Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The see-saw version of history

My students have heard me say many times that comparative politics is not history; it's an analysis of what's going on now. Then they'll hear me explain the historic origins of some bit of political culture or practice. As I say in my review book, comparative politics is rife with ambiguity. Students must learn to tolerate and appreciate it.

Sergey Kuznetsov, a Russian author, tries to explain Russian politics in a historical framework. Historians, feel free to add your comments on his historiography. Nonetheless, Kuznetsov offers sort of testable hypotheses (if we're patient), and that makes his explanation more a social scientific commentary.

A Choice Between Boredom and Blood
I was born in Russia at the dawn of the Brezhnev era…

The world of my childhood was quiet and secure. There were no unemployed, beggars or homeless — or maybe I just never met them. There was no Coca-Cola or McDonald’s — but no one was starving, either. Of course, the TV and newspapers were filled with state propaganda, but we tuned it out, the way our children tune out annoying ads.

The world of my Soviet childhood didn’t look like a totalitarian dystopia or the threshold of a gulag. It was just boring…

Really, I hated it all. I sensed a big lie. I was sure that there was hidden terror under the surface of everyday life. There had to exist zones of violence and chaos — I knew this even before I heard about the prison camps and political repression.

And then Brezhnev died and the chaos I had always suspected rose to the surface. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the ’90s became a frightening decade of gangsters, corruption and poverty…

Shelling the Duma, 1993

My generation, which had been on its way to living the boring lives of state employees, was enchanted. An underground punk group sang, “We left our melancholy in the past to turn Moscow into Beirut!” and a young journalist, commenting on the bloody conflicts in October 1993 that followed Yeltsin’s attempt to dissolve the legislature, marveled, “I had never expected to see Russian tanks shoot at the Russian Parliament!” …

In the ’90s, we discovered that Russian history is cyclical. A phase of boring bureaucracy is replaced by a phase of chaos and violence. So Stalin came to power after the Russian Civil War, and Brezhnev’s boring ’70s replaced the dramatic ’60s…

By the end of the ’90s, many of us regretted the excitement we had once felt. Everyone was tired of anarchy. Even teenagers had come to appreciate family values and stability. This mood helped Vladimir V. Putin rocket to power in the Kremlin. He resurrected the Soviet culture of our childhoods, with old hymns and state propaganda on TV. Of course, political repression and persecution soon followed.

Brezhnev had been the head of the Soviet Union for 18 years. Mr. Putin has ruled Russia for nearly 15. It’s time to turn the wheel of Russian history once again. The anti-Putin rallies of 2011-12 were the first reminder of this; the Ukrainian Maidan revolution was the second. My guess is that Mr. Putin’s sincere fear of this cycle is one of the reasons for the current war…

Chaos at the margins can make a repressive system stronger. However, the system has to up the ante in order to maintain itself. This time, the zone of lawlessness is bigger than ever. Instead of risking his own Maidan revolution in Red Square, Mr. Putin has exported Russia’s Chechnya-style chaos to the southeast of Ukraine…

Now I see that the choice between boredom and chaos is only the tool that corrupt rulers use to save their regimes. I hope that Russia can escape from this deadly cycle in time to avoid new victims, inside and outside.

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