‘What’s the definition of the Soviet Union?’
‘Well, it’s where the workers pretend to work, and the bosses pretend to pay them.’
Of all the many jokes about the Soviet times that I heard during the three years that I lived in St Petersburg, this was probably my favourite. Why? Because that one short punch line tells you all you need to know about why so many Russians are so deeply cynical about rules, systems and institutions.
The Soviets had no shortage of institutions, of course. The command economy required an unprecedented level of micro-management which could only be carried out by a vast array of ministries, agencies and inspectorates. Monolithic state-owned enterprises received their production targets every year, state-owned outlets were told how to price those products, and citizens dutifully queued outside to purchase them.
But what the joke tells us above all is that the Soviet system had no legitimacy, primarily because it failed to deliver. If the Soviets had consistently improved the quality of life of the Russian people then they would have derived their legitimacy from their efficiency, as is broadly the case now in China. But they did not. They were incompetent, corrupt and callous, and survived for so long only because of the all-pervading force of the Cheka, the NKVD and the KGB. People played along with the system because they were coerced into doing so and because there was no alternative; but they did not support it, for the simple reason that it did not work.
All that could have changed in the early 1990s through a gradual transition to a properly regulated market economy underpinned by strong institutions, but instead the Russian people were once again let down by their leaders. They witnessed the spectacle of Boris Yeltsin turning their country into a laughing stock, and alongside him a cabal of oligarchs stripping the country of its assets and lining their own pockets, along with armies of western bankers and consultants preaching their destructive sermons of shock therapy.
It is impossible to overestimate the impact that the chaos of the Yeltsin years has had on the Russian psyche, and on the way in which they perceive the people and the institutions that were supposed to bring them the glittering prizes of democracy and the market. I worked in St Petersburg from 2005 to 2008 as the director of the British Council, and just about every Russian I spoke with, regardless of political persuasion, would describe the 1990s as a dark and dangerous period in their history. Little wonder, then, that president Vladimir Putin still enjoys approval ratings that are in a different league to his western counterparts – he brought stability where there was chaos, and he restored pride where there was humiliation.
Pride and paranoia
The poet Fyodor Tyutchev was right to say that ‘Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone’.
It is not difficult to see why Russia favours Putin’s brand of ‘strong man’ leadership over trusting those institutions that have been so ineffective and which have constantly let them down, especially when you experience the Russian psyche up close. During my time in St Petersburg I found myself in the eye of the diplomatic storm that had been brewing between Russia and the United Kingdom, and which escalated following the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. First-hand I saw the extent to which Russian politics is underpinned by emotion, instinct, psychology and history. Rational analysis and objective assessment of the facts are important, but almost always play second fiddle to more visceral impulses. Russia is a proud nation, and its people are deeply attached to the concept of ‘uvazhaniye’ – respect. The national psyche is rooted in a sense that no Russian should ever be treated as second-rate and anchored by the suspicion that mother Russia is constantly being disrespected and destabilised by malevolent external forces. This potent combination of pride and paranoia lies at the heart of every big political decision that has ever been made in Russia: it is the iron thread that connects the tsars to Joseph Stalin and Putin. Every Russian ruler, with the genius exception of Mikhail Gorbachev and the shambolic eccentricity of Yeltsin, has exploited it relentlessly.
The Russian psyche is also driven by encirclement anxiety. As inhabitants of a vast land mass with borders so long that they are almost impossible to defend, the Russian’s world-view is shaped by the conviction that those who seek to exploit and undermine ‘nasha Rodina’ – the ‘motherland’ – are constantly hovering on her doorstep. Their default position is therefore to strike first, subjugate their neighbours, and from this platform to build a sphere of influence. From the empire-building of Peter the Great, to the establishment and extension of the Soviet Union, to the Russians’ furious opposition to the expansion of Nato, through to Putin’s adventurism in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, the narrative of encirclement provides the backdrop to every chapter of Russia’s turbulent history.
By definition institutions exist in order to foster trust, consensus-building and positive-sum games, but they can only function effectively in a culture that is conducive to their purpose. But a toxic combination of cynicism, pride and paranoia has caused the Russian people to lose all faith in rules, systems and institutions. Consequently, they see compromise as weakness, and this leads them to operate on the assumption that more or less every transaction will be a zero-sum game.
Putin is the personification of this winner-takes-all approach. Institutions, norms and the rule of law will always play second fiddle to the purity of his authoritarian power. The only institution that have been strengthened on his watch are agents of coercion and control – the FSB and the other security services have grown exponentially on his watch – while mainstream government ministries, regional administrations, the media and civil society have been progressively weakened, undermined and gagged.
What does this mean for the west?
The implications of all this for the west are twofold. First, our approach to Russia must be informed by an in-depth understanding of the Russian psyche and how it shapes their foreign policy. This means engaging Russia as it is, not as we would like it to be. We must acknowledge that we can keep shouting at the Kremlin about democracy, pluralism, multilateralism and ‘good’ international behaviour, but the fact is that the inhabitants of that iconic Moscow fortress will simply ignore us unless we demonstrate that we comprehend and respect the narrative of cynicism, pride, paranoia and pure power projection that defines their political culture and worldview.
One way the west could build trust is by not deliberately poking the Russian bear unnecessarily, and showing we are willing to cooperate. Was it really the right thing to do to encourage Montenegro to join Nato? There was no discernible military or strategic benefit for the west, and the further expansion of Nato into Russia’s sphere of influence served only to provoke Moscow.
But understanding the underlying causes of Russia’s actions does not mean accepting or excusing them. Every time they break international rules or treaties, or engineer state-sponsored assassinations, or prop up barbaric dictators, they must be made to pay a price. In short, we must never be afraid to show that characteristic that the Russians respect more than any other: strength. We were right to expel Russian diplomats after the Salisbury poisoning, having been weak after Litvinenko. We were right to bring in the Sergei Magnitsky amendment earlier this year, but we now need to use it to freeze the assets of all those who seek to abuse human rights with impunity.
Former Stronger In executive director Will Straw sums up the situation succinctly in his chapter of my new book, Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour: ‘We need to work with Russia on the Middle East, cybercrime, terrorism, and climate change among many other issues. But while we should always engage, we must not be fooled.’
And second, we have to recognise the influence that Putinist Russia is building within our own political systems. The likes of Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and increasingly influential elements of the hard left across Europe admire Putin’s Russia precisely because of the contempt in which institutions are held there. Strong institutions create political systems and cultures that are based on compromise, moderation and consensus-building, all of which are qualities that nationalists and populists detest.
Weak institutions enable the rise of extremism, tribalism and authoritarianism. It is therefore more important than ever that we defend and protect them. Parliament, the civil service, the judiciary and the international rules-based order are in the crosshairs, and are more vulnerable than ever to the influence and world views of those who seek to destroy our institutions and divide our societies.
For too long we have allowed ourselves to lower our defences, complacent in the view that history could move in only one direction: towards liberal democracy.
It is time for us to get our defences back up, and it is time for us to speak out against the populists on left and right who seek to undermine our institutions and to portray compromise and moderation as weakness.