SOCIETY
The Strange Death of Liberal Russia Part II
August 8, 2022
Paul Robinson
Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of the Ottawa
One reason for the dramatic decline in the representation of liberals in the national legislature is state propaganda blackening their reputation. Paul Robinson explains why that propaganda resonates so strongly in Russian minds. This is the second of a three-part series.
Boris Yeltsin on 22 August 1991. Source: Wiki Commons
In January 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberalism’s victory in Russia seemed complete. Under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, the country embarked on a period of rapid economic and political reform, which promised to turn Russia into a Western-style free market liberal democracy. Liberal politicians held key positions in government, and liberal political organizations enjoyed a considerable degree of public support. Thirty years on, under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, this is no longer the case. Liberalism’s prospects look very bleak. This article seeks to explain why.

Causes of the liberals’ decline

To some extent, liberals were a victim of their own success. In the 1990s, reformers turned the communist system into something that somewhat resembled a market economy. The cost, however, was high. The 1990s witnessed hyperinflation, skyrocketing crime rates, and plummeting life expectancy. For many Russians, liberalism was to blame. In her book The Red Mirror, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova argues that the “collective trauma” of the 1990s underpins the legitimacy of Putin’s government. Russians, she claims, will only be able to move towards a liberal future if they adopt a more positive view of those years. This seems most unlikely.

Another explanation for liberalism’s difficulties is that it is a victim of state policies designed to keep it on the political margins. Since the state secured control of Russia’s most popular TV stations in the early 2000s, liberals’ access to the mass media has declined significantly. Liberal political parties have also experienced considerable difficulties in registering candidates for elections, with electoral commissions regularly rejecting attempts to register candidates on dubious grounds. Since 2012, media outlets and Non-Governmental Organizations have been obliged to register as “foreign agents” if they receive any foreign funding, and in some cases have also been branded as “extremist,” in effect banning them. The Russian state has made it extremely difficult for liberal organizations to function effectively.

That said, liberal candidates have continued to appear on electoral ballots and Russians have retained the option to vote for them. Yet very few do so. Even if one blames state propaganda for blackening liberals’ reputations, one still has to explain why that propaganda resonates so strongly in Russian minds. Answering this question requires us to turn to the actions of liberals themselves.
"If Russian liberalism has fallen victim to an authoritarian state, liberals must take some of the blame for having created that state."
In a recent study of the topic, Guillaume Sauvé notes that while Russian liberals called themselves “democrats,” their definition of democracy wasn’t so much the rule of the people as a country governed by “democrats,” i.e. people like themselves. They were thus less democratic than they imagined themselves to be. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, would-be reformers were pointing out that dismantling communism would produce severe economic pain which would stimulate popular resistance. Overcoming this resistance would require authoritarian measures, they argued. Thus in 1990, the Association of Social-Economic Sciences, headed by future deputy prime minister Anatoly Chubais, issued a report noting that:
The biggest problem for democrats … is the need to express the necessity during reforms of the government’s anti-democratic measures (such as banning strikes, control of information, etc.). … There is a fundamental contradiction between the aims of reform … and the means of their achievement, including measures of an anti-democratic nature.
As Chubais had predicted, once economic reform began in January 1992, political resistance soon emerged. The centre of this resistance was the Russian parliament, which sought to slow down the “shock therapy” introduced by Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin. The dispute between parliament and president ended in violence, with a pro-parliamentary crowd attacking the main TV station in Moscow, after which, on 4 October 1993, the president sent tanks to blast the legislature into submission. Many liberal intellectuals applauded Yeltsin’s moves. At a meeting with Yeltsin just prior to the attack on parliament, a delegation of Russian writers urged the president to take firm action. As one participant, writer Andrei Nuikin, told Yeltsin: “We urge you, Boris Nikolaevich, not to become obsessed solely with constitutional matters in the search for a legitimate solution. … It seems that the very idea of giving top priority to legitimacy has been skillfully imposed on us by those who themselves spit on it.”
Following the events of October 1993 Russia acquired a new constitution that created what some call a “super-presidential” system. Putin didn’t so much create this system as inherit it. As former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, one of the key liberal figures of the Yeltsin era, noted:
It immediately became clear that the first casualty [of the attack on parliament] was democracy itself. On the morning of October 3, President Yeltsin was still only one of many players on the Russian scene. … On the morning of October 5, all the power in the country was in his hands. We had leapt from the gelatinous dvoevlastie [dual power] into a de facto authoritarian regime.
Part 1 in this series noted how Russian liberalism’s social base has tended to be found in the intelligentsia, which has had often adopted a rather contemptuous view of the Russian people. The liberalism of the post-Soviet era has reflected this phenomenon, with many intellectuals viewing Russia as divided into two parts – the reactionary masses and the enlightened intelligentsia. As one time deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov wrote:
The Russian people, for the most part, is divided into two uneven groups. One part is the descendants of serfs, people with a slavish consciousness. There are very many of them and their leader is V. V. Putin. The other (smaller) part is born free, proud and independent. It does not have a leader but needs one.
"Homo Sovieticus" Sharikov performed by actor Vladimir Tolokonnikov, 1988. Source Wiki Commons
The Homo Sovieticus label

In the eyes of many liberal intellectuals, the archetype of the Russian masses is “homo sovieticus” (Soviet man), described by sociologist Lev Gudkov as “incapable of understanding more complex moral/ethical views and relationships.” For Sergei Medvedev, author of the prize-winning book Return of the Russian Leviathan, Russians exhibit the “morals of slaves.” The Russian “mass consciousness,” he says, is “embittered, alienated and provincial,” “undeveloped,” archaic and superstitious.” Similar comments by others abound.

One of the primary failures of Russian liberals has been their inability to overcome the gulf separating them from ordinary Russians. Rather than seeking the support of a population that they tend to despise, they have largely limited themselves to maximizing their own group’s support within liberal circles. In a book studying Russia’s leading liberal party, Yabloko, David White comments that the party’s “electoral programmes have never been specifically designed with the intention of catching the mood of the Russian voter.” Political failure has been the inevitable result.

Liberal politics has also been marred by bitter in-fighting. At the start of the 2000s, there were two main liberal parties – Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (URF). The two regularly exchanged barbs. Boris Nemtsov, a leading member of the URF, denounced Yabloko as “a party of the impoverished intelligentsia,” while Yavlinsky in turn stated that the URF “falls into the category of totalitarian and pro-fascist.” Yavlinsky has used similar language about imprisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny, writing that “Navalny’s political direction is populism and nationalism. If the mob follows Navalny, the country can expect fascism.” In return, Navalny has sharply criticized Yabloko. The party’s candidates, he told an interviewer, were “unpleasant people.”

Part 1 of this series also noted that Russian liberalism has long been associated with Westernism, producing complaints that liberals lack national feeling.
Some Russian liberals object to this complaint, and contrast what they call their own “true” patriotism with the “false” patriotism of the Russian state and much of the public, this “true” patriotism being defined by “a critical attitude to the state and a consequent defense of social and individual citizens against the state’s infringements of their rights and freedoms.” In practice, though, a “critical attitude to the state” often appears to the public not as patriotism but the opposite. Tatyana Felgengauer of the now-banned liberal Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station notes that, “The average Russian does not like Radio Echo of Moscow. They constantly blame us: claiming that we are the Echo of the US State Department, that we are not patriots, that we have sold ourselves to the Americans, that we are against Russia.”
"It would appear that Putin’s version of patriotism resonates much more strongly in Russian hearts than does that of the country’s liberals."
This helps explain their respective political fates. As tensions between Russia and the West have grown, it has become increasingly easy for the Russian government and its supporters to equate Westernism with anti-Russianism. While unfair, this charge is politically very effective, helping to delegitimize liberals regardless of their individual beliefs and actions.

Liberals’ reaction to the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine has added to the problem. As detailed in Part I of this study, the desire to “return to civilization” (i.e. to Europe, or the West more generally) has become a defining feature of Russian liberalism. To many liberals, the Maidan protestors’ pro-European stance made their revolution “an effort to join European civilization,” and as such exactly what Russian liberals hoped to see in their own country. The Russian state’s reaction to Maidan, including the annexation of Crimea, was regarded as an anti-European, and thus negative, phenomenon. As Yavlinsky complained, “The main consequence of the current policy towards Ukraine is the strengthening of Russia’s course as a non-European country.”

This attitude pushed Russian liberals to oppose the annexation of Crimea, with Yabloko issuing a declaration stating that the annexation demonstrated the government’s hatred of the West. Given the popularity of the annexation, such statements arguably dealt a death blow to Russian liberalism as an organized political force. As a member of Yabloko’s political committee, Anatoly Rodionov, told his colleagues during a party debate on the subject of Crimea:
Russian society has said “No, Crimea is ours, and Yabloko is not ours.” You understand, this is what has happened. We shouldn’t fool ourselves. We have crossed a red line separating society’s understanding … from society’s hostility. … I think there’s been a sort of ethical glitch. We’ve taken the enemy’s side.
Memories of the 1990s, government repression, and liberals’ own political actions have all contributed to Russian liberalism’s decline. However, an argument can be made that while Russians may dislike liberals, they are not opposed to core liberal values and institutions such as liberty, autonomy, and democracy. If this is the case, then there is still a chance for liberalism’s resurrection as a political movement. Whether this is possible will be the subject of the essay that follows.
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