Russia's post-Soviet humiliation
Life is one big status game, even for countries
‘The Motherland, our country, the great state entrusted to us by history, by nature and by our glorious forebears is perishing, is being broken up, is being plunged into darkness and oblivion.’
So declared the leaders of the 1991 Moscow coup in a signed declaration, ahead of their last-gasp effort to prevent Gorbachev from dissolving the Soviet Union. There was no mention of communism. What they held dear, what they loved, was clearly something else.
The BBC referred to the hardliners behind the coup as ‘the Right-wing’, a confusing terminology when their opponents, the protesters gathering around Boris Yeltsin, carried Orthodox icons of the martyred tsar Nicholas. But it wasn’t bias on their part; Right-wing was the term Ronald Reagan used for the unreconstructed Bolsheviks, and historians like Robert Service refer to ‘communist conservatives’. They were, in their own sense, patriots.
They wanted to do what the great tsarist general Aleksei Brusilov wished to do when he joined the Russian Civil War — preserving the Russian Empire. That is why Brusilov chose to fight for the Reds, not the Whites.
As Orlando Figes wrote in his epic history of the revolution, only the Bolsheviks could keep alive the idea of the Russian Empire. ‘Both the conservatives and the liberals were entrapped by the fact that Russia had become an Empire before it had become a nation; for it obliged them as patriots to identify with Russia’s imperial claims.’
The conservatives could not preserve the empire because national minorities could never be assimilated into a Russian nation as equals. Liberals could not cope with all the various competing nationalisms, most of which had a strong socialist flavour. Only the Bolsheviks were able to save the Empire, which is partly why thousands of tsarist officers ended up serving in the Red Army.
The coup plotters of 1991 thought they were preserving the Soviet Union, but they were actually hastening its downfall. So on 25 December, Boris Yeltsin would force Gorbachev to sign the decree dissolving the Bolshevik Empire; the Soviet-made pen he had didn’t work, so they had to borrow one from the American CNN crew. And that was how communism in Europe ended.
What followed for Russia was deeply traumatic. In The American Conservative, Dimitri A. Simes wrote: ‘By the end of 1992, prices had skyrocketed by 2,508 percent while real wages fell by about a third. Hyperinflation impoverished tens of millions of Russians practically over night by wiping out their life savings. Although grocery store shelves were now filled with products, the cruel irony was that many Russians could not afford to buy them. Over the course of 1992, Russians were forced to cut their consumption of vegetables by 84 percent, meat by 80 percent, fish and milk by 56 percent. Even members of the military were not immune to this food crisis. In early 1993, a nationwide scandal broke out after it was revealed that four navy conscripts died of starvation in the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok. Another 250 of their fellow recruits were subsequently hospitalized with alimentary dystrophy.’
It was distressing, and humiliating. Russian life expectancy, in continual decline since 1987, dropped sharply, and by 1994 stood at just 57 for Russian men, down from 65 at the start of Gorbachev’s rule. The primary method of this national suicide was vodka, a perennial problem in Russian history but one that got noticeably worse towards the latter days of the Soviet experiment. (As the joke went: What is the stage that comes between Socialism and the arrival of full Communism? Alcoholism.) It didn’t help that the country’s leader, Boris Yeltsin, was now a clownish drunk, a laughing stock.
This economic ‘restructuring’ was the work of Clinton-era economists who showed the hubris of ideological and imperial victory. Helen Andrews has written about how economist Jeffrey Sachs went to Russia in an atmosphere of western triumph: ‘Sachs himself was known to engage in Ugly American behaviour, like putting his feet up in the waiting room of Minister of Finance Yegor Gaidar until the minister’s secretary came over and asked him, in front of a roomful of patiently waiting officials, “Excuse me, Mr Sachs, would you please take your feet off my table?”’
Man is a status-seeking creature, as Will Storr wrote in last year’s The Status Game, and the loss of status can be extremely damaging, occasionally fatal. The science of social genomics suggests that ‘when we’re not doing well in the game of life, our bodies prepare for crisis by switching our settings so we’re readied for attack. It increases inflammation, which helps the healing of any physical wounds we might be about to suffer. It also saves resources by reducing our antiviral response.’ In the long term this ‘susceptibility to neurodegenerative disease, promotes the spread of plaque in the arteries and the growth of cancer cells.’
When people feel rejected, or low-status, they become less inclined to help others, become self-destructive in their habits and, in the worst cases, end their lives. The highest suicide risks are among those who have seen sharp drops in status, in particular middle-aged men who have gone through divorce or job loss.
Humiliation, Storr writes. ‘is the ultimate psychological de-grading: the “nuclear bomb of the emotions” that can cause the ‘annihilation of the self’ and lead to major depressions, suicidal states, psychosis, extreme rage and severe anxiety. It’s also thought to be a propulsive force for honour killers who similarly seek to restore their lost status with violence.’
But the status game applies not just to individuals. ‘What goes for ourselves goes for our groups: when we and our people sense our collective status is in decline, we become dangerously distressed.’ There is some evidence to suggest that, when a country is dominant and powerful, this has some influence on people’s happiness, even amongst the poorest who might not have make material gains from empire or victory in war. When a country is humiliated and beaten, so are many of its people.
Groups who feel an acute loss of status are more prone to seek extreme remedies, whether it’s revolutions or demagogues. Trump’s rise to power was clearly a product of the falling status of white men in America, and it was not just economics. It is one thing to lose a job, to see the erosion of your community through drugs, divorce and secularisation, but the persistent media mood music aimed at attacking ‘white men’ also hits at their sense of status.
It is not entirely odd that some Trumpistas felt a certain empathy with Russia, a country which has endured a similar downgrading. We’re about to see in the next few days whether that long humiliation leads to war, but if the worst came to the worst, then history provides many such cases.
As Storr writes: ‘One study of ninety-four wars since 1648 found 67 per cent were motivated by matters of national standing or revenge, with the next greatest factor – security – coming in at a distant 18 per cent. Anthropologists Professors Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai find that frequently, “decision-makers and public opinion are motivated to declare war to maintain or raise the rank of their nation vis-a-vis other nations, particularly when they feel that they have been unjustly pushed down to a low rank among other nations”. The warring party will tend to attack in a dream of toxic morality, convinced of its virtuous intent: “the more a nation feels humiliated by a moral violation against it, and the more the nation experiences the act as morally outrageous, the more it seeks vengeance”.’
The most famous example of a country suffering severe loss of status, of course, took place about a century ago; Germans in the main were not interested in racial hatred, and Hitler concealed his anti-Semitism as a vote-loser; nor were they keen on war, which in fact alarmed many people. They were interested in status.
It’s not 1938, Putin is not Hitler, and that comparison should be avoided; I don’t have particularly strong opinions on how we might respond to this problem, only a vague decadent hope that we can all get along in peace. But, just as military action makes no sense to us, when the costs even to the victor far outweigh the gains, I think we’d be wrong to downplay how status still matters in our world. Life is one big status game, after all — even on the international stage.