Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Great Power Deprivation Syndrome 

A rather alarming piece by Alexei Bayer, a New York-based economist and a columnist for a Russian paper "Vedomosti", who's finding an increasing number of negative comments from readers of his pro-Western, pro-democratic columns (hat tip: Dan Foty):

"It would have been amazing enough, coming from Vedomosti readers, most of whom work for private businesses and have done rather well in post-communist Russia. What was completely incomprehensible was that many were apparently written by 20-somethings. In other words, by a generation that barely remembers the Soviet Union.

"I have read similar observations from other commentators, journalists and sociologists. It seems that the widespread rehabilitation of the Soviet past, under way in the government-controlled media under President Vladimir Putin, has had its strongest impact on the younger generation of Russians."
There are many reasons why people can feel nostalgic about totalitarian past. Many of the "losers" of democratic and economic reforms - pensioners, government employees, workers at inefficient industrial giants - remember fondly the days when the state used to provide them with enough to survive on. Others, particularly the elderly, are by instinct conservative and resent changes that suddenly destroyed the old certainties they've known all of their lives. Others, still, are attracted to the sense of order, purpose and national unity that totalitarianism tries to impose on the populace.

The nostalgia among the young, well educated and better off is a far more insidious phenomenon. After all, why would the "winners" of the recent changes long after a society that deprived whole generations of hope, crushed entrepreneurship and imprisoned countless bodies and minds? In this case, the Soviet nostalgia is not a function of crude economic or social factors, but of the acute sense of geo-political loss. This, indeed, is the longing that unites the young and the old, the winners and the losers, in romanticizing the past.

I wrote last year about the
Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder, a mental and spiritual condition afflicting the newly liberated societies, where habits learned under totalitarianism make it very difficult for their citizens to adjust themselves to the new democratic and capitalist realities. The nostalgia for the Soviet Union exhibited by the worldly Russian Generation Y is an example of another unfortunate mental condition, the Great Power Deprivation Syndrome.

GPDS does not represent per se the longing for the totalitarian past. Russia's new generation, I'm sure, doesn't think fondly about gulags, mass graves, censorship and lies. No, instead it overlooks all these horrors and aberrations to focus on another aspect of the Soviet past: the superpower status. Totalitarian time in Russia's history, after all, was also the time when Russia truly mattered on the world stage.

As Bayer writes:

"There was no real process of de-Stalinization after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ugly Soviet past was simply swept under the carpet. And now, with the current government touting the positive aspects and achievements of the Soviet Union, those young Russians, educated and well-traveled though they are, have become victims of a history scam.

"These young people are Russia's future, and, infected with this kind of retro ideology, they may prove to be a dangerous future indeed. They have no idea why their country is hated across Eastern Europe and regarded with great suspicion in Western Europe and the United States. Naturally, they are inclined to view this attitude as unfair -- and to feel insulted, picked-on, conspired against.

"There is a real danger here. They are becoming more susceptible to the isolationist, imperialist and xenophobic rhetoric that is being revived in Putin's Russia. And it should be remembered that a deeply felt inferiority complex created very fertile soil in Germany for the Nazi ideology."
For over seven decades - most of the twentieth century - the Soviet Union was variously respected, feared, hated and admired around the world. She was an integral part of the international system; what Moscow thought and did really mattered. Contrast it with the sorry state today: Russia is still beset by a myriad of problems like she was under communism but without any grandiose consolations: instead she's either ridiculed or ignored by the outside world. No one looks to Russia for inspiration and hardly anyone fears her. It doesn't matter anymore what Kremlin thinks about the liberation of Iraq or some other issue of international importance; the former satellites, meanwhile, peel away one by one, choosing a different, Westernized future.

The young generation, of course, has no personal memories of the "good old days", but they know that it did not used to be like it is today. It's humiliating, because no one likes to be a part of the losing team.

Great Power Deprivation Syndrome is neither a recent nor an exclusively Russian phenomenon. One of the oldest GPDSs around, one that the international community is still trying to deal with centuries later, afflicts the Arab world. There, nostalgia for the empire that once stretched from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean is mixed with contempt for the West, which now dominates the Arabs politically, militarily, economically, and culturally.

GPDS is also present within our Western community. Britain's victory in the Second World War have proved to be a Pyrrhic one, leading to the loss of her empire, and with it, her great power status. British case of GPDS, however, has been a mild one, due to the pervasive influence of the left-wing cultural consensus in post-war Britain, which managed to convince the nation that its loss of status was actually a good thing for everyone concerned. France, on the other hand, is still suffering from GPDS, acting as if France still matters on the international stage.

Nostalgia for past glories is not restricted to declining great powers, of course. Most nations look back fondly to some past Golden Age of power and grandeur; the Platonic-Fukuyamian "thymos", desire for recognition, is not just an individual instinct, but it universally grips collective national consciousnesses, too. In most cases it doesn't matter, because - not wanting to sound too callous - in most cases no one cares what some Wherethehellisthatstan thinks, and anyway, such historic longings don't have to cross the line from romanticism to violence. But in some cases, the attempt to regain past status can cause problems, when it slowly draws the rest of the international community into a maelstrom of war - the quest for Greater Serbia did, Greater Syria almost did, and Greater Kurdistan still might. But generally it's the Great Power, and not the Small Power, Deprivation Syndrome that we have to be concerned about, because great powers, even in decline, still maintain a lot more scope to create problems for everyone.

What's the solution? Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder seems by comparison easy to treat; changed circumstances, after all, eventually change most people, and at worst, coming to the fore of new generations untainted by totalitarian life swings the balance in favor of the new. Great Power Deprivation Syndrome is a much tougher nut to crack because it plays on universal human desire that transcends any ideological or ethnic boundaries, namely to belong to a community that is better and stronger than others.

Great-powerdom of Germany and Japan was quite short-lived historically speaking, and in both cases so violently and decisively crushed so as to largely prevent an appearance of GPDS. This is not an option available with Russia. Nor, for that matter, with France.

One of the things that can certainly help is good education that promotes openness and honest historical re-assessment. It seems clear that those former superpowers which dealt squarely with their great power past and the reasons for their decline are generally far less resentful of change and more accepting of their current status. Great Britain and Germany are cases in point. Democracy, of course, helps in that process.

It also seems to me that former great powers which are embraced by their former rivals and neighbors and become well integrated into a web of interdependence fare better than those which remain isolated. Yes, France is still a nuisance but it would be far more so if it wasn't tied down within the European Community. Think also about the different consequences of different treatments that Germany received after the First and the Second World Wars.

Lastly, the ex-greats which are able to reinvent themselves and channel their energies into other pursuits cause less trouble for the rest of the world. See Japan.

Where does all that leave Russia - or for that matter the Middle East? As catastrophic conflicts - fortunately - seem unlikely, we can dismiss that sort of a cure for their GPDSs. An honest self-assessment of the past and the present condition is a pre-requisite for marginalizing both the Soviet and the Caliphate nostalgics and moving forward. We can also hope that the forces of globalization will continue to break down barriers and precipitate greater levels of integration and interconectedness with the rest of the world. And democratic and economic reforms can hopefully channel the energies of the frustrated and alienated populations (and most importantly their middle classes and the elites) into more productive pursuits than lusting for old glories and return to world domination.

None of these remedies are easy or simple, or guaranteed to work in all circumstances, but unless there is a serious effort to pursue at least one of them in Russia and the Middle East, we're unlikely to see the end of troubles any time soon.


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