20 years under Putin: a timeline

The apprehension of true history as well as the correction of false contributes to public policy because an economist whose memory is limited to the recent past has a narrow conception of the possible.

~Deirdre N. McCloskey


Economists and historians do indeed seem to hold all-too-different views of reality from one another. If it’s true, as a rule, that economists regard the matter as reducible to the sum total of available facts, it’s equally true that historians share the viewpoint articulated by Vassily Kluchevsky a century ago that “a fact that is not brought into a historical framework is only a vague idea of which no scientific use can be made.”

The situation becomes even more complicated due to the fact that as soon as economists realize that a historical framework is necessary to understand reality, the framework itself might be altered beyond recognition. In such cases, economists can be compared to a train hooked up to a long-ago sidetracked locomotive.

Kluchevsky died in 1911. In his day, Russia’s cultural elite (members of the historians’ community among them) widely accepted the concept of Russia as a “late Europe.” Just one more step, it seemed, and we’d be there. But then came a fork in the road, a time of decision. And all of a sudden Russia behaved extremely oddly: instead of doing what the cultural elite of that time expected, which was to take that last step toward Europe, Russia moved in a totally opposite direction and followed the advice of Konstantin Leontiev—the same advice that was mentioned in the introductory interview: “To totally tear itself away from the European track, after choosing a totally new path, and to become the leader of the intellectual and social life of humanity.”

Today, three generations later, we can see with our own eyes the tragedy that was the result of this cruel historical experiment. We live in this tragedy. And the conclusion to be drawn from this experiment might be seen as unequivocal: history has once again proved that Russia cannot “totally tear itself away from the European track.” (I sa y “once again” because in the seventeenth century, during Muscovite times, the country had already tried to tear itself off that track, and Peter the Great had to use steel and blood to put the country back on it.) But alas, today’s cultural elite—including the majority of historians—have interpreted the mistake of their prerevolutionary predecessors in a totally different way.

The cultural elite has not only come to the conclusion that Russia is not a “late Europe,” as was thought by many of its predecessors, but that it’s not even Europe at all. Rather, Russia is a civilization apart—Eurasian to some, otherworldly to others. I’m not joking. This was taught just recently by the late Alexander Panarin, who chaired the philosophy department at Moscow State University. Here are his words: “Russia’s solitude in the world has a mystical character … the gift of eschatological premonition gave rise to the spiritual greatness of Russia, and to its great solitude in the world.” At first glance, this is nonsense. But if the majority of professors in Russian universities are teaching young people how to reject Europe, it is a kind of nonsense that is also becoming part of today’s reality, of its ideological background.

And this is the beginning of the most interesting part: it was the economists who turned out to be the exception from the rest of the country’s cultural elite. The great lesson of 1917 that so dramatically changed today’s cultural elite has been lost on the economists. Not until the beginning of the twenty-first century did they come to grips with the concept of Russia as a late Europe (even though this concept had already been proven bankrupt twice—in 1917 and in 2000, after the authoritarian turn). In other words, the economists haven’t discovered yet that there’s a stalled-out locomotive at the head of their train. There’s nothing to do about it: that’s the way they think.

Economists have a hard time understanding the idea that along with objective, measurable facts, reality also consists of historical traditions, inherited ideas, even myths that prevail down through the consciousness of generations. They don’t even believe one of their own—the most brilliant and influential economist of the twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes, who once said that “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.”


From the left to the right: Konstantin Leontiev, John Maynard Keynes, Vassily Kluchevsky


The entire final volume of my trilogy looks at how ideas dictated out of resentment at the casting down of Russia from the superpower Olympus—ideas I have dubbed the phantom Napoleon complex—have not only won over several generations of Russia’s prerevolutionary elites, but also eventually destroyed Peter’s Russia. The result was the catastrophe of 1917: Russia suddenly turned into the USSR.

All these complicated metamorphoses of “historical framework” have escaped the economists. Unfortunately, they are still on the archaic prerevolutionary sidetrack, and that is the source of their problems. Let me give you an example.

In 2010, the Institute of Contemporary Development published a monumental report entitled “Russia of the XXI Century: Image of a Wishful Tomorrow.” In it, the Institute’s experts claim that Russia has reached another fork in the road, that “it is the very survival of Russia that is in question”—that if we lose today’s “unique chance, [we risk] becoming powerless witnesses of the degradation of a great state.” Those are very harsh words.

As the report later explains, all these terrors can be escaped if the program suggested by the Institute is adopted for action, along with its attendant political accessories. The program is of course attached. By implementing it, as the Institute’s experts claim, not only will we not become “powerless witnesses of the degradation of a great state,” but also, as it turns out, we will be ready to join the European Union.

The historian has only one problem with this new/old concept: it is quite recognizable. In 1917 and in February 1991 the country stood at a fork in the road, just as it does today. And in those times, the question on the agenda was the “very survival of the great state,” too. In 1917 it was the survival of the 300-year-old Romanov empire. In 1991 it was the survival of the Soviet empire. In both cases there was hardly a shortage of expert economic and political programs. Still, in both cases the country’s history somehow went in a completely different direction, leaving the aforementioned programs far by the wayside or distorting them beyond recognition.

Is it possible that the programs themselves were not faulty, but that their authors and their authors’ ideas were? Is it possible that the wrong “historical framework” is to blame for the devaluation and distortion of the experts’ seemingly flawless programs?

This is just a hypothesis, of course. It needs to be proved. And there’s no other way to do it than to address the histories that led to both of those forks in the road.

So let the reader of this column not be surprised that we begin not with the economy, but with history. Eventually, the goal is to find a correct system upon which to base an economic program capable of reversing the “degradation of the great state.”

Yes, the historical decorations for each of these dramatic attempts to westernize Russia were completely different, the situations varied a great deal, and the players were never alike. Still, both attempts failed in the same way. Why?

Since we don’t know yet know the answer, it makes sense to thoroughly analyze both of the twentieth century’s previous forks in the road and to try to find a common foundation that predetermined the failure of both attempts.