Do not underestimate Russia’s fear

Russia is at a dead end. Paralyzed by fear that the process of its disintegration that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union has not run its course yet, Russia’s ruling elite is uncertain of the country’s future and its own legitimacy.

A picture of a man hoisting the flag of the Russian Federation
On the eve of presidential elections, the Russian government unabashedly admits that it lacks meaningful projects to develop the country. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Russians fear that collapse of their empire has not yet arrived at its final stage
  • Russian elite perceives its legitimacy as tenuous and the country as encircled by enemies
  • The resulting besieged fortress mentality blocks internal reform and constructive activities abroad as potentially dangerous

Why doesn’t Russia develop? Where are the creativity, courage, industry and serendipity that characterized Russian civilization since the times of Peter the Great? Why have these strengths not resurfaced after that civilization liberated itself from the communist yoke? Why do the Russian people still suffer from a recessive economy, depressive society and oppressive political regime, mostly without complaint?

Why does Russia not only refuse to join in foreign projects for the future but cannot even articulate any project of its own that could be remotely attractive – if not for the entire world or its nearest neighbors, so at least for its own people?

False leads

One cannot put the blame for all that on the country’s tortured history, for history is malleable. Look no further than the Korean Peninsula to see two countries with exactly the same background and yet extremely different outcomes. This is also not because of Russia’s rigid political regime. First of all, the regime is not that brutal – in Russian terms. Secondly, as the experience of China, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Chile, Turkey, Portugal, etc. has demonstrated at various times, authoritarian rule does not exclude at least partially successful modernization. And this is certainly not about President Vladimir Putin, who is often seen as responsible for everything happening in Russia.

Opportunities that arise are immediately perceived and suppressed as posing risk.

Russia’s internal stagnation, as well as its disturbing external behavior, are sometimes explained as resulting from resentment at the USSR’s collapse and subsequent breakup. This is true to some extent; the death of an empire is usually more acutely felt at the center than on the peripheries. Outside observers, however, usually fail to appreciate the power of this resentment and, especially, its essence. It is not the hurt “pride of the Great Russians,” nor a wish to wreak havoc on the outside world in revenge for Russia’s humiliation, nor a desire to restore old glory.

A completely different feeling is reigning over Russia. It is fear.

The worst is yet to come

Specifically, Russians fear the future. They fear that the breakup of the universe – which is how the collapse of the Soviet Union has been perceived internally – has not yet arrived at its final stage. That the calamity has only made a temporary pause in its course. This fear induces a state of hypervigilance, an exhausting and controlling mania driven by the need to exclude unforeseen, unintended, and potentially dangerous consequences of any activity.

Sometimes this condition leads to sudden explosions of destructive energy that disrupt conventional rules of the game. It excludes any creative or constructive activity directed toward the long term. Opportunities that arise are immediately perceived and suppressed as posing risk.

This fear especially ravages the power elite, made up of people who keenly feel their own legitimacy deficit – or, rather, the legitimacy deficit of the model of power and property distribution that made them the elite. From the very beginning of the new Russia, its policymakers and business leaders have behaved as if they did not really deserve their positions. The rare exception was Boris Yeltsin, who attained the presidency (1991-1999) of the Russian Federation in a life-or-death power struggle and therefore did not question his own rights. It is almost as if the power elite tacitly agrees with the communists and nationalists who blame them for the breakdown of the Soviet empire, for the power grabs and looting of the country’s natural resources, even though this interpretation is also wrong.

Russians rallying in St. Petersburg process disintegration
St. Petersburg, Dec. 24, 2017: supporters of opposition maverick Alexi Navalny protest against the exclusion of his candidacy in the 2018 presidential elections. © dpa

This hidden sense of illegitimacy leads to a pathological and ever-growing fear of political competition and free (that is, unpredictable) elections. According to a saying popular in Mr. Yeltsin’s circle back in the 1990s, “We did not take power to give it back.” This sentiment still holds. The result has been an endless string of legislative initiatives aimed at restraining access to information, curbing freedom of association and assembly, or regulating the activities of nongovernmental organizations (treated as “foreign agents”). The radical ambitions of these laws are partially softened by their stupidity of design, which makes them nearly impossible to implement.

They are out to get us

One inevitable component of this system is neurotic propaganda that portrays Russia as a besieged fortress. Another is a full-fledged degeneration of federalism, as the initially reasonable safeguards against separatism have been turned into punitive tools against any signs of regional independence. The main architect of Mr. Putin’s “fiscal centralization,” former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin (who, by the way, is perceived as a liberal), allegedly used to say: “No money should be given to the regions; they’ll steal everything.”

The obsession with NATO encirclement led to the Crimean stunt, which demolished Russia’s symbiotic relationship with Ukraine, perhaps forever.

Certainly, the Russian knack for stealing anything that’s not nailed down (and sometimes even that, too) should not be underestimated. But does it make sense to use anti-corruption measures as a pretext to strip Russian local governments of all development resources? Especially since officials steal with equal abandon at the federal center.

Such thinking explains Russia’s extremely tight fiscal and economic policies. Even now, on the eve of presidential elections, Mr. Putin is not proposing any large-scale reforms, while the government unabashedly admits that it lacks meaningful projects to develop the country.

The besieged fortress mentality also casts light on the Kremlin’s extraordinary effort to keep Ukraine within Russia’s sphere of influence. The policy is propped on the claim that NATO is creeping toward Russian borders, but no one has given a reasonable answer to this assertion: So, what? The obsession with NATO encirclement led to the Crimean stunt, which demolished Russia’s symbiotic relationship with Ukraine, perhaps forever.

Weaklings die

This mindset also explains the Syrian operation, whose only purpose was to show force (successfully, in this case). Back in 2004, after the tragic terrorist attack on Beslan, Mr. Putin explained Russia’s problem as “being soft” – and “the soft get beaten.” In 2015, commenting on the situation in Syria, he added: “Fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me one single rule: if a fight is inevitable, you have to strike first.” To this Russian, there is nothing scarier than to be perceived as soft: if you are, you will certainly be thrashed. The logic even applies to the doping scandal: how can Russia not win its own Olympic games? The obvious reply – so what? – was not even entertained.

Fear reigns not only among the elite, but across the Russian social spectrum. There are no illusions about the legitimacy of the existing political superstructure. According to one poll, which showed Mr. Putin’s personal ratings were off the charts, barely 11 percent of those surveyed fully identified with the current authorities as “our own.” Ten percent thought they represented the nation, and another 23 percent regarded the government as legitimate. Results like these, in and of themselves, are a serious source of insecurity to those in charge of the country. But on one point the authorities and the people come together: they are united by fear.

This fear occupies a special, overriding position for secret services personnel in the power elite, including Mr. Putin himself. Paranoia is a professional attribute in these people, nurtured because it is rather helpful in their jobs. In the land of the paranoid, however, the ruler is the most paranoid of all, as evidenced in another recent confession by Mr. Putin, that he has “always tried to act as if I were under constant surveillance.”

The sense of being defenseless against the future overpowers Russians. This feeling of helplessness is only partially alleviated by frantic attempts to anticipate threats and constant warnings from the Russian state. This dread is not just political, but existential as well. It can be seen in the catastrophically low level of key social indicators in Russia, such as social capital and trust (according to James Coleman, Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama), mass optimism and business activity. It is also revealed by widespread, multidirectional xenophobia – racial, ethnic, religious or sexual. Thus, many Russian people suspect that the West, having fallen into depravity, now plans to turn Russia into another Sodom (don’t ask why).

Speak gently to this patient

Russia resembles a patient tortured by long-term insomnia, who cannot forget or repress in the Freudian sense, making it impossible to treat any trauma. He may lapse into a wary immobility but is liable to react aggressively to any perceived provocation or pressure. Once roused, this person does not rise from his knees (as the official propaganda claims) but instead hunkers down. It is difficult to cure such patients, but it is a good idea to try to understand them. They need to be spoken to for as long as necessary. One thing you should never do with such patients is to further intimidate them. That could prove dangerous.

Eastern Christianity patriarch celebrates the baptism of Jesus according to the Julian calendar process disintegration
Moscow, Jan. 19, 2018: Patriarch Kirill of Moscow performs a religious service at the Epiphany Cathedral at Yelokhovo. © dpa

This bleak clinical picture is definitely a result of the deep value vacuum left by the collapse of communism, which was never filled by a meaningful alternative. “Liberal values” have long been discredited by their incompetent implementation during the early post-Soviet years. A spontaneous “post-material” shift (described by sociologist Ronald Inglehart as a transition from survival values to self-expression values) that helped create the protest wave of 2011-2012 was harshly aborted by the subsequent crackdown. Fear came back with a vengeance, joined by its inevitable companions, conformity and escapism.

In today’s Russia, only a few groups have been able to resist this atmosphere of discouragement, most of them consisting of young people. Their principal mascot is Alexey Navalny. Whether they can succeed in shaking off fear will soon be evident: since Mr. Navalny has been denied a chance to participate in presidential elections, he and his followers are left with a stark choice – give up or to rebel. Since the early 1990s, observers have frequently (and as we now know, mistakenly) heralded the appearance of “the first free generation” on the Russian scene. How many more generations must pass before this ambition becomes a reality is still unknown.

Possible salvation

Perhaps Russia should look for an exit from this dead end in the same place as some European intellectuals: Christian values. After all, the appeal “Do not be afraid!” is probably the main leitmotif of the New Testament, the central thought of the Gospels. Recall that these words, thrice repeated in the inauguration homily of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), had an enormous religious and psychological impact on millions of people, unleashing subsequent social and political changes in the Soviet bloc.

The difficulty is that today’s Russian Christian Orthodoxy is much more invested in a different concept – the fear of God. Usually stripped of all theological ambiguity and depth, this fear is treated literally and transferred from the divine to the earthly authorities and the whole insecure universe. Yet one day, with or without outside help, fear will be overcome simply because in no place on this globe does fear reign eternal.

Written in collaboration with Dr. Irina Kaspe

Related reports

Scroll to top