Blog Politics

Why Do The Russians Sound Like Thoreau on the Individual Versus the Collective?

Since its inception, the United States has placed paramount importance on individual rights and responsibility, as opposed to collective rights and government responsibility. This principle was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

For our Founders, these unalienable rights were God-given; they were not provided by the government. Also, the individual was thought to be responsible for his or her own well-being—or pursuit of happiness—it was not the government’s job to provide for the people.

The Soviet System was, of course, completely the opposite; rights came from the party and the state, and the government was responsible for collective well-being. Yet Russian attitudes concerning the individual and the collective have changed greatly since the fall of the USSR. Take this quotation from Dmitry Medvedev as an example:

“Paternalistic attitudes are widespread in our society, such as the conviction that all problems should be resolved by the government. Or by someone else, but never by the person who is actually there. The desire to make a career from scratch, to achieve personal success step by step is not one of our national habits. This is reflected in a lack of initiative, lack of new ideas, outstanding unresolved issues, the poor quality of public debate, including criticism…Today is the first time in our history that we have a chance to prove to ourselves and the world that Russia can develop in a democratic way. That a transition to the next, higher stage of civilization is possible. And this will be accomplished through non-violent methods. Not by coercion, but by persuasion. Not through suppression, but rather the development of the creative potential of every individual.”

-“Go Russia!” by Dmitry Medvedev, then-President of the Russian Federation

Doesn’t this sound shockingly like Henry David Thoreau, the champion of rugged self-reliance and individualism?

“The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to- for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well- is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

-Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

It appears that the Russian people have realized that individuals are the key to a successful economy and society. If individuals are empowered, they will create and innovate and the country as a whole will be more successful.

This is a powerful lesson—a lesson that I believe many have forgotten in the United States.

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