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.