Reviews Inside Russia. The Finnish dimension

Kivinen, Markku & Humphreys, Brendan (eds.). (London and New York: Routledge 2021). xxv and 368 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:3, pp 83-86
Published on on October 25, 2021

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There used to be Sovietology. Today there is Eurasian studies. Both are Western fields of research. Although based on Russian self-descriptions these research traditions approach, describe and analyze Russian culture, history and society from the outside. They are characterized by positivist-scientistic premises, i.e., by the notion that Russian society follows the same trajectory as other societies.
The counterpoint to the positivist stance is the Russian 19th century poet Fedor Tiutchev’s famous dictum: “Russia cannot be understood by reason alone/Common measures cannot be applied to her/She has a special character/One must simply believe in Russia.” This is a view from the inside. It is solipsistic and refutes the very idea of trying to analyze Russian society. This is the attitude of the present Putin regime.
Whereas other scholarly non-Russian perspectives are from the outside, the Finnish perspective is from the inside. Russia and Finland have a shared history. They constitute an agency in history. Such an understanding and conceptualization of history has been obscured by the “Western invention of the nation-state” — and by the projection of the nation state backwards in history.

The preceding paragraph has its bearing on the bold declaration by the authors of Russian Modernization that they offer a “new paradigm”. The volume is not an anthology. It is a collective work by 34 almost exclusively Finnish and Russian scholars. The whole project bears the imprint of the insights from a life-long research work on Russia by one of the two editors, Markku Kivinen. In 1996 he founded the Aleksanteri Institute, the Finnish Centre for Russian and East European Studies. He remained its director for twenty-three years. This project and the book are his legacy.
Why “Aleksanteri”, i.e., Alexander? From 1809 to 1917 Finland was a Grand Duchy that was ruled by the Emperors of Russia. The name of this Finnish institute is a homage to those rulers of the Russian Empire that are viewed favorably in Finland, Alexander I, II and III.
In 1809, Finland was separated from the Kingdom of Sweden and became part of the Russian Empire. During the 19th century, Finland became a (bi-lingual) nation in its own right. When the Russian Empire evaporated in 1917, Finland became a sovereign state.
The rulers of the Soviet Union did not think that the Finns were entitled to their own state. In 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Finland. Finland survived the two wars with the Soviet Union but became linked to the Soviet Union through the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in 1948.
From 1948 until the present day, leading historians and social scientists in Finland have nurtured hopes that Russia would emulate Finland and become a law-based democratic market economy. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of Russian scholars demonstrated that they shared the Finnish hopes. All this may be summarized as the dream of the modernization of Russia. There was an element of teleology and belief in human progress concerning Russia when the Aleksanteri Institute was launched. Its purpose was to conduct research that should promote modernization in Russia through the joint forces of Finnish and Russian scholars.

The tenets behind the Aleksanteri Institute and the volume under review are angst and wishful thinking. The angst is caused by the fear that Russia will remain a lawless autocracy and an existential threat to Finland. The wishful thinking is based on the hope that Russia will be modernized and change into a decent civilized nation like Finland. The research project Russian Modernization is designed according to mode B, to enhance the “accountability of science, which would ensure more responsiveness to the needs of society” (28). In plain language: the aim is to produce knowledge in Finland of developments in Russia, a knowledge that will enable Finland to pursue a risk minimizing policy towards Russia, and, ultimately, promote modernization in Russia.
This is a serious issue. Modernization in Russia offers an elaborated analysis of the interplay of structure and agency in Russian society. The emerging picture is that of a society without clearly defined social classes, which is characterized by anomie.
The very last paragraph of Modernization in Russia reads:

The main message of this book is that if Russia is to develop politics in positive directions, these need to be developed with the help of social science. But, the latter must be bold enough to maintain a dialogue across the locked borders, and intellectually ambitious enough to discuss even the most significant paradigmatic foundations (p. 294).

“The new paradigm” is based upon “a generic theoretical approach found in Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory” (p. 2). This means that social change is caused by the interplay of agency and structures within a matrix of challenges from the unexpected and unintended consequences of purposeful actions. Russian modernization is characterized by “structuration antinomies”. The five challenges to Russian modernization that are treated in chapters 2—6 in the book are: diversification of the economy; democratization; the welfare regime; culture and ideology; and foreign and security policy.
The first chapter presents the modernization paradigm à la Gidddens. In chapter 2, Pami Aalto and Anna Lowry discuss the role of fossil fuels “as a blessing and a curse” for Russia. The huge export incomes function as disincentives for diversification. The issue is the same as in Soviet times. It is intimately related to foreign and security policy. This dimension is treated in chapter 6 by Tuomas Forsberg et al. Here Vladislav Surkov is a main actor as “chief ideologist in the Kremlin” in the early 2000s. He coined the slogan “sovereign democracy” in order to describe ”the fundamentally modernizing character of his national project, whose mission is to guarantee Russia ‘the nationalization of the future’.” (p. 259—260).

When Dmitrii Medvedev succeeded Vladimir Putin as president of Russia in 2008, he signaled that Russia had found a model for modernization: the Silicon Valley. He launched a project for Russia that would emulate the Silicon Valley. Skolkovo outside Moscow should become a science center that would focus on applied research in high-tech companies.
The first director of the Skolkovo project was Vladislav Surkov. On May 1, 2013, he declared that “The Skolkovo Innovation Center” should push Russia into the international market of ideas and innovation. So far, Russia’s economy had been based on the export of raw materials and the import of finished goods. Now Russia would become an “open economy”. Foreign partners were to be welcomed in Skolkovo.
Two weeks after Surkov’s speech, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that he had been dismissed and the foreign partners in Skolkovo expelled.
The fate of Skolkovo is an eloquent expression of the gist of the results of the numerous solid empirical case studies in Russian Modernization: the two words express an oxymoron.
Chapter 3 is devoted to democratization. It bears the revealing title “Authoritarian modernization in post-Soviet Russia.” It is written by Vladimir Gel’man et al. In her contribution to the chapter, Marina Khmelnitskaya presents the ‘hollow paradigm’. It is “a general policy idea devoid of the essential instruments and settings of policy” (p. 93).
In the first paragraph Khmelnitskaya manages to summarize the basic finding of the whole book:

The non-democratic nature of Russia’s political system, the unaccountable and corrupt public administration with diverse departmental interests, and the unresponsiveness to the command of the central executive, all structure the process in which the Russian state produces its policy plans of socioeconomic modernization and carries out policy-making (p. 91).

The chilling message is that in contemporary Russia the Soviet past is not dead. It is not even past. Marina Khmelnitskaya demonstrates that the contemporary Russian state is a version of the late-Soviet state. It stands to reason that the ruler of today’s Russia, Vladimir Putin, is a former Soviet Chekist. Khmelnitskaya ends her essay on the hollow paradigm with a sad understatement:

Yet, despite being a good match with the institutional context and its functionality in terms of procedure and substance, the hollow paradigm’s impact on the policy process is a less than happy one. As an outcome of a goal-setting stage of policy, it appears vague and all-inclusive. Policy documents feature inconsistent policy objectives and incoherent/or mutually exclusive policy instruments. Having such a strategic policy plan does not add clarity to the confused and drawn-out subsequent stages of policy-making by the bureaucratic and non-bureaucratic agencies (p. 94).

In the introduction I quoted the declaration by the editors that Russia can develop in a positive direction only with the help of social science. I must end with a reference to a note by the Russian journalist, Andrei Kolesnikov. Commenting on the Russian law on foreign agents in 2012, which branded the independent sociology institute the Levada Center as such an agent, he argued that the Russian regime had sawed off the branch it was sitting on. It had deprived itself of a trustworthy feedback link. What would be allowed to remain was Orthodox Sociology: “And what does it mean?” — “To the Orthodox security forces (Pravoslavnym chekistam), an orthodox sociology!”.
Russian Modernization demonstrates that there really is a modern version of Russia. Its name is Finland. The Aleksanteri Institute is an intellectual repository for a future better Russia.≈


1 Fara Dabhoiwala, ”Imperial Delusions”, The New
York Review of Books LXVIII:11, 2021.
2 “Innovation in Russia. Can Russia create a new
Silicon Valley?”, The Economist, July 14, 2012.
3 “Russia’s ruling United Russia party needs real
political alternative — Surkov”, ITAR-TASS, May 2,
4 ”Kislyj innograd. Skolkovo teryaet partnery, dengi,
reputatsiyu” (Sour innovation city. Skolkovo loses
partners, money, reputation) Novaja Gazeta, May 21,
5 Andrei Kolesnikov, “Sotsiologiya dvoyechnikov.
Levada-Tsentr unichtozhayut stalinskimi
metodaemi” (The Sociology of Losers. The Levada
Center is being destroyed by Stalinist methods)
Novaja Gazeta, May 20, 2013.

Kivinen, Markku & Humphreys, Brendan (eds.). (London and New York: Routledge 2021). xxv and 368 pages.