Right and Wrong in Russia

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The editors of Vestnik Analytiki (The Analyst’s Bulletin), a policy research magazine published in Russia, asked Hoover fellow David Satter to write an article on a theme of his choice. Satter posed and answered three questions that focus on ethics and morality in postcommunist Russia.


As Russia seeks a new spiritual direction, its most serious problem appears to be not the absence of ideology but the lack of a reliable sense of ethical transcendence. This sense presupposes the existence of a moral standard that stands above society and applies equally to all individuals and all human institutions. It balances the weight of the state and society and provides the moral basis for personal autonomy.

In most Western societies, the sense of ethical transcendence is reinforced by the normal operation of a state based on law. The equality of citizens before the law is justified in the West by the presumed spiritual equality of each individual before God. In Russia, however, the sense of ethical transcendence is compromised by the fact that the individual and the state are not held to the same standards. The individual lacks autonomy, while the state often functions as a substitute for God.

The hypertrophied role of the state in Russia is nothing new. In tsarist Russia, the Slavophiles saw the state’s mission in terms of religion; the Westernizers, in terms of socialism. But both believed that it was the mission of the state to save humanity on the basis of a totalitarian ideology that combined “philosophy with life” and “theory with practice.” The victory of communism eliminated all opposition to the notion of the state’s superiority, and, after the fall of communism, no transcendent values capable of limiting the state’s prerogatives ever took root. The result is that Russia today lacks a spiritual framework capable of limiting both individuals and the state. This deprives both of a reliable sense of right and wrong.

Russian foreign policy reflects the ethical void in its disrespect for the independence of other states, particularly those that are weak. Perhaps the best recent example is the Orange Revolution three years ago in Ukraine, where the key issue was the right of the Ukrainians to elect leaders in fair elections without fraud or intimidation. By congratulating Viktor Yanukovich on a victory in an election that he had not won, Russian President Vladimir Putin demonstrated his indifference to Ukrainians’ democratic choice. Russia showed the same lack of respect for Ukraine’s independence in a crisis over natural gas pipelines in January 2007. Russia and Ukraine share the energy infrastructure built by the former Soviet Union, and Russia needs Ukrainian pipelines no less than Ukraine needs Russian gas. By abruptly canceling a gas delivery arrangement and demanding an almost fivefold increase in price, Russia was not following the logic of the market but, on the contrary, using the forced cooperation of the two countries to interfere with Ukraine’s internal politics.

Can post-Soviet Russia hope to re-establish itself as a great power on the basis of a mentality that derives from totalitarianism? I think it cannot.

The lack of a sense of ethical transcendence is evident in other ways. Lawlessness is endemic. Small and medium-sized businesses are forced to pay protection money to criminal gangs or to the organs of law enforcement. This pattern is so ingrained that many Russians treat extortion as entirely normal. In a system where society cannot control the bureaucracy, officials are unrestrained and bribery is rampant. According to two monitoring services, the amount of bribes in Russia rose steeply between 2001 and 2005, from $36 billion to $319 billion.

Finally, the lack of higher values appears in a disregard for human life. This was nowhere more obvious than in the Beslan school tragedy in 2004. Russian authorities decided to open fire on the school, where 1,200 children and teachers were being held hostage by Chechen terrorists, even though an agreement had been reached an hour earlier with Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov to come to Beslan to try to resolve the crisis. Clearly, the Russian authorities gave higher priority to their political objectives than to the hostages’ lives. This was also demonstrated by the fact—long denied—that Russian forces attacked the school with flamethrowers.


In the Soviet era, the domination of the state over the individual appears to have offered strategic and military advantages even as it impoverished the country and degraded the population. But the Soviet Union has been dismantled. Can the post-Soviet Russian regime, which operates in a semidemocratic environment, hope to re-establish itself as a great power on the basis of a mentality that derives from totalitarianism? I think that it cannot.

First, Russia’s newfound liberties limit the regime’s freedom of action. Elections are manipulated, but they do exist, and opposition is possible. The press, although controlled, is able to criticize and reveal inconvenient information about those in power. Political control of the population, and the full strategic advantages that come with it, is therefore no longer available to the regime.

At the same time, any attempt to limit existing freedoms elicits the opposition of the West, complicating Russia’s efforts to solidify economic and political relations. Russians sometimes assume that Western protests over human rights abuses are part of a plan to subjugate Russia. The impetus for those protests, however, comes not from Western governments but from Western society, which reacts to abuses whether governments desire this or not. These protests cannot be easily disregarded. The controversy over Russia’s assuming the chairmanship of the G-8 industrial nations and, indeed, its membership in the G-8 at all is a case in point.

Finally, Russia’s lack of a sense of ethical transcendence and the excessive dominance of the individual by the state dooms it, in the long run, to demodernization. Authoritarian modernization has had limited success in Latin America and South Asia, where it has eased the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy, but Russia, which is already industrialized, needs to build a postindustrial economy. The more the regime insists on dominating society, the more it isolates itself from those whose participation in such an economic transformation it desperately needs. Clinging to the Soviet totalitarian model and ignoring society’s need for an ethical framework and the rule of law will bring stagnation and economic degradation.


Russia is part of Judeo-Christian civilization, and its future is with the West. To take its place with the West, however, Russia must recognize the authority of ethical transcendence. Establishing universal values means, first of all, ending the imbalance between the status of the individual and the prerogatives of the state. This will not be easy, but nothing else can rescue Russia from a future of authoritarianism and stagnation.

Ending the Russian authoritarian tradition would take a major intellectual effort. As a result, it depends on the intelligentsia, some of whom prefer nationalist delusions to thinking seriously about Russia’s future. They would do well, however, to remember the German intellectuals who insisted that Germany had been defeated in the First World War only because it was betrayed (the supposed “stab in the back”) and so contributed to their country’s destruction by helping bring the Nazis to power.

It is now argued in Russia that the country’s history should be understood primarily as the story of the Russian state. According to this interpretation, the communist era was just one episode in the evolution of the state structures that were responsible for many past glories. They recall the Soviet period with nostalgia, as the time when Russia was at the height of its world power. Putin even referred recently to the fall of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.”

To establish the authority of higher values in Russia, however, it is necessary to recognize that the state tradition is the source of Russia’s tragedies. It matters little that the Soviet Union established a worldwide empire or that it built a military machine powerful enough to crush fascism, which its own existence helped to inspire. What matters is that it imposed a materialist concept of man that was soul-destroying and needs to be discredited before a new, more human existence can begin.

Russia lacks a spiritual framework capable of limiting both individuals and the state. This deprives both of a reliable sense of right and wrong.

It could be argued that breaking with the Russian state tradition means rejecting Russia’s past. This is true, to a degree. But it does not necessarily mean a loss of identity. Rejecting the past never implies a loss of identity if it is done consciously and in light of ultimate values. At the same time, the state tradition, although dominant, was not the only salient feature of Russian history. A long line of Russians have fought for democracy, from the Decembrists to the Soviet dissidents, and all of them played a role in bringing about that degree of freedom that exists in Russia today. Sharp breaks with tradition are also not unheard of in modern history, and they often invoke alternative tendencies in a nation’s own history.

Russia needs a moral framework for its long-term existence. The life of the nation, however, cannot be based on transcendent moral values if the tendency of its institutions is to crush the individual. Carl Jung said ethical transcendence is the “reciprocal relationship between man and an extramundane authority that acts as a counterpoise to the ‘world’ and its ‘reason.’” This relationship locates the true source of moral judgment not in sacred texts or the “special role” of a race or class but in the individual’s sense of right and wrong.

Russia needs to build a new tradition. The Russian earth is no longer giving forth an unlimited number of individuals to be exploited by the apparatus of the state. It is now necessary for Russia to value the people that it has. Change is likely to be agonizingly difficult, but it is well within the capacity of a nation that tried to create heaven on earth. And it is the only hope for a better future.

This essay appeared in the September 2007 issue of Vestnik Analytiki (The Analyst’s Bulletin), a quarterly publication of the Institute of Strategic Studies and Analysis.

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