oDR: Opinion

Russia’s liberal intelligentsia and the post-Putin consensus

After Putin, Russia's cultural consensus will package private property together with neo-colonialism, racism and Social Darwinism. The signs are already there.

Kirill Kobrin
22 December 2020
"My friends"
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Sergey Pen

This year, Russia held a constitutional referendum - a strange, even superfluous exercise in a country fighting coronavirus - but one that has become a landmark in the country’s political and ideological history. Putin’s regime, carefully constructed over the past 20 years, has reached its apex of power and control. But having reached Putinism’s peak, it’s clear that the system has found itself at a point of no return - socially, economically and ideologically.

What comes after this? What does a post-Putin and post-neoliberal future look like in Russia? This series of three articles by writer Kirill Kobrin - published this week - will trace the outline and problems of this future. This series is neither an exercise in futurology, nor an “expert risk analysis”, but rather an attempt to hint at the possibilities of this new, coming environment.

2. Russia’s liberal intelligentsia and the post-Putin consensus
3. Sliding into isolation: Russia and the world

One thing that the entire post-Stalinist Moscow intelligentsia knew was the word Lumumbarium. Not all its members would have used the word, but they knew its exact meaning: it was a disparaging nickname for the Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University, where young people from friendly third-world countries came to study in Soviet Moscow. The cosy, mild, seemingly comical racism of those years was challenged by no one, neither the Soviet government, busy with what it saw as more dangerous misdeeds on the intelligentsia’s part, nor the intelligentsia itself. It went without saying that if the Soviet government was aiding the “progressive” movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, then “normal” people (who “understood everything” and smelled official hypocrisy a mile away) should treat these movements, their aims and their adherents with restrained irony, if not condescending mockery. In any case, if the Soviet government was for them, then the intelligentsia, discussing life late at night over vodka, tea and cigarettes, were against them.

The system of values that held sway in the minds of the late Soviet intelligentsia rested on three pillars. The first was that by default things were better “in the west” than in Russia. The second was that before the revolution, things were better by default than afterwards. The third was that the Soviet intelligentsia’s historical circumstances - their sense of being estranged from their forebears and the great traditions (both “western” and Russian pre-revolutionary) - could be remedied if they “returned” to the ranks of civilised peoples and the domain of “great Russian culture.”

Naturally, I have in mind the late-Soviet intelligentsia, which identified with the Russian language, Russian culture and a correspondingly Russian way of life. The nationally-oriented intelligentsia of other Soviet republics professed somewhat different views, but they too were defined by the idea of “returning” to “normalcy” (for example, in the Baltic countries, to a pre-1939 state of affairs), even if this normalcy was often a mere ideological phantom of the historical era of national revivals. And only “the West,” where everything was much better than in the Soviet Union, could facilitate this about-face. It was a vicious circle.

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Fidel Castro and Leonid Brezhnev | Source: TASS

I repeat these all-too familiar points not to criticise a social group that did a great deal to undermine the anti-democratic and repressive Soviet regime. These kinds of views were natural and were shaped by the Cold War’s binary logic. If the “civilised world” was opposed to the “uncivilised” Soviet Union, then everything was peachy in the former, whilst everything was lousy in the latter. If, based on the same Cold War mindset, the Soviet press celebrated the pacifist movement in Europe, the struggle for racial equality in the United States, or the strikes of British workers fighting for the survival of their industries, jobs and social dignity, then the pacifists, African-Americans and (especially) workers were dubious characters. They played into Moscow’s hands, aiding Brezhnev in keeping a large part of the world locked in the Soviet concentration camp. There were few exceptions to this rule.

These views were mainstream among the so-called third wave of Soviet emigrants, dominated by the intelligentsia. Their enthusiasm for the free market, the absence of censorship and the ability to earn your own bread (without sharing it with anyone against your will) is still strong to some extent. In the 1980s, Soviet emigrants lionised Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and nowadays Donald Trump is popular in the same community. The Cold War ended 30 years ago, and the Soviet Union was replaced by nearly a dozen states that have nothing to do with communist ideology (with the exception of Lukashenka’s Belarus), internationalism or the idea of social justice.

Instead of the informal, but dogged horizontal social self-organisation of the late Soviet period, the victorious “west” offered nothing but unvarnished selfishness and fierce competition

This binary mindset should seemingly be outdated. The new realities of the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s completely reshaped the world’s ideological spectrum. Nevertheless, the belief in civilised (read “western”) world’s a priori superiority has proved just as invincible as the suspicion of people who are dissatisfied with the “western” world (in other words, with capitalism in its current phase). Nearly all of those who left behind Soviet communism, along with the next generation of emigrants from the former Soviet Union cannot even brook the suggestion that the victorious west could be unjust. Yes, they say, there are minor shortcomings, but is it worth even mentioning them?

Strangely enough, in post-Soviet Russia, among the part of the intelligentsia that did not emigrate and considers itself successors to the freethinkers of the 1970s and 1980s, many people share this mindset. Their reasons for doing so are seemingly different, but the outcome is the same. To understand why and how this happened, we must go back to the 1990s.

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Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan | Source: YouTube

How the post-Soviet “West” was created

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the most anarchic modern variety of capitalism - post-Soviet capitalism - dawned in Russia. The demise of Soviet communism coincided with the triumph of neoliberalism in most western countries, especially the US and Great Britain. Accordingly, from the outset, the “free market” and “democracy” in post-Soviet Russia were understood as a rejection of public control over the market and an embrace of social neoconservatism with its incumbent features, e.g. the promotion of “family values” and religion. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism banked on extreme individualism and social atomisation. (It was not for nothing that Thatcher claimed that “there is no such thing as society.”) These trends, far from being the only ones in the capitalist camp that emerged victorious from the Cold War, have informed not only the basic ideological playbook of Russia’s new ruling class, but also popular notions of how the “civilised” world to which Russia is now “returning” ticks.

It is here that we should look for popular anti-western sentiment in Russia. After all, instead of the informal, but dogged horizontal social self-organisation of the late Soviet period (good connections, or blat, housing block courtyards, garages, and hobby clubs), the victorious “west” offered nothing but unvarnished selfishness and fierce competition, guided by unclear rules set by God knows who. At the end of the Yeltsin period, when Russia’s ruling classes were looking for ways to contain this popular mood (and even take advantage of it), mass anti-western sentiment was reforged into official patriotism, despite the fact that the socio-economic policy implemented since 1992 had nothing to do with social equity, especially with the Soviet model. The edifice of Putinist “modernisation” was erected using this gimmick.

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The Beatles | Source: Skeeze / Pixabay

Despite the grievous decline in the intelligentsia’s social prestige and income, one segment of it - in fact, the one that harkens back to the traditions of dissidence and the mild anti-Soviet opposition - has been a beneficiary of Putinist modernisation. The unspoken agreement that existed and still partly exists between it and the government enabled this segment of the intelligentsia to do their own thing nearly without interference from Putin’s regime. For many years, it was possible to criticise the authorities whilst only occasionally sending them signals of loyalty - obligatory, indirect and barely noticeable to the public. Over the past 12 years, this space has shrunk, of course, until today it has become quite tiny, a state of affairs facilitated by the ridiculous steps taken by the authorities, not the intelligentsia (as manifested, for example, the criminal case against the film and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov).

The process is, of course, objective: old systems like the Putin regime cannot avoid decline, however slow. Authoritarian power grows stiff and inflexible, forfeiting its sense of reality and losing touch with society. The Russian liberal intelligentsia has reacted quite painfully to this process. Until quite recently, in fact, the intelligentsia (especially those involved in science and the humanities, as during the late Soviet period) was quite satisfied with the overall situation, but not with the regime’s words and gestures. If there was one thing that the intelligentsia did not like, it was not what the authorities were doing, but how they were doing it. As would have been said in the late 19th century, the country’s “socio-political atmosphere” was not to their liking.

In recent years, the situation has taken a sudden turn for the worse. The logic of the Cold War has been resurrected in a completely different shape: by default, “the west” is right about everything by default, whilst “Putin” is wrong about everything. The problem, however, is that there is no longer any “west” as this segment of the Russian intelligentsia imagines it. Indeed, it had never existed.

The sacred stones of Europe

Since getting the opportunity to read, watch and go anywhere they like, Russian liberals have mentally stayed at home. Books, films, and especially TV series have shaped their notions of “the west” much more than immediate experience and direct interest in life abroad. Of course, images of other countries and regions generally take shape and function in a similar way, but this case is special, I think. You can imagine Japan as the country of geishas, samurai and tea ceremonies as much as you want, but travel to Japan is not accessible to everyone, not to mention the language barrier. However, aping the Soviet tendency, post-Soviet Russia has tended to see Britain as “England” - the England of Victorian estates, five o’clock tea, Harry Potter and the Beatles. This is surprising, given that you can get there in three hours from Moscow and Petersburg (despite the mischief made by British consulates in Russia when it comes to granting visas), and given the fact that English is our world’s new lingua franca. The intelligentsia have a similar picture of “America,” not to mention trickier cases like France, reduced by this group mindset to the cutesy-pie Paris on view in Amelie.

Suddenly, in recent years, it has transpired, however, that this is not how it works. The intellectual image of “the west” is in mortal danger. The danger comes not from villainous anti-democratic regimes in other parts of the world, but from within - from western leftists and anarchists, feminists, people of colour and those who profess “wrongheaded” religions. In Dostoyevsky’s novel A Raw Youth, one of the central characters, Versilov, coins a sacramental formula, usually referred to, in shorthand, as “the sacred stones of Europe.” After 1917, the formula seems to have been scrapped, but since the beginning of this millennium, especially in recent years, it has been resurrected and emblazoned on the banner of Russian liberals.

"To the Russian, Europe is as precious as Russia: every stone in her is cherished and dear. Europe is as much our fatherland as Russia. […] Oh, those old stones of foreign lands, those wonders of God’s ancient world, those fragments of holy marvels are dear to the Russian, and are even dearer to us than to the inhabitants of those lands themselves!"

That was written 135 years ago, by the way.

The sacred stones of “the west” have cracked and gradually turned to dust. Many things have contributed to this sense of the world, from 9/11 to Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and the influx of refugees in Europe. The new reality is so unpleasant to Russian liberals that they have surprisingly quickly turned into closet (or even open) racists, male chauvinists and reactionaries, enraged by the fact that they simply cannot understand what is happening in the world around them. However, they still see themselves as liberals and democrats fighting Putin’s anti-democratic regime. They have merely added another function to their portfolio - mourning the sacred stones of Europe, abandoned to their fate by the peoples of the west.

Ivan Karamazov’s argument in another of Dostoyevsky’s novels exactly mirrors the post-Soviet intelligentsia’s current mindset:

"I want to take a trip to Europe, Alyosha, and hence I shall take it; yet I mean, I know it’s a cemetery I shall be going to, but it’s the dearest, dearest of cemeteries, that’s all. Dear corpses lie there, each stone laid over them speaks of such ardently lived past life, such passionate faith in one’s achievements, the truth one has gained, one’s struggle and one’s learning, that I know in advance I shall fall to the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them - at the same time convinced with all my heart that all this has long been a cemetery and in no way any more than that."

There are many Ivan Karamazovs amongst Russian liberals. In a text earlier this year, Viktor Shenderovich, a prominent contemporary comic writer and columnist, hurried to defend the “sacred stones” from the “Maoist Red Guards” of cancel culture. The text, which was more reminiscent of a stand-up routine, tries to persuade readers that the west’s current decline is a consequence of the thirst for equality and justice - after all, the same thing happened with the socialist idea in the Soviet Union! Who, Shenderovich hints, can detect cancel culture’s echoes of political meetings in Soviet schools or Party committee meetings, if not former Soviet citizens?

In another text published in the summer, Russian opinion journalist Yulia Latynina literally repeats Shenderovich’s arguments whilst also trying to buttress her emotions with historical facts wrenched out of context (Niall Ferguson would be proud). However, what matters here is not the content and logic of Latynina’s arguments, but the intention and gesture. Two circumstances are interesting in this respect. The first is that both essays were responses by Russian liberals to the now notorious “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” by western liberal cultural figures and academics. In that “western” letter against cancel culture, there was not a word, of course, about the usefulness of empires. In Russian responses to the letter, however, this was exactly what was presented to the Russian public. The second circumstance is that both essays were published in Russia’s most liberal publications: Colta.ru and Novaya Gazeta (in the latter, plenty of due obeisance was paid to readers whom Latynina might embarrass).

The west should be protected from itself, Russian liberals say. The west should protect itself from itself, and therefore should not tell Russia what to do, says the propagandist on Russian TV

As for less sophisticated people, they have mourned the “sacred stones” without any recourse to historiosophical arguments. Ksenia Sobchak scolded anti-racist protesters for disrespecting private property, while a distant acquaintance of mine, a man of progressive views, a keen expert on the Russian avant-garde and a Kulturträger, responded to the news of the abduction of the German art curator Hella Mewis in Baghdad as follows: “That is what you get for flirting with savages.”

Outlines of a future consensus

We are confronted with an interesting ideological alignment that has nothing to do with mythical “west” of cancel culture victim JK Rowling, but everything to do with the situation in Russia.

After all, criticism of a west that has forfeited its traditions, lost its bearings, and even been torn apart by leftists and immigrants from distant countries, is criticism from the right - from the rather extreme right, in fact. But official Putinist propaganda does the same thing, only more cautiously, eschewing racism, for example. The west should be protected from itself, Russian liberals say. The west should protect itself from itself, and therefore should not tell Russia what to do, says the propagandist on Russian TV. Starting from different points, these seemingly irreconcilable opponents essentially converge. And this circumstance makes one think about the future, about the time, not far off, when these two positions will have to be turned into one, when a new consensus is shaped.

If not Putin’s inner circle, then certainly Russia’s ruling class itself has been thinking about possible exit strategies from the current regime. There are few options. You can tighten the screws and produce USSR 2.0. You can completely loosen the screws and rebuild the Russian Federation on democratic grounds. You can keep pushing “late Putinism” until it is completely dilapidated. All three options are hazardous - and undesirable for the elites and the ruling class.

The first option would permanently mothball them inside a totalitarian country, blocking their ties with the outside world and shuttering their economic opportunities. Besides, USSR 2.0 would not even look like North Korea 2.0, but like Cuba or Venezuela. The second option would surely involve a challenge to the current ruling class’s hold on political and economic power. Moreover, it is fraught with chaos and even the country’s collapse—at least, that is what the Russian ruling class thinks. The third version has now begun to play out before our eyes, but the regime does not have the fuel to last long: this is evidenced not only by the protests in Khabarovsk and other places, but also by economic stagnation, exacerbated by the coronavirus, and Russia’s increasing international isolation (a subject that I will address in the final instalment of our series).

It turns out that the Russian ruling class needs perestroika, whilst maintaining their commanding heights, however: they need a controlled perestroika involving a consensus amongst the elites. The elites, as we can see, are split into supporters of the regime and the liberal opposition (whose members are mainly drawn from the intelligentsia), despite the fact that from an economic viewpoint and in terms of maintaining their social status, both sides are quite happy with the current state of affairs. To put it simply, these would-be opponents quite agree on many issues, but the “statists,” who publicly slam the “liberasts,” and the “liberals,” with their contempt for “Putin’s henchmen,” need an ideological space in which to meet. The ideological alignment that I have described, above, will at least mark the contours of such a space.

This alignment will combine right-wing conservatism with extreme liberal, even libertarian rhetoric. It will package the cult of private property with “cultural” neo-colonialism, racism and, especially, social Darwinism, and orbit round the holy grail of the “western/Russian cultural canon,” which must be shielded from all encroachments. The new post-Putin consensus will be built on these foundations, apparently, and by the very same people who are now considered enemies (and who consider each other enemies). For the coming season, when they hope to make a comeback on the political runway, the Russian liberal intelligentsia is reshaping an ideological wardrobe fashioned in the last century.

Translated by Thomas Campbell.

How can Americans fight dark money and disinformation?

Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

Hear from leading global experts and commentators on what the new president and Congress must do to stem the flood of dark money and misinformation that is warping politics around the world.

Join us on Thursday 21 January, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

Anoa Changa Journalist focusing on electoral justice, social movements and culture

Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy investigations editor and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

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