In the late 1990s, I lived just outside Naples, Italy, in a house overlooking Lake Averno. Despite the occasional whiff of sulphurous fumes, it was quite the most beautiful spot I have ever lived in. The poet Virgil had a different view of the place, describing it as the entrance to the Underworld, a place so poisoned by volcanic gases that no birds flew. ‘Easy is the descent to Avernus,’ Virgil wrote, ‘for the door to the Underworld lies open both day and night. But to retrace your steps and return to the breezes above – that’s the task, that’s the toil.’
The Naples area was in many ways anarchic. But having just spent 3 months living and working in Moscow, I felt surprisingly at home there. When a plane lands, most Canadians remain dutifully seated until the plane has stopped taxiing and the seatbelt sign goes off. Back in the 1990s that certainly wasn’t true of either Muscovites or Neapolitans. As soon as the plane had appeared to halt, they would leap up and start yanking stuff out of the overhead lockers, while fraught airline attendants rushed around trying to stop them. Once I was sitting next to a Neapolitan woman who was so desperate to get her bag she actually climbed over me. I’ve mentioned before the concept of pravosnoznanie (legal consciousness), the lack of which philosopher Ivan Ilyin believed made Russia ill-suited to liberal democracy. In examples like this, you get a sense of what he was talking about.
In his 1993 book Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Robert Putnam shed light on this phenomenon by comparing identical government institutions in northern and southern Italy. He determined that the former were more effective than the latter because while in Northern Italy there was a highly developed civil society, in southern Italy, the social focus was the family. As a result, northerners were more engaged in the success of their communities, there was a higher degree of trust between groups and between citizens and their government, rules tended to be followed, and government was less corrupt.
Fast forward to 2016, and we see a somewhat similar thesis about Russia published this week by Anna Arutunyan, entitled ‘Only connect: Russia between individualism and collectivism’. Arutunyan begins with a story of a tourist agent in northern Russia whose effort to take people sailing fails because, despite taking the agent’s money, the sailor/tour guide fails to turn up. ‘I changed my mind’, he says later, ‘What? I am a free man. I want to be alone with the sea’. Arutunyan identifies this as an example of a Russian type of extreme individualism which contrasts with the normal cliché of Russian collectivism.
Russia’s problem, Arutunyan maintains, isn’t that it lacks the formal institutions required for a successful country. Rather it is a ‘problem of lack of social bonds.’ Opinion polls show that Russians don’t trust one another, define themselves as ‘their own person’, and volunteer much less than most other Europeans. In short, they are much like the southern Italians described by Putnam. The corruption which marks both places is thus a product of society, rather than of corrupt leaders. Indeed, the latter are merely the inevitable by-product of the former.
Arutunyan dates this problem back centuries. She conjectures that poor soil conditions in central and northern Russia meant that for most of Russian history peasants could barely make ends meet. Subsistence farming had two effects; a strong collective effort was required to survive; and individuals had a strong incentive to leave the community to seek better conditions elsewhere. The second of these phenomena led communities to adopt oppressive measures to prevent their members from fleeing. ‘Such rigid bonds within the community hindered effective ties with other communities, contributing to a culture of distrust,’ writes Arutunyan. As Russia urbanized and industrialized, the distrust then spread from the villages to the towns, and tainted relations between the educated urban elites and others. Soviet policies then perpetuated what Arutunyan describes as Russia’s peculiar combination of collectivism and ‘extreme individualism’. She writes:
The dichotomy of individualism versus collectivism … does not seem to work because extreme cases of both tendencies are present in equal measure. Recent studies on collectivist values suggest that Russians tend to ascribe to those values more than Americans or Europeans, but realities on the ground demonstrate that they do not act on those values. Collectivist values are strong, but in practice, social capital is weak.
Arutunyan notes that new types of community are developing in Russia, and remarks that, ‘The clues where Russia is headed next … lie not so much with the Kremlin’s unpredictable actions, but on a local level with the relationship patterns inside these nascent communities.’ If this analysis is correct, then the development of civic virtue at the lowest level will do more to transform Russia than changing leaders or reforming political institutions at the top.