend to disavow black-and-white, good-and-evil thinking; instead, they can understand an array of different values, they’re just not judgmental about them, except in so far as they are more or less “useful” or “harmful” to them personally. They hold a certain contempt for the rigid ethical / behavioral constraints of normal societies, which they find difficult to understand. Instead, they view themselves as unabashed realists, focus on survival and profiteering, and do not hold grudges or blood feuds; they are fully capable of negotiations with people who wronged them in the past if the situation changes or they need something from them.

Because of their minimal levels of social trust, the diaspora population cannot exist as a stand-alone community and must act as a parasite on another, already existing one; the example par excellence are the Jews, though others include Armenians, Greeks, the Chinese “bamboo network” of East Asia, etc (see Amy Chua’s concept of market-dominant minorities). He acknowledges that this view may be interpreted as being anti-Semitic, but disavows it because it is not an innate characteristic of Jewishness (be it in the “ethnic, religious, or politico-conspiratorial sense”), but rather of their diasporic nature.

Indeed, he notes at the end that Israeli Jews are entirely “another people” from the classical Jewish diaspora, since they have taken up the (Western) ethical system in favor of their previous diasporic ethical system after the formation of the Israeli state. They had to, since they now constituted the majority population and could no longer parasite off themselves. Nowadays the Jews in Israel possess a great sense of national destiny / uniqueness / patriotism, education isn’t particularly valued (interestingly, on international standardized tests Israelis tend to perform rather poorly, in stark contrast to diaspora Jews), etc, – in other words, they are a conventional civilization.

He then discusses relations between the diaspora within, and its relations with its “host” society. He notes that they can be at times useful, at times neutral, and at times debilitating to the host society; furthermore, the diaspora itself remains constant, while it is the host society that leads change. He makes the interesting observation that frequently members of a diaspora are more afraid of their own, rather than of members of the host society, since the latter must act towards them under the constraints of their particular ethical system, whereas between diaspora members relations are cleanly pragmatic / exploitative – and thus they can do unto them any kind of evil if it serves their purposes. Paradoxically, this state of internal insecurity actually binds the diaspora together.

Стоит обратить внимание на внутреннее устройство такого рода сообществ. Как правило, люди, входящие в них, боятся друг друга больше, чем чужих – поскольку ждут от “чужих” этически окрашенного поведения, а от “своих” чисто прагматического. Именно это обстоятельство может как разрушить подобное сообщество, так и (как это не парадоксально) сплотить его.

Diasporas are easily pushed around, and hesitate to stand up for themselves, preferring instead to buy off threats. He then argues that the phenomenon of diaspora peoples favoring others from amongst themselves for jobs, positions, etc – e.g. a Armenian (or Jew, etc) looking out for other Armenians at a big company – is not so much an expression of “national solidarity”, but a method of buying off potential enemies from within their own community; however, when said Armenian reaches a high management position subject to closer scrutiny, he refrains from hiring fellow Armenians, instead relying on credentialed specialists.

Diasporas sometimes have a good effect on the national economy, e.g. in nations where the host population is barred, through law or custom, from working in certain dirty or “debasing” occupations (typically those tied to finance or commerce in traditional Malthusian societies) – the Jews of medieval Europe are the archetypal example. He is also strongly against the idea that diasporas try to covertly acquire power in a country through cabals, etc – quite simply, they are not interested in it enough, nor do they understand the culture they are in (whose behavioral norms are much more complex than their own) well enough to be effective at it. Their main interest is in survival and eating.

Why do diaspora peoples appear to be extremely effective and successful? According to Krylov, because far from being extremely clever or devious as caricatured, the diaspora mindset is much simpler; they have little concept of social shame and simply don’t think about, or notice, many of the ingrained social customs and traditions constraining the actions of members of the host society. For instance:

Если самый дешевый способ получить то, что тебе нужно, от кого-то, это публично унизиться перед ним, то почему бы так и не поступить? Но если проще и дешевле обхамить, надавить, в конце концов обмануть того же самого человека, почему бы не сделать так? С такой позиции это чисто технический вопрос. Для того, чтобы его решить, не надобно большого ума, хотя со стороны такое поведение может казаться чуть ли не образцом сатанинской изворотливости.

[If the cheapest method of acquiring something you need, from someone, is to publicly lower yourself before him, then why not? If its easier and cheaper to pressure or deceive that same person, again why not? To them this is an entirely technical question with no moral overtones. To solve it one doesn't need a great deal of intelligence, even though from the side this kind of behavior may appear to be an example of almost Satanic resourcefulness.]

Finally, he notes that short of the diaspora disappearing – either through complete assimilation into the host society, or by acquiring a new ethical system and becoming another people entirely (like modern Israelis) – the civilized state must treat them with cautious toleration.

Кроме всего прочего, не следует излишне демонизировать поведение “рассеянных народов”. Люди такого типа действительно способны совершить любое зло (за что к ним соответствующим образом и относятся), но они, по крайней мере, не считают причинение зла другим единственным достойным способом существования. Такие люди могут быть безупречно лояльными гражданами, если только государство, в котором они проживают, будет внушать им достаточные опасения – а запугать их легко. Другое дело, что ждать от них проявлений настоящего патриотизма, чести, даже элементарной порядочности, не имеет никакого смысла.

[It does not follow that we should excessively demonize the behavior of diaspora peoples. People of this type can indeed make any kind of evil (which is why host peoples tend to have such bad relations with them), but they ultimately don't consider doing evil unto others to be the only way of earning a good existence. They can be flawlessly loyal citizens, though only if the state in which they live pressures them with substantial threats for disobedience, for they are easily cowed. It's another thing, however, that to await expressions of real patriotism, honor, even elementary decency from them, is entirely futile.]

Are these viewpoints bigoted? Correct? Racist? Anti-Semitic? Primitive? Incisive? A combination of all of them? As someone forced into becoming a “rootless cosmopolitan” myself, I admit to finding myself nodding to almost everything he said. Here’s a recent convo I had with people at Peter Lavelle’s UT discussion group on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall:

I realize, of course, that life under “Communism” was very bland andas the years rolled by increasingly corrupt and unfair to the peopleliving under it. I also understand that from the perspective of most East-Central Europeans, especially those of the younger generation,that system’s collapse was greeted with joy, signifying as it didnewfound social, economic, and national freedoms. Good for them, I hope they enjoy themselves.

That said. As a Russian whose parent’s livelihood basically vanished (R&D / academia) in the 1990′s, forcing him to migrate to a strangeculture whose pernicious effects made me into the historyless rootlesscosmopolitan / cultural traitor that I am today, I view the collapseof the USSR with a certain sadness and regret, despite my recognition of its manifold flaws.

You don’t have any roots in this country, You are like one of those weeds that do not develop deep roots; they grow everywhere and are native nowhere, You are a human weed without the roots, You are apiece of human trash that America collects from all over the world.

This is how a (proudly anti-Semitic, fascist) critic once described me. The thing is, he is 100% correct in my view.

In the context of this discussion, instead of living under the second, “Eastern” (collectivist) ethical system of the Soviet Union, I have been forced into living under the minimal “diaspora” ethical system described by Krylov, in which I am unaccepted by my host societies – and which I myself reciprocally do not accept either – the kitsch, or feelings of loyalty / self-sacrifice / etc, for either Britain, or the US, or even Russia. One of the replies was the following:

Your condition as described by one of your detractors and which you agree is correct -

[["You don't have any roots in this country, You are like one of thoseweeds that do not develop deep roots; they grow everywhere and arenative nowhere, You are a human weed without the roots, You are a pieceof human trash that America collects from all over the world".]]

– is actually a blessing.

This is what has enabled you to be a truly interesting and outstanding thinker, and this is why you will be able to contribute to humanity as you go along.

Had you been “enjoying your life” in that great and fantastic USSR, and taking deep roots there, the chances are that you would grow up as an insignificant miserable cog in that self-destructive aimless machine.

I remain to be convinced.

Anyhow, back to Krylov and this time his exposition of the barbarian mentality. Whereas diasporas lie half-way between civilization and its opposite, barbarians are symmetrically opposed – an ethical system of pure parasitism, glorifying the use of violence and deceit to achieve its goals. He does not believe that barbarism merely signifies a lower level of socio-economic and cultural development than civilization; instead, it is its own world opposed to and feeding off civilization. Barbarism is tightly-interlinked with and even a product of civilization, being that it is a parasite on civilization (which he defines as a construct that aims to solve its problems by itself, problems ranging the gamut from gathering food to hosting high-minded philosophical debates).

Я буду вести себя по отношению к другими так, как они не ведут себя по отношению ко мне (не могут или не хотят). Я буду делать с другими то, чего они со мной не делают (не могут или не хотят).

[I will behave towards like others don't behave towards me (either because they can't or don't want to). I will do unto them, what they don't do unto me (because they can't or don't want to).]

It is a principled position – the barbarian chafes under any other ethical system. A barbarian society regards living off others with pride, as self-actualization of its values, etc – and the feeling is all-encompassing, even among those who can’t physically be thieves or raiders. Furthermore, a key defining trait is that barbarian elites have access to the technical and ideological products of civilization:

Настоящее варварство еще не там, где все ходят с дубинами (и каждый может сделать себе такую же дубину). Настоящее варварство начинается там, где все ходят с дубинами, но вождь и его охрана носят стальное оружие (которого данный варварский народ делать не умеет), а еще лучше – с автоматами и гранатометами.

[Real barbarism begins not where everyone walks with clubs (and anyone can make himself a club). Real barbarism begins where everyone walks with clubs, but the leader and his guards carry cold steel weapons (which said barbarian society can't manufacture itself), or even better - with assault rifles and RPG's.]

Наиболее характерное внешнее проявление варварства – нарочито примитивные и дикие нравы в сочетании с развитой чужой (купленной, краденой или отнятой) материальной культурой. Монгольский хан, кутающийся в китайские шелка; африканский вождь на “джипе” и с “калашниковым” на шее; пуштун со “стингером” на плече – вот это и есть варварство. Варварство выживает, борясь с цивилизацией средствами самой цивилизации.

A characteristic expression of barbarism is the presence of primitive and wild social norms in conjunction with a developed foreign (bought, stolen, or looted) material culture. A Mongol khan, wrapped in Chinese silk; a Pushtun with a Stinger [missile] on his shoulder – this is barbarism. Barbarism survives by fighting civilization using the tools of civilization itself.

Barbarians defend their barbarism eloquently using the intellectual language of civilization – “freedom”, “faith”, “human rights”, “Sharia”, etc. At heart it is a criminal enterprise (by civilizational standards), but Krylov notes that frequently it has a seductive character of its own – thanks to its avid mimicry of civilizational attributes, and the support of influential supporters within civilization. He makes the intriguing argument that the Russian intelligentsia is an essentially barbarian social group.

“Русский интеллигент” – это человек, решающий свои проблемы за счет того, что он доставляет обществу неприятности, хотя и не оружием, а словами. Интеллигенция ведет себя по отношению к русскому обществу (и тем более к государству) примерно так же, как скандалист в очереди: он непрерывно оскорбляет всех присутствующих, и ждет, что его пропустят вперед просто затем, чтобы он, наконец, замолчал. …

[The "Russian intelligent" - is a person who solves his problems by way of bringing ill to society, if not by weapons, then by words. The intelligentsia behave towards Russian society (and especially towards the Russian state) as a scandal-maker in a queue - he insults everyone present, and expects that he will be allowed to move forwards in line just so that they'd get him to shut up.]

Именно такую цель имеет тотальная критика интеллигентами всех аспектов русской жизни и целенаправленное внушение русским людям чувства иррациональной вины … Как правило, эта “критика” использует ряд идей, созданных на Западе (например, либеральных социально-экономических теорий), причем ссылающиеся на эти идеи лица обыкновенно не понимают смысла того, о чем они говорят: это еще один случай использования орудий, созданных цивилизацией, для борьбы против цивилизации …

[This is the basic underlying point behind the intelligentsia's total criticism of all aspects of Russian life and their purposeful foisting of an irrational sense of guilt on the Russian people... As a rule, this "criticism" uses an array of ideas, created in the West (e.g., liberal socio-economic theories), furthermore in many cases the people leaning on these ideas don't actually understand them: this is another example in which the tools created by civilization, are used in the fight against civilization.]

Поэтому не следует удивляться тому, что вполне конструктивные западные идеи приобретают в России некую “разрушительную силу”: они используются для заведомо деструктивных целей.

[Therefore there's no reason to be amazed that completely valid Western ideas acquire a "destructive force" when applied to Russia: they are used for explicitly deconstructive purposes.]

I agree. The Russian intelligentsia has at large been an agent of destruction, most clearly seen in their guise as Old Bolsheviks and the 1990′s extreme liberals. Their current manifestation is in the liberasts, e.g. for examples of their arrogant intolerance and treasonous mentalities see Korchevnaya’s observations and Anatol Lieven’s article on Russia’s Limousine Liberals. Thankfully they no longer represent a real threat to Russian society and can be safely ignored.

One final thing I would note is that it is much easier for a person with a diaspora mentality to become a barbarian, considering that they’re already half-way there.

Application to the Belief Matrix

The Belief Matrix is a tool I invented to classify societies based on their degree of rationalism – irrationalism / mysticism on one axis, and sobornost / social solidarity – poshlost / internal strife on another axis. See “The Reich Loop within the Belief Matrix” section here for a more detailed description.

In this model, the diaspora mentality correlates to both rationalism and poshlost, i.e. the lower-left of the Belief Matrix; barbarism is the top-left, i.e. irrationalism and poshlost. Both are unstable states. The diaspora mentality cannot be sustained within a non-diasporic society, for a society cannot be a parasite on itself indefinitely; it will have to move upwards, towards barbarism, and start preying on others. But that too will eventually come to an end, either when it is crushed by the civilizations it makes war on – or it conquers them, and must now generate its own productive forces now that the opportunities for living off rents / confiscated surpluses have extinguished. This is the essence of the belief cycle called the Sisyphean Loop.

For more on related themes, see here (according to Mark Steyn, the Muslim community in Europe would qualify as barbarians), here (Germany), here (Russia), here (violence is reality), and here (my exposition of nihilism).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.