Tradition and Why the Russians are Who They Are

First Published: 2020-10-18


No matter how reasoning and independent thinking we are and attempt to be, we can never completed escape from the customs and traditions of the society into which we are born and in which we live. 

In my article, I attempt to show some of the nature and impact of tradition on people in society by comparing the attitudes and desires that I observed in the early 1990s among Eastern Europeans like the Poles, Hungarians or Lithuanians in relation to the attitudes and desires that I saw in Moscow, Russia in those last years of the Soviet Union. 

Having only been under communist rule for less than half a century, many of the people in the Eastern European Soviet-bloc countries had living memories of a world before the Second World War, in which in those countries there had been the experiences and institutions (no matter how corrupted and compromised) of private property, market relationships, the concepts if often not the full practice of civil liberty and rule of law. These served as building blocks for the, especially, the younger generation to value and want a future of liberal freedoms and free enterprise, based on the traditions of ideas and attitudes that had been passed on to them from parents and grandparents.  

The Russians had only known hundreds of years of absolute monarchy in which individual freedom and property rights were not known and not understood in the same way as in the West. This was followed by 75 years of totalitarian communism, in which any who had a living memory of a pre-communist era had died or been killed by their Soviet masters. 

This I suggest helps us to better appreciate why (however imperfectly) the Eastern Europeans have attempted to move in the direction of market-oriented liberal societies, but the Russians have continued to want a “good Czar” – now in the form of Vladimir Putin – and take for granted a system of plunder and privilege and a life of “connections” rather than the Western notions of freedom and law.

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Tradition and Why the Russians are Who They Are

by Richard Ebeling

It is often said to be misplaced and inappropriate to use stereotypes when talking about people or entire nations. To do so is unfair to the wide diversity that exists among the individual citizens of any country over time or during any particular period of time. And this is no doubt true, but, nonetheless, there are such things as customs and traditions in society, and they do influence the character and qualities found among many of those who live under them. 

In his valuable study of Tradition (1981), the University of Chicago sociologist, Edward Shils (1910-1995), explained that for any set of traditions to persevere in a society, it generally requires three overlapping generations:

“Tradition – that which is handed down – includes material objects, beliefs about all sorts of things, images of persons and events, practices and institutions . . . Traditions are not independently self-reproductive or self-elaborating. Only living, knowing, desiring human beings can enact them and reenact them and modify them . . . At a minimum, two transmissions over three generations are required for a pattern of belief or action to be considered a tradition.” (pp. 12, 14-15)

What the parent has taught the child, for instance, is then passed on by them to their own children in later years, as well as what may be shared directly by that young person’s grandparent as well. It links the past to the present, and then into the future through the children and grandchildren, who in turn will do the same when they become adults one day and pass on what they had learned and taken from their parents and grandparents. 

Eastern Europeans Lived Under Communism for 50 Years

Perhaps something that I observed when traveling in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s will make this a little clearer. While traveling in Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania, for instance, I noticed a greater sense of an understanding, appreciation, and desire for a free society and its institutions than anything that I, in general, observed among people in Moscow. 

In these former Soviet bloc countries and in Lithuania (even though at the time Lithuania was still a part of the Soviet Union), communism has only ruled for half a century or less. These countries had come under Stalin’s web of Soviet control only at the end of the Second World War as a result of the advances made by the Red Army as it defeated Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front.

Communist governments were imposed on them within two or three years following the end of the conflict in Europe in 1945. Lithuania had been annexed in 1940 by the Soviet Union as part of Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler to carve up Eastern Europe in the event of war breaking out. (See my article, “How Lithuania Helped Take Down the Soviet Union”.) 

Memories of a Pre-Communist Past

All of these countries had citizens with living memories of a world before Soviet-imposed communism and socialist central planning. Grandparents and parents had been able to tell their children and grandchildren about a way of life before the Iron Curtain had made them the “captive nations” of Marxian totalitarianism. The elders in these lands could tell and explain to the young what it had been like to live in a society with private property, degrees of private and competitive enterprise, and the idea, if not always the practice, of a rule of law and respected civil liberties. 

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe were far from being fully open, democratic societies in the period between the two World Wars. In some cases, it was very much the opposite. But there was, nonetheless, a stark difference between living under forms of authoritarian regimes that restricted and limited various freedoms, and the comprehensive totalitarianism of Stalin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the Soviet Union. 

Children and grandchildren in Eastern Europe could be told about owning one’s own land and earning and keeping the profits from its productive use that had not been taxed away. The younger generations could have it explained that father or grandfather had had a private business, had supplied something that others wanted in the marketplace, and made a living for the family through honest work. 

Before the war, a wide variety of books could be bought and read that had been published at home or abroad, with their authors fairly freely speaking a good deal of what was on their mind; newspapers were published and while there may have been some politically sensitive subjects editors and journalists needed to be careful in writing about, it was nonetheless the case that people could speak their mind within a wide latitude on many subjects without running afoul of the law. 

Taxes could be burdensome, domestic regulations could make business difficult in various ways, and trade protectionism made some goods more expensive or not easy to buy due to governmental policies fostering political and economic nationalism, as well as privileges for special interest groups in favor with those in political power. 

But, even with all this, the concepts of private property, private enterprise, market prices and competition were practiced and partly respected, however imperfectly and corruptly. The idea of human rights and civil liberties were understood, even if governments breached them in numerous ways in the name of political power and assertions of “the national interest.” 

Of course, along with these traditions, as we have more recently seen, has been intergenerational biases of religious intolerance, anti-Semitism, and populist nationalism, all of which were all too present in interwar Central and Eastern Europe and earlier.

Russians Had No Tradition of Personal Freedom and Civil Liberties

How very different were the Russians in Moscow. There were always a small handful of people in Imperial Russia before the Russian Revolution who were classically liberal in spirit and ideas, though many of them left Russia in the 19th century to live abroad because the politics and culture of their native land was too stultifying. Such writers as Jacques Novikow (1849-1912), for instance, who was a pioneer in sociology among the lines of Herbert Spencer and was a dedicated proponent of peace and prosperity through a worldwide system of free trade, but he spent much of his adult life in Paris. 

But Russia had known nothing but centuries of conquerors and absolutist Czars, under which power was arbitrary, and property was a privilege given by the ruler and always subject to revocation for disobedience or dissent. Civil liberties were unknown in the Western sense, political rights were virtually non-existent, religious persecution was widespread, and government censors watched over every word written, while the Czar’s secret police surveilled everything said or done. 

This was followed by nearly 75 years of communist tyranny, under which every nook and cranny of life was planned, dictated and determined by the Soviet regime. Where you would live in the country and the apartment assigned to you. What education and job would be your lifetime fate to look forward to. Which “spontaneous” demonstrations and meetings organized by the Communist Party you would be required to attend. All these were dictated, along with everything else that was centrally planned by the State.

Would there be a knock on the door in the middle of the night, and would you or everyone in that assigned apartment disappear as an “enemy of the people”? How many neighbors and friends and family members would you be expected to inform on to stay in the good graces of the Party so as to keep yourself out of prison or to get that better apartment or job promotion? Who could you trust to whom you might speak your mind or share an illegal novel or work of history, without putting yourself and your family in jeopardy? 

After three-quarters of a century of Soviet rule, everyone who had a memory of a world before communism in Russia, even that autocratic Russia of absolutist Czars, were all dead, some from just old age, but many at the hands of the State. There were few grandfathers or fathers to tell their offspring about private farming; most had been executed, or starved into submission, or died in the labor camps of the GULAG as part of the forced collectivization of the land in the early 1930s. (See my review of, “GULAG: A History”.)

There were no elders to share knowledge and experience about private enterprise and the blessings of making a living in the marketplace. The last remnants of the Russian business community had been expropriated and killed or arrested with the end to all private ownership and the introduction of the five-year central plan in the late 1920s. (See my review of, “Russia’s Last Capitalists”.) 

Civil liberties meant parroting the Party line and voting in the one-Party elections. Religious freedom involved memorizing your school lessons on “scientific atheism” and the laws of dialectical materialism. Equality before the law represented an equal share of little or nothing, based on what you were allocated as part of the central planning – unless you were among the Party and governmental and planning elites with access to all those special items and opportunities denied the proletarian masses. (See my article, “Socialism: Marking a Century of Death and Destruction”.)

The Tradition of Passively Waiting for the Next Czar

When a clique of communist hardliners attempted a coup in August of 1991 against Mikhail Gorbachev’s moderate political and economic reforms of the Soviet system, I witnessed in Moscow several thousand, especially young people, who came to the defense of a hoped-for post-communist democracy, and who stared down hundreds of Soviet tanks that had surrounded the Russian Parliament building for three days before the coup failed. 

But with sullen faces and stooped shoulders, most of the millions of Muscovites just trudged down the streets going about the tiring routine of trying to find scarce foods and other everyday items in the State retail stores in the city. In the government bread stores, long lines of people waiting their turn to, hopefully, get a loaf or two to take home silently listened to the radio to find out who their next political masters might be and whether the next Red Czar would or would not make their existence a bit better. (See my article, “Witness to the End of Soviet Power: Twenty-five Years Ago”.)

The Traditions of Corruption, Connections, and False Friendships

The customs and traditions passed down from fathers to sons and then to grandchildren after hundreds of year of monarchical absolutism and then 75 years of Soviet totalitarianism were passivity, obedience, acceptance, and distrust for anyone or anything that might threaten the safety and security of the little the government gave and seemingly guaranteed. 

The system abounded in corruption, hypocrisy, manipulation, and two-faced relationships with many with whom one interacted on an everyday basis. There were friendships based on honesty and trust; but most were false or artificial friendships nurtured only because knowing the right person and showing how much you valued their “friendship” with gifts and favors assured your ability to use them to gain access to some of the things that would be impossible to get without the right “connections.” Knowing the tacit and unspoken menu of how “grateful” you needed to be to get various things otherwise outside your normal reach was all part of the unwritten rules of Soviet interpersonal conduct. 

Eastern Europeans and Russians Value Freedoms Differently

Why should anything in Russia be surprising, then, when this has been the intergenerational culture of traditions that created Russian society, and which persists for the most part even nearly 30 years after the downfall of the communist regime?

The Pew Research Center released in February 2020 the results of a 34-country international survey of people’s attitudes and beliefs toward democracy and free institutions. A noticeable contrast exists between such attitudes and beliefs in former Eastern European Soviet bloc countries like Hungary, Poland and Lithuania in comparison to Russia today, even though all of these countries can be said to fall short in terms of a full and wide support for some of these freedoms. 

For instance, when asked how many thought a fair and impartial judiciary was important in a free society, 95 percent of the Hungarians said yes, as did 72 percent of the Poles, and 69 percent of the Lithuanians. But among the Russians, an affirmative response was given by only 63 percent in the survey.

Fair, competitive and regular political elections were considered important by 87 percent of the Hungarians, 63 percent of the Poles, and 57 percent of the Lithuanians. On the other hand, only 40 percent of the Russians said so. The difference in views was also shown in response to the question as to whether opposition parties free from government interference were essential for an open society. Sixty-eight percent of the Hungarians in the survey said yes, as did 49 percent of the Poles and 47 percent of the Lithuanians. While only 23 percent of the responding Russians agreed with this. 

While 87 percent of the Hungarians said free speech was essential for a free society, and 64 percent of the Lithuanians and 61 percent of the Poles agreed with them, only 45 percent of the Russians considered free speech important. Likewise, in Hungary 63 percent of people said that human rights organizations free from government interference were desirable, and 57 percent in Poland and 55 percent in Lithuania concurred, while only 31 percent in Russia shared that view. 

Flipping these positive answers over, of course, suggests that sizable numbers in Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania do not value or consider important these aspects of a free society. But the Hungarians, Poles and Lithuanians seem like beacons of liberty on these issues compared to the Russians. 

Traditions Pointing to the Future and Others Back to the Past

The living memory of a world before communism and the lived reality under communism in contrast to that clearly has provided part of that intergenerational understanding, value and desire for many of the institutions of a free society. In the decade following the fall of the Iron Curtain across Europe, many Eastern Europeans grasped the opportunity to move toward and reintroduce many of the political and economic structures identified with personal freedom and commercial liberty, even if not fully according to some classical liberal free market ideal. 

The Russians did not. It is true that if you go to Moscow or St. Petersburg the people dress like those in any other Western European or American major city. Stores, boutiques, and restaurants abound with the same things seen in other modern and developed parts of the world. The reasonably middle class live comfortably and the rich even in embarrassing palatial lavishness in and around Moscow. While, on the other hand, inside these cities and certainly in most of the rest of the country poor conditions and even poverty in rural areas continue to persist, in spite of three decades without Soviet socialism. 

If many Eastern Europeans inherited traditions of honesty, trustworthiness, respect for contracts, fair dealing, private enterprise, and the rule of law that have helped them reconstruct their societies after the end of communism, this has not been true for the Russians. “Pull,” plunder, privilege, and political power are the traditions that continue to guide everyday life in far too many corners of Russian society. 

Why expect anything much else, when that is all that generations of Russians have known and lived in terms of, whether under Czars or Commissars? These words sound harsh. During my travels in the former Soviet Union, I cherished the friendliness and friendships I made with many of the Russians I came to know. I found most Russians, on an individual basis, to be open, generous, kind, supportive, and intelligent people. 

Among the Soviet-era intelligentsia with whom I interacted in Moscow, I had conversations, discussions, and debates on questions concerning not just politics and economics, but literature, music, art, philosophy, and history that had a depth and intensity that I have rarely experienced among academics and intellectuals in the United States. Their interdisciplinary interests and knowledge were far more “catholic” than the vast majority of those who care about ideas in similar American circles. I sometimes felt that I had been transported back to an earlier Enlightenment era populated by Renaissance-like men and women. 

But even among them I found a paternalist mindset and collectivist streak about man, society and government. Many Poles and Hungarians who I talked with on serious matters were often looking forward to breaking out of the straitjacket of planning and control that was now opening up for them. Far too many Russians wanted to know how post-Soviet employments would be “planned” and who would guarantee their existence and pay. 

The Hungarians and Poles were interested in discovering market opportunities, while, again, far too many Russians really seemed to still want socialism, only with the “human face” of more goods to buy with better guaranteed pay. These Eastern Europeans had inherited traditions about how to think about society that looked to the future and positive improvement. The Russians still lived by traditions shackling them to a past of power, privilege, and political protection against the uncertainties of life. 

Eastern Europeans hated their communist political masters and had healthy senses of suspicion and distrust of those in government positions. Russians, as was a long tradition in that country, only were hoping that the next ruler would be the “good Czar” rather than another “bad” one. For many of them, they have found that good Czar in Vladimir Putin, who is loved by a large majority and allowed to abuse power, manipulate ideas, and kill his opponents, even within steps of the Kremlin. Russian dissenting groups are crushed, opposition political parties are disenfranchised, and anti-Putin demonstrations peter out with little popular support or staying power. 

As much as we as individuals and groups of people may try to and think we have untied ourselves from the ideas, customs and traditions of the past, to think anew and independently of what has preceded us, we can never completely uncouple ourselves from the cultural inheritance into which we have been born. That does not mean we are slaves or deterministic clones of the past, but it leaves a mark on us and the others with whom we share the society in which we live, think, plan, and act. 

It sometimes can help us to understand why and how things happen in society. It enables to see why it is that when we try to conjure up a picture in our mind of, say, the “typical” modern-day German, he ends up having some features and characteristics that can be found in Julius Caesar’s commentaries written more than two thousand years ago in the century before the birth of Christ. 

It also serves as the steppingstone to understand how ideas, customs and traditions in fact do change over time so that the present is not just a replica of the past any more than the future will be one of the present. And how it is that both the “good” and the “bad” in the past may be transformed into something very different as generations come and go.

Dr. Richard Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Dr. Ebeling is the author of Austrian Economics and Public Policy: Restoring Freedom and Prosperity  (2016); Monetary Central Planning and the State (2015) as well as the author of Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition (2010) and Austrian Economics and the Political Economy of Freedom (2003). And the editor of the three-volume, Selected Writing of Ludwig von Mises, published by Liberty Fund.

He is also the co-editor of When We Are Free (Northwood University Press, 2014), an anthology of essays devoted to the moral, political and economic principles of the free society, and co-author of the seven-volume, In Defense of Capitalism (Northwood University Press, 2010-2016).

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