Russia’s missing liberals

This week my class will be discussing Russian liberalism, or rather the lack of it, and seeking to explain why liberalism as we understand it in the West has not proved successful in Russia. I was interested, therefore, to read on Monday that Russia’s liberal party, RPR-PARNAS, has announced that it plans to change its name to just PARNAS.

I understand the reasoning. RPR-PARNAS was a mouthful. But the party needs much more than a name change. According to Nezavisimaia Gazeta, RPR-PARNAS has concluded that its dismal failure in the elections in Kostroma province (in which it got only 2% of the vote despite running a very high profile campaign) was due to the fact that it spent too much time campaigning outside the city of Kostroma in the province’s smaller towns and villages. In future, therefore, it will focus on the big cities. ‘Villages and small towns won’t vote for them [the liberals],’ says political analyst Andrei Makarkin. This is true, but if their future strategy is to give up entirely on a large segment of the Russian population, it is also a sign of how bad the liberals’ prospects are.

Why is this?

The favoured answer of many Russian liberals is that they suffer from a combination of state repression and constant propaganda from state-controlled media. I think that there is more to it than that. In the eyes of much of the Russian population, liberalism is tainted in a number of ways which make its representatives unelectable.

First, it is tainted by the experiences of the 1990s, when shock therapy brought rapid de-industrialization, rampant inflation, and a whole host of social problems such as a steep decline in life expectancy. The prevailing political narrative in Russia is of liberal policies leading to social and economic collapse in the 1990s followed by a period of growth and stability once the people now running the country took over in the 2000s. As long as this remains the dominant view, Russia’s liberals are going to have difficulty attracting votes.

Some of them realize this, and so are seeking to rewrite the narrative in their favour. Unfortunately, they are doing so in a foolish way, by trying to promote the view that the 1990s were actually a good time. Peter Pomerantsev, for instance, recently drew attention to a social media campaign by Russian liberals in which they posted pictures of happy memories from the 1990s. ‘This was a decade of opportunity’ is the message. Well, maybe it was for some entrepreneurs and some of the so-called ‘creative classes’, but it wasn’t for most of the Russian population. If Russian liberals insist on promoting this as their alternative narrative, they are doomed to continued failure. They need to find a different story.

Second, Russian liberalism is tainted by its association with the West. Simply put, ‘это не наш’ (‘it’s not ours’). I was struck during the Kostroma election campaign by the pictures of PARNAS leaders dining in the same restaurant as officials from the American embassy. Didn’t they realize that in the current international climate being associated with the Americans is a sure way to lose votes? Too often, prominent liberals such as Mikhail Kasyanov and Gary Kasparov give the impression that they are promoting Western interests at the expense of Russian ones, as when they call for increased economic sanctions against Russia.

Again, I suspect that there is more to it than that, though. Philosophically, modern Russian liberalism looks as if it is just a copy of Western liberalism. From a Russian point of view, it isn’t ‘ours’ for the simple reason that it appears to lack native philosophical roots. I’m not sure what can be done about that, but perhaps Russian liberals might do better if they could find a way of seeming more rooted in their country’s traditions.

Finally, and here I admit that I am moving onto more and more speculative ground, it is possible that Russian liberalism is tainted because it has never been able to develop a healthy relationship with the state and with concepts of legality, constitutional process, and the like. This comes out in the obsession with street protest, the hopes for ‘regime change’, a ‘colour revolution’, and so on.

This isn’t something new. In a famous 1909 volume entitled Vekhi, a number of prominent Russian thinkers previously associated with the political left suddenly turned on their former colleagues and denounced the intelligentsia for its weakly developed legal consciousness, ‘political frivolity’, and ‘alienation from and hostility to the state’. The criticism still rings true today. Think of Pussy Riot, whose members contempt for the law, ‘political frivolity’, and ‘hostility to the state’, made them not heroes in the eyes of most Russians but rather something to be thoroughly rejected.

It could be that I am being unduly harsh here, and that objective circumstances are such that no liberal movement, however well led, could succeed in contemporary Russia. But what is true is that at present liberalism doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Being a fairly liberal-minded person myself, I think that is a shame.

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9 thoughts on “Russia’s missing liberals”

  1. First of all, I’d like to apologize to you, Paul. What you’ll see next is rather “wall-of-texty”;).

    Next, I’d like to start with a quote from this new article:

    “…The smaller, but no less important problem, is the ability of the Russian “liberals”/creative class to compartmentalize. With the “liberals”, the most important thing is to be rukopozhatny, handshake-worthy. In today’s Russia this primarily means the unyielding criticism of the existing “bloody” regime. As long as this is something that you do, all of your possible shortcomings will be forgiven. So what if you’re an asshole? You are our kind of asshole. With the creative class, the most important thing is to be a “good guy.” As long as you are that, you can be mean to some other people, swindle others of large sums of money, fail at everything you do. You are the “good guy” and people will forgive you. But that’s another story, waiting to be told.”

    Now back to the topic at hand. Paul – there is no such a thing as “Russian liberal”. They are “liberasts” = liberal fascists (or something else), “Europe’s eternal lackeys” (c), an eternal Russian archetype of self-loving, Russia-hating West-worshipping toady, an ethno-cultural bastard, who hates “this country”, but is still viewed as only an amusing “native” by the Culturally Superior Westerners.

    The representative of the “liberal”-oriented political class of “this country” sorta-kinda is “fighting for freedom, equality, fraternity” ™ and is standing in opposition to the current government – but in fact they are fighting against anyone who dares to have an opinion different from theirs rather limited pre-fab set of the “Holy Truths”.

    Liberalism originally had nothing to do with freedom of the individual. One might argue, that in the West the liberalism began with Adam Smith and his idea of the free market – «laissez faire, laissez passer», so to speak. The ideas of the personal rights and liberties came later after the French Revolution, but even then they were not paramount. Naturally, Russia lacked these “primordial” liberals – here the political rights and freedoms had been viewed as the Ultimate Values by the Russian liberals, who’d always were more comfortable in salons and intellectual circlues than anywhere else.

    In Soviet Russia ™ there were no liberals either – only the so-called “dissidents”, a bunch of shy and modest “intelligentsia” representatives, who, despite they often lowly origins, behaved themselves (and surely – thought about themselves) like the spiritual successors of the Russian nobility, surrounded by the morlok-like proletariat. Instead of having a normal program or the theoretical base for their views, the “old-school” of the USSR dissident movement spent time wishing for the SU to break up (Solzhenitsyn famously called for a nuclear strikes against “this country” during his Harvard speech), worshipping everything Western and spread anti-communist propaganda. Sounds familiar, right?

    Well – yes and no. It is worth noting that if we are gonna to compare the vast majority of today’s liberasts to the then Soviet dissidents, the comparison won’t be in liberasts favor. Despite all their similarities, Soviet dissidents were not into this “business” just for a chance to receive a hefty Western grant or become a media “celebrity”, or even to get a chance to emigrate. A lot of them did it for the Idea (some even never traveled abroad – even after the 1991) To become a dissident in that time one had to be capable to think for themselves, to be brave and independent to express one’s opinion, because there were no Internet, relevant literature has been banned, and they had a very good prospect to learn A LOT about the system of the Soviet Psychiatry in case they’d become too annoying. Today Russian liberasts are not even “fedora-tipping” or “champagne” liberals. They are armchair generals and theoreticians, disgraced politicians, bloggers or kitchen theorists plus an intergalactic parade of various grant-suckers who are simulating “democratic” activities while lining their pockets.

    Liberasts, unlike the Liberals, are not capable of any real creative activity, or to any meaningful participation in anything. All activities in which the liberastsare involved are reduced to denouncing the “authoritarian and totalitarian regimes” and… that’s it! At the same time in their narrow circles of theirs reigns even more rabid totalitarianism. A striking example – Petersburg’s branch of late Nemtsov’s “Solidarity”, in particular the general meeting of May 15, 2011, at which a whole bunch of liberasts numbering 300 people terribly quarreled among themselves on the topic – who’s is more liberal among them, and during next six (6) hours engaged in a voting, to ban each other from the organization.

    Liberast is not a political choice, but a way of thinking. For liberasts matter not the ideas themselves (any ideologically “charged” people work 24/7 on the implementation of their ideas), but the opportunity to use their own ideas for a psychological relief. Liberasts cover with their imaginary ideological “credo” their all too common passionate hatred for everything, which is not a correct point of view according to them. Many liberasts preach hypertrophied, sometimes manic form of political correctness just simply because of the fact that it is “fashionable” in the West. They themselves, naturally, has no interested in it whatsoever.

    Liberasts are beholden to a peculiar set of double standards, such as – they might justify the colonization of the Third World, while branding the “evil Occupation of the Baltic states”; also they might be desperate to justify the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima, while wildly blaming the Soviet bombardment of Finland; they are all too often express extremely Russophobic statements, while blaming others of “nationalism” (and “anti-semitism”, of course).

    Strictly speaking, the term “liberal” is outdated. Historic liberal was a supporter of the classical liberalism, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and «laissez faire, laissez passer». These liberals met their end along with the bourgeois revolutions of 19th century, when the power had been redistributed among the top level of the 3rd Estate (mainly…) and the propaganda of the idea of equality stopped to favor of the new owners of this Brave New World. The sad but true fact is that classical liberalism is incompatible with the democracy. Yeah, liberalism does not exclude democracy per se (on the contrary, it proudly proclaims it!), but in fact in the situation of the complete economic freedom, the real power passes to the large corporations that make any elections some sort of simulation of a real process and dismiss the ”demos” (the people) from the ”cratos” (the power). Death of the classical liberalism can be 100% dated to as early as the interwar period, when the class of rich businessmen, landowner and property owners openly supported the Nazis, who, naturally, denied the very idea of the parliamentary democracy. Since then, the “liberals” became rather a rare breed, but, instead, the period saw the appearance of many “over the edge” demagogues who in reality just defend someone’s interests under the name of freedom ™. Gorgeous example of how such “liberalism” destroys all democratic institutions in the bud – the “Rough 90th” in Russia, where as soon as the “Liberals” took control of the property, everyone was told to shut the fuck up, and people not willing to commence a democratic shutting up process were shot with tanks in 1993. Or we can recall the US in the 1920s-1940s period, where every politician was someone’s puppet, and only Roosevelt began (timidly!) to carry out some attempts to liberate the US government from the influence of the mafia and local oligarchs.

    And while in, say, the US local liberals tend to gravitate towards the Democratic Party, whose liberalism extends to the social policy, but in terms of the economy, they are de-facto social democrats – i.e. they are proponents of the unemployment benefits, easily-accessible housing, education and medicine for the masses, in short – the social, if not a welfare state. Curiously, they also condemn the war in Iraq, Guantanamo, intervention in Third World countries, the propping of the puppet regimes – all the things that our own liberasts consider to be good.

    If you look behind the mask of this quasi-liberal rhetoric, it becomes abundantly clear that in fact they are not against the military intervention, the manipulation of elections, or of banning parties, establishing of the puppet governments and other things done daily by the much scolded by them “imperialism”… but on condition, that it is done by the US, EU and their satellites (whom they consider one state). They deride Russian “vatniks”, “zaputintsi” and “putzriots” – while their own jingoistic patriotism targets as an object of worship the all-conquering American army. They are incapable to read anything but the Truth of the Faithful Liberal media and Blogs ™. Serious theoretical work on the liberalism they, of course, have never read, and due to this they are incapable of truly understanding that freedom of speech and other parliamentary immunity have a specific function.

    Finally – about the “voters pool” of these so-called “Russian liberals”. They, indeed have a much more prominent presence in major cities, than in the countryside. In fact, I know quite a number of them both IRL and on the Net. They share one particular common trait though – the lack everything can possibly mark a human being as a “citizen” of his/her country. They desire above all other things a higher level of (already rather higher that average) comfort for themselves. They want the original Spanish jamon and Dutch maasdam back on the shelves of the elite stores for them to buy, they want the newest “Apple” gadget pronto and without delays, they want to express their own views on everything without hearing any contrarian views from the “lessers”, they want to behave whatever they like with impunity – and it’s “This Country” ™ government’s job to satisfy them. If it fails in that – well, than its “pora valit’” time.

    In short – this “Highly Spiritual” ”eloi” want to dress, eat, dance, sing and fuck better then currently – oh, and they want those filthy “morloks” to be not seen, not heard and not making any decisions. They are, basically, fine looking, trendy beasts – or to use the Russian word for them, “Скотина”.

    So I ask you all – what liberalism in Russia?

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  2. I do have a number of fairly liberal Russian friends (interestingly, these turned somewhat less “liberal” after actually living in the west).

    Something that did indeed strike me was the contempt for “vatniks”, and basically any other Russian who does not “share their values”.

    In part it maybe because decrying opposition to them as mind controlled propaganda believing munchkins is far easier then figuring out and countering their arguments, in part it is due to pretty old differences between the “elites” and the “narod” which are somewhat peculiar to Russia and finally in part due to the difference between Moscow/St. Petersburg and the rest of the nation.

    Concerning the Kostroma campaign, my guess is that the liberal campaigners spent a lot of time talking, and nearly no time listening.

    Normal everyday Russians have ample issues with their current goverment, but nothing the liberal opposition is doing would show any indication that they are the ones to perhaps offer a remedy.

    What I do find interesting is that the KPR, in its siberian areas, becomes somewhat more “liberal” (in terms of campaigning against corruption, cronyism and beurocratic excesses), and actually wins elections by this.

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    1. Btw. Paul, is Harpers landslide defeat something that will have an impact on Canadas policy? My impression was that both the NDP and the Liberal party had “pre designated backbench firebrands” that wasted no petroleum attacking harper from the right, while their actual leadership pretty much said nothing and thus kept their options open without appearing “weak” compared to Harpers “muscular antics”.

      Personally, I would not be surprised if Canadian hostility to Russia is reduced from literally being the most vocally Russophobe regime on earth (barring Kiev) to some point of still pretty high russophobia between Poland and Lithuania.

      This way, the LDP will somewhat please the less bellicose general population by being less jingoistic then Harper, while also not abandoning its russophobe voters.

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      1. Prior to the election, the Liberals took the line that the Conservatives weren’t being hard enough on Russia, and the Liberal parliamentary caucus contains a number of people who could be fairly described as quite hostile to Russia (or at least its government), for instance Chrystia Freeland and Borys Wrzesnewskyj. I don’t like making predictions, because I am so often wrong, but what I would expect is that the Liberals will engage in less of the moral rhetoric which characterized Harper’s government, but that the content of policy will be very similar, at least when it comes to Russia.

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  3. Typical Russian liberal is an arrogant west-worshiping capitalism-worshiping asshole. And very likely a culture-racist.

    Think of Ayn Rand, and you’ll get the idea. Only the modern ones are worse than that.

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      1. Of course not. I think, again, what we have here is a clash of materialist Northern European-ness (epitomized in American capitalism), and all that metaphysical (and rather erratic) soul-searching stuff, Ilyin, Dostoevsky, etc.

        They are both there, and they could be hard to reconcile. So some people will reject one (could be either one) as something absolutely evil and horrible, and idolize the other.

        The usual conflict between Slavophiles and Zapadniki, only these days with instant communications, the ubiquitous mass-media, PR technologies – and considering, I believe, deliberate western subversion, cultural imperialism represented by numerous western NGOs and so on – it gets real nasty.

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