Perestroika in the Soviet Union: Triumph of Democracy or a Conservative Revolution?
May 9, 2023
  • Artemy Magun

    European University at St Petersburg
Artemy Magun goes back to the origins of contemporary Russia and argues that the foundation of the current ideological consensus on conservative values was laid during the 1980s and 1990s: the very liberalism of the late-Soviet educated class was marked by conservatism.
A number of ideas and values from the conservatism traditional for Russia (anti-Westernism, mystical “spirituality,” counter-revolutionism) coexist in today’s Russia with relatively new notions imported from Western religious conservatism (such as the struggle against LGBTQ), as well as elements of Soviet imperialism (such as the denigration of nationalism that has become so important with regard to Ukraine). These ideas are repeated ad nauseam on state-monopolized TV and defended by official intellectuals and, according to surveys, find resonance among the masses.

This paper, which revisits and develops some ideas that I expressed in my 2010 article (in Russian) “Perestroika as Conservative Revolution,” argues that the current Russian conservatism is an extremist modification of a conservative hegemony that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the anti-communist intelligentsia burst into the public sphere.


Radical conservatism has only become truly hegemonic in Russia in the last decade. Liberal values such as personal welfare andeconomism remained dominant in the public sphere until the middle of the 2000s. Even if by 2003, most TV channels (with the exception of Ren TV, RBC and Kultura) had turned to explicit anti-liberal and anti-American propaganda, the liberal frame was still largely present in many mass-circulated newspapers such as Izvestiya and Argumenty i fakty. Even foreign-policy concerns figured in the economistic frame of reference (this is a sign of liberal hegemony: conservative ideology mostly uses the frames of international relations, morality, history). Stalin was partially rehabilitated as an “efficient manager,” and this shows that even the conservative turn was still seeking liberal arguments, here an economistic form. Roughly until 2006, even Putin’s speeches abounded with calls for freedom and democracy as security concerns did not yet play the main role.

The question is how that liberal hegemony gradually transformed into the current conservative one. There was no sudden coup through which intellectuals were forced overnight to say what ran contrary to their beliefs.

While most opinion leaders adhered to their positions, an ordinary educated person had simply to emphasize one side of her beliefs and downplay others. In the same way that the late Soviet Union was slowly moving toward liberal and nationalist ideologies (for instance, see the research of Alexei Yurchak and Nikolai Mitrokhin), the public of post-Soviet Russia was prepared for the conservative transformation and Putin, originally fluid in his views, got “articulated” (speaking with Laclau and Mouffe) in the 2000s, influenced by public discussions.

The theory of ideology is important. It allows us to overcome the optics of “democracy” and “authoritarianism” that remains anecdotal and purely formal, in favor of a substantive understanding: a certain political system wins historically – not by chance, but because it represents a widely persuasive vision, a vision that only gradually takes shape and then becomes conscious in its separation from the opposing creed.

This approach allows for questioning the widespread narrative that the uneducated masses nostalgic for the USSR, along with power-hungry political entrepreneurs, conspired against the heroic but outnumbered liberals to take away their political, economic and ideological power.
There is a sense in which the liberal leaders of the 1990s, some of whom are still present in the now-émigré Russian opposition, were not guilty but historically responsible for the ongoing reversal of Russia’s destiny.”
Alexander Dugin was one of the leaders of the National Bolshevik Party. Source: Twitter
As I claimed in my article “Return to Barbarism,” the brutal nature of the ongoing war is a dialectical result of a cleavage between the enlightened but egocentric minority and the disoriented and frustrated “masses.” The past mistakes cannot be corrected now, but a thorough historical analysis allows for an understanding of what happened.

It is not a mystery that conservative nationalism was disproportionally popular in Russia as far back as the 1980s and in the 1990s. The “Russian party” in the CPSU, the Golovin and Yuzhinsky Circle, artistic groups such as Timur Novikov’s “New Academia,” and the National Bolshevik Party with Alexander Dugin as one of its leaders can all easily be seen as precursors of the present state ideology of “imperial barbarism.”

However, they were seen at the time as relatively marginal, even against the background of the official social-conservative opposition embodied in the Communist Party. In politics, similar views (often stigmatized by the liberals as “red-brown”) were held by radicals like Alexander Barkashov or by “populist” entrepreneurs like Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Attempts to present Dugin as some kind of leading thinker before the 2010s are not convincing: at that time, he was not integrated into the academic establishment or larger public discussions and was even fired from Moscow State University because of his appeals “to kill” as late as 2014.

Liberal Conservatism

What is interesting is the degree to which the liberal and Western-oriented establishment was advocating traditionally conservative views as part of their liberal program. Late Soviet and post-Soviet liberalism was essentially liberal conservatism,distinct both from the mainstream of Western liberalism (progressivist and rationalist in nature, including not just market efficiency but also human rights, electoral democracy and anti-authoritarianism) and from the social-democratic civil society ideology that was gaining ground in the West.

Even though a mixture of conservative and liberal views is in itself quite common, say, for the US, they exist, so to say, in a gravity field of social democracy. Even the name “liberal” in the US is applied to moderate socialists, while in Russia the traditional pro-Western liberals identified themselves as “right-wing forces” – both curiosities are characteristic for the ideological parallax between Russian and US cultures.

In 2010, I published my above-mentioned article “Perestroika as Conservative Revolution.” In the same year and independently, Timur Atnashev defended in the European University Institute a dissertation in which, while abstaining from the notion of conservatism, he came to very similar conclusions about the public sphere of Perestroika and the 1990s. Since then, there emerged several other works going in the same direction (including notably those of Atnashev himself). Today, with the war, it has become increasingly obvious that, as Alexei Makarkin nicely summarized in a recent Telegram post, “the radical rejection of revolutionism by the Russian intellectual class has led to a glorification of state restoration.”

This half-hearted rejection was part of a consistent and widespread mindset, from journal articles to kitchen conversations. The liberal intellectuals of the time saw the Soviet communists’ mistake in their violence over nature and over history. Therefore, the overthrow of the Soviet regime had to be organic: it was not to be seen as a revolution but rather a set of reforms that would return Russia into the global “family of peoples.”

Atnashev derives this from the influence of Solzhenitsyn, an avowed conservative whom many Soviet liberals, such as Alla Latynina, Liudmila Saraskina and Yuri Karyakin, nevertheless read and respected, though actually this ideology had been very clearly elaborated by Dostoevsky (“The phalanstery is ready, but nature is not ready for the phalanstery - it wants life, the living process is not yet fulfilled, it is too early for a churchyard! You cannot divert the course over nature by logic alone. Logic can anticipate three possibilities, but there are millions of them!”). At the same time, it coincided with the views of some Western liberal thinkers whom the social theorists later learned to call “neoliberals”: notably, Friedrich Hayek with his ideas of “spontaneous order.”
Vladimir Bortko's 1988 film "Heart of a Dog" is an example of the 1980-90s anti-populism and suspicions about common folk. Source: VK
This organicist ideology was an important factor in why the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 was relatively peaceful, with only local wars in the peripheries of the former empire, but also why the changes were not articulated as a sharp rupture (no lustrations, no prosecution of the Soviet Communist Party or anything of the kind).

Another non-trivial element of the 1980-90s ideology was its anti-populism, noted since the 2010s by many left-wing observers, such as Ilya Matveyev, Rossen Djagalov, and Pavel Khazanov. Suspicions about common folk were widespread: Djagalov and Matveev name such cultural facts as the popularity of Sergei Solovyov’s film Assa, Vladimir Bortko’s film Heart of a Dog, statements by Yuri Karyakin, Yulia Latynina, Vladimir Bukovsky, by businesspeople such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Leonid Nevzlin, Roman Abramovich and many others.

The most powerful source of anti-populist ideology was at that time the Levada group with its theory of “Homo Sovieticus.”
“It was common for the intelligentsia intellectuals of the time not to hide their disdain for and fear of the ‘common folk,’ ironically seen by the liberals as their conservative opponent.”
The opponent might have been conservative situationally, formally; however, substantive conservatism was on both sides: the liberals and their reactionary opponents. Anti-populist elitism is a late inheritor of the so-called theory of the masses from Gustave Le Bon to Elias Canetti and Ortega-y-Gasset, favorites of the Russian intelligentsia. As such, the masses theory must be viewed not independently, but as part of a larger liberal-conservative creed.

Another peculiar and symptomatic conservative (rejecting, in fact, any idealistic values) ideological feature was technocratic managerialism. In post-Soviet Russia it assumed, in continuity with the late Soviet Union, an unusually autonomous form of “methodology” and “political technology.” Being ideologically ambiguous, authoritarian rather than narrowly conservative, the methodologists played into the conservative hands through their complete identification with the elitist leadership regardless of its goals. The second generation of the “Methodologists,” like the son of the founder, Petr Shchedrovitsky, explicitly moved to the right already in the 1990s.

All of this fits well with the more typical features of conservatism, such as the imposed cult of the nuclear family. “Family is one of nature’s masterpieces” (George Santayana) was a poster filling all Russian metro stations for years, roughly from 2009 to 2015. Another feature was gender traditionalism, ubiquitous in the mass culture of the time, originally without any marked ideological character. However, the liberal ideology in Russia also contained some properly liberal elements such as the belief in progress, idealization of the “West,” the insistence on coming to terms with the Stalinist past and, more generally, criticism of the state from the human rights perspective.

What is symptomatic is not just the presence of conservative elements in society (they are present in every society) but their correlation with the radicalness of oppositional or reformist stances and their inclusion in the paradigmatic, ideal-type cases. As an American friend living in Russia the 2000s told me once, perceptively: “here a person who would normally, in America or Germany, be on the extreme Left, by his looks, by his clothes, by his connections, turns out to be on the extreme Right!”

Major examples

In the 2010 article, I took some paradigmatic cases that were seen by the public as symbols of the changes. The film of Tengiz Abuladze Repentance is a story of a modern Antigone, a religious revolutionary who mourns a restored “temple.” Many liberal essays, most famously Igor Klyamkin’s, were using this motif as an allusion to the historical path of Russia, asking: which street leads to a temple?
In his epoch-making song “Peremen” written in 1985 Vikor Tsoy sang “Change! - demand our hearts”.
Source: VK
The leading rock (new wave rock) stars of the 1980s who wrote mobilizational hymns that drew youth to the side of Gorbachev or Yeltsin, like Kino, Akvarium, DDT and others, emphasized in their lyrics the dangers of revolution (Kino, DDT), the need to jump off a “train on fire” and “go home” (Akvarium). Viktor Tsoy, the leader of Kino, in his epoch-making song “Peremen” (1985), sings “Change! - our hearts demand,” though in the second verse he mentions a “blue flower” (a famous mystical symbol of spiritual transformation) and ends with “everything in us,” and ends the third verse with “and suddenly, we become afraid to change anything.”

DDT, in a song entitled “Revolution” (1987), also meant to create a mobilizing mood with its music, singing “revolution, you taught us to believe in the injustice of the Good” and playing a slowed down “La Marseillaise” tune to show that the revolution is stumbling. In 2005, Yuri Shevchuk, the DDT leader, recorded a song “Counterrevolution” which appears to be his commentary on the reactionary turn in Russian politics. Thus, he reinterpreted his 1987 song, retrospectively, as a welcome for revolution that it actually had not been.

Yegor Gaidar, the head of the government of liberal economic reformers and later the head of a reformist political party, called his programmatic book State and Evolution, claiming in it that, unlike Lenin, he was not a revolutionary (evolution, not revolution!): that he followed the events and did everything to avoid violence. Yuri Levada’s circle of sociologists, who since the 1990s have staffed Russia’s independent polling agency, have consistently developed a rather peculiar counter-revolutionary and anti-populist agenda (not that the latter is objectively ungrounded, but the ideology is here a frame that sets up a stage for the facts).

This is not to speak of some of the pro-reform and pro-Western intellectuals who were also explicit conservatives, such as the social thinker Yuri Davydov and his large following, the Perestroika-time public figure Alla Latynina and her daughter Yulia Latynina, an oppositionist commentator.
Therefore, the 1990s and 2000s were a time when Russia was ready to make a dialectical shift from the liberal hegemony to a conservative one. In fact, almost everyone with influence in the public domain was already conservative in the 1990s
– some already out and some still latently. So, what happened in the shift was that the unconscious or latent conservatism came to the surface, thus leading to the toleration and then acceptance by society of those who had been taking openly conservative positions. Balabanov or Dugin, if speaking to a Western liberal audience, would have been stigmatized and tabooed as fascists, but the Russian liberal public tolerated them because of their general conservative sympathies, and then, in a process similar to the “Overton Window,” the radical conservatives became mainstream. This is how hegemony works.

Putin originally was its (not-so) empty signifier, as his claim to “put an end to the era of revolutions” resonated well with both the conservative and nominally liberal elites. Conservatism, not liberalism, was really the common denominator, and this is why Putin and his elites drifted toward classical conservatism by 2011-12. As mentioned above, the residual conservatism prevented the frustrated part of the Russian liberal elites (such as the Yabloko Party, many journalists from the former Media-Most, et al.) to in time organize and inspire a radical and militant movement against Putin, to recognize the danger he represented and to enter into an alliance with the masses by reinterpreting their grievances – something Navalny only started doing in the 2010s. To be sure, the masses were also conservative at this time, but there was a socialist twist that could have been used by the intellectuals for a rapprochement.

The global ideological context

When speaking in the framework of global ideologies, it is important to preserve a comparative perspective and to avoid methodological nationalism. A critic would object that many conservative elements of Russian liberalism, such as a concern for law and order, are also characteristic of the US liberalism. I suggest emphasizing the vector.

Russian liberalism in the late 1980s was forming partly under the influence of the Thatcherite/Reaganite brand of liberalism (so-called “neoliberalism”). Thatcher was actually a frequent, positive reference in the liberal discourse of the time. But this discourse was the one of the country’s Westernizing and educated reformers in their fight against the establishment; it was in part conservative but not at all reactionary. We are talking about a conservative revolution.
Lev Gumilev, a philosopher admired by some Putin's elites. Source: Wiki Commons
However, at that time in the US, neoliberalism was associated with political reaction and was met with a vigorous political response from the Democratic Party and from many intellectuals, which led to a number of compromises. In 1990s and early 2000s Russia, in contrast, the socialist opposition to neoliberalism was represented by the reactionary Communist Party, building on imperialism and Orthodoxy, and the even more reactionary and populist Liberal-Democrats, with only the small liberal party Yabloko (with its 5-6 % of votes) advocating a socially responsible market economy.

There were arguably more similarities between the two countries in the early 2000s, when in the US the so-called neoconservatives took power. Their hawkish and imperial interpretation of liberal values coincided with the turn of Russian elites around Putin toward Ivan Ilyin’s, Alexander Dugin’s and Lev Gumilev’s teachings. Samuel Huntington, a precursor of the neoconservative language in the US, was wildly popular at the time in Russian social science departments. However, American neoconservatives were still profoundly liberal, in some aspects, such as their support for global revolutions and democracy promotion, even more liberal than neoliberals, while the analogous turn in Russia meant a rejection of globalist values and a turn to the conservatism “hard,” with its illiberal rhetoric of blood and soil.
The conservative drift in Russia coincided with a 180-degree movement in the West toward a revolutionary and demonstration-driven liberalism.
Like in the post-Soviet case, there emerged in the West an unlikely alliance between the regime and the opposition: in the US, some tendencies of the Left-liberal, intellectual and largely oppositional elites nicely converged with the interests of the imperialist, neoconservative establishment. The civil society moral drive, subversive within the US, played into the hands of the liberal internationalists in the global arena. As mentioned, American neoconservatism remained liberal and even revolutionary in spirit.

However, in the 2010s, this hybridity crumbled, the traditional liberals united with the Left in their fight against the Republican Party and the US underwent a polarization where Liberalism has now become increasingly anti-conservative, exclusive of any conservative features and suspicious of any “populist” authoritarian tendencies. This spilled over into foreign policy and further diminished the little that remained of the will to compromise with authoritarians. Because authoritarian conservative regimes like Russia, Turkey and China were at the same time scared of revolutionary liberalism and supported by populations in their distrust of the West as a destabilizing force, we have come to the current crisis that the Russia-Ukraine war is. I fear no end until some genuinely cross-national ideological forces emerge.
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