Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
‘I have approximately two sons,’ the late Viktor Chernomyrdin (who was Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister for much of the 1990s) is alleged once to have said. In another moment of what seems like accidental honesty, he voiced a sentiment that became immortal: ‘We wanted better, but things turned out like always.’
Although Chernomyrdin was the ultimate Soviet functionary turned post-Soviet zillionaire, he sometimes betrayed a sympathetic countenance. Politicians everywhere are disinclined to tell the truth, but Chernomyrdin was of the type that lets the truth slip out. That sentence – ‘We wanted better, but it turned out like always’ – was one of the most laughed-at but also most revealing of Yeltsin-era soundbites.
More than twenty years after he said it, the phrase retains a certain power. It throws light on our instinctive understanding of Russia’s past – of how we see the historical origins of Vladimir Putin – and it indicates a possible future.
Take the second half: ‘it turned out like always’. Like always. Russian history is often described as a serial repetition of certain traits: authoritarian leadership, administrative corruption, economic backwardness, popular passivity (see here for more). Believe that, and you can draw a line from the medieval Russian past to 2014, and Vladimir Putin becomes a reincarnation of Ivan the Terrible. But Chernomyrdin pointed out that the collapse of the Soviet Union offered the chance of something else: ‘We wanted better’. This is a quite different way of imagining Russia’s historical development, one that conceives of new beginnings and various futures, even if the 1990s were a false start.
Historians must accept the primacy of events: that while some futures are more likely than others, circumstances combine in chaotic ways, and nothing is inevitable. After all, such entirely conceivable events as a non-revolutionary change in leadership and the introduction of specific, targeted anti-corruption legislation some time in the near future would make the face of Russia quite different.
Plainly, though, deeper historical structures make some futures more likely than others. If you look at the Russian past from a different angle, then rights – highly particular, vulnerable and shifting, customary as well as constitutional, and imagined as well as real – become central to the story. And if you look at things that way, then structures as well as contingencies suggest that the Russian past can lead to another type of future.