By Paul Goble
Valery Garbuzov, who had headed the Institute of the USA and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has been fired two days after he published an article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta savagely critical of the concepts underlying the Kremlin’s approach to foreign affairs.
Even the most superficial examination of his article (ng.ru/ideas/2023-08-29/7_8812_illusions.html) is sufficient to explain why he was fired (pln-pskov.ru/society/495520.html). Indeed, the sharpness of Garbuzov’s critique is such that it will be surprising if he does not suffer a worse fate unless he is able to move abroad.
The Russian Americanist begins by observing that “often the ruling elites of authoritarian and totalitarian political regimes have deliberately formed utopian ideas and myths and intentionally spread them among the masses,” helping to unite the population behind their leaders and allowing leaders to retain power for long periods of time.
“Russian history is no exception to this pattern,” Garbuzov says; and he examines the way in which this pattern shaped Moscow’s approach to both foreign policy and its messaging about it during the Cold War, before pointing out that the Soviet authorities were wrong both about the strength of their system and the weakness of capitalism.
In fact, the Soviet system tried to maintain itself by not making any changes and thus failed, while the capitalist system proved adaptable and survived and even prospered by being open to change.
Unfortunately, the Russian scholar continues, “on a wave of anti-Western sentiments … new myths are being created [in Moscow] and with them, a modern utopian consciousness is being formed” and it is being propagated around the clock by “a new generation of well-paid professional political manipulators and television talk show hosts.”
“Under the conditions of the creeping restoration of Stalinism, they are introducing new dogmas about the crisis of globalization and the entire Anglo-Saxon world … about a new anti-colonial revolution even though there are only 17 colonies left, about the loss of American dominance … and about the decline of the West in general,” all echoes of the Soviet past.
If one looks around honestly, one sees that none of these myths is supported by reality, just as was the case with Soviet myths of 50 years ago. “Today,” it must be recognized, “there are only two informal empires on the planet, the American and the Chinese. Russia is a former empire, the heir of the Soviet superpower which is experiencing the painful syndrome of the sudden loss of imperial greatness.”
“That Russia today has an obvious post-imperial syndrome is more a tragic pattern than an historical anomaly.” It didn’t arise immediately after 1991 but only “much later with Putin coming to power.” But this “delayed syndrome” has since become “threatening” to Russia’s ability to navigate in the world.
Despite its declining status, Russia “is also trying to form its own geopolitical program. But it is still too unsteady, unstable and eclectic,” combining elements of Eurasianism, the Russian world, aggressive anti-Americanism, belief in the decaying West and so on, Garbuzov says and recalling Uvarov’s trinity of more than a century and a half ago.
The Kremlin’s ideological message has a “quite obvious” purpose, “plunging one’s own society into a world of illusions and accompanied by great power and patriotic rhetoric” all designed to maintain “the indefinite retention of power” by its current rulers, an ultimately impossible task in the information age.
“Every nation, like every person, has its own biography,” Garbuzov says. “And the most valuable things is its unique character” because “only by knowing it is is possible to build a line of civilized and responsible international behavior, the lack of which is all too obvious in today’s world.”
But even more than that, he concludes, “knowledge and not myths about others allows us to understand them but also ourselves and to form a comprehensive and at the same time critical view of our own country, its history and its difficult periods, even if these were joined together with illusions gripping society.”
That is something Russia and its rulers need to recognize rather than deny.