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Surkov's Vision for Russia

Message Nicolai Petro
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This comment appears in the Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel (June 29, 2007)

As a critic of the mainstream approach to international development, I applaud Vladislav Surkov for not only highlighting culture's importance, but for placing institutions in their proper, subordinate, context.

Yet, it is precisely my sympathy for "sovereign democracy" that leads me to warn against excessive reliance on political culture to project the reforms that Russia should undertake. For one thing, political culture has a tendency to degenerate into static formulas that are inconsistent with historical reality, simply because cultures must evolve to survive. The difficulty of identifying a cultural standard when that standard is itself evolving, has led most political scientists to abandon political culture as an impractical analytical tool. A second problem that arises is the tendency to deduce political cultural values retroactively from existing support for government policies (post hoc, propter hoc).

Surkov's analysis suffers on both counts. He deals with the first by using the "fuzzy logic" characteristic of political culturalists, arguing that there are certain "irreplaceable characteristics of political culture" while simultaneously saying that its main features may already be outdated. In the same vein, he bases his choice of three main characteristics of Russian political culture on the indisputable successes of the Putin era. More typically, however, this logic has been used to assert Russia's inability to develop any type of civic culture because of centuries of authoritarianism.

Surkov tries to break out of this conundrum by asserting that Russian political culture has had its own democratic traditions. He is absolutely right about this (see the works of Jacob Walkin, Sergei Utechin, Sergei Pushkarev, Viktor Leontovitsch, Sir Paul Vinogradoff and others), but he himself provides no such evidence. More importantly, sovereign democracy still lacks a mechanism to connect Russia's democratic past with its democratic future. For now, as Surkov notes, they remain "on both sides of the present," totally disconnected.

To overcome this rift, as I have suggested in my own writings, it is useful to think of Russian political culture as one continuous historical tapestry, rather than a stone monument. As God weaves his design for each nation into its tapestry there will be periods when some strands dominate and others are submerged, but none are ever completely lost. Each national tapestry will differ in its design, but the nature of those differences is a question of theosophy, with little practical relevance to the issue of which aspects of the national heritage best serve the country's needs today.

Still, despite hitting the wrong note at times, Surkov's contribution provides valuable new information about the spirit that is guiding Russia's rebirth. To use a crude analogy, if reforms under Yeltsin were guided by those who saw themselves as the heirs of the Westernizers, under Putin the reins have clearly shifted to those who see themselves as the heirs of the Slavophiles.

Little wonder then that Western pundits regard Putin as a reactionary, for they are unaware that it was actually the early Slavophiles, working within the government, who lobbied hardest to end serfdom, to curtail the state bureaucracy, and to promote the most significant expansion of local self-government ever seen in Russian history.

The Westernizers, by contrast, accomplished almost nothing of practical value, choosing instead to remain unsullied by compromise and to argue that piecemeal improvements short of the downfall of the monarchy were meaningless. They got their wish, but few today would argue that the world, or Russia, was better off for it.

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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