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PERSPECTIVE ON THE RUSSIAN ELECTION

What Shaped Russia's Soul Shapes the Vote

The key to how the Russian people will vote for president may be found in the classics.

June 14, 1996|ANNA SCHERBAKOVA and MARTIN KELLY | Anna Scherbakova is a professor of Russian studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Martin Kelly is a research associate at the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Institute

Despite the recent surge of Boris Yeltsin in the polls, Russians are likely to vote Communist this Sunday. This forecast is derived from three insights that can be found in the culture of the pre-Soviet era.

The first crucial insight, taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel "The Brothers Karamazov," pertains to the relationship between the Russian people and their leaders. It involves the lack of attachment by Russians to the idea of political freedom as it is commonly understood in the West. In the novel, Jesus returns to 16th century Spain at the height of the Inquisition. He is greeted by the Grand Inquisitor, who delivers this tirade: "You (Jesus) want to enter the world and you come with empty hands, with a vague promise of freedom, which they in their simplicity and innate excess are not able to interpret, which they fear--there has never been anything more intolerable for man and for human society than freedom!" The Grand Inquisitor explains that his church has purchased the people's freedom with bread and miracles to save them from themselves, from the burdens of decision and responsibility. The Inquisitor's soliloquy may well have been articulated by a campaign guru seeking to exploit the widespread discontent in contemporary Russia. In this "time of troubles," the central campaign issues that have emerged in Russia are law and order, delivery of back pay and the availability of cheap vodka. For all but a few, political freedom is an alien notion, at best, a secondary concern, and when notions such as political freedom are secondary, isn't anything possible?

The second insight answers this question affirmatively by suggesting that Russian politics is a matter of extremes. In his classic essay, "The Soul of Russia," philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev characterizes the mentality of his motherland as a seesaw alternately favoring one of two extremes. On one side, there is a pursuit of spirituality, truth, goodness, and nobility; on the other side, beastliness, filled with intolerance, cruelty, torture and envy. According to Berdyaev, the Russian soul ideally seeks "a holy government," a government of equality and fairness for all. But since such a Utopia seems unlikely in this lifetime, many are prepared to accommodate a "beastly government." When Russian political extremism and the current elections are considered together, Berdyaev's observation seems justified. Can anyone doubt that Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky is beastly? Or that Gennady A. Zyuganov is a symbolic redeemer of all that was stable and good in the past 30 years? How can the popularity of these figures be understood if not as emanations of an extreme seesaw between a spiritual hope which must rely on the perceived goodness of the past and a fattened, half-clad beastliness appearing just when all hope seems lost?

The critical third insight demands an understanding of the word "collective," a word that holds a special significance in the course of Russian and Soviet history. In context, collective denotes the indigenous practice of placing the interests and needs of the community above personal or individual cares. Berdyaev explains collective as an instinct to gravitate toward the group. Contrary to the Western tradition of democracy, which places the rights and interests of the individual first, the Russian society has cultivated, generated and conditioned a powerful sense of the community as more important than the individual. The benefit is that collective life provides an opportunity for sharing and connection with others. As Berdyaev explains, collective life affords comfort and warmth and releases the individual from personal responsibility.

To make a prognosis about Sunday's elections, it is useful to analyze the leading candidates in term of their appeal to the collective spirit. On this score, Yeltsin and the democratic camp fall short. The transition to liberal democracy, begun nearly 10 years ago, has proven difficult and treacherous and seems to promise more hard times. Meanwhile, the chaotic economy has only benefited a small percentage of people--gangsters and the educated elite. While in other circumstances Zhirinovksy's brand of nationalism might prove unifying, it appears divisive and destabilizing in light of a recent history of chaos. Further, his rhetoric relies on a distant memory of the Russian empire, while Zyuganov promises to restore the predictability characteristic of the Brezhnev years of the Soviet regime. Whether Zyuganov's program is realistic or not, Communist ideas carry the force of recent memory--in this case, nostalgic memories of an organized, collective stability.

Given these three cultural insights--an inattention to Western notions of freedom, an attraction toward governmental extremes, and an aspiration toward collectivity--the choice by more and more Russians to vote Communist is understandable. It is a choice that even Yeltsin's image makers may not be able to counter.

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