The Strange Death of Liberal Russia Part I
August 4, 2022
  • Paul Robinson
    Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of the Ottawa
Paul Robinson writes about the history and social connotations of the notion of liberalism in Russia. Liberalism has always had a narrow social base and has gravitated toward Westernism. Part I of a three-part series.
2017 street protest organized by Russian liberal opposition. Source: Wiki Commons
In 1935 George Dangerfield published a famous book entitled The Strange Death of Liberal England­, charting the downfall of the once mighty British Liberal Party. One might consider a similar title suitable elsewhere: The Strange Death of Liberal Russia. Back in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberalism appeared triumphant in Russia. Liberal reformers manned the highest offices of state, and ideas of democracy, free markets, and human rights had gained broad acceptance. Russia had an advanced economic infrastructure, an educated population, and a large liberal intelligentsia. Most of what one might call the social-economic substructure of a liberal system was in place. There were good grounds for considering it likely that Russia’s future was a liberal one.

Reality proved otherwise. Over the years, Russian liberalism gradually declined as a political force, to the point where nowadays it is almost extinct. Meanwhile, liberal ideas have become increasingly discredited in the popular imagination. What happened? And is there any possibility of a Russian liberal revival in the foreseeable future?

This is the first of several articles devoted to answering those questions. It will look at issues of liberal theory and at the historical background of Russian liberalism. Ensuing articles will examine the rise and fall of Russian liberalism following the collapse of the Soviet Union and discuss liberalism’s prospects in Russia in the near to medium future. It must be noted that the limitations of a short article inevitably lead to a degree of generalization. More detailed analysis will reveal exceptions to much of what is written below. Nonetheless, if one views the ideas outlined in the article as tendencies rather than as absolutes, they are still of value.
Liberalism is a contested concept

Any discussion of liberalism first confronts a definitional problem, namely that liberalism itself is a contested concept. Indeed, many scholars argue that one cannot speak of “liberalism,” merely of a “broad family” of “liberalisms,” some of which appear contradictory. In an article entitled “What is Liberalism?” Duncan Bell argues that these contradictions are so great that one will search in vain for a common core among the various liberalisms. The most one can say is that liberalism is whatever people who have considered themselves liberals have said it is at any time and place. Bell’s position is, however, problematic from a Russian point of view, as Russians who hold apparently liberal views have generally eschewed the liberal label. In the late Soviet and early post-Soviet eras, they preferred to call themselves “democrats.” And in the Imperial era they preferred the term “constitutionalists,” a word that found expression in the name of the leading liberal party of the era, the Constitutional Democratic Party (often known as the “Kadets” due its Russian initials – KD).

Liberalism can refer to an ideology or to a political movement or to a set of political and socio-economic practices. As a general rule, philosophers consider its core feature to be that it is centered on the individual or person, but this feature is hardly unique to it, and in any case begs the question of how to define the individual or person.
"In this regard, it is noteworthy that pre-revolutionary Russian thinkers tended to prefer the term 'person' (lichnost’) over 'individual' (individuum), though they disagreed over what made someone a 'person'."
Whatever the answer, though, a person was seen as something more than an individual, and the purpose of a liberal order was precisely that it enabled people to develop themselves and achieve “personhood.”

Again, this is not a uniquely liberal perspective, but where liberalism differs from other ideologies is in how it believes that this process of achieving personhood is achieved. In Western liberal thought, this process relies first on certain abstract principles and second on certain institutions that give these principles expression.
Scholars differ in their assessment of what these principles and institutions are, but roughly speaking the former include ideas such as liberty, autonomy, equality, pluralism, universalism, progress and reason, while the latter include institutions such as private property, free markets, democracy, the rule of law, and legally-enshrined human rights.

Elements of all of these can be found in the history of Russian liberalism, but with a specifically national twist. In Western Europe, liberal ideas developed in tandem with the creation of a bourgeois class, and largely represented that class’s material interests. In Russia, the ideas arrived from the West prior to the establishment of a large bourgeois class. Moreover, when such a class came into being, it tended to be quite conservative, in large part because the Russian economic system tied private industry and the state closely together. Liberalism instead became the purview of that part of the noble estate known as the intelligentsia. Its proponents were academics, lawyers, journalists and the like. Not for nothing was the leading liberal party of the late Imperial era, the Kadet party, known as a “party of professors.” Outside urban professionals, the party had almost no support, especially among workers and peasants, who showed little interest in liberalism.

Liberalism’s social base has remained equally narrow in modern times. In so far as there was a Soviet liberalism during the communist era, it was to be found among intellectuals and so-called “ITRs” (inzhenerno-tekhnicheskie rabotniki – engineering technical workers). Nowadays, the core of liberalism’s support is to be found in the “creative classes,” described by Mark Lipovetsky as “a strange unity of software engineers, intellectuals, scholars/scientists, architects, designers, university professors, people of art – in a word, those selling the product of their creative activity.”  Prior to the 1917 revolution, Kadet party leader Pavel Miliukov commented that “Russian liberalism was not bourgeois but intellectual.” This remains largely true today.

An elitist group 

Historians have noted a number of consequences of this phenomenon. These include a tendency towards abstraction and even on occasion dogmatism, as well as a tendency to concentrate on issues that deeply concern intellectuals but have little relevance to the lives of ordinary people. These are of course generalizations, but they contain a germ of truth. 
"Russian liberalism’s narrow, intellectual social base has tended to isolate it from the mass of the Russian population and generated in the latter a perception that liberals are fundamentally elitist."
Liberals have helped create this impression by adopting a sometimes contemptuous attitude towards the Russian people, who have often been portrayed as a dark mass of uneducated reactionaries unfit for self-government. As one of the founders of nineteenth century Russian liberalism, Timofei Granovsky, put it, “The victory of the masses would bring about the destruction of the best fruits of civilization.” The Russian revolution accentuated this attitude. For instance, Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams, the one woman in the Kadet party central committee, denounced “the wild beast which is called the people.”

Generalizing somewhat, one might say that Russian liberals have tended to reflect the prevailing attitude of the intelligentsia, viewing themselves as standing above classes, and assigning themselves the role of educating and leading the masses until such time as they are able to reach the same level of enlightenment as the intelligentsia themselves. This attitude re-emerged in post-Stalin Soviet times. Dissident Grigory Pomerants, for instance, wrote that proletarian culture was without value. By contrast, he said, “those engaged in creative intellectual labour are the chosen people of the twentieth century.”

Fear of the mob has produced a rather contradictory attitude towards the institutional framework traditionally associated with liberalism. On the one hand, liberals have been fervent advocates of the rule of law and civil rights (free speech and so on). On the other hand, they have been rather less sure about the benefits of democracy, which Tyrkova-Williams in a moment of post-revolutionary zeal called “a fraud, which politicians have foisted upon us.”

Liberals have often demanded democratic reform, insisting that the state should share power with “society” (obshchestvo). But they have tended to equate “society” with themselves. When the people are given their freedom but instead choose other leaders, the result has been disillusionment.

Furthermore, there has also been a statist trend within Russian liberalism. This trend views the state as the primary mover of reform and regards representative institutions with suspicion as being likely to act as barriers in the way of necessary change. In this vision of the world, liberalism is something best left to what one might call “enlightened bureaucrats,” able to govern for the benefit of all and to resist the influence of individual or class interests. The result is a peculiarly Russian brand of liberal authoritarianism or what nineteenth century Russian thinker Boris Chicherin called “okhranitel’nyi” liberalism, a curious term that is normally translated as “conservative” liberalism but has other connotations not easily rendered into English (okhrana was the name of the Imperial secret police). Okhranitel’nyi liberalism, wrote Chicherin, meant “liberal measures and strong government.”
Konstantin Kavelin, 1880-1884, an architect of early Russian liberalism. Source: Wiki Commons
This thinking to some extent reflected the influence of Hegel. Another Hegelian was Chicherin’s colleague Konstantin Kavelin, who viewed history as a process leading towards the development of personhood. For Kavelin, the creation of the modern state was a crucial step in this process, with the state playing the role of enabling people to overcome the bonds of family and clan and thereby become persons. Western Europe had led the way in this process, but the inexorable laws of history meant that Russia was bound to follow. As Kavelin wrote, “The difference [between Russia and the West] lies solely in the preceding historical facts; the aim, the tasks, the aspirations, the way forward are one and the same.”

As previously noted, universalism and progress are often regarded as core liberal principles. Kavelin’s statement highlights their relevance in a Russian context. Russian liberalism has long contained a strong element of historical determinism that views history as following universally applicable rules of progress, which in the long term will cause all nations to converge on a single model of political and economic life. As Miliukov said, “Civilization makes nations, as it makes individuals, more alike.”

Miliukov and others turned this “is” into an “ought.” Because, in their opinion, it was an observable fact that nations all developed in the same way, they determined that Russia ought to reform itself to head in the same direction. Confronted by the complaint that foreign models did not suit Russian realities, Miliukov replied that Russia had to obey “the laws of political biology.”

Liberals were not alone in believing in the laws of political biology. But whereas socialists believed that these laws led inevitably towards socialism, even communism, liberals felt that they led to Western European liberal democracy. The West (however defined) was in their eyes the most “advanced” part of the world. It was therefore what Russia was fated in due course to become. From an early stage, therefore, Russian liberalism has been closely bound up with Westernism. Perhaps the most profound belief of Russian liberals is, and always has been, that the West represents “normality,” from which Russia has by some quirk of history been diverted and to which it must return.
"Perhaps the most profound belief of Russian liberals is, and always has been, that the West represents 'normality', from which Russia has by some quirk of history been diverted and to which it must return."
“We must return to the highroad of modern civilization”

In contrast to Eurasianist thought, which regards the world as divided up into multiple distinct civilizations, Russian liberalism has generally tended to the view that there is only one “civilization” and its home is the West. This idea played a key role in the thinking of liberal-minded intellectuals in the late Soviet era. For instance, Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili expressed the idea that the USSR had at some point after the revolution “jumped out of history” – in other words, it had been shunted from the inevitable path of historical progress that led towards Europe and put instead on another, incorrect, track. It was necessary, wrote Mamardashvili, “to jump to a new track altogether” and there by “go back to our European house.”

Similarly, historian Leonid Batkin commented that the West “is the general definition of the economic, scientific-technical and structural-democratic level without which it is impossible for any really modern society to exist. … We have dropped out of world history … We must … return to the highroad of modern civilization.” This aspiration remains at the centre of the liberal worldview to this day.

There are, of course, many other strands of Russian liberalism, which require a much longer analysis than is possible here. These strands have waxed and waned over the years and they are not all compatible with each other. But the discussion above reveals, in very broad and generalized terms, two characteristics of Russian liberalism that have remained remarkably consistent over time. The first is liberalism’s narrow social base, resting largely on intellectuals. The second is its tendency towards historical determinism and from that towards Westernism. How these characteristics have affected its fate in the post-Soviet era will be discussed in Part II.
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