Campus & Community

Speaker says Russia embraces its past

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Dewhirst sees ‘Neo-Soviet’ nostalgia for good, old anti-democratic days

For the oil-rich Russian Federation, the future will look a lot like its Soviet past: autocratic, politically repressed, and rapacious for empire.

That’s the view of Martin Dewhirst, an Oxford-trained Russia scholar who during the Cold War mixed lecturing at the University of Glasgow with translation work for Radio Liberty in Munich.

Martin Dewhirst, honorary research fellow, Glasgow University, will present the second of his two Sakharov Seminars, ‘OSCE Election Observation in the FSU: Is It Worth It?’ at 4:15 p.m. today (Nov. 16) in Room S050, on the third floor of the Davis Center, 1730 Cambridge St. The Sakharov Seminars are sponsored by Harvard’s Sakharov Program on Human Rights.

He delivered a Sakharov lecture this week (Nov. 13) at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, and will deliver another today (Nov. 16).

“To call it post-Soviet Russia is a little bit premature,” said Dewhirst of a country he says is characterized by eroding democracy and endemic corruption. “Neo-Soviet Russia might be a more appropriate term.”

Before it dissolved in 1991, a key feature of the USSR was a concentration of power at the top, he said. “This is exactly what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has been trying to do since 1999.”

This re-emerging verticality of power is just fine with many Russians, who by a margin of 70 percent consider Putin “indispensable,” said Dewhirst.

A recent poll showed that one-third of Russians would not object to a return to the Soviet past, he said. And about the same percentage agreed that Russia needs only one political party.

Oil and natural gas riches are not improving the chances of democracy in Russia – only concentrating power in the hands of a small circle of vulgar and unscrupulous strongmen, said Dewhirst. “Just as the economic situation is improving in general, the political situation is tightening up further.”

The heart of the lecture was about the power of a compound adjective. “Post-Soviet” does not convey the right perception to either scholars or to a reading public outside Russia, said Dewhirst, who prefers the retrograde power of the term “neo-Soviet.”

Russia is embracing again its aggressive and anti-democratic Soviet past, and is no longer in transition to becoming a pluralistic, democratic society, he said. In the coming decade, Russia will likely expand its borders and increasingly exercise a kind of economic hegemony in both Europe and Asia.

Despite a re-empowered Russia on the horizon, the number of students studying Russia is in decline, along with Russia experts in Western governments, and Russia scholars, said Dewhirst.

The feeling is that present-day Russia “is not sexy, is not dangerous, [and] is becoming less interesting,” he said. “So why study it?”

But Dewhirst said that recently liberated societies may soon rebound to their old ways. For examples, he offered Afghanistan, which is now confronted with a reinvigorated Taliban, and an Iraq that no longer represents a safe and democratic “greater Middle East,” he said. It is free of Saddam Hussein, but not of its tribal past.

Russia turning away from democratic reforms and an open society is “one of the greatest tragedies of modern history,” said Dewhirst.

With apologies to his audience, he said he was glad Andrei Sakharov died in 1989. The nuclear physicist who personified anti-Soviet dissent, said Dewhirst, “would have died of a broken heart in the 1990s.”

Fifteen years ago, he said, many Russians came to resent democracy for the poverty and disorder it brought. Nostalgia even for the gloomy Brezhnev era is high, said Dewhirst. “Russian society today is still very Soviet.”

The breakup of the Soviet Union still motivates Putin, a former KGB agent. He really does believe “it was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” said Dewhirst.

But that “catastrophe” had little to do with organized dissent within the Soviet Union, which between 1968 and 1990 built to a crescendo that was heard – and admired – in the West.

“It did not make the slightest difference at the level of regime change,” said Dewhirst, who in those same years translated and annotated thousands of samizdat (self-published, government-suppressed) documents from dissidents within the post-Stalin USSR.

Dewhirst’s dark view of a neo-Soviet Russia drew sharp dissent from the audience. Some thought that Russia was certainly more free than the USSR of old, and is more free still than many Muslim countries.

“If it’s a neo-Soviet regime, there is no hope,” said Marina Khazanov, who teaches Russian in the Department of Modern Languages at Boston University. “And there is hope.”

She pointed to “completely free” newspapers still publishing, and to Russian movies and literature free of Soviet-style repression.

The newspapers are fewer and weaker, and the literature is unimpressive, said Dewhirst, a onetime judge for what is now called the Booker-Open Russia Literary Prize.

“Neo-Soviet” better describes Russia today “for purely utilitarian reasons, because I am a scholar,” said Dewhirst. It’s more accurate than “post-Soviet,” he said.

“I wouldn’t want to overexaggerate the Russian-ness of this,” he said, pointing out that other countries crave strongman leaders, have “misshapen” democracies, and embrace an amoral form of capitalism. “Russians are like everyone else, only more so.”

As for hope, said Dewhirst, who fell in love with Russian culture 50 years ago, after reading Chekhov and Dostoyevsky: “I sometimes want to give up, but I can’t.”