The Strange Death of Liberal Russia Part III
August 15, 2022
  • Paul Robinson
    Professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of the Ottawa
Paul Robinson argues that if Russian liberalism is to come back to life it will have to find a way to adapt to a new global context in which talk of a “return to Western civilization” has become largely redundant. Part III of a three-part series. Part I is here, Part II is here.
Yabloko party’s former president Sergei Mitrokhin believes that the revolutionary scenario is unacceptable for Russia, 2013. Source: Wiki Commons
In a 2019 interview, Russian president Vladimir Putin remarked that, “The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”
While liberalism undoubtedly faces severe troubles in Russia, some may doubt the conclusion that it is obsolete. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to examine whether there are any realistic prospects for a liberal revival in Russia.

Do Russians care about liberal values?

One argument in favor of a liberal recovery rests on the belief that while Russians have turned their back on liberalism as a political movement they haven’t turned their back on liberal values. In other words, Russians dislike liberals while not disliking liberalism. Valery Solovey, for instance, writes that: “The main values and ideas of political liberalism – such as checks and balances, an independent judiciary, competitive elections, a multiparty system, civil rights and liberties, and the like – are valued highly by Russians … Russians appear to reject the forms of liberalism while endorsing its political and economic content.”

Opinion polls partly bear this out, but only partly. Surveys on democratic values indicate that two-thirds of Russians consider law and order and just courts to be very important. Fifty-two percent consider free elections very important, 42 percent – freedom of speech, 36 percent – an independent press, 30 percent – minority rights, and 26 percent – political opposition.

This indicates some support for liberal principles, although the lack of interest in political opposition suggests some limitations to this support. This conclusion is backed up by a 2017 survey, in which Russians stated that the things that most concerned them were their health, their family, their personal security, and social infrastructure, such as roads, shops, and healthcare. Only eight percent deemed “participation in social and political life” to be important.
"Surveys suggest a preference for a paternalistic state and a rejection of radical free market ideas."
Only seven percent Russians share the idea that “the state should interfere in the life and economic activity of citizens as little as possible”, 2021. Source: Wiki Commons
In a 2020 poll, 60 percent of respondents supported the idea that the state had a duty to provide citizens with what they need for a dignified life; 49 percent the statement that “Our people always needs a ‘strong hand’;” 31 percent the idea that the state should merely “establish the rules of the game;” and only seven percent the idea that “the state should interfere in the life and economic activity of citizens as little as possible.”

In a 2021 survey, 49 percent said that they preferred the “Soviet system as it was until the 1990s,” 18 percent the “current system,” and only 16 percent “democracy according to the model of Western countries.” As regards economic models, 67 percent favored “a system based on state planning and distribution,” and only 24 percent a system “founded on private property and market relations.” And as far as minority rights are concerned, a 2020 poll concluded that in recent years Russians had become more tolerant of sexual minorities but less tolerant of religious sects. Young Russians were in general more tolerant than older ones.

Laying expectations on the young

This last point raises the possibility that Russia may become more liberal as the current younger generation grows up. The evidence for this is somewhat mixed. A 2020 poll of 1,500 Russians aged 14 to 29 asked them to identify the values that were most important to them. The top response (78 percent) was human rights, followed by security (57 percent), employment (52 percent), economic welfare of citizens (37 percent), equality (31 percent), and democracy (18 percent). However, young Russians’ understanding of human rights had a socialist tint to it, with the rights to life and medical care coming top, followed by the right to a fair trial, right to social security, right to education, and the right to free speech, in that order. Of those surveyed, only 12 percent declared themselves “liberals,” with 28 percent considering themselves “social democrats” and 16 percent “nationalists.” Meanwhile, 58 percent disagreed with the statement that “Russia is a European country,” and 80 percent responded that it would be a “bad” thing if a homosexual individual or couple moved into their neighbourhood.

Liberalism has its limits even among youth. None of this means that liberalism in Russia is doomed. It is not impossible that economic stress due to the Ukrainian war or some other unexpected event could unleash processes that provoke mass protests that in due course topple the government and pave the way for a liberal revival. At present, though, this looks rather unlikely.
"Having experienced regime change twice in the past century, Russians are understandably wary of undergoing it again."
While a few radicals, particularly Alexei Navalny and his followers, have hoped to further their cause by means of mass street protests, they have had little success and their radicalism has been rejected even by many in the liberal opposition. As the Yabloko party’s former president Sergei Mitrokhin put it: “The revolutionary scenario is unacceptable for Russia because Russia is the biggest country in the world, with the longest borders, and large ethnic and confessional diversity … Any revolution could lead to our country’s disintegration.”

In this regard, a comparison with 1917 is useful. Back then, there was an enthusiasm for revolution in Russia which is almost entirely absent today. Furthermore, liberals were able to take power following the Tsar’s abdication in March 1917 because they had a powerful presence within the Russian parliament, where they had formed a coalition with moderate conservatives. This is not the case today. Moreover, after taking power in 1917 liberals soon lost it, in large part due to the fact that they lacked strong roots in the Russian population. Power shifted to organizations that did have such roots and who were able to speak to people in a language they understood. In this regard, liberals are even worse placed than they were 100 years ago. As in 1917 so too today there is little reason to suppose that the beneficiaries of regime collapse in Russia would be liberals.
Alexey Gennadievich Nechayev, chairman of the New People political party, 2021. Source: Wiki Commons
Lacking organizational base

Bottom-up liberalization requires some organizational base. At present this is lacking, with the older liberal parties, notably Yabloko, having no realistic prospects of future success. The only semi-liberal group to have significant parliamentary representation is the party New People, which in 2021 won just over 5% of the national vote. The party’s founder Alexei Nechayev says that “We aren’t liberals [but] democratic values are close to us”. The decision to eschew the liberal label may reflect an understanding of its unpopularity more than a rejection of liberal values. The party program adopts relatively liberal political and economic policies, calling for the decentralization of power, “political diversity … and competition,” “freeing entrepreneurs” from the pressure of the state, and so on.

But the party specifically states that it aims to work within the political system not to overthrow it. It also avoids overt Westernism and emphasizes that its focus is on local affairs. In this way it stays within the boundaries of what the central authorities will tolerate. Given this, it possibly represents a mechanism through which liberalism can regain a small foothold in Russian politics. It remains to be seen, though, what will become of it.

Overall, the prospects of liberalization driven from the bottom up seem slim. Historically, reform in Russia has rarely come that way. Rather it has been driven from the top down. In particular, liberal reforms have largely been the product of what one might call “enlightened bureaucrats.” These have promoted change not so much out of respect for liberal ideas as out of a recognition that the state would benefit from some degree of liberalization. This was the case during the Great Reforms of the 1860s and in the era of perestroika in the 1980s. In both instances, change came from within the system.

Modern-day equivalents of the enlightened bureaucrats of the past do exist, and a handful still retain relatively high office, particularly in the economic sphere. Their numbers, however, have shrivelled over the past 20 years. At present, it is hard to see them being able to amass the influence required to successfully promote a reform agenda.

Defeat in war could perhaps change this calculus, and provide the necessary impetus for reform, as in the aftermath of the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century. If the country’s elites decide that drastic liberalization is the only way of preserving their own privileges, of saving the state from collapse, or of preventing revolution, then change is possible.

There is, however, a crucial difference between the situation today and in previous eras of reform. In the 1860s, Russia was at peace. Similarly, perestroika coincided with a period of improved international relations – indeed, Gorbachev and his advisors brought the Cold War to an end precisely because they believed that peace was a prerequisite of successful reform. Today, by contrast, Russia is at war. Moreover, there is little to no chance of Russia’s relations with the West improving significantly in the foreseeable future. Among other reasons, the conditions set by the West for the normalization of relations include demands that no Russian government, of whatever political hue, could ever satisfy (the return of Crimea to Ukraine being the most obvious example). It could be that the invasion of Ukraine marked a decisive historical turning point at which Russia and the West separated themselves from each other once and for all. There may be no turning back – or at least not for a very, very long time. The balance of world power is shifting to the East.

In these circumstances, Russia’s elites have little option but to rally around the flag (even in 1917 they defected not because they were opposed to Russia’s war with Germany but because they felt that the Tsar was losing it and that they could fight it better without him).
"In the context of prolonged East-West tensions, Russian liberalism’s long association with Westernism is perhaps an insurmountable barrier in the way of its revival."
This is not just because any form of Westernism will bear the taint of treason. In recent years, the West has lost much of its moral authority, in part as a result of its own crimes and misdemeanors, such as the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, the balance of world power is shifting to the East. As noted in Part 1 of this series, Russian liberalism has long rested on a form of historical determinism that sees the West as the model towards which history is inevitably marching. But the rise of China and the shifting balance of global power pose a serious challenge to this concept. The allure of the West is not what it was.

How Russian liberalism will respond to these challenges is as yet unclear. But if it is to have any hopes of future success, it will need to recognize that the world has changed. In particular, it will have to find a way to adapt to a new global context in which talk of a “return to Western civilization” has become largely redundant. Russian liberalism has been defeated before and yet come back to life. The same may happen again, but as in the twentieth century the wait may be long.
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