international analysis and commentary

Goodbye Liberalism: the triumph of Russia’s “slavophiles”

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Many in the West struggle to recognize former Russian President Dimitri Medvedev. In a June 7th tweet, the once pro-liberal politician wrote, “I hate [the West]. They are bastards and scum. They want death to us, Russia, and as long as I’m alive, I will do everything to make them disappear.” For how violent and senseless it might sound, one thing is certain: the invasion of Ukraine crushed all hopes for a deeper integration between Europe and Moscow. Inside Russia, growing anti-Western sentiment, propaganda and ferocious repression mark the end of Russia’s uneasy attempt to become a liberal country. However, what is happening is just a contemporary variation of an ancient Russian story.

Peter the Great (1672-1725) was a visionary autocrat who forced Russia to emulate the West, from army discipline and state administration to clothing and architecture. Peter had to deal with the resistance of clergy and boyars, Russian noblemen, who saw this transformation as the devil’s plan. The Czar even imposed a “beard tax” for orthodox hardliners who refused to shave.

A Boyar Wedding Feast (in the 17th Century), by the Russian painter Konstantin Makovsky

 

Since then, Russia maintained an ambiguous relationship towards Europe and liberalism: the main philosophical debate throughout the 19th century pitted “slavophiles”, who believed Russia should follow its own path for social, political and religious questions, against “westernizers”, who wanted to put an end to absolute autocracy and looked up to the West as a model.

 

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The first hint of a liberal parliament, called the Duma, was established only in 1905. The term Duma comes from the verb dumat’, “to think” as opposed to Western parliaments, where people could actually “speak”. The word says much about the Czar’s engagement in liberalism: the Duma never really functioned as a legislative power and was swept away by the October Revolution. Yet, throughout the 19th century, Russia’s philosophers tried to spread liberal ideas, starting from Petr Chaadaev who denounced Russia’s backwardness vis-à-vis Europe in his Philosophical Letters (1831) to Alexander Herzen. It was mostly educated people who had studied in England, France or Germany and felt completely out of place in the bloody events of pre-revolutionary Russia. Despite all the efforts of the intelligentsia, the persistent lack of political freedoms in Russia marked the failure of moderated reformism and generated revolutionary tendencies. Crushed between absolute power from one side and revolutionary violence from the other, the Russian liberal party, the Cadets, had a difficult and short lifespan.

Soviet times did not do much for liberalism, as Russia transformed Communism into an industrialized despotism. As Lenin summed up, there could be any number of parties in Russia, “provided that the Communist Party is in power and the other parties in jail.”

 

Egor Gaidar’s “conversion”: from liberalism to Putinism

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new attempt towards liberalism was made, again precarious and short-lived. Egor Gaidar, the father of liberal reforms during Boris Yeltsin first term (1991-1996) and leader of the liberal “Democratic choice of Russia”, was forced to quit in 1994 as one of the most unpopular political figures in Russian history. A well-known joke from the 1990s explains the general mood:

-Who is the greatest Marxist economist in Russia?

-Egor Gaidar, as he managed to do in two years what Lenin and Stalin could not do: completely discredit capitalism in the country.

Gaidar is a figure of great interest as his life perfectly follows the trajectory of Russia’s bipolar attitude towards liberalism.

A convinced “westernizer” in the 1990s, he was responsible for Russia’s brutal transition to a market economy, he praised Western models and criticized the 1994 war in Chechnya. After Putin’s election in 2000, he slowly started to abandon his pro-liberal ideas. He was not the only one: as “Putin’s regime became more and more hostile toward dissenters, Gaidar and many other liberals began to fine-tune their public behavior with regard to the Kremlin’s tastes. Following the usual rule in such cases, their ‘adjustment’ to the regime started with keeping silent when the Kremlin rudely violated democratic principles and laws.” [1]

Gaidar openly embraced anti-liberalism in the last years of his life (he died in 2009): he supported the Kremlin’s war on oligarchs and even took aggressive position towards the British government when they accused Russia of poisoning Litvinenko, asserting that the Crown Prosecution Service “had lied to the world” and covered up “those who poisoned 30 British citizens.”[2] Gaidar finally joined those who spread the main thesis of the Kremlin’s anti-Western ideology: ‘‘they are no better than we are.’’

Anti-Western propaganda continued to work during Putin’s third and fourth terms: deteriorating US-Russia relations and sanctions served as a perfect talking point for those who wanted to present the West as the enemy. Meanwhile, in Russia, all those who did not agree with the Kremlin were defined as “traitors” and “foreign agents”.

 

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With the war on Ukraine, Russia’s new “slavophile” course has taken on messianic traits. On March 16th, Vladimir Putin used shocking words: Russia “will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a fly that accidentally fell into the mouth (…) such a natural and necessary self-cleansing of society will only strengthen the country.”

Liberalism, once again, has been completely wiped out of the Russian political nomenklatura. The growing arbitrariness of political repression and the open rejection of Western values shows that modern-day “slavophiles” are in full swing in Russia. The idea that the Ukraine invasion was an unpredictable decision by Vladimir Putin is a tempting simplification, but it is far from the truth.

 

The Izborsk Club and the “Stalin recipe” for Kiev

It may be hard to believe, but for some members of the intellectual and political élite in Russia, Vladimir Putin had been very soft on Ukraine, at least until he ordered the invasion in February 2022. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, an ultra-nationalist movement pushed the Kremlin to immediately seize bigger parts of Ukraine and recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. In their view, the Donbass region, annexed to Russia by Catherine the Great and located by historic mistake in a made-up country, had no other future that its re-integration into Russia.

As for Kiev, the “Stalin recipe” was the only solution: take over political power by a “total military operation”, gain control of telecommunication and energy infrastructure, organize an “internal mobilization to support the war”, and warn the US and NATO about Russia’s nuclear readiness in case of foreign interference. As evidence suggests, the “Stalin recipe” became the Kremlin’s official foreign policy. The core of this belligerent Russian nationalism lies in the Izborsk Club, a formally independent research institute, that gradually expanded its influence on Russia’s political and cultural spheres (cfr the article published in April 2022 by Le Monde Diplomatique).

 

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The Club was founded in 2012 by Alexander Prochanov, its current Director, who saluted the invasion of Ukraine as a “correction of the terrible wound on Russia’s history made in 1991.” A perfect modern- day “slavophile”, Alexander Prochanov is a theoretician of anti-liberalism. In his view, the West “has a terrible, threatening plan, called ‘cancellation’ […] that does all to erase difference from people, it erases colors, religions and nationalities, borders, difference between man and women and transforms all humans in a sort of biomass, that can be easily controlled […] it’s a fascist plan.”

The Club is the fulcrum of all Russian nationalists, from politicians to intellectuals and scientists: it is close to the founding figures of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, Governor Pavel Gubarev, Prime Minister Alexander Borodai and Defense Minister Igor Strelkov; Sergei Glazev, adviser to Putin on the Eurasian economic integration from 2012 to 2019; Russian orthodox church leader Tikhon Shevkunov, reputed to be the President’s personal confessor; and other first rank political figures. In a nutshell, the Izborsk Club, with all its conferences, publications and initiatives is guiding the social transition to anti-liberalism for the generations to come.

Izborsk Club, 2012

 

“Our special Russian truth

One of the Club’s most prominent members is Alexander Dugin, theoretician of Russia’s Eurasian Empire. His philosophical work revolves around Russia’s enlarged influence in a new multipolar world, finally rid of US domination. Like Prochanov, Dugin could perfectly be described as a modern-day “slavophile”. He is a supporter of Russian “cultural uniqueness” or “our special Russian truth”, something that must be protected from the dangerous influence of liberalism.

In this vision, political repression and censorship are a protection from the West, in a real struggle to define Russia’s specific cultural model, something for which China seems to be more inspiring than Brussels or Washington. In an article published on the Club’s website, Dugin praises Beijing’s internet, “which cuts off any networks and resources that could weaken its civilizational identity at the entrance to China”, concluding that “Russia has every reason to claim to be precisely a civilization” free of Western ideals.

Dugin leaves a final recommendation to policy makers to reorganize the Russian cultural paradigm for the generations to come: “To win this war and defend itself, Russia must […] dissolve the liberal think tanks created in the Gorbachev-Yeltsin period and establish new, multipolar ones[…]Finally, we need to really turn to a developed and fully-fledged Eurasian school of thought, which has proved its maximum relevance, but against which the Atlantists and foreign agents who have penetrated deeply into our society continue to fight.”

If something could have been done to save Russian-Western relations and give more space to modern-day “westernizers”, it seems to be too late. As Henry Kissinger said in a 2015 interview: “the United States has put forward no concept of its own except that Russia will one day join the world community by some automatic act of conversion”. Nothing seems further away from reality.

 

 


Footnotes:

[1]“How Putin’s Russia embraces authoritarianism” – Communist and Post-Communist Studies , December 2007, Vol. 40, No. 4 (December 2007), pp. 493-499.

[2] Gaidar, Ye., 2007e. Interview with Evgenia Albats. Ekho Moskvy. June 17.