Lessons from the Radicalization of Russia

The riots, civil unrest, and mass psychological breakdown currently affecting America have me thinking about Russia. No, not because I think that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s super-duper secret Spetsnaz units have incited the violence—as America’s blue-check brigade briefly asserted before deciding that the looting was righteous. Rather, I see parallels between the type of despair that gripped Russia in the 1990s and the despair that is really behind much of the civil unrest in America today.

Excuses for rioting and looting were followed by calls to “defund” or “abolish” the police. Partly, this is a cynical ploy. The people who actually have power in the movement don’t believe in the anarchist fantasies where all cops are replaced by social workers. What they want, instead, is much more simple: to defang the last American institution not yet controlled by the Left, and replace it with commissars more aligned with their ideology. The comfortable people at the top of the wokeocracy still want the law enforced, at least in their own neighborhoods.

Still, it was profoundly demoralizing to see so many hitherto reasonable people embrace this absurd notion, or reject the idea that police should shut down rioting and looting (nevermind protests that are a public health menace at a time of global pandemic). 

Beyond the looting and rioting, what truly indicated a total breakdown of order was the fact that law enforcement itself, no doubt under political pressure, seemed so reluctant in the face of the challenge.. Moreover, our elites seemed to positively relish the chaos and lawlessness that engulfed American cities. 

Much of contemporary American progressivism seems, to this Frenchman, to be a species of extreme provincialism. We don’t have to imagine what it’s like when the authority of the state collapses. It has happened before. 

Hence my thoughts about Russia. We are all at least vaguely aware of the collapse that country endured during the 1990s. But fewer realize the true extent of Russia’s near-total societal disintegration. 

Russian Despair at the End of the 20th Century

We know the outlines: as the government collapsed in a nation brutalized by several generations of nihilistic, totalitarian rule, healthy institutions were unable to take root. The government flailed in incompetence as mobsters ruled the streets and political hacks plundered the nation’s industrial base and natural resources to build private wealth. 

But it can be hard for people who didn’t see the country in those years to understand the scale of the human devastation on the ground. It wasn’t simply that businessmen had to pay protection money to the mob, or that people were unemployed. There was something even more devastating at work.

Just a few statistics illustrate the total social collapse. Between 1990 and 1994, excess male mortality rates rose 53 percent, 27 percent for females. Between 1992 and 1998, “excess deaths” (a term we are now all sadly familiar with because of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning the number of deaths above the normal yearly average) in Russia topped 3 million. By contrast, the number of excess deaths during World War I was just 1.7 million. 

The health care system had failed. Hospitals, already unequipped in Soviet times, were now utterly bereft, and Russia saw outbreaks of diseases hitherto forgotten, like diphtheria, typhus, cholera, and typhoid. Even tuberculosis, a disease that had been eradicated in almost every country during the 20th century, returned with hundreds of thousands of cases. 

The return of nearly extinct diseases was part of the story, but much of the excess mortality was due to unprecedented rates of alcoholism, as well as a scourge new for the Russians, drug abuse, which became rampant amidst the despair. Mob-controlled Russia had become the key transit point for opium and heroin grown in Southeast Asia for sale in Europe. 

“Heavy drinking and crime contributed to a spectacular rise in violent and accidental deaths—the single fastest-growing ‘cause of death’ category. Between 1992 and 1997, 229,000 Russians committed suicide, 159,000 died of poisoning while consuming cheap vodka, 67,000 drowned (usually the result of drunkenness), and 169,000 were murdered,” writes Paul Klebnikov in The Godfather of the Kremlin.

During that decade, Klebnikov also demonstrates, several million Russian women were forced into prostitution. Several million. Let that sink in. 

Social despair and the breakdown of order always affects the weakest first, and who in society is weaker than children? Abortion had been the default mode of birth control in the Soviet Union, but in immediate post-Soviet Russia, the number of abortions skyrocketed. During the 1990s, state-funded abortions rose to 3 million per year, nearly three times the number of live births. And yet, in 1997 113,000 children were abandoned, roughly equal to 9 percent of the total number of new births. Take a moment to ponder the scale of the societal devastation and human despair that causes statistics like these.

What does any of this have to do with the protests in America? 

Only this: this kind of societal destruction is normally associated with wars, genocides, and totalitarian oppression. And yet, the collapse of Russia shows there can be another cause for such things: the collapse of the authority of the state.

Protests occasionally happen in any healthy country, and as a Frenchman, I am certainly aware that sundry thugs and activists occasionally use peaceful protests to cause mischief or simply loot, and that this need not cause the Republic to fall. But that is not what America has witnessed. 

Not only was this mob violence unseen in decades, but America also witnessed the authority of the state bowing to the mob. In many places, the looting was allowed to run its course, destroying many livelihoods and even taking lives, while leaving business owners and residents to their own devices to defend their lives and property. In many cities, looters were released without charges, sometimes those few who were charged were released even without bail. 

This can only happen in a country that has forgotten the abyss beneath the edge on which civilization always rests. Americans can vehemently disagree with each other politically, but the basic building blocks of any life worth living rest on law and order. And this order is fragile. We take it for granted, but it can collapse overnight. History has shown it repeatedly. Recently, we’ve gotten a glimpse of what government failure looks like.

The petit-bourgeois activists who encourage lawlessness talk about privilege, but they should check their own privilege: the privilege of living in a civilization. Of having a bed, a roof, and the internet. Of not having to fear typhus or tuberculosis. Of not being driven to such desperation that they turn to prostitution or feel like they have to abandon their own children to the streets. 

19th-Century Russian Radical Chic Spawns Real Revolution 

Which brings me to another piece of Russian history evoked by these recent events. And no, it’s not the Russian Revolution, but the decades that led up to it. 

Russia’s contributions to world culture, from ballet and music to literature and poetry, are immense—a fact made all the more impressive when you consider that when France and England were fighting for domination of Europe, and Italy was producing Michelangelo, the barely-literate Slavs were still under the Mongol yoke. 

Pushkin, Russia’s national poet, turned Russian into a literary language in the 19th century. Russian had so few words for abstract concepts that Pushkin essentially invented them, and published his earlier poems with footnotes and French translations of those words, since French was the language of the Russian aristocracy. (Most 19th-century Russian writers learned French as a second language.)

In Russia, the 19th century was a period not just of great cultural ferment, but also political and intellectual upheaval. Russia’s key role in the defeat of Napoleon had facilitated its sudden rise as a great power. But while Russian elites were justly proud of their nation’s accomplishments, they were also self-consciously aware of the much greater advancement of the cultures of the West. The question of how, and to what extent, Russia should modernize, without losing its national identity, occupied all of intellectual Russia during the 19th century, especially during the reign of Czar Alexander II who, after abolishing indentured servitude in 1861, raised the expectations of the intelligentsia that he would prove a great modernizer. 

While most would-be reformers were moderates, who were mainly interested in becoming more like Western Europe’s constitutional monarchies, there were quite a few radicals as well. Perhaps there is something in the Russian soul that lends itself to radicalism. A key event on Russia’s ride of ever-increasing civil unrest was the so-called “Mad Summer” of 1874. 

It began when a group of radical students, believing in a form of agrarian socialism, fanned out to the countryside to exhort peasants to rise up against their masters. They discovered something a Frenchman could have told them: that the actual people in whose name revolutions are instigated have little interest in ideological revolution. The peasants they tried to organize listened politely to their incomprehensible radical speeches and promptly alerted the authorities. Russian peasants on the whole had an unfavorable view of overeducated city dwellers. One agitator reported that a peasant woman “took fright at the sight of all my books and denounced me to the constable.” The whole sad affair could make for a great comedy. 

But as the czar’s police services investigated the events, they found out something else: the young radicals had gotten a lot of help from quarters that were not radical at all. In his masterful cultural history of Russia, Natasha’s Dance, the British historian Orlando Figes lists some examples: “the wife of a colonel in the Gendarmes had passed on secret information to her son; a rich landowner and magistrate had hidden one of the leading revolutionaries; a professor had introduced a propagandist to his students; and the families of several state councillors had given warm approval to their children’s revolutionary activities.”

These high-born personages, all of whom had very personal stakes in the regime and who disagreed with the revolutionaries’ goals, nonetheless admired their youth, their enthusiasm, and their idealism, and thus provided them with material support. 

A typical example was the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, who advocated moderate reforms and criticized the radicals, and yet mixed about in their salons and gave money to radical writers in exile in Europe. “Their course is so false and impractical that it cannot fail to lead them to complete fiasco,” he wrote to a friend, but added, “these young people are mostly good and honest.” The whole thing would be understandable and, again, more than a little bit amusing, if we did not know how the movie ended in October 1917. 

The moderate czar calculated that a big, public trial of the radicals would show the state’s determination to exercise self-defense while following with lenient punishments for these hotheaded youths would calm things down. It backfired. The radicals interpreted the mild sentences as weakness and turned violent. Several activists who had been pardoned by the czar were later involved in a plot to assassinate him. 

Lesson: Hold the Petit-Bourgeois Accountable Before It’s Too Late

What is the lesson for today? That radicals never succeed without the complicity—active or passive—of moderate elites. 

Most of the petit-bourgeois at the New York Times and at the communications departments of big corporations are yet sane enough to know that “abolishing the police” and firing people for the most minute imagined deviations from woke dogma is nonsense. But they go along anyway. They admire the radicals’ fire and energy. Perhaps they envy it. So they go along. 

The key word here, as with the riots themselves, is complacency. 

The mother who passed on classified information to her radical son probably could not imagine that one day Russia would be ruled by Bolsheviks and that people like her would be sent to gulags. She was probably a nice woman who loved her son. But revolutions can and do happen. And the Bolshevik revolution never would have happened if it hadn’t been for the weakness and complacency of moderates like her who saw revolutionaries as wayward, well-intentioned children. Because of their complacency, they failed to remember that the alternative to the self-defense of the state is chaos and mass violence. 

For decades, young Russian radicals played with fire, and for most of that time, it was primarily comical. (Dostoevsky, though himself a bit of a radical, nevertheless produced some of the most biting, funny satire in history when writing about these people.) But it became extremely serious, extremely fast. And by that time it was too late.

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About Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His writing has appeared in numerous publications. He is based in Paris.

Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

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