Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power

Lieven's apology for Russian imperialism

by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #24, June 14, 2000)


The question of imperialism
The Serbian option
World imperialism
The Russian bourgeoisie
A mushrooming state bureaucracy during the "privatization of the state"
The "martial races"
Before the state existed
The bottom line


. In Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (1998), Anatol Lieven is more interested in making various points about the nature of Russia in the 1990s than in tracing the course of the Chechen war. The book contains some detailed information--about the Russian state, economy, and policy towards ex-Soviet lands--not covered in other works on the Chechen war, but it would be hard to get from it an overall picture of the course of events in the Chechen war. They do not appear in any sort of logical sequence in Chechnya, but simply as needed to illustrate some point or other. As to what the book is illustrating, this has been subject to conflicting interpretations.

. From the title of the book, one might assume that Lieven didn't just oppose the Russian war on Chechnya, but was gloating with malicious glee as the last rites were being read for the Russian nation. Indeed, his book has been as taken as such. One reviewer cited some of Lieven's description of the wretched state of Russian economy and life in the 90s and wrote:

"Bursts of disgust notwithstanding, Mr. Lieven insists that he does not belong to what he calls 'the more Russophobe or paranoid Western school of thought concerning Russia'. . . . But with friends like Mr. Lieven, Russia has no need of more unthinking enemies. . . . Russia emerges from his analysis as a place so hideous that the only thing redeeming it is the completeness with which it has allowed itself to be defeated. Bringing about that defeat has been Chechnya's main claim to virtue."(1)

. But if Lieven had instead minimized the bleakness of Yeltsin's Russia for the mass of Russians, this would hardly have demonstrated love for the Russian people: it would simply be the policy of prettifying reality to make it seem as if free-market "shock therapy" had succeeded. Lieven however talks of the "debacle of liberal capitalism in Russia". So perhaps it's not so surprising that book had a friendly, indeed enthusiastic, reception from the New Left Review last year, when Georgi Derluguian wrote that

"Most welcome is Anatol Lieven's move beyond the usual attacks on the neoliberal market orthodoxy by offering very plausible historical parallels . . .  Lieven takes the route of arguing that the current situation of Russia is, alas, not historically abnormal [for capitalism]." He regards Lieven as one who "sympathizes with the Russians as a man steeped in Russian culture", if probably descended from "Russo-German aristocracy".(2)

. Indeed, much of Lieven's approach sounds like the reformist analysis that is widely accepted as leftist these days. He is not concerned much with internal class relations in Russia, and instead sees things in terms of "elites", not classes. His emphasis is that the Russian elites are "compradors" and the Russian state is weak, both now and historically. Nor is he adverse to flirting with postmodernist terminology: his criticism of neo-liberal orthodoxy is not that there is an alternative to capitalism, but that there are many types of capitalism, with no "monolinear" path to capitalist development and no "monolithic" model to be followed. He holds that the situation of the poverty-stricken countries is not abnormal for modern-day capitalism, thus sounding leftist, but his only conclusion is that current Russia regime shouldn't be judged too harshly for its faults, which are typical of those of a large part of the present-day capitalist world.

. Lieven is, in fact, not a leftist but a free-market advocate, albeit one who wants to strengthen the Russian state. His Chechnya sounds vaguely leftist mainly because opportunism has gripped so much of the left. The opportunist left looks not to the class struggle, but to the strengthening of this or that capitalist state. Some of such leftists look to the strengthening of just about any state, especially if it's a third world state. Others look towards countries which had a revolution in the last century, even if the revolution has been over for a long time: for example, they may look to Russia, because of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, and embrace the present Russian state despite the diehard anti-working class nature of the present-day Russian regime. They overlook the struggle to ensure the independence of the proletarian movement against its exploiters, a movement which is opposed by all present-day governments, and instead find ways to side with this or that capitalist or state-capitalist state.

The question of imperialism

. As for Lieven, his Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power isn't celebrating the decline of Russian power so much as regretting it. Thus Lieven is a free-market advocate who regards the present weakness of the Russian state as a tragedy, in large part responsible for the terrible economic problems in Russia. He argues that

". . . Russia desperately needs a new spirit of patriotism as the base for any sense of public ethics and therefore any recovery of the state and the economy."(3)

His book is directed in large part against such anti-Russia diehards as "Richard Pipes, Zbigniew Brezezinski, Paul Goble and Ariel Cohen", who, he says, influenced him in the past.(4) He now argues that present-day Russia isn't a threat anymore, and should be accepted as part of the Western capitalist camp. He tries to calm the fears of the Western bourgeoisie by arguing that Russia isn't a "great military and imperial power" anymore, and that Russia's "relatively unlikely" to see "radical change" any time soon.(5)

. So Lieven attempts to show that capitalist Russia isn't imperialist. He writes that the Yeltsin administration's record "makes nonsense of the persistent Western myth that it is passionately committed to Russian imperialism."(6) And this, in a book about Yeltsin's war on Chechnya! But Russia, a country in the midst of a fierce financial and economic squeeze, could only devote so much money to its war budget, and that, for Lieven, is one of the proofs that it isn't imperialist.

. Indeed Lieven, as a capitalist ideologist, has a rather restrictive definition of imperialism. He doesn't see it as a system of domination by the great powers over the rest of the world. He doesn't connect it to the denial of the right to self-determination of nations in and of itself, or to economic and political domination over subordinate countries. No, it is simply especially savage atrocities against subject peoples, worse than the ordinary sort of bloody anti-colonial wars, not the subjection of these peoples itself. Moreover, Lieven's view is that Western capitalism is the standard of reasonableness, and so only "Stalinist regimes" and other exceptionally bad regimes should be labelled imperialist in this "post-imperial" age.

. Thus Lieven's plea is that Russian capitalism today--and the infamous Tsarist regime too, for that matter--is no worse than other big capitalist powers. He compares Russia's struggle for "hegemony" over the other nations of the late Soviet Union to British policy in Ireland in the later nineteenth century, and concludes that "Up to 1998, the Russian government has taken a more benign course."(7) For him, the important point isn't whether there has been a struggle for hegemony, but exactly how it has been carried out. Even so, given such things as the Russo-Chechen war of the mid-90s, the Russian military intervention in Transdniester, and the manipulation of bloody ethnic conflicts in the Transcaucasian republics, this comparison is hardly likely to exonerate Yeltsin's Russia. Meanwhile, as for the murderous Tsarist autocracy, Lieven gives it a retrospective seal of approval, arguing that

. "As to the Russians, it is important not to read back into the behavior of nineteenth century Russia the exceptional totalitarian ferocity which characterised the Soviet, and especially Stalinist regimes in our own century. Regrettably, there was little that was unique to Russia about its methods of colonial 'pacification' in the nineteenth century: the French in Algeria and Senegal, the British in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny and the Matabele Revolt, and the Americans of the Western frontier were no gentler. Charles Callwell, Victorian soldier and author of the standard late nineteenth-century British study of anti-guerrilla operations, makes no distinction between the behavior of the various European colonial armies."(8)

. Lieven's argument is based on his commitment to Western capitalism but, oddly enough, it reads just like the arguments made by various opportunist groups on the left who regard themselves as great opponents of the big Western powers. Such "leftists" justify the actions of their favorite tyrannical regime with the observation: "why, the big Western powers also do this or that", or "how hypocritical for the Western powers to condemn other regimes for what they themselves do". From the opportunist point of view, the workers of various oppressive regimes shouldn't stand up against them, but should tolerate these regimes as the price of some sort of "anti-imperialist" struggle. From the point of view of Lieven, there should be a mutual amnesty between the apologists for other big capitalist powers and those for Russia capitalism--let each forgive the imperialist sins of the others. But from the point of view of militant working class movement and proletarian anti-imperialism, the answer is to organize a class struggle against both the major Western bourgeoisies and the other oppressive regimes.

The Serbian option

. No doubt Lieven regards the Milosevic regime in Serbia, which is in conflict with the Western powers, as one that is beyond the pale. So Lieven reassures the Western bourgeoisie that Russia is no Serbia, and devotes two chapters to discussing "the failure of the Serbian option". By this, he means the inability of the Russian government to mobilize major chauvinist movements among the ethnic Russians residing in other countries. This one of the major points in Lieven's denial of Russian imperialism, but it is an odd conclusion for him to reach. After all, he describes the attempts of various Russian political forces to incite the Russian masses. Moreover, if Yeltsin drew back from backing Russian separatist movements in certain other countries, it was not from any scruples, but because they were led by his political opponents or otherwise inexpedient. The Russian working masses may not have been enthusiastic about imperialism, but Russian imperialism made its attempts to mobilize them.

. For example, Lieven discusses the separatist movement in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, which is an independent country nestled between Ukraine and Romania. In the eastern part of Moldova, the Russians and Ukrainians combined form the majority of the population. When sentiment for joining Moldova with Romania seemed strong, a movement arose in the industrial area along the east bank of the river Dniester to separate from Moldova and establish a Transdniestrian republic. It received weapons from the Soviet (later Russian) 14th Army stationed there from before independence. When fighting brought out between the Moldovan government and the Transdniestrian separatists, Moldovan victory was prevented by the intervention of the 14th Army, then under a new commander, General Lebed. Afterwards, Russian troops continued to play the role of arbiter, although General Lebed stopped the 14th Army from further arming of Transdniestria and denounced various Transdniestrian officials as corrupt. Lieven points out that

". . . Moscow as of 1997 appears determined to keep the 14th Army in Transdniestria (which violates the Moldovan constitution), both as a bargaining chip against NATO expansion, and to prevent any conceivable future possibility of the region being incorporated into Romania. Indirectly, therefore, Russia went on supporting the Transdniestrian state, and this will probably go on being true, whoever succeeds Yeltsin as President."(9)

Since then, although Russian troops remain, the crisis in Moldova has settled down, due partially to the more moderate Russian policy but mainly to the decline of pro-Romanian sentiment and to the willingness of the Moldovan republic to grant a certain autonomy to Transdniestria.

. So Yeltsin's Russia sought to maintain its influence in Moldova through arming factions, through stationing troops there as supposed peacekeepers, and through other of the traditional means whereby big powers seek to build spheres of influence. And it had no more high-minded purpose than using Moldova as a bargaining chip. Similar big-power bullying can been seen in Russian policy towards the independent republics of the Transcaucasus, where Russia strongly backed the overthrow of a couple of presidents of Georgia and Azerbaijan, provided major support for the secessionist movement in Abkhazia (not from any special attachment to the Abkhazian cause but as part of a successful attempt to pressure Georgia into accepting the stationing of Russian troops on its territory), and so forth. (See pp. 49-50 of the chronology on Russo-Chechen relations in the last issue of Communist Voice.)

. These examples show Russian building its sphere of influence. Yet Lieven believes that the example of Moldova shows the opposite. For one thing, he claims that the events in Moldova can't be duplicated elsewhere, although he has to admit that the current Russian political forces have indeed tried to manipulate the national question elsewhere. He admits, for example, that Russia manipulation was "undeniably" important in the case of Abkhazia, but he says that "even there, only on the basis of previously existing and deeply felt conflicting claims. In no case did Moscow or the Communists succeed in 'creating' or 'inventing' a dispute."(10) But that's the way imperialism usually acts: it speculates on and manipulates previously existing conflicts in order to divide and weaken its opponents of the moment. This is not some special feature of the behavior of the Russian government or of the Russian old-line Stalinist forces that still falsely call themselves "communists", but a general feature of imperialism.

. Lieven is also aware of various reasons that the Yeltsin government moderated its policy on Transdniestria for purely pragmatic reasons. For one thing, the Transdniestria leaders tended to be supporters of the Russian opposition, and some fighters from Transdniestria went to defend the Russian parliament during the military struggle between Yeltsin and parliament in October 1993. For that matter, we might add, if Transdniestria ever became independent and sought to unite with a nearby state, it would most likely join Ukraine, not Russia, due both to Moldova's location far from Russia, and to the fact that Russians rank behind Moldovans and Ukrainians as an ethnic group in Transdniestria. These reasons for Russian restraint don't show that the Russian government isn't seeking hegemony in Moldova, but that it has to pursue a more subtle policy than straight-forwardly dismantling Moldova. Lieven himself shows that Russia has to tread softly in various parts of Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan, because anything else would be counterproductive. A pattern appears of the Russian government seeking domination, but for Lieven, since the Russian masses in various areas are noticeably reticent to be drawn into national strife, there is no imperialism. Lieven expects governments to seek domination (as, indeed, capitalist governments do), so, he reasons, what's wrong with the Russian government joining the game?

. Basically Lieven emphasizes that the ethnic Russian minorities in various countries didn't show much national fanaticism. For example, he points to the fact that most of the Russians and Ukrainians living on the west bank of the Dniester in Moldova (and hence outside Transdniestria, which is on the east bank) seem to be content. From his point of view, whereby imperialism must be a crime of the people, and not of the bourgeoisie, the reluctance of the people to respond to nationalist incitement means that the Russian government and various political forces can't be imperialist. (I would say, he denies the existence of the imperialism of the Russian bourgeoisie, but we shall see in a moment that Lieven denies the very existence of the Russian bourgeoisie.) One may well end up with an increased respect for the Russian working people after reading Lieven's account of their instinctive tendency to recoil from extreme chauvinism, but the history he narrates shows that they still have a major struggle in front of them against the chauvinism of the Russian bourgeoisie and of its various political parties, whether neo-liberal ones following Yeltsin and Putin or the Stalinist remnants such as Zyuganov's party.

World imperialism

. A class-conscious workers' movement needs a different view of imperialism than Lieven's, a more scientific view. Judging whether the modern world still has imperialism is vital to getting a picture of 21st century conditions. The different forms of domination wielded by the larger or more powerful capitalist powers are major features of the current world situation. Overall, widespread proletarianization has made the class exploitation of the workers by capitalists more and more apparent throughout the world. But the exploitative nature of world capitalism also manifests itself in a series of other contradictions. This includes a growing gap between rich and poor countries, powerful and weak ones, those which have a voice and those which don't. Imperialism also manifests itself in the lack of respect for the right to self-determination of other nations by the dominant capitalist powers which achieved their right to self-determination long ago. Moreover, if there is far less direct colonialism these days (although some still exists), spheres of influence still exist and are fought over, and the financial and commercial domination of subordinate areas is not only alive and well, but growing. Imperialism manifests itself both in the overwhelming pressure of the old great powers to maintain their exploitation of the world, and in the attempts of new powers to enter the ranks of the big bullies. Thus millions upon millions of people suffer extra oppression, beyond the "normal" level of capitalist exploitation. To disregard these world contradictions would amount to pushing under the rug some of the most brazen crimes of world imperialism. Such blindness may be of value to the ruling classes who wish to maintain capitalist exploitation, but it can only hinder the socialist reorganization of the working class.

. As for Russia, it would be a disservice to the Russian workers to tell them that they don't have to worry about Russian imperialism and that chauvinism has a different character in Russia than in other lands. All the major bourgeois political forces in Russia--such as the nationalists, Zyuganov's Stalinist party, the liberals--are mired in Russian chauvinism. The attempts of some of these parties to inflame nationalist feeling in Russia is one of the chains used to bind the Russian masses to their miserable economic conditions. For the Russian workers, like those of other major countries, the recognition that their bourgeoisie--like the capitalist bourgeoisie of all the big powers today--is imperialist, is an important part of combating chauvinism and conquering political independence from their exploiters.

The Russian bourgeoisie

. Lieven however not only wishes to acquit Russian capitalism of the sins of imperialism, he wants to prevent the blame for any of the ills of present-day capitalism being attributed to the capitalist exploiters. He is willing to grant that the poverty-stricken state of Russian capitalism is not exceptional, but typical of capitalism in many parts of the world today, but he doesn't want the capitalists to be blamed for this. One of the ways he accomplishes this trick is as follows. If some capitalist ideologists imagine a capitalism without exploitation, Lieven imagines a Russian capitalism without a bourgeoisie, but only with an "elite". Thus he claims that:

"Certainly in Russia today, it is impossible to talk of a real bourgeoisie with a defined interest. . . It is, however, already possible to speak not just of economic 'clans' in the administration and political elite, but also of economic group interests which motivate in the same general direction political figures who appear on the surface to be opposed to each other."(11)

. Thus, in Lieven's view, there are Russian elites, and "economic group interests", but no class interests, and hence, presumably, no class exploitation. It may seem like quibbling over words to talk about "economic group interests" but not classes. But for Lieven and other capitalist ideologists, it is important to banish the specter of the class struggle against the bourgeoisie. In discussing why events take place, they have to refer to economic interests of this or that group. But they wish to avoid any implication that the twists and turns of economic interest add up to a great clash between opposing classes. And they want to be able to blame tragedies not on free-market or the bourgeoisie, but on the faults of this or that individual or grouping.

. Lieven uses a similar trick to avoid having to judge the evolution of the classes in Chechnya in the 20th century. Here he holds that "there was never anything resembling a real Chechen 'bourgeoisie', as there was for example among the Volga Tatars, the Azeris, and so on" and hence "no question in Chechnya of a 'new middle-class intelligentsia of nationalism' "(12) Instead Lieven attributes recent events to the old traditions of the Chechen people. Chechen victories against Russia are supposed just a product of their old traditions of raiding their neighbors, and the collapse of the Chechen state is due to their old pre-state traditions.(13)

. But for that matter, Lieven prefers to eliminate the very term "bourgeois" altogether. He writes that

. "'Liberal capitalist' as a description is much to be preferred to 'bourgeois', a word so chewed over as to have lost all flavour and meaning. As Alfred Cobban and others have convincingly argued, even when applied to the classic (in Marx's own analysis) 'bourgeois revolution' that of France, the term is highly questionable. Rather than argue about sterile definitions of class, it makes more sense to look at ideology, tactics and results."(14)

Classes, however, vanish, and with classes, of course, so does class struggle. What's left? Just different tactics and ideological differences among people, maybe even some "economic group differences", but no great confrontations of the exploited and the exploiters.

. But at least when applied to Russia, this negation of class analysis brings Lieven closer to certain sections of the opportunist left. Lieven thinks in terms of elites, compradors, and nondescript groupings, but not in terms of exploiting classes. But a number of leftists, trailing behind the nationalism of the apologists of the old Stalinist system, such as Zyuganov's "Communist Party of the Russian Federation", also regard that the basic issue in free-market Russia is not a class struggle, but a fight against people who are sold-out to the foreigners (i.e. Lieven's "compradors"). Whatever their practical political disagreements with Lieven, their overall agitation shows a wholeheartedly agreement with at least one of Lieven's views, namely, that "Russia desperately needs a new spirit of patriotism as the base for any sense of public ethics and therefore any recovery of the state and the economy."

. As well, Lieven not only doesn't believe that there is presently a real Russian bourgeoisie, he apparently doesn't think that there was a "Soviet bourgeoisie" either. While he hates the old Soviet system and socialism, which he identifies with Stalinism, his view of the economic function of the old Soviet elite seems to unite him with others who look nostalgically at the old Soviet Union. For example, consider Kotz and Weir's book Revolution from Above: the Demise of the Soviet System, which is quite popular in certain sections of the Western left. Kotz and Weir regard the Stalinist system as socialism, if a repulsive variety of it. In order to defend their idea of socialism, they want to prove that the Soviet system did not suffer an economic collapse, but only a political collapse due to the greed of the Soviet elite. But if the old Soviet system had a bourgeois ruling class, how could it be socialism, even economically? So Kotz and Weir declare that, although the old Soviet elite ruled tyrannically in the Soviet Union and the working class had no voice, still, the elite was not a bourgeoisie. They write that "we do not consider the ruling party-state elite of the Soviet system to be a ruling class in the traditional sense."(15)

A mushrooming state bureaucracy during the "privatization of the state"

. If Lieven doesn't care much about class relations, he is more concerned about the nature of the state. So he briefly discusses the bloating of the state apparatus that has occurred in Russia in the 1990s. This phenomenon was also noted in an article in the Dec. 1998 issue of Communist Voice. In the course of tracing the disastrous results of neo-liberal rule in Russia, it noted the tremendous increase in the size of the government bureaucracy. One might have thought that with the privatization of the economy, the government might shrink, as the notorious central ministries would have less to do. But just the opposite happened. For example, from 1989 to 1994, despite the financial crises, the size of the Russian bureaucracy dramatically increased from one million to 1.7 million.(16)

. In fact, this growth of the state machine affected Chechnya as well. Russia is large; Chechnya is tiny. Yeltsin followed those who advised "shock therapy"; Chechen President Dudayev apparently followed an eclectic policy. Russia, despite its dramatic economic decline, still had large resources; the blockaded Chechen economy and state had few resources, and ordinary economic and governmental functions vanished. Yet the bureaucracy grew in Chechnya too. Lieven remarks that the

"picture of state collapse in Chechnya is by no means contradicted either by the mushrooming of Chechen ministries and bureaucrats or by the increase in the secret police. The first was simply a reflection of the privatisation of the state, as in Russia, and the buying off of individuals and groups by giving them non-working state jobs; the second was to defend Dudayev."(17)

. So Lieven's analysis is that the growing bureaucracy in Russia and Chechnya is explained by the "privatization of the state". This is a colorful and suggestive term, which seems to parallel the bloating of the state with the parallel process of the "privatization of the economy". Indeed, the two processes went on together.

. However, Lieven, as a free-market advocate, is not going to attack private capitalism as responsible for the ills of present-day Russia. For him the privatization of the state only goes along with the question of the intrusion of crime into the state and economy, and with the empowerment of comprador officials and managers, rather than with the spread of normal capitalist relations. True, this contradicts his own emphasis, elsewhere in his book, that what is happening in Russia today is just as representative of capitalism as more prosperous examples. Nevertheless, his idea is that Russia had, not a real privatization of the economy, but only the privatization of the state. Criticizing Anatoly Chubais and other Russian figures who carried out the privatization of the Russian economy, he writes that:

. "The distribution of what could be called the 'commanding heights' of the Russian economy, and the creation of a new class of great compradors, however took place largely separate from mass privatization." He goes on to favorably cite the views of Andrei Piontkovsky, who wrote that "Like many reformers, Chubais believes that it is not important how property is distributed, as long as property owners are created. After they have had their share of thievery, so the argument goes, they will start to turn their efforts to raising productivity. But Russia has experienced not so much the privatisation of control over property as the privatisation of control over the state, over financial flows and budget resources. The reformers have created a Frankenstein reform, and those who have got a taste of this fabulous means of enrichment are like addicts who will never get off the needle of budget money." (emphasis added) (18)

. If the "privatization of the state" were really, as Lieven suggests, simply a matter of a mistaken way of privatizing, it might be of little theoretical interest. But it isn't simply a matter of wrong regulations and technical missteps. As we shall see, Lieven's own description of the evolution of the privatization of the state eventually contradicts his attempt to disassociate state privatization from the general privatization process.

. Lieven defines the "privatization of the state" as

"the way in which parts of the administration came in effect to represent private or semi-private economic interests. This is especially striking, of course, in the case of Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, who functioned for long periods in effect not as Premier of Russia, but as representative of Gazprom (and to some extent also the oil sector) in the Russian government. By helping Gazprom avoid taxation he cost the Russian state billions of dollars in lost revenue and contributed heavily to the fiscal crisis of 1996-7."(19)

. Thus the privatization of the state is driven by the "private or semi-private economic interests", that is, by the privatization of the economy. It turns out that to understand the privatization of the state, one has to study more carefully the development of private economic interests in the Russian economy. However much Chernomyrdin, and the oil and gas interests, have raped Russia, this isn't the whole story of the privatization of the state and of its connection to private interests. Taxation could be lifted from this or that group of capitalists, or subsidies made to them, without having to increase the already huge bureaucracy inherited from the old days. Moreover, the almost two million bureaucrats can hardly all be millionaires like Chernomyrdin, or owners of big firms, or even all particularly wealthy, although they can be retainers of the rich. But Lieven gives no real picture of what sections of the bureaucracy have grown, and of how this relates to the economic structure of Russia. And no wonder! To do this, one would have to examine how the Russian bourgeoisie is reorganizing itself as a private bourgeoisie, and Lieven doesn't like to talk about the existence of such a bourgeoisie or ruling class.

. Lieven does, however, try to blame the privatization of the state on "communism", under which he groups both the revolutionary early years of the Soviet Union and the later Stalinist state-capitalist state. He makes an attempt to trace the privatization of the state as it developed over "several decades" prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and especially under Brezhnev. This, of course, contradicts the idea that the privatization of the state is simply a matter of a botched privatization of the economy by Yeltsin, but hey, consistency is not necessary for bourgeois ideologists. He takes a certain note of the increasing crisis of the Soviet bourgeoisie (which he does not call a bourgeoisie) under Brezhnev, writing that

"Real privatisation of the state by its own officials began under Brezhnev. It was helped by the inevitable tendency of the Communist Party and the state bureaucracy to clientelism, to the politics of leaders and their followings or cliques and the creation of bureaucratic/managerial clans (especially of course where, as in Central Asia and parts of the Caucasus, traditional clan loyalties in the strict sense also still persisted)."(20).

. Brezhnev did indeed allow centrifugal tendencies and corruption to build up, so long as formal loyalty was maintained to the overall system and its Brezhnevite leadership. But Lieven's account tends to make centrifugal tendencies simply into a matter of bad "communist" political arrangements. He doesn't investigate competing economic interests at all levels, from the enterprise level on up, that created the grounds for "bureaucratic/managerial clans" and, eventually, for the rampant corruption of the Brezhnev days. If Lieven investigated the economic side more closely, it would become clear that the bloating of the ministries and the Soviet-style "privatization of the state" were manifestations of the state-capitalist (not communist) nature of Soviet economy and politics since Stalinism came to the fore. The "privatization of the state" during Soviet days shows that the economy, although nationalized, was run according to the interests of competing private groupings among the state-capitalist ruling class. Thus the privatization of the state went parallel with economic privatization both in Soviet days as well as in free-enterprise Russia today. But it is precisely recognition of this parallel of economic and political privatization which Lieven wants to avoid. He instead wants to explain away the failures of capitalism in Russia as allegedly due to extraneous political or state factors, which is how he regards the "privatization of the state".(21)

. Lieven does say something about the centrifugal tendencies in the Soviet bureaucracy as a whole, which had to be restrained by the Party leadership. But Lieven only looks superficially at these tendencies, and doesn't study the way they manifested themselves at the level of the various economic enterprises, and at the level of the "privatization of the economic ministries" (if I may call it that) that were supposedly directing the enterprises. He simply writes that

"the Soviet state was always characterised by a certain 'shapelessness', by bureaucratic cliques and factions, and by a tendency for orders and decisions to be made 'by telephone', that is to say personally and informally rather than by regular formal and legal means (something which was of critical importance in the run-up to the Chechen War). But the Politburo staff and Central Committee sections worked, however inefficiently, to pull all these informal groupings behind united and agreed strategies and decisions."(22)

Thus Lieven restricts himself to some general remarks about the evils of informality, and ignores the clash of economic interests that developed under state-capitalism. Indeed, he ends up hinting that the problem is basically the lack of effective law and proper procedure. He ignores the relationship of the political and legal superstructure in the Soviet Union to their economic base in class relations. He talks about how the different officials telephoned each other, but he ignores any discussion of whether their clashes and frictions had anything to do with separate and private economic interests among these officials, that is, he ignores any consideration of the actual economic organization of the state-capitalist bourgeoisie.

. Thus while Lieven refers to the bloating of the state bureaucracy and connects it to the privatization of the state, he doesn't really study this process. He makes no attempt to verify his suppositions about how this developed by, say, tracing the size of the bureaucracy and seeing when it grew, and what parts of it grew. All he wants to do is keep the blame for bureaucratic ills away from market capitalism. And yet, in another part of book he talks, for example, of how "rampant bureaucracy" is one of the features of certain widespread capitalist systems, for example, the "systems of the cacique type" where power is in the hands of "corrupt political chieftains (Cacique comes from the Caribbean Indian word for a chief), who distributed patronage and government contracts, . . . and occasionally bumped off inconvenient political opponents, critical journalists, trade unions and so forth."(23)) Forgetting all about this, he ends up simply blaming everything on "communism" and its violation of "human nature". This is not only easier than actually investigating the role of the bureaucracy, but it absolves capitalism of the blame for the ills of privatization. And that is a conjuring feat worthy of the illusionist David Copperfield.

The "martial races"

. Lieven is similarly superficial with respect to latter twentieth century Chechen society. He doesn't relate the current situation of Chechen society and politics, and the resistance to Russia, to developments during the last period of time, since the Chechen exile. Instead he mainly talks about the old Chechen society that still existed at time of the decades-long Caucasian war against Russian annexation in the mid-19th century. He explains Chechen victory in the first Russo-Chechen war of 1994-6 by saying that they are "one of the great martial peoples of modern history.". The Chechens are presented, essentially, as the noble savages, who "had rejected modernisation in general", were impressive at sacrifice and fighting, but were pretty much incapable of establishing "the institutions of a modern, let alone a democratic state".(24)

. The first Chechen war of 1994-6, with its struggle of a people hardly a million strong against the Russian army, is undoubtedly one of the more impressive stories of national resistance. No doubt, it has its own particular features. Yet the outbreak of a struggle for independence hardly requires explanation by some unique characteristics of the Chechen people. It is one of the many national rebellions of the last two hundred years. By instead presenting their national revolt as something altogether peculiar to the Chechens, Lieven removes it from the principles which one might apply to similar struggles. The situation in Chechnya becomes something unique to itself, where a people is fighting for an independence which supposedly it can hardly handle.

. Moreover, the Chechnya which fought the Chechen war of 1994-6 was hardly the Chechnya of the Caucasian war of the mid-19th century. Chechen society then consisted of economically self-sufficient families in an agricultural, patriarchal society with no state and, hence, no state bureaucracy. Chechnya today is a capitalist society, if one with a collapsed state and economy. In the Chechnya of the past, the overwhelming majority of Chechens were illiterate and with limited knowledge of anything beyond their locality. In the Chechnya of today even the proletarianized majority has extensive contact with other peoples throughout a large part of the former Soviet Union. A number of traditions may remain, but the basic structure of Chechen society has changed forever. By failing to study these changes, Lieven does no favors for the Chechen people, and is forced to fall back on lame explanations about the Chechens being a "martial people" and one incapable of running a modern state.

Before the state existed

. But if the history of the old Chechnya cannot replace a study of the subsequent class evolution of Chechen society, it still has its importance. It shows that the struggle of the Chechens against annexation is not the invention of some foreign agents seeking to destabilize Russia, but has its own historic roots. Moreover, the Chechen example says something about how human society has evolved. There was a time when human society existed without either class divisions or a state. Chechnya, as late at the early 19th century, was an example of a society without a state and without at least modern class divisions. As such, it illustrates something of the strengths and weaknesses of such societies. Engels, in The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State, discussed a number of examples of clan or tribal societies which didn't have states and were free of class divisions. He traced how patriarchy, class divisions, and eventually the state, arose in them. This showed that class divisions and the state are not the result of "human nature", for human society existed without them for far longer than it has existed with them. Engels showed that such early societies lacked a number of the evils of modern, class-divided "civilization". Nevertheless, his idea was not that a future revolution would return to the original pre-class type of society. He showed that these societies had dissolved and been supplanted, not by accident, not by some arbitrary misfortune, but because of the contradictions that developed within them as economic life advanced. Neither was life ideal in these old societies, with their low level of productive ability and scientific knowledge and with the development of patriarchalism and slavery in these societies as their wealth developed, nor can these societies be called back into existence. The Marxist theory was that the economic prerequisite for abolishing all classes, and eventually the state, is the common ownership and management of an economy based on large-scale production. By way of contrast, the old societies had common ownership and cultivation of land (and then later had common ownership but individual cultivation of land), but were based on small-scale production.

. It's been over a century since Engels wrote about tribal societies. There has been a lot more historical research on various of them. But the general approach set forward by Engels remains of value, and a look at Chechen society prior to the Russian conquest brings to mind a number of the issues that Engels raised. The courage, sense of honor, skill at horsemanship and fighting, and sense of independence of the free male Chechen was noted by many foreign observers. But these qualities didn't stem from Chechens being genetically some sort of "martial people", but reflect qualities common to various societies before class division and exploitation has reached a certain point. They were not special racial or ethnic characteristics of Chechens, but characteristic of the Chechen social conditions of those times.

. Lieven presents the old Chechen society as "egalitarian". In fact, Chechen society didn't have a state or government. It did not have the feudalistic features that had taken root in much of neighboring Dagestan, such as landowning nobles, khans, princes, etc. It was based on self-sufficient agricultural small-scale production, both farming and raising livestock. There was common ownership by the local village of land (but probably not common cultivation). These features place the old Chechen villages among the tribal societies, at various stages of development, discussed by Engels.

. Lieven says that the old Chechen society was "economically undifferentiated" and "egalitarian" (except for the slaves), implying that they were classless (but as a bourgeois, he can't use such "Marxist" designations). This might be basically true (for the free population), but he doesn't present enough economic description to really judge. Since Lieven doesn't think there is a real bourgeoisie even in today's Russia, one can hardly have much confidence about his judgement about the possibility of more subtle class relations in early 19th century Chechnya. For example, the history of communal agriculture all over the world show that it is possible for farming villages to have collective land ownership, and yet have class division between rich and poor. But this would be outside Lieven's idea of class, since all he looks for is hereditary political privilege.

. So it is probably not too surprising that Lieven and others treat the issue of slavery in Chechen society rather cavalierly. Chechen society had at least one class division aside from patriarchalism, that between the free population and the slaves. Lieven dismisses it as a minor issue; he simply shrugs it off in a footnote as an institution "since time immemorial". Apparently, the Chechens mainly enslaved people captured or abducted during raids on the villages of their Caucasian neighbors, the slaves either being ransomed, set to agricultural or other work, or "especially young female ones", sold "to the Ottoman markets of the Black Sea".(25) The growth of slavery is one of the ways in which the tribal societies are undermined from within--although if slavery remains economically peripheral, it can coexist with tribal institutions for a long time. Lieven makes no attempt to examine how significant a factor slavery was for Chechen society, and how it was developing over time. He similarly brushes aside the patriarchalism of the old Chechen society: he doesn't stop for a moment to consider why this existed, whether it had always existed, and what factors would either exacerbate it or lead out of it.(26)

. Actually, the old Chechen society seems to have gone through a complex development, including a number of zigzags. Lieven, while occasionally providing a few details that hint at such a history, always ignores it in his general statements and conclusions about this society. Thus Lieven writes, as do many other authors, that the Chechens "never had rulers or a native aristocracy of any kind", while elsewhere remarking in passing that the Chechens had indeed had such rulers at one time, and "from the sixteenth century expelled their native and non-Chechen overlords". Indeed, "Chechen folklore . . . retains memories of the struggle against lords, in the form of stories about the fortified towers belonging to them, the ruins of which are still to be seen in Chechnya. Thus the tower Tsoi-Pkheda is associated with the story of a Prince Sepa, who tried to enforce droit de seigneur [right of the first night--JG] on the girls of his village, and was killed by one of their brothers."(27) The Chechen society that fought against Russian annexation in the 18th and 19th centuries wasn't simply the old society that had existed for thousands of years in the Caucasus, but had already gone through major changes.

. Thus it shouldn't be assumed that the institutions of the Chechen society of the early 19th century had simply existed "since time immemorial". Moreover, besides the more idyllic features of the old Chechen society, there were a number of more somber features. Chechens had a high sense of honor, but raiding neighboring villages and abducting people as slaves ranked highly in this code of honor. Blood feuds were so extensive that they impaired resistance to Russian annexation. As we have seen, patriarchy and slavery existed. There was no written language, and knowledge was restricted to a handful (Chechen society readily absorbed from outsiders the need to use muskets, and all Chechen free males were quite proficient in them, but the need for literacy and wide knowledge was foreign to it). And so forth. Some of these features may have come down from ancient Chechen society, while others may only have arisen, or become exaggerated, at a certain point of development, but they were all there in the 19th century. Moreover, the lack of a state and of its laws did not mean the lack of any social control over the individual Chechen: social conventions could be all the more binding for being based on custom and tradition, rather than law. (In a society subject to government, it is usually considered honorable by this or that stratum of the population to evade certain laws, while it would be harder to find situations where a member of a tribal society would consider it honorable to evade social conventions.)

. One of the problems facing the old Chechen society was its difficulty in uniting the various independent villages and communities. Resisting the huge Tsarist armies that encroached upon the Caucasus required united resistance, not just the effort of individual villages. These efforts couldn't be directed simply by the decisions or leaders endorsed by a council of elders or a meeting of all free males of a village. As a result, Chechens turned to institutions that contradicted the old tribal or clan traditions.

. One of these institutions was Islam, which was not the original Chechen religion. In Chechnya, prior to the resistance to annexation, Islam was fairly idiosyncratic and coexisted with survivals of an older, indigenous, Chechen religion. But various of the major leaders of resistance to Russian annexation utilized Islamic religious movements as a way to unite Chechens across the divisions of Chechen society (and to unite Chechens with Dagestanis and other Caucasian peoples). In the course of this, Chechen society was changed. Islamic law contradicted the traditional Chechen code of behavior (the "Adat") that was still strong in the 19th century; and Islamic forms of organization cut across the old tribal forms. A process of adjustment took place.

. Also, in the heroic resistance during the Caucasian war, the legendary leader Imam Shamil didn't just use religion and oppose a number of Chechen traditional practices, but introduced a rudimentary state administration into Chechnya. It's probably no accident that the leaders who united the Chechens against the tsarist troops in the 19th century were themselves mainly Avars (one of the peoples of Dagestan). This included not just Imam Shamil himself, but Qazi Moullah, Hadji Murat (whose life was the basis for Tolstoy's novel by that name, which described Chechen and Dagestani resistance to Russian conquest), and others. As Avars, they were acquainted with the institutions of a more class-divided society, including the state and a stricter form of patriarchal Islam.

The bottom line

. But Lieven doesn't deal with the evolution of Chechen society. Whether he is considering the old Chechen society or modern Russian society, the questions asked by Lieven are limited by his free-market ideology. That is why, even though his book is the most detailed of the books on the Chechen wars here reviewed, the account is disjointed. Individual facts about Russia and Chechnya appear in isolation, in no particular order.

. Moreover, in his "Conclusion" at the end of his Chechnya, he has no mention of any prospect for the Chechens whatsoever. He may want to "honour the courage and tenacity of the Chechen people", but ultimately he finds them irrelevant.(28)

. His concern is with Western policy towards Russia; he doesn't want the Western powers to create a backlash in Russia by refusing it entry to the big power club. Thus there is nothing at all about Russia's failure to recognize the right to self-determination having created the bloodbath in Chechnya; and even less than nothing about what stand the workers of Russia should have towards the policies of their exploiters. Lieven's concern is simply to regulate the relations among the big powers, and Chechnya is not a big power. He opposes those unregenerate Cold Warriors who want to continue the struggle against Russia into the present, but his standpoint is simply that Russian imperialism is as legitimate as Western imperialism. As for the Russian bourgeoisie (not his term, of course), which he repeatedly denounces as "compradors", he simply wants them to become patriotic. He writes that

. "The danger then is that if Russia were in fact forced to abandon her present very weak and qualified 'imperial' identity, it might swing to something very much worse. This would be especially true if Russia were to be simultaneously excluded from Western institutions and surrounded by a ring of Western-backed states with strong and strongly anti-Russian official national identities and programmes--which is in effect Henry Kissinger's programme. It would also be the case if ethnic Russians beyond Russia's border came under physical attack on a large scale. The fact that this has not happened so far has been of critical importance in limiting the growth of a radical and ethnicist Russian nationalism. We must hope that it stays that way, but also recognize that Russia desperately needs a new spirit of patriotism . . ."(29)

. What Russia needs is that its working masses develop a class struggle for its interests against the local exploiters, who have changed from a state-capitalist bourgeoisie to a free-market bourgeoisie. To do this, they will have to denounce the "'imperial' identity" and chauvinism of the Russian bourgeoisie, an imperialism which keeps Russian workers separate from their Chechen comrades and workers of other nationalities. This requires not only defending the right to self-determination of Chechnya, but building fraternal bonds with the Chechens masses, who face a complicated struggle against outside oppression and also to establish a proletarian trend in Chechen politics. Western workers, if we too are to stand up in class struggle, will have to denounce Henry Kissinger and other ultra-imperialists, but not from Lieven's standpoint. Our standpoint here in the West has to be to oppose the imperialist club altogether--not to champion a union of Russian and Western imperialists against the workers of all countries, but to encourage the struggle against all imperialisms in internationalist alliance with the workers of all countries.


(1) Robert Cottrell, "Chechnya: How Russia Lost", New York Review of Books, Sept. 24 ,1998, p. 44, col. 3. (Return to text)

(2) "Che Guevaras in Turbans", New left Review, September/October 1999, in the section "Gramscian Horse-Sense", p. 22. (Text)

(3) Ibid., p. 382. (Text)

(4) Ibid., p. 7, which he talks of "accounting with my own previous mistakes in analysing contemporary Russia. In the light of subsequent events, many readers of my previous book, The Baltic Revolution, written in 1992, have felt that I exaggerated the degree of threat to the Baltic States both from Russia and more importantly from their own Russian minorities. In the runup to the Chechen War, like every other observer I also greatly overestimated the strength of the Russian army--or rather underestimated its extreme decline." (Text)

(5) Ibid., p. viii, 1. (Text)

(6) P. 296. (Text)

(7) Ibid., p. 381. (Text)

(8) Ibid., p. 307. (Text)

(9) Ibid., pp. 248-9, the parenthetical comment is Lieven's. (Text)

(10) Ibid., p. 252. (Text)

(11) Ibid., p. 395, col. 1. (Text)

(12) Ibid., p. 334. (Text)

(13) For example, he writes that "Chechnya's history since the war suggests that the revolt of the 1990s has been against not just the Soviet and Russian states, but the modern state as such; . . . Chechen traditions cannot easily bear the yoke of any state--even their own . . ." It might be noted that the first thing the Chechen independence movement did when it declared independence form Russia was to establish its own state. And one might have thought that the blockade of Chechnya, the utter collapse of the Chechen economy, the arming and financing of outside factions by Russia, and the state of development of the various classes in Chechen society would have had more to due with the sorry condition of the Chechen state than has memory of the old Chechen style of life from over 150 years ago, but no, not for Lieven. He goes on to say that "The contrast between Chechnya in wartime and peacetime has been depressing; even if Russia accorded de jure independence to Chechnya it is unlikely that Chechens could profit from this." (p. 302) So it wouldn't matter if the blockade were lifted, the economy revived, and the Chechen authorities recognized by the outside world? (Text)

(14) Ibid., pp. 394-5, the parenthetical remark is Lieven's. (Text)

(15) See David M. Kotz with Fred Weir, Revolution from above: The demise of the Soviet system, p. 31, footnote 58. Also see "Closing their eyes to the obvious in their 'Revolution from Above': Kotz and Weir deny the economic collapse of Soviet state-capitalism" in Communist Voice, Jan. 20, 1998. See the section "An elite which is supposedly not a ruling class". (Text)

(16) Mark, Detroit, "The old state-capitalist 'socialism' was rotten while today market-capitalism ravages the Russian economy" in Communist Voice, Dec. 8, 1998. See footnote 6 in the section "Yeltsin's dictatorial rule". When I was first saw this figure during the preparation of CV, I was surprised and asked the author to check the reference, which he did. It wasn't just that officials hung on to their jobs, as there was few other places for them to go, but that the bureaucracy grew like a cancerous tumor. (Text)

(17) Ibid., p. 77. (Text)

(18) Ibid., pp. 175-6. (Text)

(19) Ibid., pp. 94-5. (Text)

(20) Ibid., p. 157. (Text)

(21) Tracing the "privatization of the state" under Stalinist state-capitalism would bring up the economic contradictions that exist inside the ruling Soviet bourgeoisie. It is notable that many Trotskyists and Stalinists alike deny that there was a Soviet bourgeoisie, on the grounds that there weren't private and competing economic interests among this bourgeoisie. The Soviet-style privatization of the state showed otherwise. Interestingly enough, Lieven seems to deny the existence of a present-day Russian bourgeoisie on the exactly opposite grounds: there supposedly isn't enough of a common "defined interest" binding them together, so they can't be called a class. (Text)

(22) Ibid., p. 95. (Text)

(23) Ibid., p. 151, the parenthetical remark is Lieven's. (Text).

(24) Ibid., pp. 22, 324. Lieven, of course, believes he avoids the mistake of other writers who regard the Chechens as "noble savages" because he recognizes some of the limitations of the old Chechen society. He also preaches against others for thinking that Chechen society is timeless and unchanging. And he has a few scattered comments on newly-risen Chechen social relations, mostly in refutation of the views of this or that other author. Yet, when all is said and done, he himself repeatedly falls back on presenting modern-day Chechens as simply the Chechens of old (Text)

(25) Ibid., p. 419, column 2, footnote 6. (Text)

(26) Actually, he doesn't discuss it much at all. But, for one thing, the general village assemblies were gatherings of the (free) male population, and presumably when there was talk of the village elders, this meant male elders. On the other hand, Chechen women didn't wear the veil and were notably freer in their conduct than the women in neighboring Dagestan. It is also notable that the mother's elder brother traditionally played "a strong role, sanctioned by tradition, in the upbringing of male children" (p. 341). This would appear to be a remnant of "mother-right" surviving into patriarchy and "father-right". This would suggest that women probably had a much higher status in earlier days in the northern Caucasus. It would go along with Engels' view that women had a much higher status in the ancient societies, and lost that status as these societies evolved towards class society. (Text)

(27) Ibid.., pp. 309, 339. And note that Lieven refers to "native", i.e. Chechen, "overlords" as well as foreign ones. (Text)

(28) Ibid., p. 5. (Text)

(29) Ibid., p. 382 (Text)

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