Saturday, January 29, 2005

I was there, did my share, played my part; and Russians all will be aware, I was there, from the start

Today's class of Russia In Transition was a contrast between the two wings of the Soviet intelligentsia (Slavophiles and Westernizers) during the 1970s and 80s, personified by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. I had some problems with the professor's treatment of the Slavophiles; rather than focus on the distinguishing characteristics of the group as a whole - generally nationalist, pro-authoritarian, deeply Orthodox - he chose Solzhenitsyn's seemingly least representative (of that group) work, his 1978 Harvard address, in a roundabout way of claiming that the word "evil" didn't enter American political discourse until that speech, and therefore that Reagan's use of "evil empire" and George W. Bush's "axis of evil" are similarly representative of this inherently negative school of thought. Below are the comments I wrote to Prof. Clayton this afternoon.
I have to question your perception of a strict dichotomy between the Slavophiles and Westernizers of the intelligentsia. You imply Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov are iconic of entirely different attitudes about Soviet society, by virtue of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘messianic’ nature and conservative grounding, versus Sakharov’s non-judgmental demands of natural rights, if I’m interpreting correctly. But what I think you miss is the connection between the use of the word (and concept of) "evil," and the drive towards westernization. The two are not mutually exclusive, and can quite reasonably be causally related. One need not be religious to believe in evil, or that dictatorships which treat their subjects as property to be exploited are the very embodiment of the same, in political terms. Sakharov may have couched his complaint in the language of human rights and rationalization of bureaucratic process, but he speaks of the same self-destructive and oppressive state as Solzhenitsyn, which can quite rightly be called evil. The Soviet state was not evil because it was non-western; it was evil because it was non-democratic. That was and remains a constant today, no matter what the geographical location of the tyranny in question. To mock Solzhenitsyn (and George W. Bush) for their religious motivations is to miss the point: Democracy is where the morally good and the ethically just converge. It’s this reason that Bush speaks in the same language as Reagan when condemning totalitarian regimes in Iraq and elsewhere – they are repressive, and thus evil. Pushing for democratization is fighting evil. Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov are on a continuum of reform in this respect; in real terms, they don’t seem far apart in the problems they see in the Soviet system. You mock Bush for his ‘messianism,’ his belief that democratic and free societies are good things (again, not because such qualities are uniquely American, but because such qualities are uniquely beneficial to the citizens of those societies) and therefore that the United States must do everything in its power to encourage the spread of freedom, up to and including the forcible removal of Stalinesque thugs. How is this so different from Sakharov’s position? Yes, he casts aspersions on the notion that any society should be “deluded” into believing in “the exclusive merits of its own path,” but the free and open practices of a democratic society are in fact the least harmful means of governance. That is no delusion. If establishing a society dedicated to not abrogating the natural rights of man is ‘messianic,’ then Sakharov’s work is inherently conflicted, in failing to allow for the most achievable means of doing so in many situations. It is vital to recall that the Soviet Union was defeated without firing a shot, largely due to the combative attitude of the Reagan administration, and his willingness to acknowledge the evils of communist dictatorship. Such evil creates a moral obligation to liberate the subjects of such a monstrous regime; conversely, Détente, under Carter, proved ultimately uncaring towards the plight of oppressed Soviet subjects. Such a policy considered it better for them to suffer in their shackles, be they physical or mental, than to provoke serious disagreement. There is a direct connection between Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s use (unlike his father, a sadly pragmatic accommodationist) of the word “evil,” true: That connection is that the objects of their respective rhetoric genuinely are and were evil, so far as any state can be. It’s not for nothing that the remaining tinpot dictators of the world – Kim Jong-Il, for example – model their cults of personality, propaganda, and domestic terror techniques off those of Stalin. Bush’s transformative policy towards the Middle East is mocked just as much as "simplistic" and "dangerous" as Ronald Reagan’s words were in his time, and I believe in the future will be likewise eventually acknowledged as having been the best and most promoting of good for civilization and humanity in the long term, as Reagan’s (posthumously) largely were. Evil is evil. Religious faith should not be required to understand and admit that. Rather, to deny the inherently positive aspects of those various forms of government broadly known as democracy is to engage in dangerously amoral equivocation, to believe that Soviet communism was not the brutal regime whose many crimes against its people Sakharov enumerates, but merely a different system of government; an alternative to western-style democracy, dissimilar but equal. The inherent legitimacy and validity of a political order is intimately connected to morality. As you said yourself in today’s lecture, the Soviet Union murdered far more civilians than Nazi Germany ever did – a fact of which I was already aware, and bring up to coffee-shop communists in Ché T-shirts, who still (still!) believe that the USSR "wasn’t all bad," "in theory." If we in the west can so effortlessly acknowledge the evil Hitler and his barbaric henchmen performed upon innocents, and realize the entire political system that empowered such genocide is to blame (do anyone other than skinheads in Saxony call for a return to the German political structure of the 1930s?), why is it so difficult to believe the same of communism, and praise the moral clarity of men who make such apt judgments? Why is the exact same even more difficult to believe of even more obviously non-western nations and rulers? It’s all very well, I suppose, to pander to an easily-amused class with jibes at Bush’s support by the “Christian Right,” and to imply that his 'messianic' cause is a foolish and self-deluding one. Yet this weekend, the first free elections since 1953 (and, realistically, the first genuinely free elections ever) will take place in Iraq. Ten years from now, it might well be another Belarus, a catspaw of its neighbours and domestically authoritarian, but it might well also be another Ukraine or Poland. Most importantly, odds are good it won’t be another North Korea or Iran. This is an occasion for as much celebration as the secession and democratization of the former Soviet republics – and it would never have happened but for George W. Bush’s firm belief in those same human rights that Sakharov demanded in his samizdat memo of 1971: freedom of speech, of conscience, of assembly, and of movement. He believes that these rights are natural and inherent to every human being, without reservations. He also believes that to deny these rights can rightly be deemed "evil." I don’t see the incongruity. But maybe I’m just 'messianistic.'
UPDATE: Prof. Clayton responds by e-mail. (NB - when he says "circulate," he does mean anonymously, as has been his wont with comments on all topics in the course. He's not the publicly-vilifying type.) Thanks for your comments, for which you have no need to apologize. I respect the conviction with which they are expressed. I shall be circulating them to the class in the hopes that they will provoke further reflection. You are right in placing what happened in the Soviet Union in the larger world context. This echoes what I said in my opening lecture — namely that the process that we are examining is a continuing process that is far from finished. For the record, I am glad Reagan did what he did. Maybe I will see Bush differently ten or fifteen years from now, but I doubt it. His removal of Sadam Hussein looks like contingency disguised as principle. And the result, unlike the dismantling of the Soviet empire or the removal of Milosevic, far from bloodless. But this is not a course about Irak. I mentioned Bush to emphasize the long-lasting impact of Solzhenitsyn on American foreign policy. My contrasting of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov (rather than seeing them in a continuum) lies in Solzhenitsyn’s rejection of the western tradition of democracy, human rights, etc., of which Sakharov was such a defender in favour of some vague Russian/Slavic collectivism. In the Russian context Solzhenitsyn is a dead letter, while Sakharov is more relevant than ever. Fair enough. That's still not a theory I really buy in strict Russian Studies terms, but fleshed out beyond the reflexive and almost random Bush-bashing it appeared as during class, I can respect it.


Blogger The Tiger said...

I don't know that I'd call Solzhenitsyn a "dead letter" in Russia. I mean, the man's still alive and writing. In my senior year (2002-03), I was collecting articles for the professor I was a research assistant for about "Dvesti let vmeste" (Two Hundred Years Together), his book about the Jews in Russia (his second wife is either Jewish or has a Jewish parent). It was pretty controversial, and it spurred many, many journal articles. Sakharov, for all the good he did in Soviet times, has been in his grave for fifteen years.

(That prof, incidentally, was the only prof in my department who would vote Republican from time to time -- I know that he voted for Reagan and Bush, absolutely couldn't stand Clinton ("Ya terpet' ne mogu Klintona" = "I can't stand Clinton"), and voted for W in 2000, though not in 2004.)

Bush is mocked, but I believe that we'll see him vindicated.

1/31/2005 10:53:00 PM  

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