As Vladimir Putin approaches his 20th anniversary as Russia’s de-facto leader, experts are pondering what his authoritarian rule means for the country. A recently released book by the Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, who predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, offers interesting insights into Russia’s future.

Andrei Amalrik in 1976. Photo: wikipedia.org.

 

The Forgotten Prophet

The Soviet Union collapsed almost 30 years ago, and since then, it seems, historians have lost interest in studying the work of Soviet dissidents, especially those who did not subscribe to the common ideological canon or agree with the “end of history” professed by Francis Fukuyama. One such dissident who is often overlooked both in Russia and in the West is Andrei Amalrik (1938-1980), author and historian, known for his crucial 1969 essay titled “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” Had he not died in a car accident in 1980 at the age of 42, Amalrik could have been hailed as a prophet of his time.

Still, new interest in Amalrik’s ideas has been sparked by the Russian publisher New Literary Review, which has recently published, for the first time, his 1963 study of the origins of the Russian state, Normans and the Kievan Rus. For the theories put forward in this research, Amalrik was even expelled from Moscow State University. The book offersvaluable, albeit grim, insights into the foundations and nature of Russia as a country, with implications that predetermined the fate of not only the Soviet Union, but possibly present-day Russia.

 

Russia’s Origins

Most of the dissidents saw the problem with the Soviet regime in what they perceived as an “artificial” Marxist ideology, which, in their opinion, had deformed the country and brought about horrendous suffering. One of these dissidents was Alexander Soltzhenitsyn, the Nobel prize winner for literature and author of The Gulag Archipelago, a monumental epic story of the Soviet repression machinery. Some Western observers, such as the late Harvard historian Richard Pipes, argued that Marxist utopianism was reinforced by Russia’s political tradition rooted in the idea of the leader’s absolute power. However, none of them foresaw the collapse of the Soviet regime—at least not in the near-term future. In fact, they believed that the Soviet state was a formidable colossus that could persevere for centuries. Moreover, a Western historian with critical views of the Soviet regime was rather an exception in the field of Soviet studies throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. The majority of Western scholars—the so-called “revisionists”—viewed the Soviet Union as a grassroots democracy, expecting not so much its liberalization or Westernization, but rather a “Sovietization” of the West. Some conservative observers agreed with their predictions about the upcoming Sovietization and interpreted the proclaimed “end of history” not as a joyful sign of the democratic triumph, but as a symptom of the totalitarian ossification.

Amalrik’s vision was standalone and unique. What he foresaw in the 1960s was the approaching collapse of the Soviet Union, the inevitable demise of the Russian state, and the disappearance of the Russian people. In Normans and Kievan Rus, Amalrik presents Russia as a direct descendant of Kievan Rus. He was a dedicated Normanist—a historian who believed that the elites of Kievan Rus were Normans (or Vikings), who had created the Russian state. One would expect that Amalrik envisioned Russia following a Western path (his ideal), had it not been for the catastrophic Mongol invasion and its legacy—Asiatic despotism, which was later reinforced by the Bolshevik Revolution and Marxist utopianism. But Amalrik simply ignores the Mongols and the Bolsheviks, as well other totalitarian and authoritarian rulers, such as Ivan IV (the Terrible) and Peter I (the Great). He plainly notes that Tatars, Jews (the only oblique reference to the Bolshevik Revolution), and other minorities played an important roles in Russian history, but did little to change Russia’s makeup as a great Slavic country.

Amalrik does express, however, his hope that the rising middle class has the potential to liberalize the regime, bring Russia back to the Western path, and save the country. Still, he had little faith in Russia’s chances for a peaceful transformation. More brutal alternatives appeared more likely to him—militarization, military coups, and the increasing role of the Russian imperial ideology as the only force that could unite both the Russian masses and the elite.

In the same vein, Amalrik was one of very few dissidents, if not the only, who pointed to the paramount role of Russian nationalism in the late Soviet ideology. What he saw as the most likely alternative to Brezhnev’s USSR was a militaristic regime ready to discard Marxism as a fig leaf. But according to Amalrik, even this brutal transformation would not save Russia, which, he believed, was doomed to oblivion anyway. Amalrik argued that the country’s demise could not be attributed to economic ills or unfortunate history—the key problem was that Russia had reached, or was about to reach, the end of its life cycle.

Amalrik believed that it was the country’s old age and ensuing organic decay that had weakened Russia and made it moribund. In a sense, his views here were similar to those of Lev Gumilev, a semi-dissident author, historian, and ethnographer, who believed that nations or their conglomerates (superethnos) follow a natural cycle of birth, maturity, and death. The difference is that Gumilev saw no signs of the approaching death of the USSR/Russia. Amalrik, who observed the Brezhnev regime, saw it as relatively lenient—not so much as a result of some conscious liberalization on behalf of the Soviet leadership, but due to the country’s aging and weakness, which predisposed the regime—and Russia itself—to an imminent collapse. Amalrik anticipated that the economic hardships would trigger mass revolts, and the aging regime would not be able to crush the uprising. However, in contrast to the neo-Slavophile intellectuals, Amalrik had no illusions about the masses. He believed that, once liberated from the constraints of the totalitarian state, people would act like beasts. The barbarity and chaos would null the results of the acquired freedoms.

 

The Red China Threat

While predicting the collapse of the Soviet regime, Amalrik offered a completely different scenario from how events actually unfolded. At the time of writing his essay, he saw no domestic political force that could topple the regime—e.g. a fresh-faced General Secretary who would destroy it from within. Amalrik believed that, barring a major uprising of the Russian populace, the collapse of the system and the country would come from outside. However, Amalrik was quite skeptical about the West’s ability to pressure and counter the USSR. He believed that a more likely and dangerous cause of Russia’s disintegration would emerge from China (“Red China” in his words), which he saw as a young revolutionary state, full of what Gumilev might have called “passionarity” (passionarnost’)—raw, vigorous energy.

In Amalrik’s view, Chinese (“barbarian”) invasion would coincide with or follow the rebellion of the Soviet masses. In contrast with Solzhenitsyn, the author was not fascinated with the Russian populace, whose uprising, if successful, he believed would not be very different from the invasion of “Chinese barbarians.” As a matter of fact, he thought that Russian and Chinese barbarism would reinforce each other.

During the Russian Revolution, it was the Russians who were seen as restless barbarians bound to destroy the modern West and its capitalist order. This vision can be traced in the great works of Russian literature on the Revolution: Valerii Bruisov’s Coming Huns, Yevgenii Zamiatin’s Attila, and Alexander Blok’s Scythians. But as all of these works show, the old order had to be destroyed to make room for a new perfect harmonious society, which could be placed outside of human history—the real “end of history.” 

But, again, Amalrik offered a much grimmer view of Russia’s future. He compared the USSR, and possibly even the West, with the late Roman Empire, pointing to the illusions of the late Roman intellectuals who believed that their future would bring economic, technological, and social progress. The invasion of the barbarians proved them wrong: not only had the Roman Empire been destroyed, but all of its achievements had gone with it. Still, it was not the barbarians who caused the Roman Empire’s demise—they just finished off a dying state. Their invasion was a coup de grâce.

 

A Dying Empire

How are Amalrik’s views related to present-day Russia? Amalrik argued that similarly to the Roman Empire, the Russian/Soviet state had reached its natural end. Applying his theory to Vladimir Putin’s regime might be useful for a better understanding of this system and its future.

The ideologues of this system, such as Vladislav Surkov, claim that Putin’s regime is a peculiar Russian interpretation of the Fukuyamian “end of history.” Surkov might be right in the sense that the regime could survive after Putin if the latter arranges a smooth transition to his chosen successor and if no major upheaval befalls Russia.

The question is what alternative could emerge if Putin’s project is derailed. The rise of National-Bolshevism in its virulent form is unlikely, for it would entail conflict with most post-Soviet states. And neither is a totalitarian transformation, as it would be resisted by both the masses and the elite alike. A democratic transition is also unlikely, since most Russians, even the emerging middle class, are skeptical about grassroots democracy, especially in Russia’s setting. In fact, it is one of the long-enduring fallacies of U.S. political scientists that the rise of the middle class always leads to a democracy. Not just China, but even European countries in the 20th century proved that this is hardly the case. Both in Italy and Germany, dictators were elected by the middle class, or at least the middle class played a considerable role.

It seems that a more plausible scenario for Russia is its further disintegration. In Russia, power is directly linked to property and wealth, which is why provincial elites envy the power and wealth of the Moscow elite; if an opportunity presents itself, they would like to transform Russia into a new iteration of the “Holy Roman Empire of the German nation” where real power and wealth lies in the hands of the local barons, not the central bureaucracy.

Following Amalrik’s argument, one can imagine that, as an amorphous political body, Russia would be under increasing economic and demographic pressure from China, Central Asia, and, to some extent, Europe. Under this pressure, it is likely that Russia, or even many “Russias,” could disappear for good, and the Russian people could be assimilated with the newcomers, as happened with so many nations in the past.

 

References:

  1. Andrei Amalrik. Normans and the Kievan Rus (Nornanny i Kievskaya Rus'). Moscow: New Literary Review, 2018.
  2. Andrei Amalrik. Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? HarperCollins, 1981.

 

* Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor at Indiana University South Bend. 

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