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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Economics Battle Morality

While studying in St. Petersburg, I witnessed a good portion of the research that Tim McDaniel, a professor of sociology at the University of California -- and for two years the director of the UC education abroad program which I was part of -- did for this book. I well remember the unending stacks of newspapers and piles of notecards. So it was with particular anticipation that I began to read the fruit of McDaniel's study, The Agony of the Russian Idea.

The book does not disappoint. While there is an occasionally jarring eagerness of tone that is, perhaps, the result of overcompensating in his effort to make the book accessible to the general reader, this flaw is a slight one. The tone is quite academic with chapter headings like "The Dilemmas of Tsarist Modernization" and frequent citations of historical and philosophical works as well as newspaper articles and television broadcasts. Still, on the whole, McDaniel's fluid style makes the book highly readable and he avoids getting bogged down in obscurantism.

At the heart of "The Agony of the Russian Idea" lies an indictment of the first five years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency. "Despite some achievements the Yeltsin regime has not been able to meet its historical responsibilities. It has misunderstood its task in the larger context of Russian history, and for this, at least, it will be judged harshly."

McDaniel goes on to show how the reforms of Yeltsin's rule are flawed by the same patterns of thought and action that have plagued Russian history since the time of Peter the Great. These patterns result from the conflict between the demands of modernization and something McDaniel identifies as "the Russian idea." While the Russian idea has had numerous incarnations, and McDaniel lists many of them, for the purposes of the book it is defined as a "conviction that Russia has its own independent, self-sufficient, and eminently worthy cultural and historical tradition that both sets it apart from the West and guarantees its future flourishing."

McDaniel shows how proponents of the Russian idea distinguish it from nationalist ideologies the world over by trumpeting its unique combination of social values. First, it is marked by the primacy of ultimate values over the intermediate compromise. "As individuals, it is claimed, Russians have more need of a set of ultimate values to orient their lives. The routines of daily life are not enough to satisfy their larger spiritual cravings."

Also fundamental to the Russian idea is the importance of a higher sense of community. McDaniel illustrates that historically Russians have always viewed themselves as existing in opposition to other, alien societies whose social principles they have often failed to grasp fully.

A belief in the equality of outcomes -- as opposed to opportunity -- is also essential to the Russian idea. "Material conditions should not vary too greatly among individuals and classes. Such a commitment to equality of conditions can be found, in different forms, in the egalitarian reflexes of the peasant village as well as in the ideological reflections of the intelligentsia and the leveling policies of the state." Finally, McDaniel argues, the Russian idea leads to a distinctive conception of the role of the state in society. It is manifested in a state that is paternalistic and autocratic. The Russian people are interested not in politics, but in truth, say proponents of the Russian idea. Democracy has no power to inspire people; it is petty and mean-spirited. "Let an authentically Russian government rule in accord with truth so that the population can live according to pure spiritual values. This was the political message of the Slavophiles, and it has echoed throughout Russian political culture, embracing advocates of both monarchism and Communism."

It is precisely this view of Russian history as a continuum of thought (as opposed to a series of disjointed events without an overarching pattern) for which McDaniel is aiming. For him, the fall of Nicholas II and the demise of the Soviet Union both resulted from the same essential cause: the attempt of an autocratic state to reconcile that which could never be reconciled, i.e. the Russian idea and rapid modernization. Modernization contains within it principles that are directly contradictory to those of the Russian idea, and this is the source of the agony.

A modern society depends on the rule of law and the everyday acceptance of abstract relations between people. The Russian idea, however, states that truth is higher than law and divides the world into small communities of "ours" that fight with passion against the outside mass of "not-ours." This same sort of binary thinking that defines the peasant commune, McDaniel argues, marked the political decisions of Yeltsin and his band of reformers in their first years in office. All that was from the past had to be thrown away and replaced. Indeed, how shockingly similar to Nikolai Bukharin's call for "the systematic preparation of new men, the builders of socialism," is Yeltsin's assertion that hope for the country rests in a new type of man that has appeared, with a completely new psychology, one who does not rely on others for help.

For McDaniel, the real crime of Yeltsin's first years was the state's abdication of responsibility to the people. Yeltsin, he says, made the same sort of claim to autocratic rule as did past leaders of Russia, even appealing to similar cultural traditions as had his predecessors, but other people in the government made it painfully clear that the government was renouncing a responsibility to protect people. We are building capitalism and democracy, they said; it is time to take care of yourself. The government as repository of skilled knowledge (akin to the surgeon) can conduct the painful operation, but the patient must heal himself. Calling this form of government, which is unique in Russian history, "a surgical dictatorship," McDaniel takes the Yeltsin administration to task for its blind reliance on technical -- economic -- rather than "moral and political" means for obtaining reform, and for its "full-scale rejection of national experience and culture."

The only thing that one can say in Yeltsin's defense, as "The Agony of the Russian Idea" ably shows, is that he is not the first of Russia's rulers to fundamentally misunderstand the lessons of history.

"The Agony of the Russian Idea," by Tim McDaniel, Princeton University Press, 201 pages, $24.95.