vrijdag, juli 10, 2015

Thaw needed in Russia and in the West

Personal and political ‘resurrection(s)’ in Russia? was the daring title that Swiss-American political scientist Catherine Guisan gave to her lecture on Russia on 2nd of June in the IofC centre in The Hague. Over 40 international guests came together to listen and have a conversation on their experiences in Russia.

Resurrection as a means to understand the present

Catherine Guisan, who is assistant visiting professor at the Political Science Department at the University of Minnesota, realizes how daring it is to use the word ‘resurrection’ in the study of any country and especially Russia with its history of autocracy and totalitarianism.

‘But tonight’, she said, ‘I want to ask you to look at Russia and its people in a long term perspective. Little of lasting value is achieved both in personal and political life without a sense of history. And so I would like to invite you to do something difficult with me, that is to put in parentheses, if you can, for the next 40 minutes, the current crisis over the fate of Ukraine and its people, and Crimea, and to think long term with me.’

In 2013 Guisan taught at European University in Saint Petersburg on a Fulbright fellowship. Recently, she returned to Russia on an invitation to give lectures in universities of Saint Petersburg and Moscow. A short slideshow of pictures of that visit, accompanied by music from Russian composers, helped the audience to live into the history and culture of this great country.

Guisan gained knowledge and insights on Russia, which she wanted to share and thus open space to start the conversation. More specifically, her talk focused on the forty years long efforts by Soviet citizens to face up to and recover from Stalinist totalitarianism, and on contemporary Russians who are working hard to transform their country towards more respect for human rights and active citizenship against a background of growing authoritarianism.

She explained how she got the idea to use the concept of resurrection in her presentation. It was from a large conference of Europeanists in Washington DC last March 2014 which was entitled Resurrection. Guisan said: ‘When I asked one of the organizers why they had chosen this daring theme by social science standards, she responded that they were tired of the depressing tone of so many conferences and they wanted a title leaving space for newness and revival. This scholar happens to study the Eurozone. They wrote: “In the wake of crisis in Europe, bits and pieces of the past are being resurrected as a means of understanding the present and imagining the future…” I believe this also applies to Russia and so I am asking is there a “usable past” or several usable pasts in that great country on which to build a better society?’

Here Guisan mentioned philosopher Hannah Arendt’s and her famous metaphor of the ‘lost treasures’ of political experiences. Arendt reminds her international readers of the lost treasures of their own political traditions. ‘And so part of my purpose tonight is to bring to your attention some of these lost treasures of the Russian political tradition.’

In the rich literary tradition of Russia there are many treasures to be found. Talking of ‘resurrection’, Guisan referred to Leo Tolstoy. In his famous novel of the same name he gives a powerful story of both personal and collective resurrection in late 19th century Russia, based on a true story, and partly autobiographical. Writers, Guisan said, are the sires of their society. She quoted briefly two others, Ukrainian born, and part of the canon of great Russian-speaking literature: Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Vasily Grossman (1905-1964), who experienced in one way or another the terror of the Great Purge (the political repression under Stalin, red.)

Reclaiming lost treasures from periods of thaw

Professor Guisan went on to detect three periods of thaw in recent Russian history, which she describes as resurrection-like movements. These movements are periods in time in which space for openness and renewal emerges by turning away from past wrongs and ushering the new through concrete initiatives in the public sphere. The first period of thaw (1956- 1964) was under Nikita Khrushchev, who revealed and condemned the crimes of Stalin, and caused the melting of the Gulag system. He also ended forced communal living by building single-family apartments and allowed peasants to move away from their villages. But when these reforms encouraged Hungary to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, the ‘thaw’ was not enough to change Soviet domination over its neighbors, and the 1956 invasion of Hungary 1956 was the result.

The second thaw was under Gorbachev from 1987 – 1990 and marked the end of the Cold War. These years were a period of political opening and some economic liberalization, glasnost and perestroika, and many debates among Russians. But, like the first thaw, the second thaw was a top down process, as befits authoritarian regimes.

Since 2010, Catherine Guisan sees signs of a third thaw going on in Russia, which is a bottom up movement, contrary to the previous ones. Some intellectuals talked about a third de-Stalinization. Mass demonstrations took place in 2011 and 2012 against rigged Duma and presidential elections; and a museum on the ‘totalitarian terror’ opened in Moscow.

Russian presidents and prime ministers have admitted Soviet guilt for murderous acts such as the killing of 21,000 Polish prisoners in 1940 in Katyn and partially opened the archives, but Russian courts have yet to acknowledge this crime. The Memorial organization has worked very hard to document what happened in the Gulag under Stalin and since, and general human rights violations, and is now pursuing the question of unacknowledged deaths of Russian conscripts in Eastern Ukraine; so is an organization of soldiers’ Mothers.

Another hopeful sign for Guisan was the seminar Res publica in the Political science department of Saint Petersburg’s European University. Some of the graduate students who helped organize the seminar were inspired by the realization that republicanism is also part of the country’s political tradition ‘although Republican developments were interrupted in Russia’. The city of Novgorod for example was an independent city from the 11th to the 15th century, and self-governed, somewhat like the Italian republics of the Renaissance. Another example is Pskov not far from Novgorod.


Western arrogance

In spite of growing authoritarianism Russian public life is full of contradictions and shows some potential for further reform even today. Thus the much-celebrated and highly critical film Leviathan of Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014) was financed partly by the Russian Ministry of Culture.

Guisan is not blind to the signs that point in the direction of political stagnation or regression, yet she says, one never knows: ‘Western observers did not foresee the dismantling of the Soviet dictatorial regime, nor did they predict the non-violent letting go of satellite countries, and even of Republics, which had been part of the Soviet Union for 70 years, a major accomplishment. It is impossible to discern whether there are today within the Russian state, just like under Brezhnev and his successors in the 1970s and early 1980s, bureaucrats who are quietly developing reformist ideas about domestic and foreign policies. But we should not close our minds to this possibility.’ And we must not forget the impact of all the Russians who travel abroad, just in 2013 there were 23,7 million of them.

When it comes to the annexation of Crimea, Guisan encountered a great diversity of opinions and a real willingness to speak up at least among friends, although the issue has been divisive within families, at times splitting the old from the young. Russia needs new political thaws. But Western opinion might also need another kind of thaw. The narrowness of Western knowledge about the complex Russian history, the lack of empathy and understanding towards people, which faced chaotic processes of economic liberalization in the 1990s, and the lack of a long term EU policy towards Russia all cry for change.

Building bridges by increasing knowledge and deepen the understanding is key in the work of Initiatives of Change. After the lecture the space to connect and listen to different perspectives and experiences was opened. Many guests took the opportunity to share personal stories and ask questions. One person suggested that Yeltsin, as ‘the one true democrat in Russian history’ should have been added. Another: contact with the West does not always have a positive effect. People who have studied in the West can become very anti-Western.

The problem of corruption was raised. Guisan agreed that there could be no liberalization with corruption. At the same time she stated that she personally never had to pay bribes, nor had she been cheated. Another person: ‘My experiences of living in Russia for several years and having Russian friends makes me very skeptical about the possibility of thaws. What do you think? Should I let go of my skepticism?’ A participant from Ukraine: ‘I found this presentation very interesting. If we could have a democratizing movement in Ukraine, why not in Russia?’

Still another comment: ‘Self-reflection is important. We condemn Russia but we do not scrutinize enough our own practices and our arrogance.’ Guisan agreed with this. In any society it takes heroism to stand up to power. It takes heroes to change things. These heroes need support.

As a final note, a member of the audience reflected upon Russia in the last decades. Many crises have happened and like Europe after the French revolution, Russia currently is in a search for a stable political, social and economical system. And as we all know processes of change take effort, time and understanding. The concluding words of Catherine Guisan are a beautiful recap of the evening: ‘It is a story in development.'

Laura Reijnders & Hennie de Pous-de Jonge

Catherine Guisan is the author of two books on European integration. A political theory of identity: memory and policies (London and New York: Routledge 2011) and Un sens à l'Europe: gagner la paix 1950-2003 (Paris: Odile Jacob 2003).