The Russian veto of the UN Security Council resolution on Syria has had leaders and pundits in the West lining up to denounce the Russians, accusing them of revealing their autocratic tendencies and putting their own narrow trading interests (for instance arms exports) over issues of human rights. A 100-year old document I found last week in the State Archive of the Russian Federation had me contemplating an alternative explanation, based on Russians’ experience of revolutionary upheaval. Historical parallels can, of course, be highly misleading, but people draw on them nonetheless, as the past represents the only practical experience available to them.
The document in question is the hand-written memoir of General Georgii Ottonovich Raukh, a senior officer in the Petersburg Military District during the first Russian revolution of 1905-07. One evening in 1906, he met with his boss, Grand Duke Nicholas, the Prime Minister, Ivan Goremykin, and the Interior Minister, Pyotr Stolypin, to extract an explanation from the latter two of why they had chosen to dissolve the new Russian parliament, the Duma.
Stolypin is supposedly one of the political heroes of Vladimir Putin. His dual strategy of forcibly suppressing revolution and strengthening the state, on the one hand, and of enacting reforms to entrench property rights and other essential facets of a modern liberal system, on the other, held out the hope of a Russia that could evolve gradually into a strong and stable nation. In 1906, he faced the problem of a parliament whose liberal democratically-oriented majority was refusing to cooperate with the Imperially-appointed government.
Asked to explain the decision to dissolve the Parliament, his explanation, according to Raukh, went something like this: given the impasse between Duma and government, either the former had to be dissolved or the Tsar would have to replace the latter with a cabinet responsible to the Duma, in effect ending the autocracy and creating a parliamentary system. If he were to choose the second option, Stolypin said, the new government would enact its election manifesto, shifting the entire country dramatically to the left. The police would notice this, and shift leftwards also. It would become harder and harder to control revolutionary movements. The liberal democrats would soon find that they had lost authority to groups further to the left. Anarchy would ensue. This, wrote Raukh, showed Stolypin’s foresight: for what he outlined was not too far from what happened in 1917, with the final result that Russia fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks. Only a firm hand saved Russia from a similar fate in 1905.
The point here is not whether Stolypin was right, but that his viewpoint makes sense in a Russian context, both then and now. It suggests that history has given Russians some good reasons to have a rather more positive view of the benefits of order than we do in the West, and to have a rather more sceptical view of the advantages of democratization in times of instability. Accusing Russians of base moral motivations probably says more about our sense of moral superiority and blindness to alternative viewpoints than it does about the real causes of their behaviour.