Russia, an amazing journey from the past to the past


Evolutionary principles apply not only to the natural world but also to societies. Nations need to succeed and compete internationally, which drives them to develop and become more complex over time. Throughout human history, societies have transitioned from tribal structures to feudal, industrial, and post-industrial setups.

The evolution of nations is not just about developing tools like axes and computers; it’s primarily about the growth of culture and social relationships. As societies become more diverse and balanced between the state and its citizens, positive transformations occur, leading to progress and development.

At the feudal and industrialist stages of a nation’s development, the state plays an important role in allowing concentrated resources for expansion goals. This concentration takes place at the expense of people’s rights and freedoms. It also first limits and then kills innovation and internal competition. This is why all developed countries have moved away from extreme state authority, adopting checks and balances against the excessive power of the government. However, this transition has not occurred in Russia. 

Throughout its history, Russia has been characterized by etatism – the prominence of state control over individuals. This trait has persisted regardless of the era or the state structure, leading to an overly dominant state in the current information society.

In Russia, etatism goes beyond just an economy with significant state intervention. It has become a norm in the public consciousness, making the state an absolute value that influences not only the economy and politics but also culture and more. Citizens are ingrained with a philosophy of obligation towards the state, even to the point of sacrificing for its interests.

Etatism usually refers to an economy with a large amount of state intervention, but in Russia, this process is more multi-dimensional. The state is metaphysically designated as a super-value in ideological discourse, leading to its absolutist significance not only in the economy but also in politics, culture, and beyond. The current version of statism is also supplemented by a philosophy of obligation, the essence of which is that citizens/subjects are enjoined to owe their homeland-state, or at least to suffer for its interests.

Despite economic challenges and declining standards of living for many Russians, a significant portion of the population remains reliant on the state. Historically, a philosophy of court service and dependence on the state has been ingrained in Russian society. This mentality persists today, making “free” individuals who are relatively independent of the state less popular among the majority.

The authorities seem to encourage a limited functioning of the market economy promoting over-reliance on the state to maintain control. This creates a loyalist majority that is patient and willing to accept lower standards of living, which the regime can leverage for its stability.

As a result, the state has a super-dominant influence over Russian society, leaving little room for opposition. The majority of people are economically dependent on the state, such as pensioners, state employees, and recipients of various benefits. This creates a situation where society becomes increasingly compliant and controllable.

Russia appears remarkably different from the Western world, not because of its “Eurasian” or “Asian” identity but because it staunchly opposes progress and development. Instead of moving forward, it retreats backward, creating an atmosphere of isolation. While the world seeks integration, Russia emphasizes sovereignty and erects new barriers, isolating itself behind iron curtains.

As human rights and equality become universal principles, Russia introduces laws that counterbalance these trends, imposing its domestic order. In the domain of research, we see how the globalization of science leads to brain drain as scientists flee the country when Russia restricts its research by centralizing control under the state.

While secularism experiences a renaissance worldwide, Russia unites religion with the state, transforming it into a tool of paid propaganda. This divergent path Russia follows generates “Russophobia,” a term the Kremlin battles on the global stage.

Over the years, Russia has moved significantly in this regressive direction, and it is crucial to comprehend the road taken and the implications ahead. This backward movement received momentum when Putin started to strengthen the nomenclature at the expense of capitalist elites in the early 2000s. This has led to a return to a more primitive economic form – state capitalism, based not on market mechanisms but on distributive principles akin to a palace economy.

Consequently, power becomes concentrated and managerial. However, this transformation comes at a cost, as the political model starts resembling a feudal kingdom where the tzar and his lords lack the concept of private property and the advanced mechanisms that modern societies rely on for development. 

Feudal relationships become evident not only in the economy but in society and culture. The recent mutiny of Prigozhin was a typical mutiny of a lord against the tzar. And it was settled among them, other lords did not interfere in the conflict that they felt should not affect them. It is quite unusual and misleading to see contemporary state power structures like FSB, army, or police loyal first to their heads (lords) and then to the President (tzar). Nevertheless, if you apply principles of feudal relations to today’s Russia many societal and economic dynamics may become less enigmatic.

Ironically, the fact that Russia went backward to the feudal type of state helped it avoid totalitarianism. Ironically, while totalitarian elements are present, Russia lacks the true totalitarianism seen in European dictatorships of the 20th century, as it lacks the full integration of modernity. Russian society is atomized, with no national ideology unifying it. Nevertheless, in the information age, references to historical events like the Great Terror of the 1930s can be exploited to create an atmosphere of fear and maintain control over society.

At the beginning of the XXth century, Russia was among the first leading countries of the world where large private capital originated from state property. Assets were distributed based on class distinction and granted as remuneration for service and achievements in the monarchy’s interests. With the abolition of serfdom and the formation of the labor market, independent commercial and industrial capital emerged, driving the country’s economic growth. 

Russia attracted foreign direct investment and technology, gaining prominence in the global economic system. However, delayed political reforms hindered further development, leading to a decline in the economy, worsened by World War I and subsequent revolutionary events. 

Stalin tried to recreate the country forcing it into an industrial state. He tried to destroy archaic consciousness impeding the Soviet Union’s modernization. And he finally succeeded in implanting new values and modes of behavior creating “a Soviet Man”. 

The Soviet economic model partially resembled early capitalist development in Russia, but in essence, it represented a step backward from the industrial relations of the Tsarist era. The USSR introduced restrictions on citizen mobility and compulsory labor conscription, abolished private ownership of means of production, and replaced market material responsibility with administrative and criminal responsibility. After a period of stagnation during the Cold War, the USSR ceased to exist as an economic and political entity in 1992. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia had a chance to transform into a modern society. The transformation required modernization and democratization of state institutes and society along with the adoption of a legal culture suited to the New Age, including the recognition of private property. In the West this culture emerged as a direct consequence of the transition to a capitalist economy and the rise of the bourgeoisie, replacing the feudal lords as the ruling class.

In the 1990s, privatization in the new Russia led to the formation of large private capital, increased productivity, and the renewal of fixed assets. However, in the following decade, the role of the state in the economy and social relations began to increase. The state’s control over property shifted due to its direct influence and involvement of bureaucrats and affiliated individuals in enterprise capital. This shift towards state hegemony was initiated by the political elite and supported by those adhering to etatic thinking, which prioritizes the subordination of private interests to the state. As a result, Russia’s governance regressed towards a feudal type of system.

The desire to recreate state hegemony is rooted in historical continuity. Generations of economically active citizens have grown up in conditions where the state plays a dominant role in public and economic life. Building a full-fledged market economy presents challenges and risks, leading some to prioritize risks and accept limited gains, while others leverage the state’s monopoly powers to further private or group interests.

In the 21st century, Russia’s return to a market economy has been gradually replaced by the etatization of the economy, resulting in stagnation, militarism, and suppression of political and civil liberties. Russian society failed to translate its growing economic power into guarantees of personal freedoms as autocrats strip ordinary Russians of real power.

Moreover, Russian backward drift is reflected in diminished cultural influence. The state now dictates creative trends, and themes for movies and books, leading to less competition, greater unification, and a lack of freedom of thought in the cultural realm. As a result, Russian culture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries remains relatively unknown and uninteresting to developed societies. 

The development off nations created institutions to manage economy and society. And Russia is still managed by personalities, while all the necessary institutions formerly exist. Understanding Russian mysteries and enigmas can be achieved by analyzing its economy, sociology, and the psychology of its political elites with a medieval approach, when lords matter, not institutions. The question remains whether Russia’s journey towards the past can be reversed, or if the country will continue sliding back into the Dark Ages, serving as an example of a nation that failed to embrace modernity.

Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin is a Russian pro-democracy activist and member of Advisory Board of Creative Cluster, a French-tech ecosystem partner. He has previously worked at the National Democratic Institute in Moscow.