Russians in the Wilderness, Part II: Rejecting Their Leaders

Russia is struggling. Its people are battling through a series of crises unparalleled in modern history. Russian commentators, both secular and religious, have frequently compared their country’s experience to that of the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian slavery and the subsequent forty years of wandering in the wilderness before they reached the “Promised Land.” This series of “Reflections” explores that theme, searching for a deeper understanding of the enormous challenges that face the Russian people.

The Legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev

For many observers of world politics, the collapse of the Soviet Empire and subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union is the most significant event in modern history. No one predicted it; few were brave enough to even hope for such a remarkable sequence of events.

At the center of these world-changing events stood Mikhail Gorbachev. After ascending to power in March 1985, Gorbachev launched his ambitious programs of Glasnost (“openness”) and Perestroika (“restructuring”), his celebrated efforts to reform and revitalize Soviet society. Gorbachev unleashed a reform movement that quickly gathered momentum, not resting until the Communist Party was outlawed and the various constituent parts of the Soviet Union were allowed to go their own way.

More than any other individual of his time, Gorbachev is universally recognized as one who made the world a safer place by ending the threat of nuclear war between the two Superpowers. He is viewed as a major historical figure, the man who dismantled the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, initiated massive reductions in nuclear weaponry, and ended the Cold War. He is acknowledged for these achievements all over the world, with one exception: Russia.

The Moses Syndrome

Gorbachev’s experience forms a striking parallel to ancient Biblical history and the leadership of Moses. The exodus of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt would never have happened without Moses. Groomed in Pharaoh’s courts and schooled with the best and brightest of Egypt, Moses had the credentials for a leadership role, but when he murdered an Egyptian for abusing a Jew, he was forced to flee Egypt and spend years in exile. Years later, he was called from his exile to provide leadership for his people.

Despite his remarkable accomplishments in securing the release of his people from slavery and his brilliant leadership in organizing the exodus and resolving the food and shelter needs of his people on their long journey, Moses was constantly faced with rebellion. The Israelites grumbled and whined, pining for the “good old days” back in Egypt. Numerous times, Moses’ leadership was rejected and he was driven to despair by his ungrateful followers.

Gorbachev’s fate has followed the same pattern. Ungrateful for the benefits of their newly-found freedom and overwhelmed with the challenges of rebuilding society after Communism’s collapse, Russians focused their frustration on their leader. Even today, Gorbachev consistently receives dismal ranking in polls of Russian attitudes toward past and present leaders. The death of his wife, Raisa, on September 20, 1999, resulted in some public empathy for his grief, but the respect for Raisa and her losing battle with leukemia will not restore Gorbachev’s image in Russia. History teaches us that leaders who struggle through times of national trauma, even when that struggle is successfully resolved, are often repudiated by their followers.

Living Through National Trauma

For the Israelites who lived in Egyptian slavery and the Russians who lived in bondage to the Communist Party, the present was at least familiar. What is truly terrifying is the unknown, the future. When political systems are dismantled, economic systems implode, and social networks disintegrate, fear and disorientation produce a profound distrust of authority. The burden can be intolerable.

But much more serious is the moral and spiritual injury that results from radical change. There is a loss of identity — what does it mean to be Russian? There is a detection of gaps and divisions between members of the neighborhood and the nation — what will hold us together? There is an absence of moral authority and disciplined behavior — what new principles should guide our conduct? In tumultuous times such as this, no political leader can survive. Not Moses, and not Gorbachev. They will surely fail, face rejection, and be left behind.

Societies with a history of authoritarian rule often seek new dictators in times of trouble. Progressive reform can only succeed when change occurs on the grassroots level, in the hearts of a people. Top-down reform usually leaves a handful of elites in charge, elites who benefit from the change in leadership but do not share those benefits with the majority. Movement toward democracy requires that the people stop looking for a political miracle worker and take the initiative to begin the rebuilding process themselves.

After seventy years of Communist Party rule in which unpredictability, dislocation and state violence against citizens created a perpetual climate of abnormality, harsh circumstances encouraged the Russian people to be fatalistic and passive. The environment fostered the belief that the individual was not and could not be in control of his or her own fate, and the normal posture of the Soviet citizen was one of passive conformity and outward obedience. These patterns of behavior will not change quickly; it is unlikely that any leader, no matter how charismatic, will significantly shorten this relearning process. Working “Egypt” out of the collective system may take a generation or two of stumbling in the wilderness.