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Rethinking Russia's place in history, art and politics

Russia's leaders have made it "all but impossible" for the International Monetary Fund to reinstitute loans to that country, but the United States will continue with "patient" assistance to its former enemy, Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state, told a Stanford audience on Friday, Nov. 6. That same day, the U.S. government reached agreement with Russia on food aid.

Speaking at a two-and-a-half day conference that included presentations by several officials of the Russian government, Talbott also conceded that Western advice to Russia in recent years has focused more on sound arithmetic than on sound politics. He warned that Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov's government has not outlined a viable economic policy and said that the country's economic decline "carries with it the danger of political drift, turmoil and even crack-up." Money from outside "will do no good if it is inflated away or if it pauses only briefly in Russia on its way to Swiss bank accounts and Riviera real estate." The U.S. policy toward Russia will be "continuing engagement," he said, including food assistance, cooperative nuclear threat reduction and "people-to-people" exchange programs.

Members of the audience, however, pressed Talbott on whether the United States might change any of its neo-liberal economic advice to Russia in the wake of the economic crises in that country and elsewhere.

"There is not a book on some shelf in Washington or in Chicago that is a recipe on how to manage the transition from the kind of economy that the Soviet Union had to the kind of economy that will allow Russia to attain potential for its people to prosper," Talbott conceded. "We're making it up as we go along, but there isn't a great deal of tolerance or latitude for experimentation that defies what I call the rules of arithmetic."

U.S. advice to Russian reformers has been to balance the budget and collect taxes, not to print more currency, feeding inflation, and stall loan repayments. The advice is "rooted in sound arithmetic," he said, but "a way has to be found to reconcile that to realistic, sound politics. How exactly to do that is something that we are going to be talking a lot to our Russian friends about."

Primakov is the best leader for Russia at this time because he is the only one who can bridge the gap between nationalists and democrats, said Sergay Kortunov, who was deputy chief of staff of President Yeltsin's defense council until it was disbanded recently. "Primakov is also popular in the regions and he is known abroad," Kortunov said.

Both neo-liberalism and communism are "exhausted" ideas in Russia, he said. If a communist should win a future election for president, he will not last long, Kortunov predicted. Liberalism did not take hold after the Soviet breakup partly because the country's leaders had not paid enough attention to the centrality of the individual human being, he said. "Genuine liberalism is still a challenge for the Russian Federation in the next century." In foreign policy, he said, Russia has learned it must define its own self-interests and pursue them, rather than think it will automatically be given full partnership in Western organizations such as NATO and the European Union.

Talbott said the United States and Russia "may be in for heightened tensions over security and diplomatic issues," but added that they are "still cooperating far more than we are competing; we are still agreeing more than we are disagreeing. And where we disagree, we are, by and large, managing those disagreements."

Global, regional forces

Russia's difficulties are related to its having to undergo two transitions at once, said philosopher Manuel Castells, another conference speaker. Besides its switch to a market economy and democracy, it faces globalization like the rest of the world. A professor at the University of California-Berkeley, Castells has been referred to in the popular press as the "guru's guru" on the networked age, and he was an adviser to Yeltsin in the early 1990s. He said seven "mega-groups" control about 50 percent of the Russian economy, and through them a minority of Russians are very well connected into sophisticated global networks. Most Russians, however, are disconnected and engaged only in local day-to-day survival. The country lags others in communications infrastructure and the infrastructure necessary to use its considerable scientific talent for productive technology, Castells said.

Russian rulers always have focused on controlling vast spaces as a means to control people and natural resources, he said, but in the new global order it may be possible for a few elites to manage the networked value of the countryside from a handful of urban centers. Castells was not optimistic that the vast majority of disconnected Russians would make what he called "the most fundamental transition from surviving to living."

While Talbott suggested that the Russian Federation might break apart, most speakers did not see that in the cards. Email Pain, another adviser to Yeltsin, said the central government recently withdrew price controls because regional leaders responded by restricting agricultural exports and by refusing to transfer tax revenues to the central government. However, regional prosecutors are still prosecuting violations of central laws, Pain said, and there is little economic basis for a permanent splintering. Chechnya also has provided people with a negative example of secession, he said.

David Holloway, director of Stanford's Institute for International Studies and a political scientist who studies the ethnic conflicts in the region, said he agreed that the Russian state would survive. "But whether it is the kind of state that will function effectively in the international system is unclear, and, of course, the answer one gives depends upon what one actually thinks the international system is and is becoming."

It is crucial for Russia to think through what mechanisms of governance will minimize corruption, provide a legal institutional framework for markets and regulate relations between regions and the center, he said. But like other societies, Russia also must think through how the state will protect society against the "harmful consequences of globalization whether economic or cultural."

Holloway, who recently hosted a conference on globalization's winners and losers, said the phenomenon is often discussed as if it were an inevitable force that left states and individuals with no choices. "Many things get justified in its name cultural annihilation, income differentials and so on," he said. "Globalization carries enormous risks, for there will be losers as well as winners within societies and between societies, with political consequences."

Nostalgia, Western imitation in arts

Much of the conference, which was organized by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences, focused on the reshaping of Russian society through art and history. Experts in film, literature, painting and historical analysis spoke about the nostalgia that Russians feel for their pre-Soviet imperial past. Some older Russians also look nostalgically on the Soviet era, by watching Soviet era movies on television, for example. In the few post-Soviet movies that are produced, characters are often homeless or live in dark and dangerous Soviet-era skyscrapers, monuments and museums, said Oksna Bulgakowa, a visiting professor from the University of Vienna. She showed film clips such as one of a man crawling inside a giant metal hammer and sickle for a place to sleep. Most of Russia's new artistic output can be characterized as attempts to replicate that of the West, speakers said. Ironically, now that Russians enjoy uncensored media, most lack money to buy periodicals or books or attend movies.

History has long been particularly important in Russia because "educated Russians perceived that the West had it and they didn't," said Gregory Freidin, chair of Stanford's Slavic department. "Today Russian schoolchildren have to juggle different versions of history when applying to college," he said, but the versions are "all true to their experience."

Cornell historian Peter Holquist spoke about "memory books," tragically large books that list the names, birth and death dates, and social status of victims of Stalin's purges. "The purpose of these memory books is laudatory, but they end up flattening out individual lives," Holquist said. The Soviet archives haven't yielded the same types of detailed prosecution documents that the Nazis stored and that were later used to flesh out the life stories of individual victims, he said. Holquist also objected to the current practice of publishing numerous Soviet archival documents without any analysis. The books give the false impression that no deep rethinking of Russian history is necessary, he said.

In current histories of Russia as during the Soviet era, the Soviet period of 1917 to 1991 is treated as a "discrete block of time" with no connection to the imperial past or the war years that immediately preceded it. Yet Russia's imperialist regime introduced mass deportations before the Bolsheviks, and the state surveillance techniques that the Bolsheviks widely adopted were developed to fight the world war, Holquist said. The critical war years of 1914 to 1917 in European and American histories, he said, remain almost totally undocumented in Russia, lending credence to the view of Russia's history as unique.



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