In recent years, the world is more and more perplexed at what is happening in Russia. The Russian parliament is adopting more ridiculous, absurd and sometimes inhumane laws. The government introduces the so-called “anti-sanctions” law that hits the average Russian the hardest, not the Western partners, as the Russian leadership declared while adopting them.
Our own food industry, being underdeveloped, is unable to feed everyone, while the import of products from most European countries and the United States is banned by the Russian authorities. It’s difficult to understand how you can treat your own people like this and baffling why Russians don’t protest or even why they seem to support those initiatives?
Despite our common basis – Christianity – the West and Russia have one fundamental difference: Western countries since the Magna Carta hire these or those public structures to execute certain tasks. Taxes are being paid for their implementation and everybody knows how much they pay. In this sense, it does not matter if a country is small or large. After all, if a human being and their personality is at the forefront and the state is subordinate and has an instrumental character, then everything else follows from efficiency and convenience to accomplish set tasks. Primarily economic interests of the nation and its competitive position in relation to its neighbors cause patriotic and other feelings.
In Russia, the state is the chief for its citizens. It is sacred since the collapse of the state means the collapse of the country and its conquest by enemies. Everything is subordinated to the purpose of the state’s maintenance and support. A person lives on the residual principle “first guns, and then the bread.” In this paradigm, a person is only a replacement part and not the main value. This is the case because an individual has never been an independent economic unit in Russia. Institutions and procedures are only an imitation of their Western analogs; a way to justify the state violence for its own citizens. Supposedly, everything is the same as in “civilized Europe.” That’s why it’s quite logical that a human’s life is worth miserably little. The main success for the country is not a decent life for you and prospects for your children, but the military might of the country.
The reasons for such a difference in values of our two civilizations should be searched not in recent events or even in the Soviet era like many experts writing about Russia do. Everything started much earlier – at least at the moment of the division of Christianity into western and eastern and the rise of Byzantium. That “state-centered” model was more competitive back then than the Western European model broke up into feudal principalities.
The Renaissance on the background of developing capitalism, industrialization and geographic expansion put a human being, his personality, freedom, and creative activity in the center as the main value and criteria for evaluation of public institutes. In Russia, the Renaissance was only a cultural and not social and economic phenomenon, while in Europe the humanist tradition prevailed. People both acquired more economic independence and bear more responsibility for themselves and their families.
For a Western person, it’s impossible to understand that nobody pays taxes in Russia. An employer pays taxes instead of an employee. Besides the ‘flat’ income tax (13% – which the Russian authorities proudly call the lowest one in the world), the employer actually adds 30% more, not counting other paid taxes. But only a narrow layer of business people are aware of all those taxes.
Until a citizen fills in his tax declaration himself there won’t be the mutual responsibility of the state and a person. Russian citizens want the state to “take care” of its subjects not realizing they have already paid for a set of services that can’t be ascribed by the authorities as their “good deed.” An official understands that tax rates and the amount of government spending is not the subject of public interest and feels free to make any decision. The absence of such a relationship between the citizen and the state leads to a paradoxical combination of an explicit paternalistic demand and highly individualistic behavior of Russians.
Not surprisingly, due to the lack of mutual responsibility we can observe today an absolute disregard for human life and freedom in Russia. Our history is of occasional periods of relative freedom, which inevitably gave way to long periods of authoritarianism. The 2000s under Putin’s rule are marked by an accelerated march into the archaic, almost feudal times, which cross the achievements that Russians got with a lot of blood and a huge sacrifice. The country is closed again, looking for enemies around it and has imperial complexes.
Such blatant disregard for human life at the state level turns into uncontrolled power. Certain people, who quite accidentally found themselves at the helm of the country during the 2000s, not only milk its natural resources for their own benefit, but also show a willingness to international adventures in order to preserve their own power. Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and now Syria. And this is despite the fact that our own territories are practically in shambles. After the annexation of Crimea, there are requests in social networks to the Russian authorities to “protect” the Russian people in Vologda, Tver, Voronezh region – in the very heart of Russia.
The notion that the power of the state depends on its territory is hopelessly outdated. The main wealth for the Western countries is technological and cultural superiority, the ability to spread its influence through economic, not military means. It makes no sense to threaten a man with a club on Tesla. He will simply push the pedal and leave.
When Perestroika began in the Soviet Union, the West with great interest and enthusiasm followed the transformation of the “evil empire.” At first, there was a feeling that Russia is really changing, people gaining the freedom to choose their way to work and earn money to build a new country. However, the Russian people throughout history were not used to being responsible for their lives. As a result, Russian citizens got confused, could not resist greedy politicians and became disappointed in economic freedom and democracy and in the values of the Western civilization.
We cannot say that in the 90s there was a truly democratic Russia. All sprouts of the free market and political freedoms existed for not too long, and most of them were rather decorations than really working mechanisms. Managed parliament, falsified elections, powerless municipal deputies, and completely corrupt courts – it was all established in the 1990s for the sake of rapid economic reforms.
Indeed, for a Western person, who from childhood is accustomed to decide for themselves, many things were obvious and did not require an explanation. But for a country that had lived for centuries in a different way, it became fatal. Demand for a paternalistic state was increasing until it finally turned into a slogan “We want back in the USSR”!
Russia and the West are, on the one hand, much closer to each other than it may seem. On the other hand, not as close as we, pro-democracy Russians, would like it to be. We have a common cultural basis, but our differences do not give us the opportunity to understand each other. We are destined to be together, but we should understand each other better. Therefore, we need to have an honest dialogue. We need to overcome all the differences, mistakes and misunderstandings for the success of our common civilization and prosperity for everyone who lives in our countries!
This Opinion piece was written with the significant contribution of Ilya Ponomarev, Russian opposition leader and Member of Parlament in exile.