Jeffrey Tayler ("Russia Is Finished," May Atlantic) would have us believe that the adoption of "suffocating" Orthodox Christianity and the invasion of the "cruel" Mongols are responsible for Russia's tradition of autocratic government. The chronology demonstrates that this is not so: Orthodoxy came to Russia in the tenth century, and the Mongols in the thirteenth, but nothing approaching autocracy appeared before the later fifteenth century.
In fact, Tayler's "Orthodoxy plus Asiatic hordes equals permanent tyranny" formula is a very old emanation of European Russophobia. In order to persuade the papacy to sanction a crusade against Moscow, anti-Russian propagandists of the sixteenth century argued that the Muscovites weren't Christians at all but, rather, "barbarous Orientals." The crusade was approved. This nasty piece of Western prejudice was passed down through the years until it appeared in Cold War "histories" of Russia, where Tayler doubtless found it. The authors of these books, in their own way, were also attempting to win approval for a crusade against the Russians. Happily, they failed.
Tayler also suggests that Russia's long isolation from Europe is the root of illiberal government. There is something to this, but not very much. Russia was relatively isolated from Europe, and thus was not deeply affected by liberalizing European currents. It was not, however, isolation from Europe that was the cause of despotism in Russia but, rather, harmful geopolitical interaction with Europe. From the sixteenth century to the present day Russian elites have perceived Europe as a serious strategic threat. And for good reason: European states have continually menaced, often invaded, and on several occasions laid waste to Russia.
Tayler is absolutely right to be alarmed by the cruelty with which Russia's rulers have treated and continue to treat their people. But recourse to crude Orientalism or naive faith in European culture does not help us understand the historical origins and persistence of illiberal government in Russia. The ruthless behavior of the Russian ruling elite must be put in the proper historical context—that is, of a backward state attempting to survive in the predatory environment that was and is modern European history. By taking drastic measures, Russia succeeded where the vast majority failed. Now the Russians are paying the price for their success.
Russia was mugged. Jeffrey Tayler's depressing account of the decline and fall of Russia suffers from a serious elision. Despite three twentieth-century invasions from the Christian capitalist West, which took more than 40 million Russian lives, and Stalin's paranoia, which, given the invasions and our Cold War rhetoric, may not have been all that paranoid, the Soviets were able to establish universal education and health care and cheaply house the population. Living standards in the USSR were closer to those in the West than at any time in history and probably any time in the future. Had Gorbachev been allowed to remove the excesses of communism, the future might have been even brighter. However, we cheered Yeltsin and his vulpine associates and helped to bring on the ruin. Something in the Russian character and history may be responsible, as Tayler suggests, but credit for the present must be shared with Churchill, Hitler, Reagan, and the other ideological foes of godless communism.
Jeffrey Tayler's critique falters considerably in assuming that Russia's precipitate descent is irreversible; that it will result in marginalizing Russia to the extent that it becomes internationally obscure; and, not least, that the West can afford to ignore the trends of decay that currently infect Russia because its "decline into obscurity" is likely to be "relatively peaceful."
Historically the Russian state has displayed an almost miraculous capacity for national rejuvenation in the face of serious internal discord and calamitous external strife. Nowhere was this capacity more clearly demonstrated than in the post-World War II Soviet Union. Although the USSR suffered monstrous human casualties and the near complete destruction of its industrial infrastructure as a consequence of World War II, a mere five years after the cessation of hostilities the USSR had recovered to the extent that it could challenge the United States as a de facto, if not yet a de jure, equal.
Jeffrey Tayler's methodology and conclusions are dangerously misleading. First, as befits his Western upbringing, Tayler projects Western business norms into a setting that has absolutely no historical precedent for what we would refer to as ethical practices and standards of conduct. What we consider corruption and theft do not translate into exactly that in a Russian context. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union there has been no framework on which to build efficient market institutions. Russia has just had to bumble along and hope for the best. It is irrational to expect that Western capitalist standards would randomly sprout in this setting.
More disturbing is Tayler's description of Russia as "just another corrupt Third World country." This marginalizes great efforts on the part of Western institutions and the International Monetary Fund to create economic development and raise living standards in Russia. Potential achievements and prospects for improvement vanish if we adopt Tayler's fatalistic view of Russian development. Since the 1998 financial crisis growth in Russia has slowly resumed, and institutions are reforming. To dismiss that is, in effect, to dismiss the very hope that inspired the transition process to begin with.
I was saddened to see Jeffrey Tayler add to our misperceptions about Russia by repeating long-dismissed theories as to why that country is the way it is. Tayler essentially blames the current catastrophe on Eastern Christianity, the Byzantine Empire, and Asian Tatar hordes. Sadly, any undergraduate studying Russia or Byzantium knows that these old Western European "theories" have long been discarded. Byzantium was far from "moribund," Eastern Christianity was (and is) permeated by Hellenistic thought, and the Mongol yoke had far less impact on the Russian psyche. In fact, Russia, especially from Peter the Great on, looked to Western Europe, especially to the French and Prussian absolutist monarchies, to learn the lessons of state tyranny and despotism and how to crush independence in religion, the arts, and public thought. Remember, this is the Europe that brought us the Inquisition and the Third Reich. Lenin and Stalin did not need to look to Byzantium for their bloody autocracy—Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Engels were much closer.
David B. Cole
Jeffrey Tayler replies:
In reducing the historical portion of my article to the assertion that "Orthodoxy plus Asiatic hordes equals permanent tyranny," Marshall Poe fogs one of the clearest distinctions between Russian and Western European history: that the Schism and the Mongol invasion set Russia on an isolationist course that eventually prevented it from experiencing positive influence from the intellectual and cultural movements (the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment) that shaped the modern democratic West. To state this hardly smacks of "crude Orientalism." Whether or not it is fashionable in U.S. academic circles to say so, an awareness of the divide between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity permeates Russians' reactions to Westerners to this day, and Russians are not shy about pointing this out. The tribulations of the Mongol era (and subsequent invasions and calamities) prompt Russians to conclude that their lot has been a particularly grievous one that Westerners—including, apparently, Poe—fail to understand. And it is most certainly not "naive" to grasp that life is better in the West, where ideals deriving from Western culture are dominant (if not realized), than it is in Russia—as the long lines of visa applicants outside the American and European embassies in Moscow attest. To argue otherwise leads us down the path of pointless academic relativism.