Imitation Democracy

Perry Anderson writes about Dmitri Furman’s analysis of Russia’s post-communism

The fall of Gorbachev brought Dmitri Furman’s work as Russia’s foremost student of religious systems to a reluctant end. Clear-sighted about what was coming under Yeltsin, Furman would henceforward be the best native analyst of Russia’s post-communism. But that was not his only change of direction in 1991. Political commentary, punctual or long-range, was one thing, comparative inquiry of the kind that had driven his studies of religion was another. Where was that now best pursued? As nationalist ferment started to spread in the Baltic and Caucasian zones of the USSR, Furman told a member of the CPSU’s Central Committee that nobody in Moscow knew what was going on in the outlying republics, and a research centre was urgently needed to study them. The proposal got nowhere. Instead, over the next twenty years, after the USSR had itself dissolved, Furman made himself into a one-man version of such an institute. Around Russia, 14 independent republics emerged, comprising virtually half of the population of the Soviet Union. By the time of his death in 2011 he had produced substantial work, typically though not invariably with local collaborators, on ten of them. Had he lived longer he would no doubt have completed the set.

Dmitri Furman
Dmitri Furman

After 1991, there were two comparative frameworks in which the evolution of Russia would be conventionally situated. In the West, it was the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe that formed the obvious bank of reference. In Russia itself the intelligentsia, which did not appreciate such downsizing, compared developments in the country – for better or worse – with the West. In focusing instead on the ex-Soviet republics themselves, from Central Asia to the Baltic, Furman made not just an unusual hermeneutic decision. He selected a way to consider post-communist Russia that was not only deeply unfashionable but uncomfortable for his compatriots. What could Kyrgyzstan have to teach a Muscovite? Of his admiration for Gorbachev, Furman once wrote: ‘I have never been a “patriot”. I thought one doesn’t choose one’s country, though if one is born in it, one should try to improve it; I never wanted to leave for the West. But I was never proud of my country, although, unlike many of my acquaintances, I did not consider it an utterly dreadful and hopeless place. On the other hand, I didn’t like associating with foreigners, for I always felt a little ashamed of being a Russian. It was only under Gorbachev that I started to experience a feeling hitherto unknown to me, pride in my country and its leader.’ But just as he first spoke for Gorbachev when everyone else had abandoned him, so he turned to the fate of the other societies that had made up the USSR after it had disappeared from the map, and they had become mental cast-offs in the outlook of his countrymen. He had never felt any attachment to the state created by Lenin, yet in the disinterested commitment with which he threw himself into this enterprise, he became something like the last voice of Soviet internationalism. When he died a friend remarked that the union of republics that had gone was his true homeland.

As with his studies in comparative religion, so his work on comparative post-Communism was not a mere taxonomy but a project at once of social science and political enlightenment, unified by a strong thematic intent. Russians needed to know far more than they did about their former fellow republics, and by doing so they would learn more about themselves, and the lessons they could draw from common experiences, and similar – or differing – patterns beyond them. The first republic he chose for his inquiry signalled that from the outset. Completed in August 1991, on the eve of the failed coup, and published soon afterwards, The Emergence of Political Organisations in Contemporary Estonia set what would become his agenda. At the turn of the 1990s, he wrote, the USSR offered a kind of controlled historical experiment for comparative research. Yet while there were in Moscow dozens of specialists on the United States, France or West Germany, there was not a single one on Georgia or Estonia. The Baltic republics, annexed by Stalin in 1940, formed a region of their own within the USSR. There political organisation under perestroika had first taken outspoken nationalist form. But unlike Russian nationalism, a self-destructive and anti-democratic force that could only lead to the end of the USSR, in Estonia there was no contradiction between the national and democratic movements. All three Baltic states would become democratic republics, but of the trio, elections had been most free in Estonia, the atmosphere calmest, and prospects for democracy best. That was in keeping with its past. If the interwar period had seen weak parties, rising fascist movements and a slide to authoritarian rule in all three, there were significant differences between them. In Lithuania, a Catholic society, political conflicts had been most violent, the regime of the local strongman – hailed by Mussolini – akin to models in the Mediterranean. Latvia had been pulled between Russian and Polish influences. Estonia, enjoying the benefits of a Lutheran church and Swedish connections, produced the mildest dictatorship of the three. The effects of this past were still visible: the region was like an ancient building, walls and ceiling decorated in intricate and variegated patterns, plastered over and daubed with a single colour (red), which when plaster and paint started to crumble could be discerned beneath them.

Returning to the Baltic states a decade later in a volume covering all three, Furman noticed how little interest they took in one another, resisting mutual comparison. That was natural enough, since comparison can lead to evaluation, and so a hierarchy potentially injurious either to neighbours or oneself. But, of course, if comparison along one social or cultural dimension can produce a given assessment, comparison along others may generate different judgments. None yields an all-purpose standard. The Baltic republics had enjoyed a number of past advantages under tsarism which in different ways had persisted after their reincorporation in the Soviet Union. Protestant and Catholic churches had spread literacy earlier. Both confessions were more favourable to independence of thought than Russian Orthodoxy. Moreover, the region had never known a native absolutism, while in the tsarist Russian empire, German and Polish nobles in the Ostland and Lithuania had possessed corporate privileges which their counterparts in Russia did not, rights on which they continued to insist in the face of later policies of Russification, transmitting to the indigenous populations below them, who enjoyed no such rights, a sense of the law absent in Russian popular culture.

Independence came contingently with the defeat of both Russia and Germany in the First World War, and with barons and szlachta gone, the smallness of the three countries gave each a social cohesion the vast Russian spaces lacked. Had they not known twenty years of statehood between the wars, increasing assimilation and further immigration might have reconciled them to existence within a federal Russia. As it was, four decades of Soviet rule could not extinguish their memory of independence, and paradoxically prepared them the better for achieving it with a democratic stability they had never known between the wars, since it unified what had once been ideologically very divided and polarised communities, and economically developed them to higher levels of income and education than Russia itself. Once perestroika opened a political space for local nationalism, it was Lithuania that took the lead, both because the Russian population was far smaller – Catholic birth rates offering less room for immigration – and because the Catholic Church could give the movement an immediate international support that was not available in the same way in Latvia or Estonia. But after independence. the roles were reversed, Lithuania becoming by economic and cultural indicators the laggard of the trio, and Estonia the lead.

Compared with Russia, however, all three countries were models of post-communist success, flourishing democracies with governments alternating in office and economies operating without system-wide corruption. Russians, Furman concluded, should not be discouraged but should take heart from their example. For what was striking was the force of attraction of the new Baltic republics for the Russians living in them. Although by no means always enjoying full citizenship, and inevitably the object of residual suspicion or prejudice, Russians in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as every poll made clear, appreciated the kind of life they could lead there, not a few having voted for independence from the outset. This was a preference that expressed, in Furman’s view, a deep dissatisfaction of Russians with themselves, at once a longing to be truly European and a disbelief that they would ever be so, often covered up with a swaggering chauvinism and xenophobic postures. In the Baltic states, however, Russians were showing that such dissatisfaction could, in the right conditions, be a spur to a spirit of enterprise and learning, a modern self-confidence based on new social habits and values. In due course, they might become like Chinese immigrants in the United States, all the more energetic and successful for the handicaps they had to overcome, and like them offering role models to compatriots at home.

These were later reflections. After his first study of Estonia, Furman turned his attention a year later to another neuralgic zone of nationalism in the last years of Gorbachev, where religion played a far more central role, and there was no such peaceful outcome. Fighting had broken out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988, with reciprocal ethnic cleansing escalating to full-scale war in late 1991. In the USSR, Armenia had not only produced a unitary national movement before any other republic; the scale and duration of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh exceeded that of any other struggle in the former Soviet lands. Yet the oppression of the Armenian population by the Azerbaijani authorities in whose territory it lay was not great enough to account for this. What could explain the peculiar intensity of Armenian national investment in the enclave? In Furman’s view, two fundamental historical experiences had shaped it. The first was the fateful choice of the Armenian clergy in the fifth century for a quasi-Arian version of Christianity, a primordial heresy for what would become the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. The option for a Miaphysite faith led to the creation of a sui generis script and liturgical language that cut Armenians off from the rest of Christendom, leaving them only with the weakest of links to Copts or Syriacs. The result was a fusion of ethnicity with religion not unlike that of the Jews, minus the conviction of being uniquely chosen by God. Armenia was also a perpetual buffer zone between Byzantium and Persia, and later the Ottoman and Safavid empires, criss-crossed by their armies, and subject to mass deportations, producing a worldwide diaspora of traders and financiers like that of the Jews, if without demographic loss of a homeland.

Then in the 20th century, the Armenians were victims of a Turkish genocide, as the Jews would be of a German. Since there was still a core Armenian territory, with the collapse of the tsarist and Ottoman empires in the First World War the goal of the Armenian national movement was an independent state in situ, rather than a colonisation in Palestine. But caught between the Russian Revolution and the threat from Turkey, the dominant Dashnak party opted for the safety of the Bolsheviks and integration into the Soviet Union – no match for the Zionist triumph in the creation of Israel. So the trauma of the genocide found no catharsis, its memory continuing to haunt a people and a diaspora possessed of a millennial cultural-historical identity. When perestroika came, Armenia had far the oldest continuous national movement in the USSR, going back to the last decade of the 19th century, and among the various republics could lead the way in the drive for independence. Once it was launched, however, the recovery of a virtually contiguous Armenian community under the rule of another Turkic oppressor became the nearest compensation within reach for the original trauma – the bid to retrieve it triggering Azeri pogroms against the Armenian minority in Azerbaijan proper, in a fatal reproduction of the trauma itself. The Moscow intelligentsia, Furman argued, had been thoroughly irresponsible in supporting Armenia down this road, which was bringing misery and dislocation, amid a flood of refugees in each direction, to both countries. The only path to peace was autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan.[1]

Of Azerbaijan, writing a decade later, Furman – a frequent visitor to Baku, where he had many Azeri friends – was at pains to dwell on the positive side of the record. Contrary to the expectations of prejudiced liberal opinion, it was not Islamic nationalism but a popular front that led the overthrow of the corrupt communist regime in place after the Soviet break-up, and won democratic elections in 1992. Its victory had not been durable, because of the strains of the war with Armenia, and the strength of clan ties in Azeri society. But there was a prehistory behind it that gave hope for the future. Azerbaijan was the Muslim society with the longest history of European colonisation in the world, which in the aftermath of the Great War had produced an advanced democratic movement, giving birth to a short-lived independent republic, with a flourishing cultural life – press, theatre, even opera. With the return of the Aliev clan to power in 1993, authoritarian rule had been restored. But the country’s chances of democratisation, Furman thought, were greater than in any of the Central Asian republics. Russia had a great deal at stake in a peaceful and progressive modernisation of the world of Islam, both because of the length of its borders with it, and the number of its citizens who were Muslim. Islamic fundamentalism was an illness of the passage to modernity, but it was a more epidermic, less dangerous variety than those Christianity had produced – fascism, Stalinism – in the 20th century. It was wrong to exaggerate its menace. The memory of Azeri democracy would not go away.


Writing in 1997-98 about the two Slav republics to break away from Russia, Furman viewed them with the same temperate optimism. Ukrainians and Russians were brother peoples, but sibling conflicts were normal. If the Russian empire survived the First World War as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian did not, that was because Bolshevik internationalism, which was genuine, held it together. Under Stalin, however the logic of an imperial space controlled from Moscow took over, and an earlier Ukrainian nationalism, never general but equally never extinguished, came to acquire a new intensity, becoming more anti-Russian than, say Estonian or Armenian nationalism, just because of the cultural closeness of the two communities. Here, less linguistically secure, nationalists needed to counterpose Ukrainian difference all the more strenuously. The result was the construction of a mythology of diuturnal Ukrainian national identity, and a countermyth denying that the Ukrainians were in any way distinct in Russia. Where the regional context was most hospitable to an ideology of Ukrainian nationalism, it was capable of inspiring prolonged guerrilla resistance – by their own lights, Bandera’s fighters put up a heroic struggle against Stalin’s rule in Galicia, lasting into the 1950s. Elsewhere, Soviet industrialisation and urbanisation led to much unforced Russification, even as official policies promoted the Ukrainian language.

When the Soviet Union broke up, the power of national ideologies was fading across much of the world, and in neither Russia nor Ukraine were they truly strong. A pragmatic de-ideologisation was visible on both sides. Russian attitudes to Ukraine shifted from denial of its existence as a separate nation to denial of its right to join Nato – milder than Spanish attitudes to Catalonia or the Basque country, or France to Corsica. Tensions certainly persisted. Culturally, there was reluctance among many educated Ukrainians to study the language, since Russian was so much richer in literature and thought, a tendency resented by other Ukrainians. But if Russian culture was ‘higher’ than Ukrainian, and the Russian nation older, that was no more an intrinsic superiority than the difference in height between two individuals. Politically, on the other hand, Ukraine was more advanced than Russia. The parliament in Kiev had not been bombarded by tanks, or the constitution fabricated by and for one man. The country had no special authoritarian tradition, and no great power mindset. It was true, however, that the imperfect degree of democracy it had achieved rested on a balance in the country between sharply distinct regions: if all of Ukraine were like Galicia or all like the Donbass, it would be less democratic. Yet these divisions were also, of course, a source of destabilisation. The Crimea, a special case whose allocation to Ukraine by Khrushchev was so recent, was no doubt a wound to Russia. But there were grounds for hoping that one day its status might be as uncontroversial as a Euxine Alsace.

Belarus was an odder story, though in a sense less depressing than at first sight. No former Soviet republic was less ready for independence: to the vaguest, least national self-consciousness – a far cry from Scotland or Catalonia – independence came not as the fruit of a struggle, but as a shock from the outside, as too did the arrival of the market. Some republics – the Baltics – were well prepared for both; others in the Caucasus or Central Asia just for independence. Belarus was equipped for neither. Ironically, its first genuine act of self-determination was the election of Lukashenko in 1994, the product of a popular reaction that owed nothing to either Moscow or the West, the revolt of the countryside and the least well-off against a thin liberal elite in Minsk. No one’s puppet, Lukashenko then entrenched himself in power by every available means. Paradoxically, however, his authoritarian rule awakened for the first time a real democratic tendency in Belarus, while Lukashenko himself could not operate altogether without the market. His regime could therefore be seen as a phase in the evolution of the people of Belarus from an ethnic group to a self-aware democratic nation, whose relations with Russia could and should in the long run resemble those between Canada and the United States.

Where Belarus acquired independence without lifting a finger for it, Chechnya – which had autonomous, not republican status in the USSR – was denied it in a sea of blood. Writing in 1999, after the first Chechen war launched and lost by Yeltsin, and just before the second unleashed by Putin, Furman had no hesitation in comparing the struggle of the Chechens against Russia to the valour of the Greeks against the Persian Empire. What had made it possible, and was little understood, were the unique characteristics of Chechen society within the ethnic maze of the North Caucasus. Unlike the neighbouring peoples – Kabards, Ingush, Ossetians and the rest – the Chechens had no chiefs or lords of a quasi-feudal type. Chechen society was made up instead of an egalitarian system of warrior-peasant clans, whose values of freedom and equality spelled at once a defiant refusal to obey others and a propensity to engage in destructive conflicts over goods or honour – epic solidarity and anarchic rivalry. The Russian empire required a huge effort to conquer the Chechens, because there were no elites to co-opt as elsewhere in the Caucasus. It took a struggle of 75 years, from 1785 to 1859, to crush Chechen resistance.

When tsarism collapsed in the First World War, the Chechens rose up for their independence, and when the Second World War came, Stalin deported them en masse to Central Asia, where one out of every three died. Against this background, there was no chance that Chechens would submit to the Russian Federation that Yeltsin carved out of the USSR in 1991, while every full-status republic was getting independence automatically. If Russians found it difficult to understand why – Furman, typically, told his compatriots – they would do well to imagine themselves colonised by China and deported to exile in the Gobi. However much they might come to appreciate the poetry of Li Bai and Du Fu, their deepest dream could only be liberation from Beijing.

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[1] Furman’s writing on the conflict at the time, influenced by his apprehension that its impact could only create difficulties for Gorbachev’s position in Moscow, and his dislike of anti-Muslim prejudice in the Russian intelligentsia, largely ignored its historical origins. In a later and fuller account, he would make some correction for this, admitting that the ‘relatively illegitimate and randomly drawn border between Armenia and Azeria’ gave Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh ‘every reason to consider the embodiment of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan to be an error liable to amendment’. The allocation of the enclave to Azerbaijan in 1923, violating Bolshevik promises that it would go to Armenia in keeping with the natural preferences of its population, was not random, however. It was a calculated move by Stalin to gratify the Kemalist regime in Turkey, whose diplomatic benevolence he sought.

[2] Furman wrote Kirgizskie Tsikly with Sanobar Shermatova, a courageous Kazakh journalist who died before the book was fully finished. It is no doubt to her that we owe the scathing portrait of Akaev, complete with the kinds of piquant detail that Furman generally eschewed.

[3] From The Promise of Salvation (2010). This calm work is genuinely comparative, though the aim of its comparisons is to demonstrate this definitional commonality of all religions rather than to determine the differences between them. Typical of Riesebrodt was his judgment that religion is not a necessary component of human culture and existence, but its disappearance was improbable, since natural misfortunes and economic crises, not to speak of mortality, were unlikely to vanish in the century to come. But there could be no doubt of its fading grip in Europe, where the Leitkultur was ‘no longer Christian but capitalist’.