Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Wrong Kind of Exceptionalism

Rightly or wrong, one question historians of Russia perpetually ask is whether Russia was predestined to have a tyrannical government in the wake of absolutism—to wit, Stalinism and Communism in general—as a result of its unique historical development. This historical development, so the argument goes, was influenced by centuries of Mongol occupation and, consequently, unrestrained absolutism. And truly, nowhere else in Europe did monarchs reign with so much authority.

No political institution stood in the way of a Tsar’s decision. Prior to the Russian Revolution, and in stark contrast to England, France, Germany, and even Austria-Hungary, Russian society found itself without any real checks to the power of its autocrats. The Russian Orthodox Church had strong ties to the Czar, who appointed its official leaders and ensured that church officials throughout the Russian Empire supported his position in society and the ideology of autocracy.

Russia had no tradition of an independent press, and Tsarist officials censured oppositional propaganda or even suspect literature with little compunction. Likewise, the Tsarist regime had few rivals when it came to the reach and strength of both its internal security services and system of imprisonment and exile. Needless to say, Russia also lacked a national parliament of any kind, right up until the Revolution of 1905.

The argument of Russian exceptionalism was somewhat weakened by events in Germany, once considered a bastion of the Enlightenment. After the Holocaust, historians switched their focus away from Russia and toward Germany, to discover how and why brutality could flourish in 20th century Europe, the putative cradle of global civilization. Even so, historians retained suspicions of Russia, where serfdom had only been abandoned as late as the 1860s, which meant that at the time of the Revolution many adults had actually been serfs at one time in their lives. The argument seems Orientalist, to borrow a concept from Edward Said’s famous book, Orientalism, in that it seems to attribute all of the West’s biased and inaccurate assumptions of so-called Eastern despotism to its Eastern most member-state, Russia.

If the West was by nature civilized and free, Russia was by nature uncivilized and un-free, and so on. Moreover, many of the assumptions about Russia are rooted in the distant past and are thus far removed from any real examination of Russian society. Just as German racial policies under the NAZIS have more to do with scientific and instrumentalist and Enlightenment concepts gone horribly wrong, than with some primordial Hun instinct for savagery, so too is Stalinism more a product of modernity and the industrial revolution than they are a throwback to Ivan the Terrible or the Time of Troubles.

Yet books like Montefiore’s Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner forces us to at least consider the question of Russian exceptionalism. For although we know that Catherine the Great entertained various reform concepts, limited torture in her realm, and wrote directly to Voltaire and Diderot and Bentham, she was a despot only Russia could have produced. Although this isn’t Montefiore’s thesis, his readers will inevitably come across the construction of seemingly hundreds of palaces and estates, each more absurdly grand and extravagant than the next, some built and rebuilt according to the caprice of architectural fashions. One also sees that Catherine the Great gave huge estates, filled with thousands of enslaved serfs, to favorites on a regular basis throughout her long reign.

While Catherine fought war after war with the Ottoman Empire, she also possessed the power to invest in hundreds of enormous economic ventures, new cities, and major state building projects. The Court itself was extravagant and profligate beyond measure. We know from the poverty of Russia’s population that Catherine’s wealth was no true reflection of the economic power of her realm, but rather a reflection on Russian inequality and economic as well as political backwardness.

Potemkin’s own extraordinary economic and political power—a reflection on Catherine’s personal authority to do whatever she wished to do on whatever scale she proposed—shows how little restrained the autocracy was by ordinary considerations of scale, proportion, balance, realism, or popular opinion. Potemkin bought whatever he wished to buy and founded industries whenever he wished to do so. Whatever he admired in other countries, he imported—regardless of its cost or applicability to Russia.

Montefiore has a healthy admiration for Catherine and Potemkin’s genius, but the lasting impression of this book may be that the Russian system of autocracy—perhaps tempered by growing aristocratic influence—had dangerous implications for the future of Russia’s political maturation.

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