Tag Archives: liberals

Some other Russian isms

In the comments section of my last post, I was asked what other Russian ideologies might be, and how they contrast with conservatism. So here’s a brief stab at an answer:

  1. Westernism/liberalism.

From the time that the Slavophiles split with the ‘Westernizers’ in the 1840s, there has been a sharp divide between those who think that Russia is distinct from the West and should follow its own separate path of development, and those who believe that Russia should integrate itself more fully with the West so as ultimately to merge with it. It is worth noting, however, that the term ‘West’ is rather ill-defined. There isn’t, and never has been, a single model of economic, social, and political development which one call definitively ‘Western’. Russian ‘Westernizers’ haven’t so much wanted Russia to copy ‘the West’ as wanted Russia to copy one particular version of the West, namely whatever version has been considered the most ‘progressive’ at the time. In the mid-nineteenth century, this meant liberalism; later, it meant socialism; nowadays, it means liberalism again, or perhaps even neo-liberalism. In geopolitical terms, this today means accepting US hegemony. In domestic political terms, it means supporting liberal democracy (though just what that means is not often well explained). In philosophical/moral terms, it means advocating the most ‘progressive’ interpretations of human rights. And in economic terms it means free trade, free market economics, and deepening the process of globalization by furthering Russia’s integration into the global economy.

  1. Statism/Realism.

Statists believe that a strong state is a prerequisite for a stable, powerful, and prosperous Russia. Statism is not incompatible with Westernism/liberalism, and many (though far from all) Statists would in principle agree with Western liberal ideas such as democracy, free markets, and the like. But whereas the Westernizers/liberals give their ideological commitments top priority, the Statists put the interests of the state first and are therefore willing to sacrifice so-called ‘Western values’ if state interests demand it. Statists thus reject the Westernizers’ universalism, and are pragmatists rather than ideologues. In terms of foreign policy this makes them Realists – i.e. they determine policy according to material interests not abstract values. On the whole, Statists/Realists consider Russia to be a European country, historically, culturally, and politically. They dismiss the idea that Russia is a distinct civilization. Instead, they recognize that Russia’s primary interests lie in having good ties with Europe. But that does not mean that they believe that Russia should subordinate itself to other European states. Rather, the Statists’/Realists’ objective is for Russia to be recognized as an equal in a European concert of powers, thereby enabling it to live in peace with its neighbours while enjoying international respect and an ability to promote and protect its interests. In the late Soviet era, this idea took the form of Mikhail Gorbachev’s proposal for a Europe stretching ‘from Lisbon to Vladivostok’. While many Statists/ Realists are coming round to the belief that such a Europe is not in practice possible, it remains the ideal which I think most of them would like to see.

  1. Cosmism.

In the struggle for the title ‘most eccentric Russian philosopher’, there is no shortage of competition, but in my view the certain winner is the founder of Cosmism, Nikolai Fyodorov, an impoverished late-Imperial librarian who gave away all his money, lived off tea and bread, and slept on a wooden chest. Fyodorov proposed that the ‘common task’ of mankind was to physically resurrect the dead – all of them, every last man or woman who had ever lived – a task which would require the development of advanced technology to colonize the stars while searching for the cosmic dust into which our ancestors had dissolved. Despite his extreme eccentricity, Fyodorov had a surprising influence on great Russian thinkers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Vladimir Vernadskii, and has enjoyed something of a revival in post-Soviet Russia. Modern cosmists don’t believe in scouring space for the cosmic dust of our ancestors (though some are into ideas such transhumanism), but they share the belief that mankind has a ‘common task’. Cosmism thus lends itself to a certain form of cosmopolitanism. Technology is assigned an important role as the tool which will enable mankind to turn swords into ploughshares and to unite in a peaceful, common future. Cosmism fits well with Soviet concepts of internationalism as well as with memories of the ‘great leaps forward’ in Soviet technology, and thus with views that Russia must once again become the centre of technological progress and through that lead humanity forward to a radiant future.

Of all these –isms, Statism/Realism is the one which, in my opinion, most accurately describes that pursued by Russia’s rulers, both in the past and today. Conservatism, Westernism/liberalism, and Cosmism all influence public and elite opinion to some degree (Cosmism least of all), but ultimately, I think, the Russian state bases its policies primarily on determinations of interests rather than ideology. In some respects, such as their recognition of Russia as a European state, the Statists/Realists are closer to the Westernizers/liberals than to the conservatives, but in other respects – namely, their pragmatic rejection of universal values, and consequent insistence that Russia has a right to independent development – they are closer to the conservatives. The policies adopted by the Russian state may therefore be seen as essentially centrist in terms of the Russian political spectrum. Analysts who insist of portraying the ‘Putin regime’ as in some way ‘extremist’ are, therefore, very much wide of the mark.

UPDATE: As if on cue, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared today, ‘Russia, of course, can never allow itself the luxury of turning its face to Europe and its back to Asia, or vice versa. Culturally speaking, of course, Russia is part of European civilization.’ This confirms, I think, what I said about the Statists above.

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.

Cheesy liberals

I have written some unkind words before about Russia’s liberal opposition. Let me be clear: this not because I am illiberal, or think that Russia wouldn’t benefit from having a more liberal order. Far from it. Rather, my criticisms derive from my sense that the people who publicly represent what is called ‘liberalism’ in Russia do a very bad job of it, in part because they give the impression of not liking their own country very much and preferring all things foreign. This makes many of their compatriots dislike them and what they stand for. Consequently, they harm the process of liberalization from which Russia would benefit.

Today’s New York Times contains a classic example: an article by Masha Gessen complaining that because of the Russian government’s counter-sanctions it’s impossible to buy proper Western European cheese in Russia any more – all that’s available is disgusting Russian muck. But not to worry, because Masha’s rich friends are able to pick up the good stuff at the Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar in the departure lounge of Heathrow airport’s Terminal 4, which is apparently doing a roaring trade in cheese for travelling Russians.

Who are these people who are still able to take holidays in Europe despite the depressed ruble, and furthermore are able to afford the extortionate prices of the shops in Terminal 4? Not your average Russian, one can be certain. Gessen’s article seems to me quite extraordinarily out of touch. It also overflows with the sensation that everything Russian is awful (for instance, ‘the reappearance of Soviet-era cheese, with its unparalleled blandness and waxlike texture’), while everything Western is superior. This is perfectly expressed in the following passage:

‘It’s my first time in Europe after all that’s happened,’ the journalist and filmmaker Inna Denisova, a critic of the annexation of Crimea, wrote on her Facebook page in February. ‘And it’s exceedingly emotional. And of course it’s not seeing the historic churches and museums that has made me so emotional — it’s seeing cheese at the supermarket. My little Gorgonzola. My little mozzarella. My little Gruyère, chèvre and Brie. I held them all in my arms — I didn’t even want to share them with the shopping cart — and headed for the cash register.’ There, Ms. Denisova wrote, she started crying.

If you want to know why Russian liberals languish at about one percent in the opinion polls, you have your answer right there.