I recently finished Soviet Freedom (Picador, 1988), Anthony Barnett’s account of his trip to the Soviet Union in 1987, and was very impressed by his insight into the changing situation and the wide range of interesting people he talked to; I’d recommend it to anyone interested in what that time and place were like. Here I want to pass on an extended quote from Alexander Yakovlev that expresses very well my own sense of the relation between politics and psychology:

Democratization is needed first and foremost, second and third too.[…] We have not got used to really arguing, and what is more, arguing honourably, listening to one another’s opinions. Yet this is essential, since collective wisdom is always stronger than the view of one person. For this reason, the issue does not consist of the perfection of the system of political institutions alone; what is at issue is that we should shape human thinking itself, that we should get people used to a democratic outlook, to a kind of democratic way of thinking.
I mentioned a few days ago here that we have overthrown the tsars, but we have not yet overthrown the petty monarchs hidden within ourselves. Within all of us there sits some kind of khan, tsar, I might say God almighty, in other words a sort of power-hungry being. When this starts to take hold of one, there straight away appears this inner-being, who starts to give out orders, to administrate. It starts to walk not upon our sinful soil but hovers somewhere above it. Such a person already thinks he is more clever, more learned; he starts to make pronouncements and everyone is obliged to attend in awe to his wise thoughts.

Therefore, we have got to get used to spiritual, human equality; we have to understand that a person, in the last resort, is only one among millions. If he attains greater or smaller office, then this only means that people trust him and have honoured him with their trust. To a certain extent, perhaps, it shows that they recognize one of his abilities or talents, but it in no way authorizes him to detach himself from the millions of human beings, to put himself above them.

The passage is from an interview with Andras Sugar for the Hungarian television program Face to Face, broadcast July 30, 1987; I’d love to have it in Russian, but Google hasn’t turned it up for me.
Update. No original has turned up, but Sashura has provided the next best thing, a translation back into Russian, in this post (which also links to a recent hour-long talk by Yakovlev at Berkeley).


  1. Here’s Wilhelm IV of Saxe-Weimar talking to the Hesse-Kassels in 1633, or rather a version of it in which a small town of Americans from 2000 had been dropped into Thuringia two years before. Michael Sterns is the President of a hacked-together confederation in Northern Germany ruled by Gustavus Adolphus, who has allied himself with the Americans. Wilhelm has resigned from the nobility and changed his name to William Wettin, and has become the leader of the Loyal Opposition.

    The stares of the landgrave and the landgravine were now skeptical. “Seems to me [Stearns] has all the makings of a tyrant,” gruffed Hesse-Kassel.

    “Like the old Greek tyrants?” Saxe-Weimar shrugged. “The makings of one, yes. Even quite a terrifying one. And I also think that, if he felt he had no choice, he would take that road. But not willingly, Wilhelm.”

    He paused, thinking. “He was a professional pugilist once, you know, as a younger man.”

    The landgrave and the landgravine grimaced. Pugilism for pay was not unknown in their era, but it was a savage and bloody business. On a par with cockfighting and bearbaiting. Its practitioners were considered to be sheer brutes.

    Wilhelm smiled. “You misunderstand, I think. In his world, it was a sport. Brutal enough, to be sure. Oh, yes! Never make the mistake of thinking that Michael Stearns will refrain from bloodshed. But it was highly organized, you see. They called it ‘boxing,’ and it was surrounded by rules and regulations. Many things were ruled out, such as what they called ‘low blows.’ Indeed, a man could lose a match by violating those rules.”

    He lowered his hand and opened it, palm up, on the table. “I believe that, to pursue the thought, Michael Stearns wants to teach the world how to box, in the political arena. So, in the end, I think it is my responsibility—perhaps the greatest of my responsibilities—to see to it that he never faces the necessity, as he might see it, to become a tyrant. Because he trusts his opponent to box rather than to fight like an animal. So if he loses a match, it is simply a match, not his life. And he might win the next, after all. Because I and—” His eyes flitted back and forth between the two other people at the table. “—others provided him with an acceptable alternative to the stark choice between tyranny and destruction.”

         —1633, David Weber and Eric Flint

  2. The converse, of course, is that if everyone has their own way, then you get chaos. The argument would be that cooperation and coordination is necessary in any society, and without someone in control, everything would be lost in a welter of contradictions and cross-purposes.
    Living in China certainly hasn’t reinforced my faith in the ability of people to cooperate for the common good. As a Chinese colleague expressed it to me the other day, the Chinese are like sand. Without a strong force to keep them in a certain shape, the natural tendency is to dissipate.
    There is also the observation that is often made: “One Chinese is a dragon, ten Chinese are a worm. One Japanese is a worm, ten Japanese are a dragon.” The implication is that Japanese strength lies in their ability to cooperate, Chinese weakness lies in the lack of this ability. Hence the need for an ’emperor’. These are all ‘memes’ that are floating around in China.

  3. I think it’s one of the big existential problems of human culture. Whenever people are enlightened enough to set up a system to “dispense with the tsars” (in whatever guise and era), they always creep back. Roman republic degenerates into empire. English Commonwealth falls over and we get kings back. Any number of nations (USA, Russia, France, China) set up systems without a monarch, and to greater or lesser extent end up with king-like reverence for the office of president or dictator or whoever.
    I blame evolved behaviour: our “chimpiness”, a deep preference for a hierarchy with some big alpha male chimp at the top.
    What to do about it, I’ve no idea. I don’t think people in general, particularly ones in patriarchal cultures where this “chimpiness” is most strongly expressed, have much desire to alter it.

  4. Remember that we’re just as closely related to bonobos as to chimps: fluid heterarchy (Google Books) is as human as hierarchy.

  5. John Emerson says

    Bathrobe: Leon Stover called Chinese society “family anarchy”. Each individual was altruistic toward his clan, willingly or not, but each clan was predatory toward all other clans (with allowances for alliances between predators). Clans could be very large and functioned as collective groups the way corporations and militias do, and a clan basically took on the functions of local government for its area.

  6. I’m actually wondering whether Russia might not be a rather extreme case when it comes to the petty use of power. The following passage quite struck me (from this blog, originally from a Washington Post article, but now inaccessible to me):
    Prompted by words of gratitude from the steel worker in the audience, Medvedev criticized Russia’s centralized system of power in which actions are taken only following a decision from the top. Dmitry Chervyakov told him that following their meeting in April, the trams in his industrial town now ran late enough to allow those working the second shift to get home and the steel mill’s cafeteria also was open into the evening.
    “To resolve a basic problem, like with the tram or cafeteria, you had to visit the president,” Medvedev said. “That’s how it is here, and the name of the president makes no difference, by the way. You have to go to the top for something to budge. We must try to destroy this system of decision-making.”

  7. The article that JC points to strikes me as rather speculative. The idea that early human groups spread out to avoid conflicts that could inflict lethal or debilitating wounds looks to be nothing more than conjecture. It’s known, for instance, that Australian aboriginals in their “natural” state would engage in spear fights that resulted in wounding, sometimes serious. I am not making any value judgements about this, but I do wonder whether it is worth taking seriously people who make assumptions about past human societies simply on the basis that they fit in with their own personal views.

  8. The Soviet regime has ruled for more than 70 years…and it’s not easy to eradicate that mentality especially from individuals who are in the governments of separated former Soviet republics.
    They lived in that Soviet period and were a part of the System. Now they are in the governments of independent countries, but still with Soviet outlook and state of mind.
    In order to build truly democratic country, at least a new generation of politics (who are 18-20 years old now) should replace the current ones who came from Soviet epoch.

  9. “Petty monarch” could be a translation of Hungarian kiskirály (kis = small, király = king) as e.g. in this dictionary.

  10. I was assuming the interview was in Russian, but I suppose it’s possible Yakovlev spoke Hungarian.

  11. Trond Engen says

    Even if the interview was in Russian, it may have been transmitted (or archived) in Hungarian translation. Anyway, småkonge is a just as straightforward compound meaning “petty king” in Norwegian. It seems like a likely Wander-calque.

  12. Why små and not lille, Trond?

  13. Oops.
    Why små and not lille, Trond?

  14. Trond Engen says

    Why små and not lille, Trond?
    This is really messy. In modern Norwegian små is the plural of liten. lille is the definite form (continuing the old weak form, if I’m not mistaken). (There’s analogical remodeling and intrusion of Danified forms to tell about even in the pair litenlille, but I’ll let that go for now.) The comparative and superlative are mindre and minst/minste.
    In Old Norse, older Nynorsk, and probably still in dialects, små (ON smár) is an adjective in its own right, complete with a singular and the inflected forms smære, smæst.
    In this case the word smákonungar “petty kings” is attested in the sagas, and its use in modern Norwegian is probably a revival with the national awakening.

  15. Trond Engen says

    And, anyway, små as first element of compounds is common and productive: småby, småbåt, småhus, småunge, småveg, … Liten can’t even be used in compounds, and lille carries its definiteness with it, so it can’t be used for generic compounds, only specific referents: lillehuset “the little house”, Lillestrøm “The little (homestead) Strøm“, Lillehammer “The little (town) Hamar“, Lille-Per “Li’l-Pete”.

  16. In this case the word smákonungar “petty kings” is attested in the sagas,
    It just struck me that I may have disproved my hypothesis of a calque. Oh, well. It’s a pretty straightforward coinage too.

  17. Petty king in English goes back to Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne (quoth the OED) where he uses it to gloss the term kinglet, recorded there for the first time as well. The synonyms kingling, royalet, and toparch are more recent on the record, but regulus, a direct borrowing from Latin in the same sense, is found around 1513 in English, and in British Latin as early as the 8th century, referring to Welsh or Saxon petty kings. Montaigne indeed is saying that Caesar applied the term reguli to the British kinglets he encountered.

  18. I probably ought to have said “and not liten“. I ended up worrying about it in the middle of the night but then I decided that lille might be ok. Anyway thanks for covering so much in your explanation.

  19. The kinglets or crests are a small group of birds… The scientific name Regulidae is derived from the Latin word regulus for “petty king” or prince, and comes from the coloured crowns of adult birds.
    From the Wikipedia article about the “Kinglets” (Regulidae).

  20. The word Yakovlev probably used was царёк – tsaryok, literally ‘little tsar’, but in idiomatic usage meaning exactly what the English text implies – petty monarch. It is in wide circulation in Russian.
    I couldn’t find the interview or a transcript of it, but here is an hour long discussion with Yakovlev, Harry Kreisler and prof.Freidin in Berkeley.

  21. Russian for ‘kinglet’ is королёк. I guess it was too much to hope that it would be царёк.

  22. David Marjanović says

    These are all ‘memes’ that are floating around in China.

    …kept afloat, no doubt, by the Party.

    Any number of nations (USA, Russia, France, China) set up systems without a monarch, and to greater or lesser extent end up with king-like reverence for the office of president or dictator or whoever.

    Ha! France is a bad example. 🙂 De Gaulle lies too far in the past, and you should see what they do to Sarko. There’s a newspaper called Sarkophage now.
    My mother says they only elected him so they could have a revolution. They haven’t had one in such a long time!

    What to do about it, I’ve no idea. I don’t think people in general, particularly ones in patriarchal cultures where this “chimpiness” is most strongly expressed, have much desire to alter it.

    Patriarchy is slowly fading away. I suppose so is kyriarchy as a whole.

    It seems like a likely Wander-calque.


    I suppose it’s possible Yakovlev spoke Hungarian

    No. The reputation of Hungarian is such that nobody outside Hungarian-speaking places learns it.

  23. JC: Petty king in English goes back to Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne (quoth the OED) where he uses it to gloss the term kinglet, recorded there for the first time as well.
    The term Montaigne must have used is roitelet, the diminutive of roi ‘king’. Florio obviously made up a calque using the same -let suffix, which he then had to define. The French word refers to the king of a small, insignificant kingdom, probably dependent upon a larger neighbouring state. It also means wren.

  24. Sure enough, and here’s the sentence, from Book 1, Chapter 42:
    César appelle des roitelets tous les seigneurs qui, en Gaule, de son temps, avaient droit de rendre la justice.
    So the context was France, not Britain.

  25. @Bathrobe: see the updated post. The back translation seems to have царёк after all. (мы свергли царей, но мы все еще не свергли царьков, прячущихся внутри нас самих.)

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