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The Agony of the Russian Idea

The Agony of the Russian Idea

Tim McDaniel
Copyright Date: 1996
https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt7pg89
Pages: 212
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7pg89
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  • Book Info
    The Agony of the Russian Idea
    Book Description:

    Boris Yeltsin's attempts at democratic reform have plunged a long troubled Russia even further into turmoil. This dramatic break with the Soviet past has left Russia politically fragmented and riddled with corruption, its people with little hope for the future. In a fascinating account for anyone interested in Russia's current political struggles, Tim McDaniel explores the inability of all its leaders over the last two centuries--tsars and Communist rulers alike--to create the foundations of a viable modern society. The problem then and now, he argues, is rooted in a cultural trap endemic to Russian society and linked to a unique sense of destiny embodied by the "Russian idea."

    In its most basic sense, the Russian idea is the belief that Russia can forge a path in the modern world that sets itself apart from the West through adherence to shared beliefs, community, and equality. These cultural values, according to McDaniel, have mainly reversed the values of Western society rather than having provided a real alternative to them. By relying on the Russian idea in their programs of change, dictatorial governments almost unavoidably precipitated social breakdown.

    When the Yeltsin government declared war on the Communist past, it broke with deeply held Russian values and traditions. McDaniel shows that in cutting people off from their pasts and promoting the West as the sole model of modernity, the reformers have simultaneously undermined the foundations of Russian morality and the people's sense of a future. Unwittingly, the Yeltsin government has thereby annihilated its own authority.

    McDaniel lived in Russia for three years during both the Communist and post-Communist periods. Basing his analysis on broad historical research, extensive travels, countless interviews and conversations, and friendships with Russians from all walks of life, McDaniel emphasizes the perils of assuming that Russians understand the world in the same way that we do, and so can and should become like us. Challenging and provocative in its claims, this book is intended for anyone seeking to understand Russia's attempts to create a new society.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2215-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. INTRODUCTION Cycles of Breakdown in Russia
    (pp. 3-21)

    For many decades young minds in the Soviet Union were taught to think in terms of “historical necessity.” The worldwide crisis, and then collapse, of capitalism, followed by the triumph of the purer principles of Communism, was “necessary” both scientifically (in terms of the laws of history) and morally (in terms of the realization of human needs). It took Communist rulers many decades to recognize officially that their capitalist rivals seemed likely to survive for the foreseeable future and so had to be reckoned with in a system of “peaceful coexistence.” Even later, it was one of the many ideological...

  2. CHAPTER ONE The Russian Idea
    (pp. 22-55)

    The idea that Russian society forms a world apart, that it departs from all other nations, cannot be absolutely true. There are universal traits shared by all societies, as well as more specific traits shared by different categories of societies. Yet the idea that Russian society and history are somehow distinctive is supported by a number of historical “firsts.” Russia was the first “backward” country, that is, the first country whose leaders so defined it with respect to Europe. Their sense that Russia lagged behind, not just in the military or technological sense, but in the social and cultural spheres...

  3. CHAPTER TWO The Dilemmas of Tsarist Modernization
    (pp. 56-85)

    Even after almost eighty years it is difficult to take the measure of the end of the tsarist regime in 1917 and its replacement by a Communist government. Indeed, it is probably more difficult now than it was ten years ago to weigh the significance of these events in the context of the larger sweep of modern history. When the Communist regime was still in power, and social relations and political life in Russia seemed to have more or less settled into a separate Soviet system of modern society, the meaning of the end of imperial Russia and the victory...

  4. CHAPTER THREE The Logic of Soviet Communism
    (pp. 86-117)

    At least since the time that Peter the Great had set Russia on the course of significant modernization, Russian society had been beset by fundamental contradictions and split apart by schism. In the political realm, the government had repeatedly proposed, and sometimes enacted, reforms to give social groups more autonomy, but the rulers had never been willing to accept any fundamental restrictions on the principles of autocracy. Economically, Russia had entered the age of markets and capitalism, but the government was suspicious of capitalist elites, frequently sought to infringe upon market principles, and until its last decade severely restricted the...

  5. CHAPTER FOUR A Viable Form of Modern Society?
    (pp. 118-161)

    OF STALIN’S death in March 1953, Solzhenitsyn later recalled: This was the moment my friends and I had looked forward to even in our student days. The moment for which every zek [prisoner] in Gulag (except the orthodox Communists) had prayed! He’s dead, the Asiatic dictator is dead! The villain has curled up and died! What unconcealed rejoicing there would be back home in the Special Camp! But where I was, Russian girls, schoolteachers, stood sobbing their hearts out. “What is to become of us now?” They had lost a beloved parent. . . . I could have howled with...

  6. CHAPTER FIVE The Failure of Yeltsin’s Reforms
    (pp. 162-186)

    The latest Russian experiment, the attempt to rejoin the “civilized world,” marks another dramatic break with the immediate past. At the same time, it has striking parallels with other such Westernizing reforms in Russian history, from Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century to Alexander II in the 1860s. Just as Peter looked to Germany and Sweden to unlock the secret of combining social dynamism with political order, and Alexander II and his fellow reformers looked to France, England, or America to understand how to combine freedom, order, and efficiency, so the new Russian reformers have recognized the superiority...