Russian novels, poetry and ballet put the country squarely in the European family of cultures and yet there is something different about Russia, especially in terms of its political culture. What makes Russia different?
Maxim Trudolyubov uses private property as a lens to highlight the most important features that make Russia stand out as a political culture. In many Western societies, private property has acted as the private individual’s bulwark against the state; in Russia, by contrast, it has mostly been used by the authorities as a governance tool. Nineteenth-century Russian liberals did not consider property rights to be one of the civil causes worthy of defending. Property was associated with serfdom, and even after the emancipation of serfs the institution of property was still seen as an attribute of retrograde aristocracy and oppressive government. It was something to be destroyed – and indeed it was, in 1917.
Ironically, it was the Soviet Union that, with the arrival of mass housing in the 1960s, gave the concept of private ownership a good name. After forced collectivization and mass urbanization, people were yearning for a space of their own. The collapse of the Soviet ideology allowed property to be called property, but again it was tricky because not all properties were equal. You could own a flat but not an oil company, which could be property on paper but not in reality. This is why most Russian entrepreneurs register their businesses in offshore jurisdictions and park their money abroad. Russia’s bellicose posturing could be seen as a compensation of sorts for the vulnerabilities and conflicts that unresolved property relations create domestically. On the positive side, property is finally seen in Russia as a shield for individual autonomy. Russia is now faced with the prospect of building its own institutions of property and conflict resolution, a process that will require a rapprochement with Europe.