Arkady Ostrovsky. Photo: Screengrab from VoA interview
Voice of America’s Ani Chkhikvadze sat down with Arkady Ostrovsky, British journalist and an Eurasia Editor at the Economist, to discuss challenges post-Soviet states face today and ways to overcome the Communist past.
Thank you very much for your time. In your book – the Invention of Russia – you talk about the years since the fall of the Soviet Union up to Putin’s Russia. You have traveled between London and the former Soviet Union and you have probably seen it yourself, and polls also suggest that many people in the former Soviet Union states still have sentiments over the breakdown of the Union. In Georgia, according to one of the latest polls, 42 percent see the fallout of the USSR as bad for the country, what do you think can explain these attitudes?
Because people associate the Soviet Union with a sense of importance and for a small country like Georgia, this is particularly important. Georgia was a supplier, not just of fruit and wine, it was also a supplier of culture to the whole empire, and in that sense, Georgia’s importance within the Soviet Union was actually enormous. Moscow and Moscow audiences, theater audiences, film audiences were amplifying the importance of what genuinely was great art, but Moscow was the resonator. Georgian art scene and Georgian intellectual scene was part of the big empire and of course for a lot of Georgian intelligentsia (which always was very strong) that lost status was very important.
I think the second reason is, for Georgia again in particular, we say the Soviet Union collapsed peacefully, but it has not in Georgia. Georgia was one of the countries where the civil war was most severe, it lasted several years with Russia’s involvement. For Georgia, the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a civil war, which took lives and territory. So of course, people see this in some ways as a tragic event, which it was for Georgia.
And the third reason, I think is that the difficulties of transition could not be foreseen when the Soviet Union fell apart. In a way, Georgian history and post-soviet history can be divided into periods before and after the Rose Revolution. It is a country of consciousness and identity, while being a very old, ancient state, but as a modern country, Georgia is only fourteen years old, and that is nothing.
Hundred years have passed since the October Revolution, do you think Georgians have overcome communism or are we still haunted by the Soviet Legacy?
Of course, we are impacted by the Soviet legacy enormously, by the structure of the Soviet economy, by what happened in people’s minds. The Soviet legacy has not been fully appreciated and it goes much deeper than ideology: it is paternalism, it is client-patron relationships, it is fear.
We have done two things wrong in the post-soviet period, one was just to throw away the Soviet legacy, saying “we reject it, this is it,” instead of actually studying it. Because it was important to study to understand how the mechanisms work and then to get over it. It was ideologically rejected without being fully examined and of course this cancer in a way, keeps coming back. There is definitely a legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution in the former Soviet Union and there is also a legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution in the world, because the Bolsheviks were ultimately millenarian sect – as a brilliant book (The House of Government) by Yuri Slezkine, an American historian at Stanford, explains the legacy of the communist sectarianism and religion – it was a religious sect.
And do we see any efforts in today’s Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union to whitewash the history or reconstruct it, and to change the narratives around the Soviet past?
Yes, as says the old Soviet joke: “the past is the most unpredictable and we are certain about the future.” Of course, manipulation of history is one of the main resources of authoritarian regimes. I am worried about not citing it correctly, but there is a famous George Orwell quote, that goes “he who controls the future, controls the past, who controls the past, controls the present.” Russia rewrites history all the time. The Bolshevik revolution is one event, which is not being marked officially in Moscow, because it actually stands in the way and it is kind of inconvenient, because first, the idea of revolution is an anathema to a regime, which is all about restoration, and second, Vladimir Putin has built this narrative that it is all a continuum of one empire, it was called the Russian Empire, then it was the Soviet Empire, now it is the Russian Empire again. So, any sort of breaks in the continuum are very inconvenient and would rather get rid of them. It is not reconciliation, because reconciliation demands acknowledgement of the dramatic break, it is saying that there was no break, we are all one. It is not reconciliation, it is manipulation of history.
In today’s Russia, in Putin’s Russia, do we see any parallels with the past, the Soviet legacy, or not?
There are elements of the Soviet legacy and Soviet symbolism. As I said, the way system operates some of the mechanisms are still the same. There is a reconstruction, there is some talk about and I will probably agree with that, with sort of Velvet Stalinism or Stalinism Light. I do not like tags, I do not like brands, but the one thing which in my mind resonates today is the issue that Russia faces exactly the same challenges or many of the same challenges that it faced in 1917, which is the growth of its middle class and civil society and the backwardness of the political system and the question of succession, which now in Russia becomes the central point of politics.
You mentioned that the reforms are the most important part of how to obliterate the Soviet legacy. In Ukraine’s case, we see that Kyiv, after Maidan, is following the decommunization process, or at least the Verkhovna Rada has passed the legislation (that antagonized many people). In Georgia’s case, after the Revolution, it was less about symbolical framework and more about practical reforms. What is the best way, how can you lead the process of decommunization?
Well, disposing of statues is an easy bit, renaming streets is an easy bit as well. Dismantling the system: economic system and political system or communism, whatever you want to call it, is difficult. You could call it anything, but you have to understand the mechanisms of the system. The mechanisms of the system is what political scientists and economists describe as a system of patron-client relationship. A system where there is no open access to either economic resources or to political resources that everything is done by privilege to the elite and there is no political or economic competition. You can dismantle the monuments, but that is not enough. Even having a revolution – be it the Rose Revolution or the Orange Revolution or the Maidan, the Revolution of Dignity – is not enough, because as we see exactly in Ukraine, the mechanism keeps reproducing itself under any regime. It is much deeper and studying how the mechanism works is absolutely essential, because it is not grounded just in ideology, it is a system of managing, it is a system of rent-seeking, it is a system where the elites control the rents and distribute them to the rest of the population. It is a very, very complex system, in fact the majority of countries are like that. Douglass North, a Noble Prize winner economist, described it as a natural state. There is nothing unnatural about it. In fact the state of democracy and free market is unnatural, and is a different level of development. We do not fully understand when and how this happens: dismantling that natural state, or opening access. It is a much more complex task than knocking down Lenin.
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