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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Lifestyle and Identity

The Levada Centre has just issued the results of a new survey. According to this poll, a majority of Russians (53%) do not feel that their value system and self-identity align at all with those of the West. In addition, 45% regard the ‘Western lifestyle’ (which was not defined) negatively, and only 30% regard it positively. The results are shown here.

TO WHAT DEGREE DO YOU CURRENTLY FEEL THAT YOUR VALUE SYSTEM AND SELF-IDENTITY ALIGN WITH THOSE OF WESTERN CULTURE?

  Feb.93 Oct.08 Sept. 14 Sept. 15
I feel this way at all times 1 3 2 2
This is fairly important to me 5 7 12 10
This is not very important to me 16 32 37 28
I don’t feel this at all 50 54 43 53
It is difficult to say 28 5 6 7

OVERALL, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE “WESTERN LIFESTYLE”: POSITIVELY OR NEGATIVE

  Oct.08 Sept. 14 Sept.

15

Positively 46 34 30
Negatively 30 42 45
It is difficult to say 25 25 25

The survey also found that 5% of respondents would definitely like to move to the West to work, and 18% would probably do so if they could, while 30% probably wouldn’t and 36% definitely wouldn’t (the rest didn’t know). These figures are almost unchanged from 2008. The primary reasons given for wanting to move to the West were economic (better living conditions being the most commonly cited) rather than political. Younger people (18-29), those with university education, and those who spoke foreign languages and travelled regularly abroad were generally more positively inclined to the West and more likely to want to live there.

Looking at all this, I suspect that the answers to the ‘lifestyle’ question are rather less significant than those to the more general ‘self-identity’ question, in large part because, as the charts above show, they have changed much more over time and so may be more reflective of current political differences rather than deeply-held beliefs. They may therefore be more likely to change again in the future.

Russian views about what they imagine the ‘Western lifestyle’ to be have in effect flipped 180 degrees over the past seven years: 46% positive and 30% negative in 2008, but 30% positive and 45% negative in 2015. A dislike of Western foreign policy might well be a factor in this change, as might a feeling that the West has become decadent and excessively liberal, while Russia has retained a more conservative outlook. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that this apparent divergence of values is a lasting phenomenon. The current level of international tension does not have to be permanent, and the values differences are, I think, overblown. Most Russians seem very happy to indulge in Western-style consumerism if given the chance, and Russian popular culture is not obviously any less ‘decadent’ than that of the West. I strongly suspect that if Russian-Western relations were to improve, answers to the lifestyle question would switch rapidly back to where they were seven years ago.

The same can’t be said of Russians’ failure to self-identify as Western. The 53% whose self-identity is ‘not at all’ Western is an almost identical figure to the 50% who felt that way in 1993 and the 54% who did so in 2008. It seems that there is a long-standing sense among a majority of Russians that they are distinct from the West. This sense is not just a product of current international tensions, and it is likely to persist.

One of the paradoxes of globalization is that in some cases it may actually accentuate perceptions of cultural difference. Lifestyle and identity have to be separated. What the Levada poll suggests to me is that the fact that Russians are adopting certain Western ways of living doesn’t necessarily mean that they will grow to feel more Western.

Forthcoming talks

I shall be giving a number of talks in the next few weeks, as follows:

20 October – online lecture on ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’ for the American University in Moscow.

5 November – talk on ‘What are military personnel entitled to?’ at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, USA.

6 November – participant in a roundtable about the future of NATO as part of the Literary Review of Canada’s Spur Festival, at 7pm in the National Arts Centre, Ottawa. Details here.

11 November – talk on ‘Russian conservatism and its intellectual origins’ at Carleton University (location and time TBC)

25 November – talk to the Centre of International Policy Studies, University of Ottawa, on ‘Russia’s endgame in Donbass’ (1200 hrs, Social Sciences Building, room 4004. Details here.)

Russia and the East

Russia’s military campaign in Syria is front page news at the moment, so it is perhaps appropriate that this week my class ‘Russia and the West’ will be taking a break from the history of Russian-Western relations to take a look at Russia’s interactions with the rest of the world. What such a look reveals is that the historical relationship between Russia and non-European/non-Christian peoples has been somewhat different than that between Western Europe (and later also North America) and most of the rest of the world.

While the Muslim world was more advanced than Western Europe, Europeans don’t seem to have looked up to it as something to emulate. Rather it was for many centuries a civilization to be feared, and then once it ceased to be feared (roughly from the relief of the siege of Vienna in 1683 onwards) it became something to look down upon. As European power spread around the world in the era of colonialism, the West acquired a belief in its own superiority and others’ inferiority, which to some extent persists to this day and is reflected in the foreign policy obsession with spreading Western liberal democratic norms around the world.

Russia, by contrast, rarely saw the East in quite such negative colours. Although the great philosopher Vladimir Solovyov pronounced his fears about the ‘yellow peril’ which he believed would destroy Russia, on the whole Russians worried more about dangers coming from the West. After all, most of the great invasions which have ravaged Russia have come from that direction. The one exception is the Mongols, but despite the myth of the ‘Mongol yoke’, contemporary accounts of Mongol rule depict it as actually rather mild. Furthermore, Russian rulers, far from despising Mongol administration as inferior, regarded it as a model of power and efficiency to be copied. It is notable that Alexander Nevskii in the mid-13th century chose to make peace with the Mongols, but to fight the Germans. The Mongols, after all, only wanted tribute; the Teutonic Knights sought to forcibly convert others to Catholicism. Given a choice between conquest from the east or conquest from the west, the east looked preferable.

As for Islam, it didn’t threaten Russian Orthodoxy in the way that it was seen to threaten Roman Catholicism. There were relatively few contacts between the Muslim world and pre-Romanov Russia, but the few Russians who ventured into Islamic regions tended to be impressed by what they saw. An example was Afanasii Nikitin, whose account of his trip to Persia in the 1460s convinced many that he had converted to Islam. Once Russia expanded into Muslim territory following the conquest of Kazan in 1552, it showed little interest in converting Muslims to Orthodoxy. Numerous wars followed against the Ottoman Empire, but they were not obviously different in nature from those which Russia fought against European states. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 was justified by a veneer of civilizational discourse about saving Christians from the barbaric Turks, but even in that case the Russians were concerned only with ‘rescuing’ Bulgarians, not with ‘civilizing’ the Ottomans.

As David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye has shown, Pre-revolutionary Russian ‘Orientalism’ differed from its Western counterpart in that for the most part Russians never fully endorsed European ideas of racial superiority. Academics such as Aleksandr Kazem-Bek, Jozef Kowalewski, and Vladimir Vasilev argued that Russian rule would benefit the relatively backward territories which Russia conquered in the nineteenth century in the Caucasus and Central Asia, but at the same time noted that the backwardness was a product of historical circumstances and not of any racial inferiority. Eastern peoples in their eyes were just as capable as Western ones. Europeans, meanwhile, were every bit as barbaric as Muslims and Asians, as shown in Vasilii Vereshchagin’s 1868 pictures ‘After Success’ and ‘After Failure’, which suggest a degree of moral equivalency between Central Asian and European soldiers, each equally nonchalant about those killed in battle.

Vasilii Vereshchagin, 'After Success', 1868
Vasilii Vereshchagin, ‘After Success’, 1868
Vasilii Vereshchagin, 'After Failure'
Vasilii Vereshchagin, ‘After Failure’

Having conquered a large amount of Muslim territory in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the 1860s and 1870s, the Russian Empire was ambivalent towards its Muslim subjects. On the one hand, the Empire viewed them with some suspicion, and didn’t treat them exactly as equals. On the other hand, it wasn’t interested in converting them to Orthodoxy and was willing to allow them exemptions from some of the demands made on other subjects, such as being conscripted into the army. Some officials regarded Muslims as a potential fifth column; others viewed them as being very loyal. During the First World War, for instance, the wife of the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Count Vorontsov-Dashkov, rejected a request that her charitable foundation provide support for Azeri refugees on the grounds that, ‘I know no Tatar (i.e. Muslim) refugees. I know only Tatar traitors.’ In contrast, Vorontsov-Dashkov’s successor, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, made a point of visiting the Sunni and Shia mosques in Tbilisi on the day of his arrival, later rejected plans to settle European refugees on Muslim land, and subsequently declared that, ‘One cannot doubt the firm bonds between the Caucasus’s Muslims and Russia.’

In the Soviet era Islam was, from a Marxist perspective, an oppressive ideology which required elimination. The Soviets therefore carried out a vigorous strategy of secularization. But they were equally hostile towards Christianity and all other religions. They did not single out Islam or portray it in a uniquely negative light. It is true that the top stratum of Soviet rulers came almost exclusively from the European parts of the USSR, and Soviet economic practices in Central Asia could in some respects be viewed as colonial in nature. In Soviet eyes, the relationship between Russians and Central Asians was something like that between a mother and her children – nurturing, but decidedly unequal. Nevertheless, from Khrushchev onwards, under the doctrine of korenizatsiia (which dictated that the national republics of the USSR should be governed by members of the nationality in question), the Communist Party did attempt to educate and promote local elites and allow for a degree of autonomy. The colonial model is not entirely appropriate.

In short, when one reviews the history of Russia’s relationship with the East in general, and with Islam in particular, it isn’t as negative as that of the West. There has been a little less hostility and fearfulness, a little less of a sense of superiority, and also a little more tolerance. This fits with the Slavophile view that I have described elsewhere, which contends that cultural diversity is desirable. It may help to explain why Russia, despite having conquered and to a degree exploited Muslim peoples in the past, today enjoys somewhat better (if far from perfect) relations with parts of the Muslim world than does the West.

Crackpot theory no. 6: Kenoticism

Today, my class on ‘Russia and the West’ will be examining Russian Orthodoxy. One of the subjects we will be discussing is the theological concept of kenoticism.

Kenoticism derives from the Greek word kenosis, which means ‘self-emptying’, and it demands that people empty themselves of their own will and subordinate themselves entirely to the will of God. The idea of kenoticism comes from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2.7-8, which says that Jesus ‘emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’

Kenoticism therefore implies obedience and subordination to a higher power, as well as a willingness to suffer. As the Orthodox theologian Alexander F.C. Webster puts it, the concept requires, ‘meekness, self-abasement, voluntary poverty, humility, obedience, non-resistance, acceptance of suffering, and death, in imitation of Christ.’

In Russian Orthodoxy, notable examples of kenoticism are the 11th century princes of Kiev Boris and Gleb, who chose not to resist their brother Svyatopolk the Accursed, but instead meekly awaited the assassins whom Svyatopolk had sent to kill them, and consequently suffered decidedly unpleasant deaths. The story of Boris and Gleb encapsulates both the principle of non-resistance to evil and the idea that suffering is holy. Boris and Gleb are saints not because of any holy acts, but because they suffered. The same is true of Tsar Nicholas II, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church not for any allegedly saintly deeds while ruling Russia but for the simple fact that he was killed. Through suffering, humans humble themselves and so come to resemble Christ, who suffered on the cross. Suffering is good for the soul.

I understand the idea that non-resistance to evil can be a better option than violent resistance. Are Syrians as a whole better off for the fact that some of them rose up to resist Assad? Clearly not. For the most part, they were better off when they submitted. But there can be virtue in non-violent resistance, as seen by examples such as Rosa Parks. The idea of complete non-resistance makes me rather uneasy.

More than that, though, what I don’t like about kenoticism is the implication that suffering is good for the soul. Is it actually true that those who suffer are holier than those who do not? On the one hand, I get the point that being too comfortable possibly distracts one’s mind from spiritual matters. One runs the risk of decadence. On the other hand, being very uncomfortable probably makes material matters even more important. Who has time to worry about God when they are hungry? Furthermore, there seems to be plenty of evidence that those who suffer aren’t automatically better people because of it. A large number of physically abusive men were themselves physically abused as children. Their childhood suffering didn’t bring them closer to Christ – quite the opposite.

And then, there is the whole issue of suffering, subordination, and the ‘Russian soul’. Kenoticism fits in with the centuries-old cliché (found as far back as in Herberstein’s writings in the sixteenth century) that Russians like to be bossed about and have a particular penchant and capacity for suffering. I don’t buy it. There is quite a history of Russian resistance to autocratic authority (e.g. Stenka Razin, Emelyan Pugachev, and the revolutions of 1905 and 1917). And while it is true that Russians have suffered a lot over the course of their history, that doesn’t mean that they have liked it, let alone that they have a peculiar ability to endure it. I am sure that if you asked Russians, ‘would you rather be free and comfortable or enslaved and suffering?’, pretty much all of them would prefer to be free and comfortable.

Dostoevsky wrote that, ‘the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.’ I think not.

 

Russia, the West, and the world

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