Is liberalism the future for Russia?


For years, ‘liberal’ has been a dirty word in Russia, a shorthand for everything undesirable. Yet state propaganda is having an unexpected side-effect: the rehabilitation of liberalism. 

Andrei Arkhangelsky
2 February 2016

According to Hans-Georg Gadamer, language is more powerful than history. (This is a somewhat free translation of his idea, but it gets to the point.) That is to say, words are more powerful than people — especially in Russia, both for the better and the worse.

Take ‘perestroika’, for example. For the first couple of years after its appearance, in 1985-1987, ‘perestroika’ was just a word rather than a real thing, but it had a powerful material force nonetheless. In the early 1990s, the word ‘reforms’ had roughly the same, albeit slightly weaker power, although there was nothing new about it: the phrase ‘post-reform Russia’ could be found in Soviet history textbooks.

In Russia, words can often trigger change. People attach themselves to them, using them like an Archimedean lever. But the word ‘liberal’ was never widely used here, let alone popular.

Even at the height of perestroika in the 1980s, you wouldn’t find ‘liberal’ in the popular press. The word just didn’t exist. There was the word ‘democrat’, although its popularity was as nothing compared with ‘liberal’ today. Even in the 1990s, which is now imagined largely in terms of Russia’s liberals carrying out their dark deeds in their covens, the word was much less widely used than it has been more recently, and especially since 2012.

In Russia the word ‘liberal’ denoted free thinking, a certain licentiousness and divergence from the mainstream

Liberal is a word most at home in intellectual circles; it emerged out of 19th century literary polemics, when journals ‘of a liberal orientation’ began to appear.

All that remains of it now in common speech are throwaway remarks such as, “So-and-so is one of our liberals”, or “So-and-so did his liberal thing”. It has always been a bookish term, what dictionaries label ‘obsolete’. In Russia, ‘liberal’ always denoted free thinking, a certain licentiousness and divergence from the mainstream.

That was all. It had very few political connotations. It was also never used as a derogatory term, as it is today: there were plenty of other words to describe your opponents — thief, renegade, enemy of the people, cosmopolitan, defector. But ‘liberal’? No, that’s a bit abstruse. Why complicate things?

How the word ‘liberal’ came to mean ‘enemy’

The fact that the word didn’t pass into general use in the 1980s or 1990s is significant in itself. This was the time when it should have been ubiquitous, given that it reflected the essence of the changes that were happening.

This essence, however, was neither openly discussed nor even understood. (No one in the 1990s explained to people that what was happening was capitalism, with liberalism as a kind of add-on). There was an enormous gulf between the economic and political changes taking place in Russia during the 1990s and the shifts in public consciousness.

But every cloud has a silver lining, and in the last three or four years the word ‘liberal’ is once again in fashion, thanks to our government’s propaganda machine. At first, ‘liberal’ occupied a similar space to the word ‘intellectual’, which suffered frequent swings between positive and negative connotations during the Soviet period. Initially the word ‘liberal’ carried similarly fluctuating associations: one of us, but not one of us; a semi-alien. Then the word acquired a suspicious tinge, which lasted until the end of the 2000s, when it gradually began to represent the worst of everything, and eventually became a synonym for ‘enemy’.


Is there a place for liberals in a picture of Russia's future? Street artists in Yekaterinburg, 2015. Photo (c): Pavel Lisitsyn / visual RIAN. All rights reserved.In its current incarnation as a propaganda tool, however, the word ‘liberal’ means, essentially, ‘an alien’. It is simply a person’s nature; they can’t help it. This development can be best illustrated by the many menacing slogans that rang out last month at a mass rally in support of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s leader.

Here, liberals were the target of the worst invective: “Liberals far away are no threat, but when they’re close, watch your back!”; “Liberals of all kinds are hoping for crises, protests and deaths”, “Liberals dream of crucifying our country; they have sold all our sacred values to the West”; “If you’re smart you won’t become a liberal; you’ll avoid them”; “No snivelling, liberal – your end is nigh!”; “A great country has no room for liberal trash” among other war-cries.

In other words, if we were to deconstruct this hatred of liberals, it would turn out to be simply a hatred of The Other. I think it is no coincidence that the word is often found next to the phrase ‘fifth column’: the idea being to conclusively discredit it.

The word ‘liberal’ is now often found next to the phrase ‘fifth column’: the idea is to conclusively discredit it

But everything else has happened spontaneously, without any plan. For example, as I write this article, I am listening to the economist Mikhail Delyagin speaking on the popular Moscow Calling radio station. Delyagin answers almost every question put to him: “Why have things come to pass?”; “Why is the rouble falling?”; “Why is there so much thievery?” with the words, “The thing is that the liberals …’”

A bit earlier, presenter Vladimir Solovyov on his morning show on Vesti-FM was saying despairingly, “Our liberals are still behaving as though we were still in the 1990s, although things have changed completely…” And on the Komsomolskaya Pravda channel the host is rebuking government economic specialists: “liberals in the government have brought the country down, but the president hasn’t noticed”. This subject, by the way, is just about the only issue on which it is possible to ‘disagree with our president’ in the loyalist media.

And this is what you hear a hundred times a day, seven days a week. Liberals, liberals, liberals… At the same time, on the same stations, they are also being described as a “pathetic bunch”. And suddenly, thanks to this endless repetition, they have turned into a “powerful force”.

The propaganda machine, in other words, has fallen into its own trap. For a long time, responsibility for all the woes of Russian history has been laid at the feet of the liberals; they have been its eternal scapegoat. But now this goat is unexpectedly acquiring authority. There is talk of “liberals and their friends in the west”; that liberals “are increasing the pressure”; liberals are on the attack. The intimidators are afraid of their own demons.
And this is what you hear a hundred times a day, seven days a week. Liberals, liberals, liberals… 

The illness is progressing in line with the diagnosis. And they are even more scared about the fall of the rouble (for which the liberals are also, of course, indirectly responsible). “Liberals in the government mean a crisis in the economy!” went one of the slogans at Kadyrov’s rally in Grozny.

The rehabilitation of the word – and its meaning?

This repetition of the word ‘liberal’, or rather, its use in the bombardment of popular consciousness, has had totally unexpected and counterproductive consequences.

Firstly, it has legalised and legitimised the word ‘liberal’ in Russia. To take just one phrase from an official statement broadcast on TV news, “Ella Pamfilova, Russia’s commissioner for human rights, commented on the conflict between the liberal opposition and Kadyrov.” The word ‘liberal’ is taking root, and inevitably bringing various meanings with it — in fact, its whole bundle of ‘freedoms’.

The word ‘liberal’ is too complex in its meaning for most of the public, but, as a result of its endless repetition, it has entered the lexicon and occupied a key place in popular consciousness, and by doing so it has unwittingly widened the public’s political horizons. Thus the word has become part of the vernacular. Unofficial words are always more robust than official ones, and now terms such as ‘liberal’, ‘opposition’, ‘installation’, ‘performance’, ‘art-project’ and ‘provocation’ have become ‘popular’ words.

In Russia, the replacement of a negative connotation with a positive one can happen instantly. The fact that the word ‘liberal’ currently represents everything that is ‘worst’ does not mean it will always do so. And the change from negative to positive can happen in the most unexpected places.

In the 1970s, Soviet citizens joked about the forthcoming demise of ‘moribund capitalism’ — it was one of the key points of Soviet propaganda. (Fifteen years later, and what did they have?) And if the negative connotations of ‘liberalism’ disappear, what is left is the only alternative, the assertion of a new world, a different kind of life. The word for it already exists, and it won’t disappear.

The only one explanation I can think of is an eschatological one: as Marx said, the mole of history digs slowly, but reaches its goal. In the 1990s and 2000s, nobody saw liberalism as an alternative force: it lost out to both socialism and nationalism. Now the word is fixed in people’s minds as an actual alternative, an equal rival for power. And for that we must thank the propaganda machine, which despite its best endeavours, did some important work for us.

A certain law of development states that any attempt to resist progress will only hasten its advance

I write this not to mock, but to underline the existence of a certain law of development that states that any attempt to resist progress will only hasten its advance. Or, if you want to rephrase it as dialectic, you could say that resistance to progress is part of progress itself.

The propaganda machine has achieved two important things. Firstly, and despite itself, it has popularised liberalism. People used to have no idea what it was, and now they do. Secondly, it unwittingly narrowed people’s options. There are any number of varieties of conservatism around, but only one kind of liberalism, and for some reason that makes choices simpler. It forces you to choose between two versions of the future. Or rather, between the past and the future.

This text originally appeared in Russian at Colta.ru. It is reproduced here in English with many thanks to the editors.

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