No. 5




The nature of power and the power of spirit

14 June 2002


RiTo No. 5, 2002

  • Rein Ruutsoo

    Rein Ruutsoo

    Tallinn University, Professor of Political Theory

“Power” and “spirit” (or “intellect”) are popular metaphors in Estonia in discourse about society.

The spirit-power discourse rises to the fore in so-called transition periods, as in the 1880s and the beginning of the last century after the first Russian Revolution, in the latter half of the 1930s and the end of the 1960s. Casting spirit and power as opposing concepts is largely the discourse of protest – a reflection of tense situations, when a whole society’s freedom and existence hang in the balance. In all of these periods, important decisions have been made on questions of national survival and continued spiritual growth.

Speaking in the name of spirit is in general the discourse of democracy and civil liberty. At the same time, it implies that freedom is also a moral obligation. In the vise-like grip of the Soviet system, considering spirit and power opposing concepts was one way to talk about politics “apolitically.” The spirit was represented by the people; power by the nomenklatura. One of the most fascinating problems in studying Estonia and other captive nations is how the spirit of resistance can still survive amid conditions of more or less total censorship. Along with institutions, culture contains permanent structures that are “invisible” to power (foremost in language and thought processes). These preserve important information and are able to recreate it in very complicated semiotic relationships. When spirit and power are in opposition, the latter’s possibilities to suppress authentic (moral) culture are mostly limited to formal violence (censorship). Estonia’s restoration of independence points to the high resistance that spiritual structures had to conditions of moderate violence (post-Stalinist stagnation) The restoration of independence does not mean the spirit-power problem is now any less significant. The spirit of democracy and the intelligentsia are a product of cultural development, and it takes longer for them to reemerge than the institutionalisation of political power. Democracy matures along with the adoption of democratic traditions and values. The primary requirement of freedom of conscience in a democratic society is transparency of power. Even in a representative democracy, the powers are interested in extending their powers to the maximum and imprinting society ideologically. Ideological pressure could even be more effective in a post-communist society, because its rhetoric does not always allow attitudes and ideas that endanger spirit. Independence of spirit and growth of its importance have three main requirements in a postcommunist society:

  1. the renewed re-entrenchment of democratic cultural legacy in education,
  2. the transformation of a democratic public into a power to be reckoned with once again and
  3. access of civic initiatives to political decision-making.

Full article in Estonian