Apr 29, 2007

Book Review: Russia: Experiment with a People

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Russia: Experiment with a People by Robert ServiceService, Robert

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003, 406 pages


Service is a Professor of Russian history at the University of Oxford, and he was one of the first Western academics to access state archives after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia: Experiment with a People examines the first decade in post-Soviet Russia, and the author attempted to present a balanced view of the successes and failures experienced by Russian leaders in the transition away from Soviet-style communism. The result is one of the most comprehensive surveys of post-Soviet Russia, a book that combines political, social, economic, and intellectual history with the author’s personal experiences as a Westerner traveling in the Russian landscape.

Service described a number of legacies from the Soviet era that continue to influence life in post-Communist Russia. In examining the failure of Boris Yeltsin’s government to prosecute Soviet officials (unlike post-Communist governments in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria), the author argued that there were “far too many people who had committed abuses” and that “the courts would have been overwhelmed” had such a judicial campaign been carried out. This created new opportunities for the nomenklaturschiki in the Yeltsin government and – more importantly – in the newly-created enterprises operated by the oligarchs. This new elite, argued Service, in many ways mirrored the Party elite who enjoyed a higher quality of life in the Soviet era. The author noted another Soviet legacy - that of the importance of individual leaders at each level of power – which continues in post-Soviet Russia, and he argued that clientelism promotes the continuation of a “culture of leadership” in which an “energetic, cunning leader” surrounds himself with supporters.

The newly independent Russia, argued Service, came into being “by anti-constitutional methods,” noting that the deal reached between Yeltsin and the presidents of Belarus and Ukraine violated the 1977 and 1990 Laws of Secession for the constituent Soviet republics. This created a paradox, as Yeltsin’s claims that these moves were necessary to overthrow a despotic state were, themselves, illegal, and thus the “regime of independent Russia was born in a communist wedlock.” Yeltsin’s extra-legal actions continued in September 1993, noted Service, with his decree suspending the Supreme Soviet and ordering the formation of a new parliament and constitution. Moreover, argued the author, by ordering tanks and artillery to shell the deputies in the White House in October 1993, Yeltsin used “brute force” in order to achieve a political victory, in essence destroying the old Constitution through military means. Service argued that the creation of the post-Soviet Russia “was induced by anti-constitutionality, violence, and corruption.”

Russian White House in MoscowLeft: the Russian White House in Moscow

Service displayed a pronounced sympathy toward the Russian leaders in their struggles with the Chechens, especially in the run-up to the First Chechen War. The author described the regime of Dzhokhar Dudayev as “a disgrace to minimal standards of political decency,” and argued that gun-running, rug-smuggling, and kidnapping for ransom were “local specialties,” as if Chechens somehow monopolized illegal activities of this sort. The author claimed that the Chechens were receiving financing from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and that Islamic volunteers arrived in Chechnya “to strengthen the military campaign against Russia and to spread the revolt across the other republics in the region.” In this respect Service appears all too willing to swallow whole the propaganda generated by war hawks such as Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, and the author’s description of the devastation wrought on the Chechen countryside was limited to a few sentences.

Former Russian Defense Minister Pavel GrachevLeft: Former Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev

The author developed a profile of Russian President Vladimir Putin different from the trigger-happy, security-obsessed Chechen subjugator of Anna Politkovskaya’s A Small Corner of Hell or the authoritarian, power-consolidating pragmatist found in Lilia Shevtsova’s Putin’s Russia. Service depicted Putin as a leader cognizant of international opportunities with the energy to use them for the benefit of Russia, as witnessed in his early support for the U.S.-led War on Terror after the September 11 attacks; the author praised Putin for his handling of the events as “an opportunity to justify Russian official behaviour and [to] enhance Russia’s status and influence.” Putin, argued Service, differed from Yeltsin in many respects, but his willingness to publicly recognize the successes of the Soviet era helped to “restore a linkage with the USSR.” Moreover – unlike Yeltsin - Putin understood the nostalgia that many Russian citizens still felt for the Soviet era, and Service praised his ability to integrate Soviet symbols and iconography into the official face of the new Russia.

There have been profound changes in Russian life since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, changes that affected every sphere of human interaction. Service maintained that the area that most differentiates life in the Soviet era from the post-communist years is what he described as the “scope of privacy.” The “popular fear of politicians and policemen,” argued Service, has significantly declined in the post-Soviet era. Religious and spiritual beliefs – anathema during the communist decades – are openly practiced without fear of official harassment. Even witchcraft and folk beliefs are tolerated in the new Russia, and Service wryly commented that “witchcraft is one of the few areas of economic growth in Russia since the fall of communism.” Behaviors formerly attacked as bourgeois selfishness, such as pet ownership and hobbies, now have millions of participants. There has also been the growth of a weight-loss industry in Russia, a cultural phenomenon that Service noted “seemed inconceivable” in the Soviet era. While malnutrition continues to plague many Russians, the rise of a weight-loss industry in post-Soviet Russia certainly reflects the fact that significant segments of the Russian population have a problem with consuming too much – rather than not enough – food.

Russian ad for a weight-loss program entitled 'Shaping Diet'Left: Russian ad for a weight-loss program entitled "Shaping Diet"

Service used a wide variety of sources in the preparation of this impressive text, drawing from traditional printed mateirals – such as books, periodicals, and archival documents – as well as such electronic sources as television programs, films, and websites. The footnoted text also includes a lengthy bibliography on post-Soviet Russia and a full-color collection of photographs, portraits, and advertisements related to the book topics. Russia: Experiment with a People can serve as an excellent introduction to non-specialists, and Service’s insights and analyses also make this text valuable to Russian scholars.

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