The inter-war Young Russians movement led by emigre Alexander Kazem-Bek had the wonderful slogan “For Tsar and Soviets!” A modern day equivalent might be “For Christ and Communism!” At least that’s what you might imagine judging by the statements of the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), Gennady Zyuganov.
As I point out in an article published today by RT (which you can read here), in the run up to parliamentary elections this month in Russia Zyuganov has been reiterating a claim he’s made before that Jesus was the original communist (which makes you wonder why the Communist Party of the Soviet Union expended so many bullets exterminating Jesus’s followers). If it seems odd, it is, but it’s entirely in keeping with the general thrust of Zyuganov’s ideology over the past 30 years, which is a curious blend of seemingly incompatible elements.
Digging into Zyuganov’s past for the purposes of writing the article revealed something rather curious to me. If you go back to the mid-1990s, when he was pressing on Boris Yeltsin’s heals and looked likely at one point to beat Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election, you find Zyuganov saying all sorts of things which seemed outlandish at the time, but are nowadays absolutely mainstream in Russia. As I note in my RT article, Zyuganov was well ahead of the curve in claiming that Russia was a unique civilization, that it was under attack from the West, that it must abandon liberalism, that it must protect ‘traditional’ Christian values, and so on. Although Zyuganov lost in 1996, he ultimately won in the sense that the Russian state has co-opted many of his ideas and made them its own.
This, of course, hasn’t helped the CPRF. If anything, this act of co-optation has taken the ground from beneath it. And this is not a unique case. A study of Russian political rhetoric reveals a quite interesting phenomenon whereby ideas put out by members of the so-called ‘systemic’ opposition, such as Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, eventually find their way into the mouths of Putin and other senior officials. And this leads me onto the point of this post, for it reveals something quite interesting about the nature of Russian politics, namely the responsiveness of Russia’s rulers, especially Putin, to fluctuations in public opinion and the overall ideological inclinations of the Russian people.
I read an interesting analysis once that said that while authoritarian regimes are not ‘responsible’ to the people, in that the people have few means of holding their leaders to account, let alone getting rid of them, authoritarian regimes can be very ‘responsive’ to the public.
One shouldn’t go too far with that – the fact that an authoritarian system may be more responsive than a notionally democratic one, doesn’t mean that that is generally the case, and so shouldn’t be used as an argument for authoritarian rule. But, it’s true nonetheless.
That in turn makes one consider what is truly ‘democratic’. It’s easy to get stuck on the mechanics of elections, and assume that because a state has free and fair elections, then it enjoys popular sovereignty. But one may have the mechanics of democracy without the state being in any way responsive to popular opinion. By contrast, the alert dictator may, in order to stay in power, be far more responsive to popular demands. Which then begs the question – in which country are the people really in control?
Anyway, the point is that Putin and his government belong in the responsive authoritarian category. That’s a large factor in their political success. There’s a tendency to imagine that everything in Russia comes from the top down, and that insofar as there is a regime ideology, it’s one that is foisted on the people by the government. But it’s actually a two way process – the regime has shown itself adept at latching onto trends in public sentiment and making them its own. It thereby disarms opponents, and secures its own power. But doing so means that it’s a follower as much as a leader.
So perhaps Zyuganov thinks that he’ll gain a few votes by playing the religion card, but his problem is that by now there isn’t a major political force in Russia which isn’t doing the same thing. In essence, the triumph of his ideas has made him redundant. It could be that the CPRF makes some gains in the parliament elections on 19 September, but a triumphant return to power seems most unlikely.