Democracy ≠ Liberalism

Conspiracy theorists who imagine that the world is run by Freemasons, Zionists, or the Illuminati have it all wrong. The people really pulling the strings are graduates of St Antony’s College, Oxford, many of whom have infiltrated the foreign ministries of countries around the world. Being a member of this global conspiracy, I received this week the college’s annual newsletter, ‘The Antonian’. An article by Dan Healy, the Director of St Antony’s Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre, entitled ‘Irreconcilable Foes? LGBT Russians and their government?’, looks at ‘the roots of the 2013 law banning “propaganda among minors for non-traditional sexual relations”.’ It contains an interesting lesson about Russian democracy.

Healy explains that the roots of the legislation ‘might be found in the early 2000s, when conservative-nationalists and religious lobbyists in the Duma began calling for such a law. … The Russian MPs’ crude early versions of their ban on “propaganda for homosexualism” were rejected.’ Rebuffed nationally, conservatives moved their campaign to the local level. According to Healy, by 2012, ‘Local authorities around the country had enacted their own versions of “gay propaganda” bans and from Novosibirsk the Duma received a formal request for a national ban.’ At this point the Kremlin finally abandoned its opposition, perhaps because President Vladimir Putin had himself become more conservative and/or perhaps because the government recognized the public mood and wanted to score popularity points.

Normally, the Western press casts the blame for the 2013 law on Putin personally. What I find interesting about Healy’s description is that it shows something rather different. The Kremlin initially resisted the policy, but in the end succumbed to perceived public demand. This reveals: first, that Russia is perhaps more democratic than people make it out to be; and second, that democracy in Russia does not necessarily equate with liberalism.

Nowadays, people in the West assume that more democracy equals more liberty. I think that in the longer term that does tend to be true. But not always. Often, the elites who govern Western democracies are more liberal than many or most of the people they represent, as seen for instance with opposition to the death penalty and support for immigration. Also, some of the more important advances in human rights have come not from legislatures, but from the courts – in other words, from the non-elected part of constitutional systems. If governments in Western countries accurately reflected the desires of their peoples, they might well be much less liberal than they are.

Americans often forget that their founding fathers were actually rather suspicious of democracy, which they felt would lead to mob rule and was thus injurious to liberty. They therefore devised a semi-democratic, semi-monarchical, constitution. Similarly, 19th century Russian liberal conservative thinkers believed that only an autocratic government could bring about liberal reform – democratic governments would in practice prove to be reactionary. I don’t think that they were entirely right about that, but as the example above shows, they weren’t entirely wrong either.

In a 2004 letter, imprisoned Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote that, ‘Putin is probably neither a liberal nor a democrat, but he is still more liberal and democratic than 70 percent of our country’s population’. If Putin is now less liberal, that means that he has become closer to the people he represents, not the opposite. A recent article by the University of Copenhagen’s Matthew Del Santo highlights this:

Mikhail Remizov, director of Russia’s Institute of National Strategy, shares this view, saying in a recent interview: ‘Russian democracy must by definition be conservative, populist, nationalist and protectionist’. Until 2012, he said, the conservatives ‘who really enjoy the sympathies of the majority of the nation occupied the place of an opposition. Real power remained in the hands of the neo-liberal elite that had run the country since the 1990s’. This has now changed. ‘Putin is falsely presented as a nationalist’, said Remizov. ‘In a Russian context, he’s a sovereigntist. But in general, the agenda of the Kremlin today is formed by the opposition of the 2000s: the conservative, patriotic majority.’

None of this is meant to say that democracy is a bad thing; it has many advantages above and beyond its capacity to deliver liberal reform. Not least of these advantages is improved accountability. Rather, the point is that Russia’s government consists of a curious mix of democratic and non-democratic elements, and Healy’s article draws our attention to the uncomfortable fact that some of the aspects of Russian behaviour that we in the West don’t like are due more to the former than to the latter.

19 thoughts on “Democracy ≠ Liberalism”

  1. “Conspiracy theorists who imagine that the world is run by Freemasons, Zionists, or the Illuminati have it all wrong.”

    Pfft! Of course, they are! I prefer my conspiracy theories to be much more elaborate, twisty and insane than the usual stock! E.g.:

    1) You know that whole Rosicrucian thing? It was a joke. Honestly! A college prank by some drunk German students. Seriously, Johann Valentin Andreae made it all up. You didn’t really fall for all that about the eight-sided tomb and the secret of immortality and the alchemical wedding and the flying robes and the torch of freedom and the prophecies and the Thirty-Six Secret Invisible Masters who walk among us unseen. Did you?

    2) William Paterson (1658-1719). This Scottish banker and Freemason founded the Bank of England, which (as we all know from Lyndon LaRouche tracts) played a part the Industrial Revolution, the Opium Wars, the American Civil War, Russian Revolutions, the Beatles, and the Сhicago Fire. Although, nobody quite knows why he tried to found a colony in Panama with a swastika flag…

    But I’m just joking here! Or – do I?… 😉

    As for the issue discussed in your hallowed Masonic lodge, i.e. ” Irreconcilable Foes? LGBT Russians and their government?”, well, at least from what you provide us here I can say that their approach is rather incomplete. Let’s start with a simple fact that when Yeltsin’s government de-criminalized homosexuality and non-traditional sexual identification they did it without consulting with the people of Russia. We were basically told so.

    Discussions bagan later – in c. 2006, when Western sponsored (there is no denying here) Moscow based Alexeyev’s group began aggressively demand to held a so-called “Gay Pride” parade… which they were denied and they responded by running crying and complying to various Western patrons. There, a first true Russian people discussion of LGBT issues surfaced – on “pro-Kremlin” TV channels to boot. For example – I refer you to the popular Russian talk-show К барьеру (May 18 2006) as probably the first step in this long discussion. There were similar discussions in other TV programs, on the radio, and on the very same “К Барьеру” years later. What they’ve demonstrated time and again was Russian public antagonism to LGBT issues pushed right to them and LGBT activists almost fanatical devotion to their “ideals” with no room to compromise, but enough of cheekiness to dodge such simple question, like – “who finances you”?

    2006 was long before “Putin’s anti LGBT propaganda wave” or whatever liberasts and gays both in Russia and the West claim these days. Nothing really changed. In 2011-13 this discussion once again came to the forefront due to the spread of the aforementioned local laws prohibiting gay-propaganda among the minors voted in by local legislatures. And, once again, Kremlin’s “repressive regime” gave LGBT activists prime time on its “propaganda channels” to voice their position and to sway the people into their favor. Gay-activists failed. As seen here – epic failed.

    Nevertheless, the West opted to personify all things that it’s current political elite doesn’t like and (naturally!) blamed it all on Putin – even threatening to boycott the Olympics due to this issue! For the West as 2.5 years, as it’s today it’s much easier to imagine Russians as zombifiied brainless masses (as opposed to the Well Informed, Free and Opinionated Culturally Superior Westerners) who are under the spell of the Dark One – the evil Overlord Putin. Oh, if only ther was someone to break this spell!..

    An honest person in me screams “Wake up, morons! It’s not Putin’s autocratic decision – it’s what Russians ACTUALLY WANT! This is your bloody democracy in action!”. But other part of me is worried – what if the West, both it’s elites and the Enlightened Public will finally grok that no, common Russians are not like them and don’t share a lot of their so-called “universal” values, like “LGBT rights”? What will they decide to do with us then? Gazen-wagens or occupation and then re-education camps? Because the so-called “Russian liberals” (whose political position 100% coincides with what the State Dept of the US says) claim, openly, both in real life and on the Net, that most of the Russians are “hopeless” and “nothing really can change This Country”. And that’s the most political correct thing they say and recommend.


      1. Thanks for that last link, this is very interesting. If those data are correct, then most HIV infections in Russia can be ascribed to (1) drug use, and (2) heterosexual couples in long-standing relationship not using condoms when the female doesn’t realize that her male partner is infected; and he doesn’t know it either, until it’s too late.

        Also points out that Germany has the lowest HIV infection rate in the world, whereas (according to Vadim Pokrovsky, Head of the anti-AIDS center in Russia), Russia is looking at a number of at least 1,000,000 infected individuals by the end of the year.

        Clearly something needs to be done in Russia; but the laws and social norms about sex education in the schools might be hampering progress in this area.

        Whatever one’s feelings about “moral degeneracy”, the numbers speak for themselves: Statistic after statistic has showed that sex education and free distribution of (1) condoms and (2) clean drug needles, are effective in lowering incidence of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.. If a society is too old-fashioned or too “conservative” to put up with such things, well, then it needs to face the consequences of “cultural conservatism” in the arena of Public Health.


  2. I think that’s exactly right both in Russian and global context.

    Great silent majority is by nature conservative and suspicious of any minorities while liberalism is pretty much tries to empower aforementioned minorities.

    I think I encountered passages to same effect among ancient Greek and Roman authors and that’s really strange how much democracy and liberalism are believed to be one and the same by some people nowadays.


  3. “Nowadays, people in the West assume that more democracy equals more liberty. I think that in the longer term that does tend to be true.”

    More commie-anarchism, more localism equals more ‘liberty’ (as I understand the word). A bourgeoisie ‘democracy’ equals more oligarchy.

    “Americans often forget that their founding fathers were actually rather suspicious of democracy, which they felt would lead to mob rule and was thus injurious to liberty.”

    BS. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution”, was scared of the “leveling spirit”. That those who “labour under all the hardships of life” will wrestle the power away from the hands of those “who are placed above the feelings of indigence”. Therefore, his idea was to create a system that would give them (those who labor) the illusion that they have a stake in the game, so that they would keep quiet, and could be controlled.


    1. Here, in this excerpt the concept is expressed clearly:

      “What is to be done with this unfavoured class of the community [i.e. “the proportion being without property, or the hope of acquiring it”]? If it be, on one hand, unsafe to admit them to a full share of political power, it must be recollected, on the other, that it cannot be expedient to rest a republican government on a portion of the society having a numerical and physical force excluded from, and liable to be turned against it, and which would lead to a standing military force, dangerous to all parties and to liberty itself.” Etc.


  4. In related news, I just saw this story about Slovenia today.
    This situation seems to have a similar dynamic, where the “elites” are trying to push through a more liberal position, and facing serious resistance from the majority. What’s especially interesting about this case is that, in 2012, only 54% voted against gay marriage, but this time it was 64%. So the opposition is not only strong, but getting stronger.


    1. Sounds like the Pope weighed in at the last minute and help shift some votes to the opposition. Many external forces at work: EU – for gay marriage. Catholic Church – against.


  5. The conspiracy theory angle was pretty hilarious.

    As for the substance — a really valuable assessment of Russia as it actually is, as opposed to how it is conveniently repackaged by Western media and State Dept. types.

    Regarding those liberal conservative 19th c. thinkers — are you referring to Chicherin? Or … ?

    Personally, I worry about the Jacobin propensities of liberal elites. But that is a discussion for another day.


  6. Good article. Thing to note IMO is that Vladimir Putin is more-or-less exactly reflecting the mores and global preferences of the majority of Russians. I think also, that the implication that Russia’s great unwashed are much different than the majority here in the MSM’d-to-death West, is wrong. I think we are no more liberal than they – they are simply more honest, and so is Putin. Russia is more democratic than we, accidently and in spite of itself, perhaps. Why Putin seems to have (to me anyway), the most popularity world-wide.


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