In the first part of the interview (see “The Russians Are Still to Become Aware of their True Origin,” No. 63, November 3, 2015), Vladimir Kravtsov, a Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk-based Russian historian and political writer, former dean of the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk State Pedagogical Institute’s History Faculty, shared with The Day his reflections on how the true history of Russia can be established and what role Ukrainian academics could play in this process. This part is about the path that can lead that country from the current Putin regime to democracy, the most acceptable system of government for Russia, and what kind of a long-term strategy the West should pursue towards its eastern neighbor.
Mr. Kravtsov, it follows from your publications that the current Putin regime is not a historical aberration but a government that meets the deep-seated mental needs of the Russians. Do you think the system of government in present-day Russia can be transformed from inside or this can only happen as a result of foreign impact? Can you see an alternative to the ideology of “Uvarovian-Leninist-Stalinist imperial great-power chauvinism in the wrapping of modern Chekism” which you say knits Russian society closer together today?
“It seems to me any government meets the mental needs of most people at a certain stage of historical development. In any case, it has always been so in Russia. The Muscovites’ Horde-style mentality called for a ruler who, like a Karakorum khagan, wields unlimited power, and this resulted in tsarist autocracy. As centuries flew by, the rabble, which had sometimes been staging a senseless and merciless Russian revolt, fell for ‘Marxism’ in a Leninist Bolshevik wrapping. The country saw a decades-long dictatorship of communist secretaries-general. The current political regime in Russia is the fruit of an exchange of the constitutional rights and freedoms of the majority of the population, which continues to suffer from a slavish mentality, for notorious stability and stores full of vodka and foods. Store shelves are still well-stacked, while stability has resulted in the restoration of an authoritarian or perhaps dictatorial regime.
“Up to now, changes have been occurring in the system of government in Russia mostly by force of domestic factors. Why ‘mostly’? Because domestic factors are never the only ones. One way or another, they are coupled dialectically with foreign influence. You should note two circumstances that have been effecting a change of government in Russia. I won’t touch the olden times. Let me start with the 20th century. The Romanovs’ throne fell against the backdrop and under the influence of people’s discontent which grew owing to the Russian Empire’s failures in World War One. What ruined the monarchy were mass-scale disturbances in Petrograd caused by the shortage of bread in retail outlets. What caused dictatorial CPSU secretaries-general to lose their unlimited power and the USSR to collapse was a decade-long Afghan venture of Communist Party oldsters. A chronic shortage of goods, including foodstuffs, empty store shelves, the lack of civil rights and freedoms brought millions of people out on the streets. The communist authorities crumbled under this pressure.
“Now the Russian leadership is behaving aggressively on the international arena. In response to the aggression against Ukraine, the occupation of Crimea and the Donbas, the West has imposed the well-known sanctions that are having a negative effect on the economy of Russia. Yet this does not sober up the hot ‘ruling’ heads. For how else can you explain another military venture in Syria in the name of keeping the dictator Bashar al-Assad in power? There is vodka and food in Russian stores so far, but the economic situation is hopeless and all this plenty will run out soon. Then the outraged people will say their word, as they did in August 1991. Things may blow up so hard that no foreign intrusion will be needed. But still, as I have already said, foreign factors always influence the development of domestic processes.
“Do I see an alternative to the ideology of ‘Uvarovian-Leninist-Stalinist imperial great-power chauvinism in the wrapping of modern Chekism’? I will answer point-blank: I want to see neither this defective ideology nor any of its analogues even if they look ‘most beautiful.’ I hundred-percent agree with my great compatriot Dmitry Likhachov who said: ‘Russia has never had any special mission to perform! We don’t need to search for a Russian national idea, for it is a mirage. Living with a national idea will inevitably lead first to restrictions and then to intolerance against a different race, nation, and religion. Intolerance is bound to lead to terror. Russia must not try to return to an integrated ideology, for an integrated ideology will sooner or later bring Russia to fascism.’ The sage must have had second sight. We can see, more than clearly, the finale he foresaw in today’s Russia, particularly in what concerns Moscow’s Ukrainian policy. And not only in this…”
You say that one of the reasons why a despotic rule was established in Russia was the need to hold immense territories. Do you think a democratic Russia is possible within its current borders? What system of government should there be – a true, not phony as now, federation, a confederation, or something else?
“I am thoroughly convinced that it is possible, but under an indispensable condition. A huge Russia should become, as you rightly noted, a true, not phony, confederation where the functions and rights of confederative regions and the center will be clearly defined. By contrast with the present-day ‘federation,’ which is in fact a federation in name only because the omnipotent center rules the roost, while the regions can only pick up crumbs from the rich federal ‘table,’ all kinds of advantages should be delegated to Russia’s confederative regions. There are true confederations in the present-day world, whose example we ought to follow. It is, above all, the US. Yes, territorially, it is almost twice as small as Russia, but Russia is twice as small as the US in terms of the population. That this huge densely-populated country has become such as it is now is the result of a confederative setup. The US is today a standard of economic prosperity, freedom, and democracy. Is a confederation with such stunning results possible in Russia? It surely is if you manage to establish human and civil rights and freedoms, an irreversible division of power at all levels, a rule-of-law state, an active and effective civil society, and other values of democracy in practice, not in words only. It is only through a firm establishment of these democratic values that the Russian Federation can turn into a great and integrated state. Otherwise, there will be a bleak prospect.”
You analyze in your articles how the Kremlin was trying in the Soviet era to split Soviet society and the entire world into different opposing parts in order to preserve its power. Is the Putin regime applying this technique today? Where are the “fault lines” in present-day Russian society?
“You should take into account that Putin and his inner (and in many cases outer) circle are staunch Stalinists, who admire the views, ways, and methods of the ‘father of all peoples.’ No wonder at all, for they are all disciples, full-time or secret agents, of the notorious ‘Lenin-Dzerzhinsky-Stalin agency.’ They always put up portraits and busts of the founding fathers, thus confirming unbreakable loyalty to their ideas in practice. Therefore, they are applying the same methods that they did in the USSR. They divide society into ‘we’ and ‘they,’ ‘ours’ and ‘aliens,’ ‘regime’s followers’ and ‘fifth column.’ Russia and its leadership are right always and everywhere, while all our problems and troubles result from the crafty designs of the West, especially the US, and Washington’s domestic hirelings. Russia is a fount of all the imaginable virtues, whereas Europe and the US are bearers of evil and all kinds of vile and obscene things. Therefore, the Lord God Himself chose Russia to tirelessly cleanse the world of filth. In other words, the essence has remained the same as it used to be in the Soviet era.”
With due account of the situation inside Russia, particularly strong public support for the government’s foreign and domestic policy, as well as certain traditions in societal relations, what kind of a long-term strategy do you think the West should pursue towards Russia?
“I would not exaggerate the level of Russian society’s support for the leadership’s domestic and foreign policy. As I have already said, there are ample grounds to doubt the results of national opinion polls, given their pro-presidential propagandistic orientation. Therefore, society is unlikely to be completely supporting the current regime’s course. Besides, overrated figures dull the alertness of dictators and strengthen their false belief in their omnipotence. Shaping their policy towards Russia, Western countries should seek the possibilities of gaining impartial information instead of believing the FSB-Kiselyov agitprop. I think they are doling so, albeit insufficiently.
“It seems to me sanctions must in no way be relaxed, as the Kremlin wants. On the contrary, they must be expanded and intensified. It is very good that NATO has become more active in response to Moscow’s nuclear missile blackmail. But what is being done is not enough. Moscow must suffer a defeat in Syria and the Middle East as a whole. The mistake of ‘removing’ chemical weapons must not be made again. That was a gross blunder of Obama and an irrefutable win for the Kremlin and the FSB. Had al-Assad been overthrown and his Russian ally ignominiously turned out of Syria, Moscow would not perhaps committed aggression against Ukraine. The West should not ‘have its tail between its legs’ in response to the Russian president’s nuclear blackmail. Moscow is bluffing and blackmailing. It cannot carry out the first nuclear strike at the enemy which surpasses it many times over both economically and militarily. For this strike will be the first and the last for Russia. Speculations about the first nuclear strike and Russia’s capability of reducing the US to nuclear ashes are coming from the Boss’s high-placed lackeys who were told to deal with the military-industrial complex instead of practicing journalism. The US and NATO should ignore these speculations and, just in case, prepare a serious ultimatum to the brazen aggressor so that he trembled with fear. The West must render effective military-technical aid for the countries that face a Russian aggression and be prepared to send their troops to their territory in an extreme situation.”
You say in your articles that the Kremlin government has turned its foreign-policy vector to Europe several times throughout its history, particularly during Peter I’s reforms and Stalin’s modernization drive. But those changes were temporary and largely cosmetic. Do you think the Kremlin may show this tendency again after Putin’s hypothetical departure from power?
“Even today, Moscow does not mind tapping the West’s resources to improve its, first of all, financial and economic situation. But it wants to do so without giving up its anti-Western policies. Of course, this won’t do – at least, I’d like to believe in this. Following the retirement of Putin (which I think is inevitable one way or another), the new Russian leadership will try to place their quest for Western potential and expertise on a practical footing. We should look carefully in this situation at who will intercept power. If Chekists still hold sway as before, one should take a very cautious approach to this cooperation. But when the basic democratic values get the upper hand in Russia, its quest for Western potential and expertise will be natural, continuous, and irreversible.”
The West is somewhat fearful today of Russia’s disintegration. They were similarly afraid of the collapse of the USSR – Ukraine remembers very well the visit of US President George Bush Sr. shortly before the declaration of independence, who came to Kyiv to dissuade us from this idea. Do you think it is the right view that Russian statehood should remain intact in spite of everything?
“Disintegration of states, especially such huge ones as the USSR, is an ambiguous thing – both in perception and assessments. Most of modern-day politicians welcome this act as a long-awaited breakup of the ‘evil empire,’ but, for example, the current Russian ‘guarantor’ considers it the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. The West was predominantly worried that the USSR’s nuclear missile potential might spread over the CIS countries – the former Soviet republics. When there is a nuclear state, it is one thing, but when there appear several more next to it, it is a totally different thing.
“The same fears worry the West when it comes to a widely-debated prospect of Russia’s disintegration. If this happened, there would be numerous divisions on the ethnic, territorial, and God knows what other basis. There will be no peaceful divorce this time. The new formations will undoubtedly have a host of reciprocal claims – territorial, economic, political, military, strategic, etc., against the backdrop of nuclear missiles. Everyone will strive to obtain a part of this arsenal in order to feel safe in the future crisis situations. This may well result in a very dangerous situation. However, in spite of this, I am not saying that the present-day Russian statehood must remain intact at any price. It should turn from an authoritarian (or dictatorial) to a really democratic one.”
Like the USSR before it, Russia is in fact a colonial country. Many indigenous peoples undergo a tough assimilation, and some are even on the brink of extinction. Why do you think any national movement is perceived negatively in Russia – as one aimed against the Russians?
“That today’s Russia is also an empire is beyond a shadow of a doubt, no matter what Kremlin and FSB propagandists may claim. Its ideological stronghold is great-power chauvinism which means at least enmity towards the colonially-dependent peoples.
“Great-power chauvinism in Russia is particular by force of the Russians’ uncommon features. From time immemorial, a myth has been imposed on Russia’s residents and the world about the kindness, simple-heartedness, and peacefulness of the Russian people. But real life proves that it is a brazen and shameless lie. Overrated self-estimation, an overt show of totally unfounded arrogance towards the others, admiration for God-sent ‘particularity’ of the entire Russian nation, inclination for snobbishness, mendacity, and cruelty – this is a not at all full list of Russian feature. Everybody – from a janitor to the state’s No.1 leader – is the bearer of these features. It is only in the ‘masterpieces’ of socialist ‘realism’ that Muscovite Tsar Peter I is portrayed as a great reformer who leads Russia to a radiant future. In reality, it is difficult, if at all possible, to find another ruler in the world, who personally tortured the accused and beheaded those sentenced to death, as was the case during the execution of the revolting Streltsy. And he was not the only ruler of this kind in Russia. Take the figure of Ivan the Terrible alone! And are Lenin, Stalin, and the whole Bolshevik gang any better? The entire history of Russia-USSR-Russia means violence, sufferings, executions, wars, and blood. The titular ethnic group that is at the head of all these dramatic processes cannot be merciful and kindhearted. Having seized an enormous territory in Europe and Asia, this nation managed to hold back power in it for centuries only by means of bloody violence over the peoples that populated these areas. Many of them were Russified and some vanished without leaving a trace. Russian great-power chauvinism is the cruelest of all those which existed and still exist. It was shaped by, first of all, the particularities of Russians as a titular ethnicity. Where is all this from? Still from the same source – the ancient Mongolian steppe of Genghis Khan’s era or maybe even earlier. The Russians were formed and remained as Horde people.”
Do you think the Kremlin’s current anti-Western rhetoric really shows a desire to create a certain alternative to the Western world? In what form is this possible, taking into account that Moscow cannot offer any new universal model of social system today? Or is this just a way to internally mobilize the population and preserve power?
“Unmotivated hostility to other nations is an organic feature of the Russians. If you look at Russian history, you will see that it mostly consist of wars against other states. Rejection of other things also forms the basis of enmity for the West. Any alternative to the Western world in the Kremlin-FSB version is out of the question. Lenin had already proposed socialism instead of capitalism, and Stalin and the next secretaries-general tried to put the ideas of the ‘leader and teacher’ into practice. What this resulted in is common knowledge. Therefore, the Kremlin’s anti-Western rhetoric is intended for domestic consumption, for fooling the masses.”
The Russian government recently allowed a Chinese company to extract an annual two million tons of peat in Sakhalin. Many experts point out that China is more and more showing its presence in eastern Russia. What do you think is that country’s strategy? Has China really increased its influence lately?
“The strategy is very simple: to develop as much as possible the economy of the sparsely-populated Far Eastern territories, whose population continues to leave the place. To stop China’s expansion in Russia’s Far East, the Russian leadership should seriously get down to a comprehensive development of the region. No chance! It thinks that the war against Ukraine, throwing money down the drain in Syria, brandishing a nuclear ‘club,’ and aggravating relations with the most developed and civilized countries to the giddy limit is more important. As long as power is in the hands of Chekists, nothing will change for the better here and in the country as a whole. Without prior arrangement, the Russian Far East will slip into the hands of the ‘Celestial Empire.’ In that case China may really become the world’s second largest (after the US) economy. But now this kind of conclusions is just phrase-mongering.”
Do you think the sociopolitical situation in the Far East of Russia (the level of support for the government, the value-related attitudes of the populace, etc.) is in any way radically different from the overall mood in the country?
“You don’t say so! What radical differences? The ‘guarantor’ and United Russia are the same all over Russia, and the ‘zombie box’ is also the same for all. For this reason, some are unanimously supporting the policy of ‘the president, the government, and the ruling party,’ others are rejecting it without any tangible results, and still others, as is the practice in our ‘Fatherland,’ are grimly keeping silent… for the time being.”