Secret mice and liberal hallucinations (or why the fatherland and freedom are strategically incompatible)

The liberals' reaction to President Medvedev’s voluntary political suicide might well be described as ‘gloating disillusion.' For Daniil Kotsyubinsky, the surprising thing was some believed democratic evolution was a real possibility.

Medvedev is apparently not completely disappearing – in fact, he's once more turning into the carnival heir to the throne (the prime ministerial throne this time) – but the liberals are all up in arms. As if this ‘sensational’ event had actually been unexpected. As if Dmitry Medvedev, for once, had behaved in a way befitting his imposing and scary surname [Rn medved means bear]. 

All this Much Ado About Nothing is reminiscent of ‘Myshin's Triumph’:

They said to Myshin: ‘Hey, Myshin, get up!’ Myshin said: ‘Shan’t’ and continued to lie on the floor.

Provocative appeals

Myshin [Rn mysh means mouse] is a creation of the St. Petersburg writer Daniil Kharms, a classic of the literature of the absurd. A man lies in the corridor of a communal flat, getting in the way of his neighbours who keep trying to get rid of him. In vain. Myshin just won't leave. Because he simply doesn't have anywhere to go. He has no room of his own...

Nevertheless, pretending that Myshin has a choice, the neighbours loudly voice their indignation when their angry demands are rebuffed:

Then Kalugin came up to Myshin and said: ‘If you don't get up, Myshin, I shall make you.’  ‘No,’ said Myshin and continued to lie on the floor.

From 2008, throughout the period when Medvedev was conscientiously doing his bit as the ‘administrator of the throne room,’ there were constant audacious appeals or provocative predictions from within the opposition camp and endless discussion along the lines of:  Medvedev has increasingly come to enjoy being president, he'll definitely want to stand for another term! Helpful advice was pressed on him all the time: ‘Dmitry Anatolyevich, if you free Mikhail Khodorkovsky from jail, the people will believe in you and will most certainly elect you for a second presidential term.’ The Moscow press even suggested a specific date – 18 May 2010 – for a press conference at which Dmitry Medvedev was supposed to announce Vladimir Putin's retirement from the post of Prime Minister.

However, these screeds of verbal embellishments have turned out to be nothing but scraps of paper...

'There is an irreconcilable clash between the stability and unity of the Russian state on the one hand, and the need to give society the freedom necessary for successful development on the other.'

Selezneva went up to Myshin and said ‘Myshin, you're always sprawling on the floor in the corridor and you're in our way as we walk up and down it.’

‘I've been in the way and shall remain there,’ said Myshin.

‘Well, you know...’ said Korshunov, but Kalugin interrupted him and said:

‘What's the point of discussing this at such length? Call the police!’

But ‘calling the police,’ i.e. constant appeals from Russia's liberal public to the West, the Western establishment and the ‘entire civilized world’ turned out to be of no use. Medvedev, just like his literary alter ego, proved a hard nut to crack.

In spite of the liberals’ persuading and shouting, Dmitry Medvedev said the only thing he could at the ‘United Russia’ congress on 24 September: ‘It would be right for this congress to support the candidacy of party chairman Vladimir Putin for the post of President.’ A few days later he made a point of clarifying that ‘Prime Minister Putin is without doubt the most authoritative politician in our country at this moment’ and that his rating was ‘somewhat higher’ than that of the incumbent President.

Before and after

Once they realised things hadn't worked out and the damned ‘Myshin’ wouldn't budge but just continue ‘to sprawl in the corridor’ (i.e. he wouldn't throw the gauntlet down to Putin by putting himself forward for a second term), his ‘political neighbours’ lost their balance once and for all. The despair at the failure of their childish reliance on the miraculous appearance of a ‘good Tsar’ became oddly infused with vengeful anger. This anger was immediately vented on the one who – despite the naive expectations of the liberal opposition – had turned out to be just weak, not good; not a tsar, but a court lackey.  

‘This was the moment of truth, which clarified who is master of the house,’ was the caustic response of writer and satirist Viktor Shenderovich, a driving force behind Russia's opposition, to Medvedev's announcement. ‘Medvedev has publicly admitted his political impotence. He is now a nobody. And everyone knows it.’ 

Liberals_Yeltsin_grave

Leaders of the Russian liberal opposition Milov, Nemtsov, Kasyanov, Ryzhkov pay homage to Boris Yeltsin at his grave. Praising his presidency for its respect for democratic values, liberals ignore his role in shaping the autocratic presidential system which paved the way for the revanchist transformation of Putin and Medvedev.

The popular opposition writer Andrei Piontkovsky also believes that what happened at the ‘United Russia’ congress was a seminal event drawing a clear line dividing modern history into a ‘before’ and an ‘after’: ‘People have realized that our political regime has changed. Before 24 September we had authoritarian corporate capitalism with feudal elements, but now we have a lifelong personal dictatorship.’

Boris Nemtsov was Deputy Prime Minister from 1997 to 1998 and President Boris Yeltsin's would-be successor. He is currently co-chairman of the unregistered Party of National Freedom and the best known opposition figure in the country. He responded with similarly furious and alarmist histrionics, albeit in rather stronger and more abusive terms: ‘The Russian people were told that these two – whoever they are, Dolce and Gabbana, or Socrates and Spinoza – had decided that this was how things were going to be, and that was it! They've lost touch with reality, grown arrogant and hit the bottom intellectually at the same time!”

Moskovski Komsomolets, the same paper that tried to ‘dispatch’ Putin into retirement earlier this year, gave an ominous summing up: ‘Everything indicates that the course of history in this country has come to a halt. The powers-that-be, no longer capable of inspiring hope, have started the descent to their own grave.’

So. The course of history has been halted. Russia’s authoritarian government has consistently increased its intracranial political pressure on society and will sooner or later suffer a stroke in the form of a revolution. But the nagging question remains: did the course of history really come to a halt on 24 September 2011? Did this not actually happen a long time ago? And if that's the case, why is it that all these well-informed and observant intellectuals took so long to notice? Why have recent events dashed their last hopes, unleashing wholesale journalistic hysteria?

Korshunov leapt towards Myshin.

‘How was that?’ he yelled. ‘Did you enjoy that, then?’

‘Wait,’ said Kalugin. He went up to Myshin and said: ‘Did you hear what the policeman said? Get up off the floor!’

‘Shan’t,’ said Myshin, continuing to lie on the floor.

‘Now he'll make a point of lying there forever,’ said Selezneva.

‘That's for sure,’ said Kalugin, rather irritated.

And Korshunov said: ‘No doubt about it. Parfaitement!’

In fact, it wasn't really necessary to ‘call the police’ and to expect Medvedev to make holy pronouncements at the ‘United Russia' Congress just to elucidate an axiom that is as direct and brutal as the Kremlin's vertical power: the one thing Putin and his team are afraid of and will never allow to happen is genuine political liberalization.

For this is not about the ‘national leader’ and his personal qualities. It's not even about the corporate features of the ‘intelligence’ circles where he and his closest allies originate. The reasons are much more objective and obvious. It all boils down to the fact that – as a result of Gorbachev's liberalisation known as perestroika – the current generation of Russian rulers has seen the Soviet Union collapse and Russia reach the point of disintegration. Incidentally, Putin wasn't the first to introduce the policy of curbing the freedoms of perestroika and steering the country on a course of restoring the empire; this distinction actually goes to the destroyer of the Soviet empire and Russia's first President, Boris Yeltsin. It was Yeltsin who ordered tanks to shell the ‘rebellious’ Russian parliament in1993 and who, a year later, launched a war against Chechnya, another dangerous foe of Kremlin autocracy, when it tried to secure independence from Moscow.

'The conclusion is obvious: the less liberal an empire, the more stable and firm it is. This conclusion strikes Russian statesmen each time attempts at reform fall to pieces.'

The steady curtailment of political, and later also of civil, liberties in Russia was not predetermined in 1999-2000, when Putin succeeded Yeltsin in the Kremlin. It happened back in 1991 when Russia chose presidential absolutism by voting for the sovereignty of President Yeltsin. It was this choice that saved Russia from further territorial disintegration. But this very choice has also thwarted the country's further development towards liberal democracy, which would have given Russia's regions and population the chance of steady development in the 21st century.

There is an irreconcilable clash between the stability and unity of the Russian state on the one hand, and the need to give society the freedom necessary for successful development on the other. At first sight, this clash may seem paradoxical or far-fetched, which is, by all accounts, how it appears to most liberal-minded observers and opponents of the ‘Putin regime.’ They apparently would like to believe that Putin is just an ‘annoying fluke’ or an ‘authoritarian obstacle’ on the road to the liberal development of the Russian state, and that Fatherland and Freedom can merge as organically in Russia as they have done in the US, Germany, France and every other modern developed nation.

However, this view of Russia and of its prospects is nothing but a collective liberal hallucination, obscuring the real contours of not just the country's present but also its future.

*             *             *

Reforms and counter-reforms

The history of reforms and counter-reforms, of revolutions and restorations, from the 19th to the 21st century clearly demonstrates that in Russian conditions Fatherland and Freedom are strategically incompatible. As incompatible as acid and alkali, fire and water, vampires and sunlight...

For several years in the early 19th century the liberal-minded emperor Alexander I encouraged freedom-loving dreams among the aristocracy.

Decembrists

The 1825 Decembrist uprising in St. Petersburg. The rebellion followed two decades of relative liberalism and reform under Alexander I.

As an example to other parts of the empire, he even presented Constitutions to two of his conquered territories, Finland and Poland. This resulted on 25 December 1825 in the uprising of the radically-minded officers known as the Decembrists. A few years later Poland rose up in an attempt to secede from Russia.

Alexander II – the nephew and namesake of Alexander I and Russia's most successful major reformer – liberated the peasants from serfdom and embarked on comprehensive liberal transformations, only to run into another Polish uprising. This was followed by a mighty wave of revolutionary terror, of which he himself ultimately became a victim.

Having become embroiled in an unsuccessful war with Japan, the grandson of the liberator Tsar, Nicholas II, sought to defuse the mounting dissatisfaction in the country with a promise of moderate reforms. This immediately resulted in the 1905-1907 revolution accompanied by mass unrest sweeping the country even in its far-flung national regions. 

Following the 1905-1907 revolution, the country's autocratic absolutism was replaced by a ‘semi-constitutional regime,’ which has gone down in history as the ‘Duma monarchy.’

Russia acquired a legislative State Duma, elected by the people, with the authority – of which it made active use – to criticize the tsarist government. In addition, censorship was abolished and newspapers were virtually free to discuss politics and criticise the government appointed by the Tsar. As a result, in the course of the brief ten years of its existence, the Russian liberal state helped to nurture an atmosphere of general dissatisfaction so huge and destructive that in February 1917 it literally shattered the centuries-old monarchy to pieces. 

'The history of reforms and counter-reforms, of revolutions and restorations, from the 19th to the 21st century clearly demonstrates that in Russian conditions Fatherland and Freedom are strategically incompatible. As incompatible as acid and alkali, fire and water, vampires and sunlight...'

What brought about this state of affairs, so unpleasant for Russian liberals who believed in a strong state, is not that hard to understand. Russia is an autocratic multinational empire, i.e. an edifice that can be eroded very swiftly and completely by political liberalism both along the vertical (authorities – people) as well as the horizontal (centre – regions) axes of power. As soon as society gains the freedom to discuss politics openly, the highest echelons of authority immediately become the main target of criticism, since they are not accountable to anyone and therefore a priori inspire distrust. They are immediately accused of being unable – or, more importantly, unwilling -  to serve society. The only thing to be discerned in their activities is a desire to serve themselves, i.e. the omnipotent bureaucracy and its ‘leader.’ As a result the government is constantly criticized for its ‘total incompetence’ and, in the far-distant national regions, for being ‘totally unjust.’

It's clear that not even transition from the ‘autocratic-constitutional’ to the parliamentary mode of government can save an imperial state from the inevitable explosion and subsequent ‘dispersion’ of ethnic groups and territories in all directions. This is precisely what happened in the 20th century to all the global empires which embarked on the path of modernisation and political freedom: the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and, somewhat later, the French and British empires.

In 1917-1918 the Russian Empire, too, fell apart. However, the Bolsheviks who replaced the tsars used Blut und Eisen [blood and iron, from a speech by Bismarck] to pull it together again, burying for decades any discussion of political freedom.

Medvedev_Putin

Vladimir Putin and one-time successor Dmitry Medvedev believe Russia's elite can be consolidated on one platform only – preserving effective statehood within existing borders.

The conclusion is obvious: the less liberal an empire, the more stable and firm it is. This conclusion strikes Russian statesmen each time attempts at reform fall to pieces. ‘Russia needs to be put on ice!’ has been the universal mantra among generations of Russian conservatives.

However, the common sense ideology of putting the country on ice has never answered a vital question: how can a country develop steadily without social freedom? History answers this question once and for all. It can't.

This means that putting a country on ice results in economic, and thus also military and technological, stagnation. That, in turn, poses the threat of military defeat and, inevitably, the disintegration of the state...

Which is why in Russia ‘sensible conservative’ rulers have always been followed by ‘romantic liberals’ who have tried to steer the imperial ship between the Scylla of stagnation and Charybdis of revolution through the narrow strait of liberal reforms. Each time their attempts have either yielded nothing or caused major upheavals.

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last liberal romantic. Perestroika was the most complete and radical liberalisation ever; it also had the most radical consequences. The USSR disappeared from the political map of the world and the surviving part of the Russian empire was infected with the virus of further autocratic disintegration right from the start.

Conservative pragmatics

As was to be expected, following the period of liberal cataclysms, the ‘destroyers’ Gorbachev and Yeltsin were replaced by a fresh team of conservative pragmatics, who had been impressed or, rather, traumatized by what they regarded as the nightmare spectacle of a mighty autocracy ‘destroyed by political windbags’. That is why one of the first reforms introduced by President Putin was the imposition of nearly total censorship on all the main TV channels.

"The real danger of political freedom lies in the fact that it inevitably splits the ruling elite which, in turn, makes the ‘citadel of power’ vulnerable to pressure from the ‘crowd’. All this ultimately causes the state to self-destruct."

The experience of perestroika and the ensuing years showed that free political discussion poses a threat not only because it spreads dissatisfaction with the authorities, turning society into a powder keg that can be detonated by the slightest spark. The real danger of political freedom lies in the fact that it inevitably splits the ruling elite which, in turn, makes the ‘citadel of power’ vulnerable to pressure from the ‘crowd’. All this ultimately causes the state to self-destruct.

This type of thinking has always been, and continues to be, a political article of faith, not just for Vladimir Putin but, essentially, for all members of the current ruling class.

This ideology of ‘post-perestroika conservatism’ has been articulated most famously and strikingly by none other than Dmitry Medvedev. In 2005, when he was still President Putin's chief of staff, Medvedev gave a seminal interview to the magazine Expert in which he clearly stated the main goal that ‘Putin's team’ had set itself. In the interview, entitled ‘Preserving an effective state within its existing borders’, Medvedev stressed: ‘Unless we ensure that we consolidate the elites, Russia could disappear as a unified state. Entire empires have been erased from the map after their elites were deprived of a unifying idea and became locked in mortal combat. Russia's elite can be consolidated on one platform only – that of preserving effective statehood within the existing borders. Any other ideological construct is secondary.’ If we ‘relax and abandon ourselves to the will of the waves, the consequences will be terrifying. The disintegration of the Union will seem like a nursery-school matinee compared with the state collapse of present-day Russia...’

It is these brief and clear imperial dogmas, rather than the articles of the official Constitution, that constitute the real Governing Law of Russia under Vladimir Putin.

*             *             *

An effective state within existing borders

And yet, knowing all this, those on the opposition side of the fence were for some reason astonished and upset when it ‘suddenly became clear’ that there has never been and never will be any confrontation between Medvedev and Putin. Russian politics has always been, and will continue to be, ‘secret’ Kremlin mice scrabbling under the carpet. 

What does this hallucinatory stoicism of Russia's liberals indicate? In my view, it shows that, for all their criticism of the Kremlin, the opposition – just like the representatives of the power they oppose – are still frightened and traumatized by the disintegration of the USSR.

It is no accident that a recurring theme of the charges the opposition leaders level at Putin is that his policies will ‘inevitably bring about the disintegration of Russia’.  It’s immaterial that this claim is basically speculative, since facts confirm the opposite: it was under Yeltsin that the country continued to disintegrate, whereas under Putin the process came to a halt. What matters is something else: ‘preserving an effective state within its existing borders’ is as crucial for the opposition as it is for those in power. The difference, therefore, consists in the means rather than in the end. The opposition proposes a partial ‘thawing’ of the country, but for the Kremlin this idea is dangerous.

Red_Square_Parade

65 years after victory in WWII, Russia staged a grand military parade in Moscow's Red Square. A large number of its citizens still feel traumatised by the collapse and believe that only strong government can ensure territorial integrity.

This is the fundamental difference between present-day opposition and the opposition of the perestroika era, a time when “Empire, farewell” was on nearly everyone's lips and “Hands off Lithuania!” was perhaps the most famous slogan of 1990-1991.

These days none of the opposition parties makes so much as an attempt to answer the question that inevitably arises the minute hypothetical liberalisation is mentioned. Let's imagine that TV censorship is abolished tomorrow, political life becomes legalized and free elections are reinstated. What will we then do about the North Caucasus, where the most radical political projects are bound to spring up straight away?

The party liberals keep mum about this.

"What matters is something else: ‘preserving an effective state within its existing borders’ is as crucial for the opposition as it is for those in power. The difference, therefore, consists in the means rather than in the end. The opposition proposes a partial ‘thawing’ of the country, but for the Kremlin this idea is dangerous."

Admittedly, Boris Nemtsov has recently published his manifesto, which gives a short answer to this question. It can be paraphrased as follows: reforms are fine, but when it comes to the Caucasus ‘departments for fighting extremism’ must be preserved. That’s Russia’s current ‘radical liberals’ for you…

As long as large numbers of Russian citizens share Putin's belief that the ‘collapse of the Soviet Union was the major geopolitical disaster of the century,’ they will continue to follow Putin.  The opposition will continue to suffer en masse from liberal-imperial hallucinations, ‘radically and impotently’ appealing to the Kremlin, instead of engaging it in a real and determined fight.

About the author

Daniil Kotsyubinsky is a Russian historian and journalist based in St. Petersburg

More On

‘Unless we ensure that we consolidate the elites, Russia could disappear as a unified state. Entire empires have been erased from the map after their elites were deprived of a unifying idea and became locked in mortal combat. Russia's elite can be consolidated on one platform only – that of preserving effective statehood within the existing borders. Any other ideological construct is secondary.’

If we ‘relax and abandon ourselves to the will of the waves, the consequences will be terrifying. The disintegration of the Union will seem like a nursery-school matinee compared with the state collapse of present-day Russia...’

Dmitry Medvedev, Expert Magazine, 2005