April 27th, 2007

Yeltsin, Humpty Dumpty, and the death of naivete

Ron Rosenbaum has written his reflections on the mixed legacy of Boris Yeltsin, who died last Monday.

Rosenbaum focuses on the hope those times represented, when the once-mighty Soviet Union withered away and died and was replaced by a fledgling democracy. But of course—as even most neocons know, although we are not commonly seen as understanding this fact—democracy is no panacea (see this for some of my thoughts on the subject).

No panacea indeed; but still, on the whole, an improvement over what went before. Rosenbaum indicates that, when the Soviet bloc fell and Yeltsin came to power, the promise of liberty was “thrilling and beautiful…and yet…unsustainable.” Russia became chaotic during the 90s under Yeltsin. He was succeeded by Putin, who has reined in that chaos at the expense of freedom.

But not totally. The Russia of today is a far freer and more democratic place than the old USSR, and its people have at least some of the benefits of a more robust economy. I disagree with Rosenbaum’s contention that this represents the death of hope; perhaps just the death of naive hope. As Yeltsin himself said:

I want to ask [the people of Russia's] forgiveness for not fulfilling some hopes of those who believed that . . . in one go . . . we would be able to jump from a gray, stagnating totalitarian past into a bright, rich, civilized future. I believed in this myself. It didn’t happen in one jump.

No, it didn’t. And what’s more, it never has and probably never can.

That brings us—of course—to that other formerly stagnating totalitarian state: Iraq. Anyone who believed that Iraq could go easily, “in one jump…into a bright, rich, civilized future” (and that includes any neocons who actually thought so, as opposed to the ones who are misrepresented as having thought so) was sadly mistaken and profoundly naive.

From the outset of the Iraq war I expected the task to be fraught with difficulties, and fully expected it to take at least a decade (if not more) of careful occupation. When the looting began at the beginning of the postwar period it troubled me greatly, because it seemed that we weren’t doing what was needed to get the inevitable chaos under some sort of control.

Previously, the crime-ridden and nearly-disintegrating Russia of the 90s had made me wonder something similar—whether there was anything more that the US and Europe could do to prevent its slide. We were not in charge of Russia, of course, but its potential instability would affect us, and the world. And with our present occupation of Iraq we have an even greater responsibility to see that the chaos there comes under control.

Although it’s a child’s nursery rhyme, the parable of Humpty Dumpty expresses a profound truth, which is this: it is exceedingly difficult to put together that which is broken. By the time Yeltsin came to power Russia was a broken nation and, without the strong and harsh cement that tyranny provided, its fragmentary nature became more and more apparent. In fact, Soviet unity had been illusory, and almost immediately many of the satellite nations seceded from the USSR and became autonomous once more. Russia itself, which had been a nation for centuries prior to the Communist takeover, was in deep disarray, and Putin’s harsher hand has brought it a measure of stability at no small cost.

This ebb and flow between chaos and tyranny is the legacy of every state trying to repair itself from a broken and violent past—and that includes Iraq, one of the most broken and violent of all. The United States, on the other hand, has had the luxury of not having been broken at its outset—it was, rather assembled from various parts that came together with a common vision, although not without some disagreement. The fragmentation that might have occurred following our own Civil War was averted and the damage slowly repaired. And, despite the cries of those who shout “tyranny” and think our civil liberties deeply threatened, we have always—throughout our long history—been among the freest nations in the world in terms of the individual. That remains the case today.

Russia’s post-Communist path has been so difficult that there are many citizens who believe life was better under the Soviets despite the suffering of those times—although they tend to be the older people. Dictatorships, after all, have their pluses—”Hitler built the autobahn,” “Mussolini made the trains run on time“—and generations who were brought up under their firm control may have difficulty with the crime and chaos, as well as the social inequality and “unfairness,” that goes with the beginnings of a free market democracy (Dickens had a bit to say about the suffering inherent under those conditions, as well).

It may be human nature to believe that, once a tyrant’s yoke is loosened, paradise will magically ensue. If so, it’s a dangerous belief. But even though the road is hard, that doesn’t mean a tyrannical regime should stay in power. It just means that extraordinary patience is needed in the attempt to put Humpty back together again afterwards. The task requires—if not all the king’s horses and all the king’s men—then a great many of them, and a great deal of time as well.

As I’ve said, I don’t think I was as naive as those who thought rebuilding Iraq would be easy. But I do admit to having been naive in a different way, and that is that I expected the majority of people in this country to understand what would be involved and to be willing to stick it out much longer than seems to be the case at the moment. That particular naivete of mine is now officially dead.

30 Responses to “Yeltsin, Humpty Dumpty, and the death of naivete”

  1. Anon Y. Mous Says:

    “Anyone who believed that Iraq could go easily, “in one jump…into a bright, rich, civilized future” (and that includes any neocons who actually thought so, as opposed to the ones who are misrepresented as having thought so) was sadly mistaken and profoundly naive.”

    Feb. 7, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to U.S. troops in Aviano, Italy: “It is unknowable how long that conflict will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.”

    The Bush administration, despite warnings from people who knew what they were talking about, planned for Iraq as if Saddam could be removed, power handed over to Chalabi, US troops could depart shortly thereafter, and democracy would bloom.

    In other words, the same people neocons trusted to accomplish the democratic transformation of Iraq were, in your words, “sadly mistaken and profoundly naive.”

    Explain, please, how you could trust someone so sadly mistaken and profoundly naive with such a monumental undertaking?

  2. stumbley Says:

    Anon, you, like every other “progressive” who’s against the Iraq conflict, delight in taking comments out of context. Rumsfeld was speaking of the conflict regarding the Iraqi army, not an insurgency composed of former Ba’athists, criminals and foreign al Qaeda fighters, funded by Iran and Syria. The Iraqi army was indeed, defeated in a matter of weeks. The ongoing conflict now is not a civil war, but a continuation of the proxy war that Iran, fanatical Islamic fundamentalists, al Qaeda and other terrorists and terrorist-supporting states have been waging against the West (primarily the U.S.) for the past at least 29 years.

    That at least half of America and most of the rest of the world is blind to this is one of the great mysteries of the 21st century.

  3. gcotharn Says:

    Neo:
    I expected the majority of people in this country to understand what would be involved and to be willing to stick it out much longer than seems to be the case at the moment. That particular naivete of mine is now officially dead.

    Since day one, I’ve had triple disagreements with the common wisdom:

    1) the threat and danger we face is very significant, as opposed to moderate or barely significant.

    2) a successful Iraqi government will not look anything like that Utopia you guys are envisioning.

    3) even creating a hardscrabble success of an Iraqi government is so difficult, and so scary, as to make me almost lose bladder control.

    I have laughed, along the way, as I was accused of being a Pollyanna. To me, our nation’s entire, audacious effort has always looked like the scariest, most difficult thing in the world to me.

    Looking at OIF now, it seems clear we can see hazy outline of success. Its way ahead, still in the distance, but we can see it. We can get there, if only we can steady our nerves, and harden our resolve.

    I’m thrilled we have gotten even this far. I consider our regional introduction of a larger democratic conversation to be a significant achievement – in and of itself – even if this Iraqi government were to fail.

  4. Ymarsakar Says:

    Anyone who believed that Iraq could go easily, “in one jump…into a bright, rich, civilized future” (and that includes any neocons who actually thought so, as opposed to the ones who are misrepresented as having thought so) was sadly mistaken and profoundly naive.

    Do you hear that NPR reported as the inflation rate in Zimbabwe is right now, Neo?

    2000%+

    But Iraq’s the unstable quagmire, of course.

    See no evil, hear no evil, Neo.

    People like Spank, I recall, are heavy on the historical notations, but small on the comprehension scale of things.

    What matters is not facts, but the interpretations of those facts. Because if you have your interpretations wrong, then evetually your facts will be wrong as well (Tet Offensive).

  5. subadei Says:

    “It may be human nature to believe that, once a tyrant’s yoke is loosened, paradise will magically ensue. ”

    I think a quick glance at the Palestinian territories since the death of Yasser Arafat demonstrate that quote quite effectively. There’s a distinct difference between the definitive, generic term “democracy” and the “westocentric” vision of democracy.

  6. Obi's Sister Says:

    My husband is in Russia right now on a mission trip. We’ve only spoken briefly a couple of times, but I think he didn’t expect what he found there. The people he’s come across are VERY hopeful. They are understanding that freedom and liberty are always a work in progress – you can’t accomplish it all in one jump. There’s lots of little jumps and you fall alot. Your illustration of Humpty Dumpty is perfect.

  7. russia - » M 4.1, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia Says:

    [...] Yeltsin, Humpty Dumpty, and the death of naiveteThe Russia of today is a far freer and more democratic place than the old USSR, and its people have at least some of the benefits of a more robust economy. I disagree with Rosenbaum s contention that this represents the death of hope; … [...]

  8. yankeewombat Says:

    I think the Kurds have come close to achieving the naive neocon view of getting on with democracy and a booming economy quickly. The Sunnis didn’t go our way, but it is interesting that the sheiks in Anbar have come over to the Iraqi government recently. The Shiites are a frustrating mixture. Sadr would be a Shiite Saddam if he could. But Sistani and the moderate Shiites of the Najaf school are the great discovery of the war. A Muslim group that has a tradition of putting some distance between the clergy and the government. Not western separation of church and state – but hey – the man said when asked if Iraq should be partitioned that he didn’t know – it was up to the politicians to decide. I too am disappointed in the lack of recognition that Iraq and the GWOT are a long term project.

  9. sergey Says:

    The feelings of Russian people on Yeltzin period are very diverse, as I seen and heard these days; but many, very many, were deeply affected and sincerely mourned his death. Authorities did everything possible to downplay the event; but when I with my wife came to the Christ The Savior Cathedral late in the evening there were thousands of mourners in huge line around the church, kilometer long; people were ready to stay there for hours to pay tribute. Most were obviously intelligent, educated class, of any ages, with flowers, many in tears. Yeltzin gave them something invaluable, that outweigh any hardships and dangers of everyday life: meaning and dignity, which previous regime denied them. And they also understood something which many Yeltzin bitter critics do not: crisis of last two decades was inevitable and much more deep and dangerous than they can imagine, and nobody except Yeltzin was wise, inventive and strong enough to prevent terrible looming catastrophe – like Bosnia with 200 mln population and 30000 nuclear warheads.
    In theory of emotion its strength is believed to be the product of wish and difference between experienced and expected. This formula makes sense, because if you are indifferent to outcome, no difference between fact and expectation can really disturb or please you. And emotion get miniscule if desired or feared outcome coincides with expectation.
    In Russia wishes were tremendous, hopes higher than any reasonable target, hurdles formidable and outcomes very diverse and complex, so massive frustration unavoidable. Not for me, because I had much more fears than hopes and expected a devastating catastrophe, which, due to amazing willpower, gut feeling and clever leadership of Yeltzin failed to materialize. But vast majority of population was dangerously naive, economically illiterate, historically ignorant and hoped for Utopia Now. Their anger and frustration focused on Yeltzin personality, this demonization of a great man took root and gave rise to swarms of absurd malignant gossip.

  10. Al Fin Says:

    It may be human nature to believe that, once a tyrant’s yoke is loosened, paradise will magically ensue. If so, it’s a dangerous belief.

    Right. Never underestimate the superstitiousness and stupidity of the average earthling. If a tyrant exists in a place, it’s probably for a reason. Something to do with the nature of the people in that place.

    In Russia, the Russians have been accustomed to firm authoritarian government for centuries. In Arabia, Arabs have been under the thumb of whichever person or group was capable of the most ruthlessness.

    If you can change the people somehow so that most of them say “give me liberty or give me death,” the tyrants will have little time left.

  11. sergey Says:

    To change the people a vast effort is needed, and this can be achived only if some freedom already exists. There is no way to learn swimming without water; and the social skills required in free society can be aquired only if they are meaningfully trained and rewarded. Under tyranny this is virtually impossible, they are punished and eradicated. Colonial rule of enlightened nation is best setting for this endevour, if practiced long enough.

  12. Deshawn Q. Williams Says:

    the social skills required in free society can be aquired only if they are meaningfully trained and rewarded. Under tyranny this is virtually impossible, they are punished and eradicated. Colonial rule of enlightened nation is best setting for this endevour, if practiced long enough.

    You seem to write as if “enlightened colonial rule” and “tyranny” are mutually exclusive.

    But that is not so. Colonial rule which is a product of the Enlightenment can also be extremely tyrannical. Think of King Leopold of Belgium’s rule over the Congo.

    Also, if enlightened colonial rule is so good, do you think Gandhi in India was stupid to agitate against British colonialism?

  13. Deshawn Q. Williams Says:

    nytimes.comPatient but slow, steady progress — one could understand and appreciate that. But what’s happening in Iraq seems to be regress, not progress:

    The New York Times
    Rebuilt Iraq Projects Found Crumbling
    By JAMES GLANZ
    Published: April 29, 2007

    In a troubling sign for the American-financed rebuilding program in Iraq, inspectors for a federal oversight agency have found that in a sampling of eight projects that the United States had declared successes, seven were no longer operating as designed because of plumbing and electrical failures, lack of proper maintenance, apparent looting and expensive equipment that lay idle.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/29/world/middleeast/29reconstruct.html?_r=1&hp&oref=slogin

  14. neo-neocon Says:

    Deshawn: Some believe that Gandhi’s agitation against British colonialism not only made India’s transition to independence more difficult and bloody, but delayed it as well. I am not expert enough on Indian history to have a considered opinion on that subject, but here is an article that goes into it in some depth, in case you’re interested:

    Some Indians feel that after the early l930′s, Gandhi, although by now world-famous, was in fact in sharp decline. Did he at least “get British out of India”? Some say no. India, in the last days of British Raj, was already largely governed by Indians…and it is a common view that without this irrational, wildly erratic holy man the transition to full independence might have gone both more smoothly and more swiftly. There is much evidence that in his last years Gandhi was in a kind of spiritual retreat and, with all his endless praying and fasting, was no longer pursuing (the very words seem strange in a Hindu context) “the public good.” What he was pursuing, in a strict reversion to Hindu tradition, was his personal holiness. In earlier days he had scoffed at the title accorded him, Mahatma (literally “great soul”). But toward the end, during the hideous paroxysms that accompanied independence, with some of the most unspeakable massacres taking place in Calcutta, he declared, “And if the whole of Calcutta swims in blood, it will not dismay me. For it will be a willing offering of innocent blood.” And in his last days, after there had already been one attempt on his life, he was heard to say, “I am a true Mahatma.”

  15. sergey Says:

    “do you think Gandhi in India was stupid to agitate against British colonialism?”

    No, I do not think he was stupid; I think he was crazy and power-hungry no less than Hitler was. 1 million of Hindus was killed in the process of “liberation”, including himself.

  16. Al Fin Says:

    Yes,” lack of proper maintenance” is an endemic problem in the arab world–not just in Iraq. It’s not unusual to drive down a highway and see several Mercedes abandoned to the elements. Easier to buy a new one–there’s no concept of maintenance over there.

    I doubt there’s even a word for “maintenance” in the whole damned arabic language. How pathetic!

  17. sergey Says:

    Simply compare India and Hong Kong, where British rule ended half a century later. If India developed in economical and political terms as successfully as Hong Kong, it would be now the biggest economy in the world, bigger than US. And Hundus are no less smart, inventive and educatible as Chinese. May be, you should be happy that they made a blunder to aquire independence; otherwize they could be now the only real superpower, surpassing America.

  18. sergey Says:

    It worth to mention that George Orwell, not exactly an imperialist and very deeply understanding situation in India, proposed to grant India a status of dominion, like Australia and Canada, with the whole colonial administration left in place, because without these men the infrastructure will collapse, and natives could not maintain and keep it.

  19. Deshawn Q. Williams Says:

    “do you think Gandhi in India was stupid to agitate against British colonialism?”

    No, I do not think he was stupid; I think he was crazy and power-hungry no less than Hitler was. 1 million of Hindus was killed in the process of “liberation”, including himself.

    It is strange, then, that when India became independent, Gandhi chose not to accept any “power posts” like President or minister, but simply led a private life (until he was assassinated next year).

    Odd behavior from a supposedly “power-hungry” man.

  20. sam Says:

    The Right is dead! You fascists helped kill it. Good work! Couldn’t have done it without you. Suckers. Your ideology will self destruct in nine, eight, seven …

  21. alphie Says:

    I don’t think the Americans who favor a withdrawl from Iraq lack patience.

    I think they look at the Iraq War and see “Dead Eyes.”

  22. sergey Says:

    “Odd behavior from a supposedly “power-hungry” man.”

    In oriental tradition it is not odd. It is like current situation in Iran, where formal leadership is a puppet of shadowy “spiritual leaders”, or in Soviet Union, where real power was in hands of Communist Party Politburo, while formal government posts occupied by their creatures, and even in Politburo the Second Secretary (Suslov) has vastly more influence than marasmic General Secretary Brezhnev.

  23. Around The Sphere April 28, 2007 | The Moderate Voice Says:

    [...] Boris Yeltsin Passed From The Scene and Neo-neocon has a interesting take on Yeltsin, Russia and Iraq. A tiny taste 4 U: Although it’s a child’s nursery rhyme, the [...]

  24. sergey Says:

    King Leopold in no sense was an enlightened man, and empire is fully compatible with personal freedom. The best example is Ausro-Hungarian Empire, the most free and liberal multicultural society in continental Europe in 18 and 19 centuries. The first country that gave Jews citizen rights, very liberal in its cultural, religeous and national policies; it produced magnificient art styles in every branch of art and literature, the Viennese Modern, and such people as Einstein, Freud, Kafka, Musil… the best modern schools in philosophy, psychology, science, music and so on. The very atmosphere of this empire was attractive to European intellectuals of every origin. It proved beyond doubt that “liberal empire” is not an oxymoron.

  25. Deshawn Q. Williams Says:

    britannica.comKing Leopold in no sense was an enlightened man, and empire is fully compatible with personal freedom. The best example is Ausro-Hungarian Empire, the most free and liberal multicultural society in continental Europe in 18 and 19 centuries. The first country that gave Jews citizen rights, very liberal in its cultural, religeous and national policies; it produced magnificient art styles in every branch of art and literature, the Viennese Modern, and such people as Einstein, Freud, Kafka, Musil… the best modern schools in philosophy, psychology, science, music and so on. The very atmosphere of this empire was attractive to European intellectuals of every origin. It proved beyond doubt that “liberal empire” is not an oxymoron.

    The Austro-Hungarian empire, for the most part, was an empire of white people over white people.

    When “liberal empires” become deadly is when the imperial class and the ruled are perceived by the former to be “racially” different. That’s when you get racist dehumanization. All sorts of atrocities then become possible.

    In the British colonial administration in India, no Englishman could be tried by “native” magistrates — they could only be tried by “whites”:

    ” in the history of India, a controversial measure proposed in 1883 that sought to allow senior Indian magistrates to preside over cases involving British subjects in India. The bill, severely weakened by compromise, was enacted by the Indian Legislative Council on Jan. 25, 1884. The bitter controversy surrounding the measure deepened antagonism between British and Indians and was a prelude to the formation of the Indian National Congress the following year.

    “British subjects in 1873 had been exempted from trial by Indian magistrates, and in cases involving death or transportation they could only be tried by a high court. But by 1883 the viceroy, Lord Ripon, proposed to make British subjects amenable to sessions courts, over which Indians were now senior enough in the civil service to preside. This proposal as embodied in the Ilbert Bill provoked furious protests, especially among the Calcutta European business community and the [British] Bengal indigo planters; and there was covert sympathy from many officials. A compromise was reached by which a British subject could claim a jury, half of which would be Europeans. The new Westernized Indian middle class felt itself slighted by this arrangement, and the incident did much to give Indian national feeling a political form.”

    Source: Encyclopedia Britannica Online,

    http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9000900/Ilbert-Bill

  26. sergey Says:

    I do not see here any atrocites; this sounds as usual provision of British common law that every defendant entitled to be tried by juriors of his own social class and race, to exclude prejudices. This practice widely used now in US; hardly ever black defendant can be tried by whites only jury, and vice versa. This is a matter of cognizance, too; hardly those born in Calcutta could objectively understand true motives and conditions of those born in London. In racial terms, Hindus belong to indo-european group, much more close to Brits than Hungarians to Germans or Germans to Jews.

  27. Danny Lemieux Says:

    “When “liberal empires” become deadly is when the imperial class and the ruled are perceived by the former to be “racially” different. That’s when you get racist dehumanization. All sorts of atrocities then become possible”.

    Hmmmm….This must be “whitey racist” theory of man’s inhumanity to man. It certainly explains Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Idi Amin, Bokassa, Mugabe…doesn’t it? Or does it?

  28. Ymarsakar Says:

    Odd behavior from a supposedly “power-hungry” man.

    There are more powers than temporal.

  29. Anon Y. Mous Says:

    “There are more powers than temporal.”

    What, is he going to call Jesus and ask him to come down and beat up people?

    But please, continue. I do enjoy your melodramatic attempts to turn a blog comment into an ominous, dun-dun-dun moment, as if this were actually a serious affair and as if you were not a very young man whose world view seems shaped by videogames, action movies, and science fiction novels.

  30. gammamcc Says:

    It is all coming together for me. The neo-cons are well aware of the fall of the Roman Empire and are well aware of it to the historical letter. Those such as Rove and gang know that their work leads to a similar downfall for the US. Yet, that is what they wish for our country. They are taking delight in the power to destroy our great country and in the fact that they can live very rich up until this downfall. This is the same evil that ugly people take when they set out to kill stuff, as do ignorant people who are ugly inside and out, who like to abuse, torturing or even killing things innocent or beautiful only because they can. These ugly loser jerks in power are taking away power from the working and middle classes so as to tune in to their own ugliness, inside and out.

    The sooner people (including the media and the phony flag waving tories) realize it, the better.

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About Me

Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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