Russian reformers did not (or could not) recognize the intangible values and beliefs that represented the essential underpinnings of the liberal West and its modern economy. This, ironically, is a fairly common modern bias. Scholars and bureaucrats focus on what can be counted, graphed, and diagrammed. Those things that do not yield easily to those modes of analysis are ignored, dismissed, and disparaged.
The revolution of Peter the Great replaced the obsolete squirearchy of Russia -- with a European bureaucracy; everything that could be copied from the Swedish and German laws. everything that could be taken over from the free municipalities of Holland into our half communal, half absolutist country, was taken over. But the unwritten, the moral check on power, the instinctive recognition of the rights of man, of the rights of thought, of truth, could not be and were not imported.
Aleksandr Herzen, From the Other Shore (1855)
But this is not about Russia's failure to become a liberal nation or modern society.
Herzen was a Russian intellectual, an exile, and a socialist. Yet his diagnosis of Russia's problem is almost identical to that of Astolphe-Louis-Léonor, Marquis de Custine – a French aristocrat and enemy of the Revolution. When Custine travelled to the Tsar's realm he was struck by the pervasive, active unreality of the place. Truth was something to be feared and avoided.
No, what is striking about the West in 2021 is that we have, for a variety of reason, forgotten and discarded so many of those habits and principles that are the foundation of our liberty and the engines of our economic success. What is wrong with our civilization can be said with one word — unreality. We are in no danger either from the vices or the virtues of vikings; we are in danger of forgetting all facts, good and bad, in a haze of high-minded phraseology.G. K. Chesterton
For all the Romanovs's evident piety and the Tsar's public orthodoxy, the Russian regime was soul-crushing. Custine meant this literally: To him “the two greatest gifts of God” were “the soul and the speech that communicates it.” In Russia honest speech was dangerous, hence rare. As a result souls withered.
A century passes. Russia has its own Revolution. The Tsar is no more. And yet some things remain the same:
People became hypocritical, cunning, mistrustful, cynical, silent, cruel, and indifferent to the fate of others as a result of the destruction of their own souls. Moreover, the upkeep of systematic untruth requires a network of spies: indeed, it requires that everyone become a spy and potential informer.
If Custine were among us now, he would recognise the evil of political correctness at once, because of the violence that it does to people’s souls by forcing them to say or imply what they do not believe but must not question. Custine would demonstrate to us that, without an external despot to explain our pusillanimity, we have willingly adopted the mental habits of people who live under a totalitarian dictatorship.
As Dalrymple notes, a great number of ostensible leaders in the West seem eager to create a regime in which everybody must either affirm lies or remain silent.
Sir Isiah Berlin was an often astute observer who spent time in FDR's Washington and in the Soviet Union during the peak of Stalin's Terror. As historian John Lewis Gaddis notes the contrast was stark and immediately discernible:
America and Russia differed, he could now see, not just in geographies, histories, cultures, and capabilities, but also, critically, in necessary ecologies. One thrived on cacophony. The other demanded silence.
Custine was scathing about the public art and architecture of St. Petersburg. The city had its grandeur, but it was built on an inhuman scale. By design the individual was made to feel insignificant and isolated. Many of the governmental offices were magnificent but to Custine that meant they were “temples erected to clerks”.
In the West the clerks have gradually morphed from public servants to a privileged Mandarin class.
Exhausting the resources of the country, they only bolstered the power of the state without elevating the self-confidence of the people.... The state swelled up; the people grew lean.Vasily Klyuchevsky
It was not always so.
Making (Big) government work
La Guardia the crusading and compassionate liberal was also in the habit, when he witnessed city workers great or small behaving incompetently, of firing them on the spot. (Sample story: He finds a group of park workers lounging during working hours. He fires sixty of them for "loitering.") The city is to be run tautly, seriously, and whining drives La Guardia the crusading liberal crazy. I pay no attention, he declares, to "political whiners." Merit is a sacred idea to La Guardia the compassionate liberal.
When do disasters become catastrophes?