Modern Russia may be falling apart, but Richard Sakwa still found a tired optimism for the brave new order
Russia is a society marked both by metacorruption - the systemic interpenetration of politics and economics that undermines the distinction between the public and the private - and by corruption, the venality associated by the use of public office for private gain.
The most spectacular case of metacorruption is the privatisation process itself, where for the most part old elites were able to convert privileges and power into property and yet another lease on power. For Anatoli Chubais, the minister who largely masterminded the grand disbursement of former state property, the aim was to convert public wealth into private assets as quickly as possible, no matter how, to create a middle class with a vested interest in the new order. Thus what for some was metacorruption was for him a political crusade in which, incidentally, he too became rich.
So Russian society is corrupt and distorted by corruption. It is hard enough for a political scientist to make sense of this, but for most Russian citizens contemporary politics is made up of distorting mirrors where the truth of one day becomes the lie of the next.
One day President Boris Yeltsin calls on prime minister Sergei Kirienko to "work quietly", and the next day he is dismissed. The duality of Russian life is apparent from the highest to the lowest level. In August, I taught at Petrozavodsk State University, in the new department of politics and sociology, where signs of renewal were everywhere but expressed in traditional ways. As elsewhere, the politics section had emerged from the old scientific communism department, yet some interesting work was being done on the changing elite structure of the Karelian Republic, on federalism and democratisation.
The style of teaching, however, was very Soviet. The very existence of the department signalled a new openness, but it remained embedded in a traditional academic culture and style of teaching that is only gradually changing. When it came to politics it was clear that the students were deeply alienated. Not only were they eking out their existence on miserable stipends, but they were subject to constant Soviet-style humiliations in daily life.
One married graduate student had his phone cut off for no other reason than that the previous tenant was entitled to the phone number - even though he lived a long way away and could have been assigned a new number. Only after a day's humiliation by the magnificent Russian bureaucracy (and who knows what inducements?) was his phone reconnected. As the student said: "This kills the last vestige of patriotism."
At the same time, support for authoritarian forms of order was prominent among the younger students. Their favourite reading was Alexander Barkashov's ultra-rightist Russkii Poryadok (Russian Order) whose Russian National Unity party attracted growing support in the city. The students were not apathetic but demobilised, frustrated at their own powerlessness.
Amid decaying classrooms, they read allegations in the local paper that 19 of the top university administrators had built themselves 20 magnificent apartments using money designated for educational purposes (Guberniya, August - September 2).
Charges of malfeasance have not yet been proved, but it is the psychological impact of the stories that is important, as well as the duality between possible corruption and the brave new world advanced by this group, a world of the Internet (funded by George Soros), of partnership links across the whole Barents Sea-Arctic region, a new Open University of Northern Europe, of the Finno-Karelian Euro-region, and many other signs of openness and energy. Which is the reality, which the falsehood?
The metacorruption and misery I saw were both local and national. But where does the metaphysics fit in? Reports from Russia stressing only the collapse of the rouble, the disappearance of foreign consumer goods and the immiseration of whole social categories - teachers on a miserable salary, for example, that itself is not paid for months at a time - miss something important.
I have always been sceptical about notions of Russian exceptionalism, although aware of the need to find a native idiom for the profound currents of modernity that challenge all traditional civilisations. Yet an incident, small in itself, brought home to me how profoundly mentalities can differ. Crossing the border from Finland to Karelia at Vartsila, into the no-man's land that for long had been a closed border zone between the USSR and the West, evidence of the winter war of 1939-40 and the continuation war of 1941-44 remained as if the war had ended yesterday. Here a school in ruins, with the jagged and burnt timbers still stuck in the air as if pathetically grasping for help, there an abandoned Finnish farmstead still neat even in decay.
A Russian student from Petrozavodsk who had spent a brief period in Finland, her first time abroad, breathed a sigh of relief about her return to "freedom" in Russia. What was this freedom?
Then I understood that there is a category of Russian freedom that is independent of material conditions, of achievement and wealth, even of political liberty, but a deeply-rooted sense of inner freedom. It is no doubt metaphysical, but it makes the metacorruption and misery more bearable.
"No matter how bad it gets, we'll survive" was the final comment I heard as I left the university.
Richard Sakwa, of the department of politics and international relations at the University of Kent at Canterbury, was on a lecture tour in Russia discussing democracy as the economic and political collapse began.