Tag Archives: Russian liberalism

Russian Liberal Infighting Continues

In an article this weekend for RT (which you can read here), I discuss the latest bout of infighting among Russia’s small liberal opposition. In this instance, the Yabloko Party has refused to let associates of Alexei Navalny run as candidates for the party in forthcoming elections. In addition, party leader Grigory Yavlinsky declared that he didn’t even want Navalny supporters’ votes. “Whoever wants to vote for Navalny, don’t vote for us,”  he said. In my article, I discuss what might lie behind Yabloko’s anti Navalny stance.

Enjoy!

The Pinochet Option – Liberal Authoritarianism, Russian Style

Right now, I’m reading Alfred Koch’s rambling 2009 book A Crate of Vodka, in which he and journalist Igor Svinarenko muse over their lives in the period 1991 to 2001. Koch was Russian Deputy Prime Minister, with responsibility for privatization, in the mid-1990s, and his book provides an insight into the inner workings of the Russian liberal mind of that period. On pages 44-45 and 284 of the book, he notes the following:

I have nothing against a strong hand, when it is strong. I developed a lot of my mentality in Chile. We got some training from ministers who were in the Pinochet government. … Pinochet didn’t try to pass himself off as a democrat, which he was not. He knew they needed to build a liberal economy, and he built it; he knew they needed to stifle the opposition, and he stifled it. Just as he was supposed to. … It pained me to think that we, unlike the Chileans, did not manage to seize power from our leftists in 1973. We had Russian Communists an extra 18 years in our country … The mighty old man Pinochet spared his country the humiliations that are inevitable under a Communist regime. He overthrew the regime when he got sick and tired of it, when he couldn’t stand it any more. … Grandpa-General Pinochet acted like a man, and shot from the hip. But we didn’t have any one in those years who could have brought the country in line with common sense. Who had the strength, the intelligence, and the conscience. It just didn’t work out that way. … Chile, 1973. Total collapse. The economy just stopped. The country was bankrupt. Politically, a dead end. Then, like in a bad movie, fast forward on the calendar, twenty years later… What better example do we need to see that we must act and not just gab about reforms?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about how modern Russia has moved in an authoritarian direction in the past couple of years. Of course, people have been saying that for years, but the argument is that with a recent clampdown on opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his allies, Russian president Vladimir Putin has shifted from ‘soft’ authoritarianism to ‘hard’ authoritarianism. Anna Nemtsova, for instance, recently published a piece in the Daily Beast with the title ‘Russia plunges into era of “dictatorship” as Putin looms over Eastern Europe.’ Other such articles abound.

I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of many of the repressive measures recently introduced by the Russian state: declaring media ‘foreign agents’, labelling Navalny’s organization ‘extremist’, and so on. But while Russian liberals bleat about the illiberal and undemocratic nature of their government, Koch’s statement above makes it worth spending a little time considering how Russia ended up that way and who built the system that Putin now governs.

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Debating the ‘New Ethical Reich’.

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I discuss an inflammatory manifesto published this week in the liberal Russian newspaper Novaia Gazeta by the highly respected theatre director Konstantin Bogomolov (also well known as husband of the socialite and one-time presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak). Along the way, I also mention an article by journalist Dmitry Gubin (who has a show on the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station). (If you read Russian and want to read the originals of Bogomolov’s and Gubin’s articles, they are here and here, though Gubin’s is behind a paywall).

Gubin’s piece is an extreme but not unrepresentative example of Russian liberal thought. Its essential message is that the West is great, Russia sucks, and the Russian people have a backward and slavish mentality. “If you gave the people freedom it would turn America into atomic dust, bring back the death penalty, and lock up the liberasts, and anyone who’s very intelligent, in prison,” Gubin writes.

Bogomolov’s piece, on the other hand, is something of a stab in the back of Russian liberalism – or at least that’s how I describe it in my article. The idea that Russia should emulate the West is pretty much at the core of Russian liberalism. But rather than praising the West, Bogomolov lays into it as a “New ethical Reich” that has established a totalitarianism that tries to enforce total compliance not just of what people say but also of what they feel. Using some highly offensive language, Bogomolov complains that “the Nazis have given way to an equally aggressive mix of queer activists, fem-fanatics, and eco-psychopaths, who have an equal desire to totally transform society.” “We have ended up in the tail end of a mad train, steaming to a hell where we will be met by multicultural gender neutral devils,” he concludes, adding that Russia needs to get off the European train and instead create a “new rightwing ideology.”

In my article I paint this as something deeply reactionary, and remark that it could easily have come out of the pen of someone like the far-right thinker Alexander Dugin. And so it could have, more or less. It very much gives the impression that Bogomolov has gone over to the dark side. It’s quite remarkable that such a piece could be published in Novaia Gazeta.

But since writing my article, a different explanation of Bogomolov’s manifesto has occurred to me. Bogomolov and Sobchak, someone told me, have reputations as libertarians, so rather than a conservative piece, his manifesto could be seen as a libertarian one.

How?

Well, the ultra-conservative really hates what Bogomolov calls “queer activists, fem-fanatics, and eco-psychopaths”, but one could argue that what Bogomolov really hates is something different: namely, he hates being told that he can’t say that he hates them. Citing the novel Clockwork Orange, he argues that the beast within the human needs expression. “I demand the right to be obnoxious,” “I demand to be allowed to be a hoodlum,” is what he appears to be saying.

You might say that that’s not any better, and you’d be right, but it is possibly slightly different. It is, in essence, an extreme form of liberalism, interpreted as denying any form of positive liberty and instead insisting on a very narrow interpretation of negative liberty that gives people the right to do any damn thing they please. If Bogomolov had truly gone over to the conservatives, he’d starting talking of moral values. Instead, he complains that ethics are an inconvenience that get in the way of people’s freedom. The fact that the West is trying to enforce some ethical standards is proof that it’s really just Nazism 2.0.

Frankly, I can’t agree with this, and having read both their articles, I didn’t come away feeling overly fond of either Gubin or Bogomolov. No doubt they have other wonderful qualities, but the forms of liberalism they seem to promote are not my own.

There was once, a long time ago in the late nineteenth century, a type of Russian liberalism that did rest on some sort of transcendental moral values, even if this was perhaps the purview of a minority of so-called ‘Idealists’ within the liberal community. This intellectual trend took inspiration in part from the writings of the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov who moved beyond negative liberty to demand that societies provide their citizens with the minimum required for a dignified existence, and that they treat their citizens decently.

When liberalism re-emerged in Russia out of the dust of the Soviet Union, this sort of thinking seems to have largely failed to re-emerge with it. Instead, the libertarian, laissez-faire, ‘screw other people, I have the right to do what I please,’ variant won the day. Bit by bit, its negative effects convinced people that another approach is needed. So when Bogomolov says that he wants to return to the Europe that used to be, not the Europe that is, it seems to me that perhaps what he’s lamenting is the loss of the libertine days of the wild 90s, when anything went, no matter how outrageous.

I don’t know if this is a more accurate explanation of Bogomolov’s motives than the one that says that he’s gone over to the side of the conservatives. I just put it out there as a possibility. Maybe the reality is some strange combination of libertarianism and conservatism. It would be interesting to hear what you all think. Regardless, his manifesto is causing quite a stir in intellectual circles, and with good reason.