Claire Shaw is an Associate Professor of History at Warwick University specializing in the history of the Soviet Union, with a particular interest in the formation of Soviet identity and the history of marginal groups. She’s the author of Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, Community, and Soviet Identity, 1917-1991 published by Cornell University Press.
Killing Joke, “Pssyche,” Chaos for Breakfast Disc 2, 2003.
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By Sean — 8 years ago
“Are you ever going to put up another post?” Jim asks. I’ve repeatedly asked myself that very question over the last two months. Is SRB dead? Will I ever post again? The answer sounded more and more in the affirmative as I remained silent on what will certainly be the biggest stories of 2010: the summer fires and the sacking of Yuri Luzhkov. The more important stories I missed, the more I was wondering if there was any point to returning to the blogging scene. As other things demanded my attention, something had to give, and unfortunately blogging was one of them.
What were those other things? Well, academia mostly, particularly teaching and writing. Especially teaching. I landed a one year visiting position at Northern Illinois University. This required moving straight from Moscow to Dekalb, IL, that is to say from an international metropolis with all its cosmopolitan accouterments to a small rural university town that lives and dies by the price of corn. I like it here, and it’s a nice change from the urbanity of both Los Angeles and Moscow. It’s nice to not have ghetto birds flying over my house every night (like in LA) and be able to open a window and not hear the atonal serenades of the courtyard drunks (like in Moscow). In Dekalb, the only thing that makes noise is the wind and the crickets.
Most of my time is spent preparing lectures. The position at NIU has me teaching three classes, Imperial Russia, 1682-1917, Stalin and Stalinism, and Europe, 1900-1945. This has been a wonderful experience despite the intensity of the work. Preparing for my PhD exams wasn’t this intense, though it is nice to refresh my knowledge of things I’ve all but forgotten over the last few years. Plus, I like interact with students again (despite my periodic frustrations with them) since I hadn’t taught in well over a year and a half.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve struggled with how I would make my return to blogging. Diving back into the Russian news cycle has proved harder than I anticipated. So, since teaching is on my brain, I thought I would give readers some of my reflections on Imperial Russia and how it relates to politics today.
The history of Imperial Russia has been a challenging subject to distill into a course. It’s such a vibrant history and historiography, far more intellectually innovative that anything produced about the Soviet Union. The trouble therefore is more about what you cut out rather than include. After surveying a number of general narratives, I decided on Geoffrey Hosking’s Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917 as the course textbook. In retrospect, I don’t think this was the best choice since Hosking structures his book around a pointed argument rather on a general historical narrative. It is challenging for uninitiated students simply because it is thematic rather than chronological. But Hosking’s argument is provocative and serves as a good theme to bounce a course off.
Hosking deals with an old academic question in a new way. He asks why Russia failed to develop into a liberal nation. Granted he never uses the trope of liberalism explicitly. Rather, his liberalism is shrouded in a discourse of the Russian “nation,” and particularly the lack of the civic variety. Using the Russian concepts of rossiiskii and russkii as incomparable poles, Hosking seeks to narrate Russian history as how the latter consistently undermined the former. That is to say, the effort to build and maintain a Russian (russkii) empire via a strong Russian (russkii) state prevented the creation of a civic (rossiiskii) Russian nation. I see this as nothing more than code words for liberalism, i.e. why Russia didn’t develop a strong civic nation along the lines of say Britain and the United States. A civic nation for Hosking is:
“A nation is a participating citizenry, participating in the sense of being involved in law-making, law-adjudication and government, through elected central and local assemblies, through courts and tribunals, and also as members of political parties, interest groups, voluntary associations and other institutions of civil society.”
Imperial Russia never became one of these. Its trajectory of reform was too moribund to fully confront the challenges of modernity, and its empire proved to be too paradoxical for internal reconciliation. This is not to say that all of Russian shuned modernity. One of the constant contradictions is that Russia embraced the cultures of modernity, particularly among its intelligentsia, but not its political structures. The political base was incongruent with its cultural superstructure.
While Hosking serves as a good backdrop, my lectures intermittently intersect his thesis. Granted, I too deal with Imperial Russia’s struggle to modernize. It provides a story that students can follow and in light of Medvedev’s mantra a good way to provide historical reflection on the present. However, my interest isn’t why Russia failed to become just like Europe (thus avoiding 1917), but more in how reform in Russia exemplified particularly Russian characteristics. By this I mean, the idea that the state is a modernizing force, that reform in Russia tends to be “from above,” and how the Imperial state though desiring modernization was reluctant to cede power to society. Essentially, Russia’s modernizing Tsars (Peter I, Catherine II, Alexander I, Nicholas I, and Alexander II) wanted their cake and eat it too.
Russia’s historical struggle with modernization throws Medvedev and Putin’s efforts into a new light. There is nothing new in their efforts. The President and Prime Minister are posing essentially the same questions that Russian statesmen did before them. The only difference is that Medvedev, in particular, clothes his statements in democratic rhetoric. The message, however, is for the most part out of Tsarist playbook: the need for regularized state administration, the rule of law, the improvement local administration and other institutions, stamping out corruption, etc. This is not to say that Russia hasn’t changed in 100 years. It is only to point out that Russia’s efforts to establish what Marc Raeff called a Rechtsstaat–a state that functions according to codified laws, rules, and procedures–is a historically elusive goal. When I read senior officials saying things like: “Russia’s problem is that the whole population thinks ‘I can observe the law in my own way’. Modernisation means that we have to stop doing that; stop all the exceptions, and behave like Germany or France, where they have mature political and judicial systems,” I can’t help but see some of the same problems Imperial Russia dealt with.
Like Russian statesmen before them, Medvedev and Putin perpetuate the very problems they hope to solve. Though desired, “modernization” contains dangers for the powers that be. These dangers aren’t in giving power to the populace–this has never been on the table anyway. The danger is in what to do about the political elite. The Russian state has always been at odds with its elites, and the elites always at odds with itself. Under Tsarism, as the 18th century showed, the noble elite could make or break Tsars. The 17th and 18th centuries, not to mention the Great Terror of 1937-38, proves that the Russian elite has a historical tendency to cannibalize itself. It never, in the words of Marx, became a class for itself. Namely, the Russian elite always considered politics as a zero sum game. Theirs is a class that has failed to set up “gentlemanly rules” of politics like in Western Europe or the US. Those rules include an understanding that you can steal, cheat, and exploit as much as you want as long as you understand that we’re all in this together and that despite our personal and ideological differences this is our state. The ruling classes of America and Europe understand that outright corruption should be kept at a minimum because as the guardians of law and order they can always legalize it. The law facilitates elite power rather than undermines it.
The Russian elite in contrast see the state as mine and the law as an impediment to reaping the spoils. The lack of “rules” for elite machinations make them reliant on a strong arbiter to settle disputes. In this sense, the Russian autocratic tradition is a product of elite politics. The Russian elite could never get its shit together, to put it mildly, and when it did like in the Decembrist Revolt, it turned to utter disaster because of bad planning, hesitance, and cowardliness. This is why I think that while Putin will not return as President, he will still hang around because he is still the one with enough clout to prevent his boyars from killing each other. Now granted, Medvedev might become that guy as he further develops his “krysha,” but I doubt that it will ultimately hold without Putin’s backing.
If there is one ground rule the Russian elite must abide by is not to poke its nose in the affairs of the ruler, unless solicited. Most Tsars never trusted the nobility and for good reason. Boyar clans threw Russia into chaos on a number of occasions, and this is why many Tsars–Ivan Grozny, Peter the Great, Alexander I, and Nicholas I–surrounded themselves with close associates and often bypassed bureaucratic channels. Nicholas I didn’t trust the bureaucracy, and I suspect that Putin and Medvedev don’t either, despite the former facilitating its bolstering. This has had deleterious effects on how Russia is ruled. It’s more personal and hands on than in the West. The Russian President can’t really trust his underlings and must personally intercede in sometimes the smallest of issues. The only benefit of this is that the Presidents personal involvement plays well to a kind of populism.
It was Luzhkov’s violation of the golden rule that led to his unceremonious removal. His efforts to poke his nose in the affairs of the tandem, even if its was only a soft poke, were intolerable. And it’s not that Luzhkov could actually split Medvedev and Putin. The real danger is that others might follow his example. If Luzhkov was smart he would read the writing on the wall and retire somewhere and tend to his bees. Refashioning himself as a “democrat,” while utterly laughable, is suicide. He knows, like everyone, that putting him, his wife, and their clients in the slammer for corruption wouldn’t be hard. In fact, making a scandal of it would do well to boost the Kremlin’s populist appeal. Today’s announcement from Yabloko that they’re willing to work with Yuri Mikhailovich won’t earn him in favor in the Kremlin. There is one word that should ring in Luzhkov’s head as his considers his next move: Khodorkovsky.
I try to bring in some of these reflections in the classroom. Students like history to pertain the present if only to understand its relevance. Imperial Russia works well in this regard because when most people think of Putin they think of the USSR and unfortunately Stalin. I’ve repeatedly maintained that Putin’s style is more like Nicholas I. Putin, like Nicholas I, is first and foremost a Russian nationalist. He understands the need to modernize Russia, but is reluctant to delegate the necessary power to help its facilitation. Following this logic, one might think of Medvedev as Alexander II, the “Tsar-Liberator.” I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. If anything, Medvedev’s rule is more like Nicholas’ older brother, Alexander I. Alexander talked a lot of enlightenment and liberalism. He created commissions to talk about serfdom and modernizing Russia. Ultimately, he did nothing besides some minor cosmetic changes. Medvedev is similar and I doubt there will be any qualitative change even in his second term.
If Tsarist Russia is any guide, we might not look to Putin or Medvedev as key figures in Russia’s modernization. Instead we might try to identify any “enlightened bureaucrats” among them. They, if they exist, might be the real movers and shakers in Russia’s modernization. That said, if the history of Russia’s political elite is any indication, the only thing standing in their way is themselves and their interclass rivals.
h/t Austere Insomniac for the image.Post Views: 669
By Sean — 8 years ago
I haven’t done an update on Kyrgyzstan in several days. While things seemed to have calmed in the southern part of the country, tensions are high, the humanitarian crisis is deep, and the political outcomes are uncertain.
Two questions have been occupying most commentators: Why the violence, or, specifically why didn’t we see it coming? and What are the international ramifications, particularly for the US and Russia? I’m personally less interested in the second question, and for the most part discussion on this has ranged from the ludicrous (for how ludicrous see Michael Hancock’s undressing on Registan), the paranoiac and uninformed, the all too typical, to the regurgitated. Basically, I’ll leave it to the foreign policy wоnks to untangle this mess. I just hope to hear something new as they do.
The “why” question, however, is the thing that seems to be occupying the minds of most Central Asia watchers. This is an observation based on discussions on Registan and articles on Eurasianet.org. The debates on Registan are informed, measured, fresh and invaluable. Posts by Sarah Kendzior, Michael Hancock, and Christian Bleuer are must reads.
As I noted in my last post on Kyrgyzstan, there are a lot of people skeptical of the ethnic roots of the violence. It’s not that they are saying that ethnicity doesn’t matter. It does. Rather, skeptics of the ethnic conflict thesis are questioning the tendency to reduce everything to ethnicity. As always, media commentary tends to engage in this reductionism thereby making ethnic conflict, and therefore the idea of ethnicity or nationality itself, into something that is primordial and eternal. One interesting thing I’ve noticed in some articles is to locate the origin of the conflict in how Stalin drew the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as a means to realize some kind of “divide and conquer” strategy. For example, Peter Zeihan writes, “Kyrgyzstan is an artificial construct created by none other than Stalin, who rearranged internal Soviet borders in the region to maximize the chances of dislocation, dispute and disruption among the indigenous populations in case the Soviet provinces ever gained independence.” Or, Edward Stourton, “The way Stalin designed the region ensured that it would regularly be shaken by inter-ethnic violence.” And the Economist, “In 1924 Stalin divided the region into different Soviet republics. The borders were drawn up rather arbitrarily without following strict ethnic lines or even the guidelines of geography.” These statements misunderstand the history of ethnicity as a concept of identity in this region. True, the borders were drawn by Stalin, as Commissar of Nationalities, but, as Francine Hirsch contends, these borders were to purposely create these nations since the Bolsheviks believed in their evolutionary teleology that becoming a nation was necessary in order for “backward people” to overcome nationality.* Was it a colonial strategy? Most certainly since what Hirsch calls “state-sponsored evolutionism” was the Bolsheviks’ own version of White Man’s Burden. Ironically, in their efforts to destroy nationality and nationalism, the Bolsheviks were their midwives. So if there is anything to blame Stalin for it was playing a pivotal role in creating the geographical foundation for “Kyrgyz” and “Uzbeks” were none “existed” in the first place.
The roots of the conflict, therefore, are quite recent, and though there were tensions between the two groups in the Soviet period, they have exacerbated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, thanks to the widening gap between rich and poor. Inevitably, class and ethnicity became intertwined as the Kyrgyz majority saw themselves losing out to the Uzbek minority. The conflict therefore has local and international economic motors. One of the more interesting analyses on this point is Balihar Sanghera’s “Why are Kyrgyzstan’s slum dwellers so angry?” which puts the inter-ethnic violence in a global economic frame. I found this passage very revealing:
The International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation have imposed upon Kyrgyzstan and many other developing countries a package of neo-liberal economic policies. Powerless to resist, governments have had to sign up to these structural adjustment programmes in return for international loans, foreign direct investment and other financial support. Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has undergone an extensive programme of liberal marketisation and privatisation: privatisation of land and property, a break-up of kolkhozes, reductions in subsidies and import tariffs, liberalisation of commodity prices, cuts in state expenditure, relaxation of foreign ownership rules in key sectors (such as gold mines), opening up of home markets to imports, floating the exchange rate and so on. The shock therapy approach to the ‘transition’ to a market economy has had negative consequences on the Kyrgyzstani agricultural sector, and indirectly on urban slums and land invasions.
Given the small allocation of land that each family received in the 1990s in South Kyrgyzstan, most farmers struggle to eke a living, and are unable to absorb family labour, resulting in rural unemployment and underemployment. In addition, marginal and small farmers lack funds to buy adequate fertilisers, to invest into a proper irrigation system, to pay for effective livestock immunisation, or to capitalise their farms for future growth. Many farmers survive by pooling their resources, reviving some aspects of the Soviet kolkhozes. Some have abandoned farming, either by leasing their land rights to larger farmers, who possess the capital to undertake successful commercial farming, or by giving back their tenancy rights to ayil okomotu (local state administration), who then lease them to rich farmers. As a result, the rural society has become pauperised.
How many times have we seen this around the world?
Boris Petric also places the violence in the context of privatization (along with political clan and mafia struggles and the drug trade thrown in the mix):
As the free market ideology gained ground internationally, Kyrgyzstan launched massive privatization initiatives and opened its borders. This led to the collapse of industry and the agricultural sector, as well as causing increased social inequality. With new opportunities in cross-border trading, a new upper class formed, while most of the population lived below the poverty threshold. Structural adjustment policies, which Akayev followed to the letter, encouraged the emergence of new familial economic powers. In the south of the country, and particularly in Osh, many Kyrgyz often associated these economic powers with urban Uzbeks.
After the 2005 Tulip Revolution, Kurmanbek Bakiyev quickly put an end to the advantages gained by some Uzbeks in Osh during the privatization period. These politico-economic entrepreneurs, of which Deputy Batyrov is a good example, were gradually marginalized. The Bakiyev brothers then set about gaining control of the economy, and encouraged other “Uzbeks” to monopolize major economic resources from the Akayev administration’s former protégés. Control of the economy passed into the hands of Bakiyev’s allies. These new economic leaders were soon required to set up various dummy companies benefiting the presidential entourage.
Events took another turn when Roza Otunbayeva came to power in April 2010. President Bakiyev’s allies in the Osh region were quickly dispossessed of the advantages they had enjoyed. The situation deteriorated rapidly and tensions arose between different groups which aspired to control economic activities. An Uzbek businessman, Aibek Mirsidikov, was murdered in mysterious circumstances. According to rumor, Mirsidikov was involved in Mafia and other criminal activities. He was closely linked to the Bakiyev family, and it was even said that the President’s brother put him in charge of the lucrative Afghan drug trade and reorganizing economic relations in Osh. The fall of President Bakiyev therefore led to a new politico-economic shakeup in the region. The current conflict was probably triggered by the rise to power of some politico-Mafia groups, and the fall of others. The groups that had flourished under the previous government were not willing to accept defeat. Adopting extremely violent tactics, they began settling scores, aided and abetted by the Bakiyev brothers. The extent of these retaliations meant the conflict finally took an interethnic turn.
In her “The ethnicisation of violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan,” Madeleine Reeves notes some of the ways these social conflicts have become ethnicized in the Ferghana Valley:
In recent weeks, political tensions, economic anxieties, criminal violence, the freezing of legal process, and what seems to be a quite concerted attempt at ethnic mobilisation and provocation by supporters of ousted former-president Bakiev mean that in southern Kyrgyzstan, mothers, brothers, school-friends, colleagues, neighbours and drinking partners have been “pinned to the wall” of nationhood, reduced to the single category, “Kyrgyz” or “Uzbek” in this historically most complex and socially variegated of regions.
Writing to me a few weeks ago, a tri-lingual (Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Russian-speaking), “Kyrgyz”-identifying friend, with Uzbek and Uighur heritage on his mother’s side, described how his “Uzbek”-identifying wife was increasingly conscious of the appearance of ethnic slurs in the playground when she took her (ethnically “mixed”) children out to play. An Uzbek-identifying friend from Jalalabat noted in the same period a growing sense of disillusion amongst Jalalabat Uzbeks, as ethnically-marked political-criminal groupings sought to take advantage of the change of leadership in the wake of Bakiev’s ouster to seize control of businesses traditionally dominated by Uzbek elites in the city. For both of these acquaintances, ethnicity was a constitutive part of their identity, just as was their age, their gender, their education, and their identification with a cosmopolitan, urban Ferghana culture. Each, in different ways, has written of the horror of being reduced in recent days to that single dimension, “Kyrgyz” or “Uzbek”. Talking of this as an “ethnic conflict” misses that essentially processual dimension: it is essentialising; it is depoliticising and it acts as an analytical “stop”. It takes ethnicity as being analytically causal, rather than asking about the complex, messy, deeply political dynamics through which, in a moment of state crisis, conflict has come to be ethnicised.
. . . What we have been witnessing in Osh and Jalalabat over the last few days is a disturbing and distressing spiral of violence. Much of this has been articulated in ethnic terms: evident in targeted attacks on property, homes and in the brutal wounding of those perceived as ethnically “other” whether they be Kyrgyz or Uzbek.
Less reported are the multiple instances where ethnicity has been irrelevant to action: when property has been looted because “they” represent wealth and opportunity that is inaccessible to “us”; when Kyrgyz have sheltered Uzbeks and vice versa; when neighbours have sought to defend their street or their mosque from attack not because they are of the same ethnicity, but because they live in the same neighbourhood and want to have the chance of continuing to do so.
Reeves goes on to add that ethnicity in this case is more like poisonious silly-puddy with its ability to be molded and graft onto a multitude of existing social processes.
“Inter-ethnic conflict” as an explanatory frame is problematic, then, not because ethnicity doesn’t matter, but because the “ethnic group” by itself doesn’t do any meaningful explanatory work (unless, of course, we assume that some ethnic groups are “naturally” pre-disposed to violence). Ethnicity in Osh is socially constituted, as well as socially and spatially organised. It is produced and reproduced in a host of domestic, educational, social and political institutions, from schools to television broadcasts, from religious celebrations to the organisation of domestic and neighbourhood space. Critically, moreover, it is reproduced in a host of business networks, patronage relations, and crimino-political groupings, the activity and violence of which has increased dramatically in the weeks since former president Bakiev was ousted in an uprising on April 7th.
Perhaps it is this hornet’s nest which has made Russia hesitant to dive in military first despite the pleads of the Kyrgyz interim government. Indeed, I agree with the view that the US and Russia just hope the crisis goes away. But crises like this rarely do. Unfortunately for the Kyrgyz, the situation remains dire and continued destabilization may generate the very things that Russia and the US fear the most: regional civil war, increased drug trafficking, and Islamism.
The big test is coming in the next week. The continued “state of emergency” threatens to put the June 27 referendum on a new constitution on hold. The interim government hopes that turning Kyrgyzstan into a parliamentary republic will bring political stability. However, if RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier is right it could only exacerbate ethnic tensions. According to him:
“Everyone that I’ve talked to in these Uzbek neighborhoods points out that they don’t have any representation in the government at all — the soldiers are Kyrgyz, all the police are Kyrgyz. If they hold the referendum and then there is something the Uzbeks don’t like, they are going to say, ‘This isn’t our constitution. This is a Kyrgyz constitution.”
*Francine Hirsch, “Toward an Empire of Nations: Border-Making and the Formation of Soviet National Identities,” Russian Review, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), 202-203.Post Views: 1,731
By Sean — 2 years ago