Dmitry Furman was the leading Russian scholar who compared the political systems of post-Soviet states. He died in 2011, deeply loved and respected by Russians who are committed to democracy. When his friend Pavel Palazhchenko1 posted this memory of Furman on Facebook, we requested and received permission to publish it here, for its insights are still relevant today.
Translated by Alexey Prokhorenko
Ten years ago, right after the tragedy in Beslan,2 Dmitry Furman wrote:
“Our troubles do not stem from a poor president who pursues a bad policy. Putin is neither any worse nor any more stupid than others. None of us is a saint or a sage, after all. His policy is certainly erroneous. However, identifying a policy as erroneous is one thing, and pretending that you know which one would be appropriate is another. We have to deal with an immensely complicated reality, and no one could have found the proper path in it, no one could have avoided mistakes, failures, and misfortunes if they were in Putin’s place. Our present situation is dreadful, not just because the president has repeatedly been mistaken: In a system where the president is irreplaceable, every mistake becomes irredeemable. One mistake entails another; they accumulate and eventually put us on a path that leads to a catastrophe.
“It is always difficult for everyone to admit that they have done something mean or stupid, and therefore are guilty of thousands of innocent deaths, both in the past and in the future. One cannot even be expected or compelled to do so. What should one do in that case—commit suicide or become a monk? Psychologically, a person encumbered with such a burden of past decisions as that lying on Putin can only move forward. The further he goes, though, the more difficult it gets for him to leave the chosen path. Putin could have avoided the war in Chechnya. Once it broke out, he could have stopped it by making an agreement with Aslan Maskhadov.3
“Even when the federal troops had already invaded Chechnya, he could have allowed for, let’s say, free elections in Chechnya. All in all, he could have done a lot of things, both in Chechnya and in Russia. But now he can no longer do anything.
“However, that’s exactly what democracy is about: Someone’s mistakes are corrected by others. A leader can sometimes bring society to a deadlock, but society, provided that it is free and sane, finds a way to get out of this deadlock by electing other leaders who would be able to offer their own alternative.
“The Americans found themselves in a bitter deadlock during the Vietnam War, but later they got out of it. If they decide that they are in a deadlock in Iraq, they will change their president and withdraw their troops from that country.
“A democratic society Is not irreversibly constrained by the mistakes of its leaders. Its successful advancement does not follow the straight and uniquely correct path (which does not exist at all), but rather through a series of movements, each one of these leading us too far ‘to the right’ or too far ‘to the left.’
“But régimes like ours are designed in such a way that every alternative to them is wiped out—and the further we go, the more intensely so. Boris Yeltsin was at least a bit afraid of Communists. Putin doesn’t have to fear anyone or anything. No one dares to oppose him. In the meantime, a ruler who has freed himself from rivals and opponents becomes entirely dependent on the policy he has chosen. He cannot ‘change his path’ any more. In politics, however, every path that cannot be changed is a way to either a deadlock or a precipice.
“Putin is going his way, and we only have to plod behind him and stoically or stolidly accept the consequences of his policies. Putin himself, war in Chechnya, raging terrorism, unbelievable behavior of security services (some time ago they used to let militants escape from a cordoned village, and now they managed to let their terrorists get out of a single building surrounded by their forces)—all this is perceived by us as fragments of a reality which neither depends on us nor can be replaced by something else.
“In essence, it’s exactly the way our grandfathers thought of Stalin and his policies, and our fathers (and ourselves) did of Brezhnev.
“In 1991, we seemed to have changed profoundly. But even if we had ever changed, it was by no means a profound change. We have created a system which reproduces the key principle of the Soviet system: irreplaceable leaders pursuing arbitrary policies—together with all the consequences of such policies and such a system.
“It appears pointless to blame Putin for that: apparently, the system has been created neither by him nor by Yeltsin, but rather by us. However, if we realize that all our troubles are rooted in ourselves and our inability to enjoy freedom, it would keep us from going too far in making mistakes and committing crimes, as well as from creating a similar régime after the inevitable fall of the current one.”
I remember this text almost by heart. I also recall sitting in Dmitry’s kitchen in his apartment on Odoyevsky Lane. We argued a little bit over Iraq, and then he started saying almost literally what is written in this article. Here, his written speech almost exactly matches his oral discourse. He was able to speak perfectly in the kitchen (not always so much on the radio, though).
This far, we are still unable to realize that our troubles are rooted in ourselves. We invariably fail to critically assess our past actions; we’re always blaming everyone except ourselves. In recent times, we tend to blame the West ever more frequently and amply.
Some do it because the West did not give a hand to Yeltsin’s and Gaidar’s Russia.
Others do it because it entertained no illusions in relation to that Russia.
Some do it because the West expanded NATO and planned for the deployment of the missile defense system.
Others do it because it was imposing a liberal economy on Russia.
Some do it because the West tried to entice Ukraine.
Others do it because it didn’t help Ukraine or slapped Russia on the wrist when it was annexing the Crimea.
The West is not perfect, nor will it free us from ourselves. We proved to be inept in politics as a civilized way of competing for leadership. Russian society—nearly the entire political spectrum — welcomed Putin’s rise to power. Had Yeltsin appointed Viktor Chernomyrdin as his successor, the latter would have been welcomed no less cordially. We have the idea of irreplaceable leaders in our blood. In this respect, Muscovite tycoons, members of the State Duma, or renowned filmmakers are no different from the rural Grandmothers of Buranovo.
Dmitry Furman believed that Russia was certain to make another attempt to create a democratic society and secure the rule of law. He did not live to see it happen. Shall we?
Dmitri Furman was a leading Russian sociologist who studied religion and politics. He died in Moscow in 2011.
1 Pavel Palazhchenko is Mikhail Gorbachev’s interpreter and had previously served as Eduard Shevardnadze’s interpreter when he was the Soviet Foreign Minister. (See Palazhchenko’s book, My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze. To read a transcript of Metta Spencer’s interview with Furman in May 2008 (or listen to the audiotape, which is also available there), go to: http://russianpeaceanddemocracy.com/dmitry-furman-2008
2 In 2004 Islamic terrorists captured a school in Beslan, North Ossetia and held 1,100 persons hostage for three days. At least 385 persons were killed and many observers still blame the government’s excessive use of force for the disastrous outcome.
3 Aslan Maskhadov led the first Chechen War which led to the establishment of the de facto independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria for which he was elected president. When the war started again, he returned to leading the guerrilla movement but was killed in 2005.