With the Winter Olympics looming up in the calendar, I’ve been trying to sort out some contradictory thoughts on Russia. It’s not easy. But there again, it never was. Pre 1914 there is a rough consensus that Russia was an imperial power with an autocratic feudal system of government governing over a vast, backward hinterland but with a rapidly expanding capitalist economy in the metropolitan centres of Moscow and St Petersburg. Then came two revolutions right on top of each other. Things got really messy then.  A war-mongering liberal democratic government quickly being supplanted by a Marxist revolutionary government. But was it Marxist? Yes, if you adhere to the Leninist version of Marxism but no, if you regard, as some theorists do, that November 1917 was more of a putsch rather than a genuine socialist advance. ‘You can’t cheat history’, argued some classical Marxists. ‘Every major nation must pass through a capitalist phase of history and it would be impossible to build socialism on the foundations of Russian economic and cultural backwardness’. The Leninist faction vehemently disagreed and for a while, roughly seventy years, they held sway.

Even this crude synopsis is open to any number of interpretations, disagreements, refutations and bitter divisions. Simply put, the Leninists split into two irreconcilable factions – one headed by Stalin, who put the emphasis on ‘socialist’ consolidation within the Soviet Union, the other by Trotsky who advocated a more internationalist approach. On the ground, Stalin won hands down, but the ideological ripples of Trotskyism reverberate to this day. Of course, ideology and humans being what they are, even Trotskyism fragmented into a thousand competing strands. One of those strands even going so far as to suggest that the Soviet Union was not in fact Socialist, deformed or otherwise, but was in fact, State Capitalist. Oh, and I nearly forgot, there was a dramatic falling out between ‘socialist’ Russia and ‘socialist’ China.

All this may seem ancient history and of interest only to  academics and left wing grouplets, but if nothing else this highly contentious history does help inform one’s own analysis of Russia today. Is there anything remotely socialist, either materially or ideologically, that has remained intact from the old Soviet Union?  Is the Russia today, complete with its oligarchs, its authoritarian central government and its reactionary social policies, as reactionary as US imperialism or perhaps even more reactionary?  

It’s fairly easy to take pot shots at Putin’s Russia given his authoritarian strutting. Recently Putin has held highly contentious national elections, has jailed a female rock band, has passed draconian anti-gay legislation and just the other day, arrested 30 Greenpeace activists on charges of terrorism. No worse you might argue, than the US, that jails one in three Black American youths, makes criminals out of democratic whistle-blowers, and invades countries at will. Even as we blog, some unsuspecting village in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen is likely being the target of a deadly, pilotless, US drone. Clearly, Russian is not alone in its total disregard for basic human rights.

So, with the Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup shortly to descend on Mother Russia, what should be the attitude of progressive minded people – boycott, participate and protest, or simply shrug and get on with it? Either way, I can’t help feeling that Europe and the US are significantly culpable for the current state of affairs. Had the West been a little more magnanimous, a little less vindictive, a little more pragmatic even, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia might have become an integral part of the European Union and other international bodies. Instead it has been treated at best with suspicion and at worst, as a pariah. Little wonder that paranoia seems to be the order of the day in Russia. At this very moment, western machinations are at work in the Ukraine, seeking to prise that once close ally of Russia into the Western imperialist encampment. On top of that, Russia is surrounded with hostile Muslim Republics that are easy prey for militant jihadists. When the US launches its never-ending ‘war on terror’ that is ok, but when Russia lashes out, or merely defends itself, that is roundly condemned in the western press. All this blatant one-sidedness cannot help but make one feel a modicum of sympathetic for the Russian predicament. If they submit meekly they will be swamped by western imperialism, if they assert themselves on the world stage, they are accused of all manner of international crimes.

Well, I guess the easy way out is just to say ‘a plague on all their houses’ and sit back and wait for the next revolutionary surge. Just which continent this might arise from is impossible to say – perhaps even from Russia itself. Somewhere in the Russian DNA there must still be a flicker of pride in what they once heroically attempted in the name of all humanity. That it got mired in corruption, criminality and petty ideological feuding is secondary to the fact that it was attempted at all. Marx was quite insistent that humanity would keep returning to unfulfilled social tasks, and looking around the world today it is impossible to deny the desperate need for socialist cooperation to trump capitalist competition. The alternative can only be worsening barbarism.

In the meantime, we are stuck with a financially corrupt and socially authoritarian Sochi Winter Olympics complete with military style surveillance that is in danger of turning a sporting festival into a sick parody of the Olympic ideal. But then again, that process started long ago. Russia is only following in the corrupting footsteps of Salt Lake City.

End JPK copyright 10/10/13

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