Robert Conquest, the author of one of the most seminal works on the horrors of Stalin’s gulags, has a new essay reflecting on the republishing of this work almost 40 years later, and the tragic arc of Russian history. Conquest remarks that although Soviet economics have been abandoned, Russia is experiencing “reform without liberalism” in the style of Pyotr Stolypin, leaving the country still very far away from rule of law.
“My book has been faulted for giving too little attention to the context of Russia and of the Russian historical and mental backgrounds. We find what seem to be contradictions. Any reader of the country’s great literature may feel an especially Russian humanism arising from the depths of the “national character.” On the other hand, Ronald Hingley (in his classic The Russian Mind) saw the fictional and the real Russian as living in great dullness interspersed with, or accompanying, extreme outbursts, but also possessed by a view of the country’s past and present as deplorable yet containing as recompense a wonderful future with some sort of national glory compensating for everything. A complementary trait often reported is the fear that a Russian, or Russia, is being deceived or cheated—the sort of thing we see in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls and in Soviet xenophobia.“
“But this does downgrade Russia’s other options—liberalism or pluralism. As Boris Pasternak put it, in the 1880s came “the birth of an enlightened and affluent middle class, open to occidental influences, progressive, intelligent, artistic.” There are many historical and modern examples of this more “Western” style of thought in Russia, deep-set, and though often disenchanted continuing to present a more viable and civilized future. The present leadership has, at least to a large extent, given up Soviet-type economics. But one can have “reform” without liberalism— as with Peter the Great and Pyotr Stolypin. Above all, we are still far from the rule of law—much more important than “democracy.” As elsewhere, the problem seems to be to free the idea of the “nation” from both archaic barbarism and from the more recently bankrupted verbalisms that have partly melded into it.“