Trust Between Society and Regime

Reviewing the twists and turns of 19th century Russian protests against Tsarist rule, Solzhenitsyn examines the considerations relevant to how an historical tipping point turns out:

И таких моментов, когда вот, кажется, доступно было умирить безумный раздор власти и общества, повести их к созидательному согласию, мигающими теплоранжевыми фонариками немало расставлено на русском пути за столетие. Но для того надо: себя — придержать, о другом — подумать с доверием. Власти: а может, общество отчасти и доброго хочет? может, я понимаю в своей стране не всё? Обществу:

а может, власть не вовсе дурна? привычная народу, устойная в действиях, вознесенная над партиями, — быть может, она своей стране не враг, а в чём-то благодеяние?

Нет, уж так заведено, что в государственной жизни ещё резче, чем в частной, добровольные уступки и самоограничение высмеяны как глупость и простота. [октябрь шестнадцатого — книга 1, 70-71, on]

Several such moments, when there was some chance of ending the mindless strife between the regime and society, of bringing them together in creative collaboration, twinkle like warm orange lights along Russia’s path over a century. But for it to happen, each side would have had to restrain itself and try to trust the other. The regime would have had to think: “Maybe there is some good in what society wants. Maybe there are things we don’t know about our country.” And society would have needed to think: “Perhaps the regime is not entirely bad. The people are used to it, it is firm in its actions, it stands above parties, perhaps it is not its country’s enemy but is in some ways a blessing.”

But no, in the life of states even more than in private life, the rule is that voluntary concessions and self-limitation are ridiculed as naive and stupid. [Willets, Tr., November 1916, 60-61.]

Individuals truly made a difference, it seems, in the sad story of Russian regime zigzagging efforts to reform then repress then reform and popular impatience with that zigzagging. Key terrorists trying to assassinate tsars and the highly contradictory attitudes of several key tsars constituted critical personal contributions…if considered in relation to each other. Whether or not any single person on either side, acting on his own, could have tipped Russia away from revolution and set it firmly on the path of moderate reform is far more dubious. Be that as it may, the larger point is the clarity, in retrospect, of historical tipping points with fundamental significance for the lives of tens and hundreds of millions for a century or more into the future–tipping points that could have gone either way, had people only conjured up the wisdom to behave in rational ways entirely within their collective power.


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