21 January 1994 - 23 January 1994

Russia's Search for a Post-Communist Identity

Chair: The Hon James H Billington

We had discussed the Former Soviet Union at Ditchley in each of our last two conference years. We now sought to look more closely at Russia itself: what sort of nation, what sort of neighbour was it likely to be? With the encouragement and generous support of the Eurasia Foundation, we had participants from twelve countries, including welcome Ditchley “firsts” from Moldavia and Uzbekistan.

We saw in today’s Russia a landscape of enormous, even chaotic, complexity. There were remarkable assets and achievements on the credit side - fair elections, an electorate playing a reel part, a peaceful change in large elements of central government; high levels of education and much skilled technology; huge natural resources, and a pivotal geographical location; open media, and a liberated flow of information; privatisation, on a considerable scale, even if not everywhere of true vintage by Western standards.

But then the “buts” began. The economic scene was for the most part deeply, depressing - output still falling, inflation and unemployment rising, the defence sector not succeeding in conversion but not simply discardable; huge problems in healthcare and social services, and with ageing populations; mounting (and increasingly-organised) crime; cumulative popular discontent vividly and disconcertingly expressed in massive electoral support for a wild-sounding demagogue offering fantasy, even if the voters did not truly envisage him as ruler; the nascent liberal political movement in disarray.

We recognised that Russia, collectively, must still be in deep shock with many of its citizens only just beginning to grasp the true nature and magnitude of the upheaval. Three generations had lived under Marxism, compared with the defeat-ended twelve totalitarian years from which Germany had had to recover. There was no tradition of individualism; expectation was ingrained that ultimately the state would provide everything, even (tellingly) the market system. In the turmoil of change, there was no homogeneity of thought, no ready national consensus on what sort of entity their state should or could be.

In this situation there was a clamant need for a confident élite to bring forward a new set of ideas to shape the future - preferably a set which, for example, could break away from the traditional mistrust of private property and wealth in possessions (like the resources of production and distribution) beyond the purely personal - but neither the ideas nor the élite could yet be identified. We wondered briefly about the part the churches might play; opinions differed, but few of these expected crucial input from that direction, at least until generational change had put new leaders in place of those seen as tarnished by past involvement.

How was the Communist past itself to be dealt with? Elements persisted inescapably; for example, the nomenklatura held on - acknowledged or not - in many fields, as often the only people who knew how to run things. There was, we heard, no general disposition to find culprits or scapegoats, nor indeed to feel collective repentance; most people had simply turned their eyes away - in some sense all perhaps had suffered.

Institutions were of key importance; and it was no surprise that they now presented manifold problems. The new constitution, some thought, was a clear advance on its predecessors; it was not (despite some snapshots) a recipe for rule purely by Presidential decree; it had a fair chance of being internalised and accepted by the people as their own. Others doubted this: it had not been arrived at by real consultation and debate; its endorsement (with no alternative offered) had been by a relatively modest proportion both of voters and of the Federation’s republics; its obscurities and overlaps could not long survive untreated.

Moreover, so the pessimists feared the constitution was underpinned neither by the attitudes nor by the accompanying entities which established Western democracies took for granted. It was far from certain that the armed forces felt allegiance to the constitution rather than to whatever seemed to them effective leadership of the state; more widely, there was little deep popular sense of the law as above the state, or of customary law and the division of powers in a balanced order. The supporting and mediating institutions of civil society scarcely existed; tolerance of minority concerns was precarious; and - of particular practical importance - the concept of coherent political party based on shared interest and representation had yet to take root as effective democracy needed. These shortcomings spilled over into the economic sphere, with little general understanding of personal responsibility and of the habits of mind which a modem industrial nation needed.

We found offsetting encouragement in signs of growing confidence and competence at regional and local levels, as Moscow-dominated centralism faded. The pattern was uneven; both physical resources and business skills (for example in banking) varied widely; and new relationships between Moscow and the regions had yet to take settled form. There were nevertheless incipient success stories, and the West would do well to develop a more differentiated understanding of the scene.

None of us saw likelihood that the Russian Federation itself would fragment, at least unless Moscow developments took a drastically anti-democratic turn. The more pressing questions concerned whether Russia would stay content or at least acquiescent with its present boundaries, and how it would handle relations with its ex-Soviet neighbours - the “near-abroad”. The Union break-up, although essentially non-violent, was inevitably traumatic - as one participant said, the British surrendered an empire over half a century; Russia lost hers within a week. Few however thought that re-conquest or re-absorption were concrete aspirations - Russia had enough problems without that, and even the tension over the Crimea need not re-open the subject. The twenty-five- million Russian diaspora outside the Federation (but mostly contiguous with it) posed worries; Russia was conscious, we were told, that more Russians had died in Tajikistan than those of any one nationality in Bosnia, and resentful that the West had been silent on anti-Russian “ethnic cleansing” by pressure, if nothing worse, in the Baltic states and some southern republics; but it was perhaps telling that these twenty-five million had not been given Russian citizenship. Attitudes might nevertheless still change damagingly if there were dramatic anti-Russian calamities in the “near abroad”.

Even however if there were no deliberate re-absorptive neo-imperialism in positions of influence (and a few participants voiced unease about the instincts of the armed forces in this regard) there were powerful impulses - often natural and indeed sometimes positively sought by neighbours, like Belarus - towards special (albeit not uniform) relationships, risking drift into assumed droit de regard, with other CIS states. There were massive economic interdependencies, and Russia’s porous borders entailed widespread “infective” problems, as over organised crime (or, much more debatably, Islamic influences). It was, many argued, unrealistic to expect Russia to be indifferent to grave instabilities around it; and there was no prospect that the West would help materially to deal with these. The proper Western aim, on this view, was not that Russia should be wholly inactive around its borders but that any Russian action should accord with international law; be set in a recognised, open and monitored context of UN or perhaps CSCE legitimation; and accept always the true sovereignty of its new neighbours.

The effort to see Russia’s problems around its borders understandingly must at least be partnered, so another strand of opinion vigorously warned, by a cool recognition that there were many elements in the Russian situation that could produce - we were not agreed on whether or how far they were already producing in reality as distinct from rhetoric - an awkward neighbour and an uncooperative interlocutor (even perhaps an incoherent one, given institutional turmoil - “we have lost a mailbox as well as an enemy”) in the wide international scene. It might be obvious enough to the West that Slavic-oriented isolationism was not a meaningful option for Russia in the modem world, but the mirage might yet offer awkward temptation. The West should be ready to talk to Russia as to a great and civilised country; but it should talk clearly, and with a robust sense of its own interests.

Time did not allow any substantial discussion of Russia’s eastward interfaces, as with China and Japan; it was suggested indeed that Russia’s own attention, always shaped by a predominant sense of Europeanness, had in recent times scarcely been focused there. Similarly, we did not consider at length Western policies for aid. We did hear warnings that the volume of this, given limitations of resource (and political will?) would be marginal to the scale of Russian economic tasks; and opinions that what there was ought increasingly to be directed towards demonstration and example-setting at the micro-economic level, especially in the regions. In other fields, the merits were urged of fresh support for the development of culture and of new institutions; and we were reminded of the need, not merely continuing but now intensified, for Western countries to put extensive effort into study and sensitive understanding of the entire Russian scene.

We took no vote as between optimists and pessimists. Prediction of the Russian future was, we knew, multifariously difficult for everyone within and without, though most of us felt uncomfortably sure that things would get worse overall before they got better. The pessimists were keenly aware of the apparent head-on collision between the economically necessary and the politically practicable. The optimists sought to cling to the assets of a deep historical sense of identity; vast underlying resources; a readiness to learn; a habitual ability to endure. None of us thought that wholesale reversion to pre-Gorbachev days need be feared. Perhaps a special Russian version of muddling through was the best hope?

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: The Hon James H Billington
Librarian of Congress


Professor Ronald Amann
Dean, Faculty of Commerce and Social Science (1989-91), University of Birmingham

Sir Rodric Braithwaite GCMG
KCMG, Foreign Affairs Adviser to Prime Minister (1992-93);

Sir John Coles KCMG
Permanent Under Secretary of State Designate, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Dr Iain Elliot
Director, The Britain - Russia Centre, London

Mr Nik Gowing
Diplomatic Editor, Independent Television News (ITN) Channel 4 News and The World This Week

Professor Geoffrey A Hosking
Professor of Russian History, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London

Sir John Killick GCMG
Ambassador to the. USSR (1971-73)

Mr John Lloyd
Financial Times Moscow Office

Mr David Logan CMG
Assistant Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Professor Peter B Reddaway
Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and a member, The Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, The George Washington University, Washington DC

Mr Xan Smiley
Political Editor, The Economist

Mr Martin Walker
The Guardian, Washington Office

Sir Patrick Wright GCMG
Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Head of the Diplomatic Service (1986-91)

Dr John Chipman
Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London

Mr John Coleman
Member, Board of Directors. European Bank for Reconstruction and Development

HE Mr Jeremy K B Kinsman
Ambassador of Canada in Moscow, accredited to Russia and to several independent republics in Central Asia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union

Madame Marie Mendras
Research Fellow, National Foundation for Political Science (CNRS), Paris

Ambassador Klaus Bech
Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany, Moscow (1989-93);

Herr Klaus Neubert
Head, Eastern Department, Foreign Office, Bonn

Dr Klaus Segbers
Head of Department for East European and Post-Soviet Studies, Foundation of Science and Politics, Ebenhausen

Dr Yutaka Akino
Senior Research Associate, European Studies Center, Institute for East-West Studies, Prague

Mr Kyoji Komachi
Japanese Diplomat

Mr Nicolae Chirtoaca
Chairman, Moldovan Liberal Party

Dr Iver B Neumann
Russian and European analyst, Norwegian Foreign Policy Institute, Oslo

HE Dr Andrzej Ananicz
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Warsaw

Professor Andrzej Drawicz
Head of Department, Slavonic Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences;

Professor Vyacheslav Vs Ivanov
Professor, Slavic Department, University of California, Los Angeles

Mr Andrei Klimov
Businessman; Head of Entrepreneurs’ Association, Perm

Miss Julia Latynina
Author and journalist

Mr Vitali A Naishul
President, Institute for the Study of Russian Economy

Professor Leonid Smirnyagin        
Visiting Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford

Dr Galina Starovoitova
Peace Fellow, US Institute for Peace, Washington DC

Mr Olexandr Olexandrovich Chaliy
Head, Legal and Treaty Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kiev.

Mr Igor Litvin
Deputy Chairman, First Territorial Division (relations with the Russian Federation and CIS), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kiev

Dr Dourbek Akhmedov

Economic Development Institute Coordinator for Central Asia, The World Bank, Consultant, Tashkent

Dr William B Bader
President, The Eurasia Foundation

The Hon Robert D Blackwill
Lecturer in Public Policy, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Dr Marshall I Goldman
Associate Director, Russian Research Center, Harvard University

Dr John P Hardt
Associate Director and Senior Specialist, Post-Soviet Economics, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress

The Hon Jack F Matlock
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of the Practice of International Diplomacy, Columbia University

Dr Sarah E Mendelson
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Research Program in International Security, Center of International Studies, Princeton University (1993-94

Lieutenant General William G Odom
Director, National Security Studies, Hudson Institute and adjunct professor, Yale University

Professor Martha Brill Olcott
Professor of Political Science, (Chairman of Department, 1984-90 and faculty member, 1975-), Colgate University and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia PA;