Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Moscow 1917 to Mazar e Sharif 2012

This is why I love history.

I'm reading "A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924", by Orlando Figes. Chapter three, "Icons and Cockroaches", discusses the life of a Russian peasant and how their lifestyle, myths, legal systems, and hierarchies provided fertile ground for the coming revolution.

On page 99, Figes discusses three important legal ideas that "shaped the peasant revolutionary mind." Those ideas were: the concept of family ownership of the farm and farming tools, the organization of the farm according to the "labour principle" (those who worked on the farm had a claim to it; blood ties were not necessary), and the subjective approach to law. What caught my interest was the latter.

Figes defines a subjective approach to law as, "judging the merits of a case according to the social and economic position of the parties concerned". For example, "The peasants considered stealing from a rich man, especially by the poor, a much less serious offence than stealing from a man who could barely feed himself and his family."

The crux of the analysis is that, "the peasants viewed justice in terms of its direct practical effects on their own communities rather than in general or abstract terms."

Taking subjective justice to the next step, the Russian writer Gorky wrote about the Russian concept of volia: "For hundreds of years, the Russian peasant has dreamt of a state with no right to influence the will of the individual and his freedom of action, a state without power over man." In essence, we are talking about a desire for controlled anarchy. A desire for order, not order imposed by a state, but by a community-oriented order. When one considers that most peasants never left their respective villages-- passports were needed to travel, and were not usually given-- this parochial mentality is understandable.

What interests me about this concept is that it is so far removed from our Western concepts of justice and fairness, yet it is in no way intrinsically "wrong". It's just different. The Russian peasant had an appreciation for the practical, not for abstractions. "I took his bread because he has too much and I have none."

Immediately my mind goes to somewhere like Afghanistan. The United States is trying to craft a modern nation-- complete with all the trimmings that a modern state has-- on various groups of people who are not interested in an all powerful and organized state. I'll be the first to admit, I've never been to Afghanistan, so I might be under the wrong impression. Yet reading Figes's analysis demonstrates that there are different ways of viewing justice and law and the state. Afghans might not desire a centralized (corrupt) Afghanistan state. They might want volia instead. I get it.

I'm also reminded of a scene in the fantastic documentary, Restrepo, where a group of village elders approach a US army outpost seeking compensation for a cow that was killed by a US soldier. The cow became entangled in razor-wire outside the compound, so technically the US soldiers just put the cow out of its misery and killed it. The elders fail to appreciate the nuanced explanation. To them, a cow was killed by the US and therefore the US should compensate them. They don't. The elders leave empty-handed (they were offered foodstuffs equal in weight to the cow). One can imagine the elders' impression: the most powerful country in the world refuses to compensate a poor villager for a killed cow? What is one cow to the United States? Is that just? I get it.

Robert Grenier, 27 year CIA veteran and one of my favorite op-ed contributors to Al Jazeera, wrote an article that echos my sentiments. Check it out:

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