A Short Overview of Russian Political Discourse

Uncle Volodya says, "If you want Dima's job, Boris Efimovich....listen up"

Today’s guest post is by Kovane; a Russian living in Russia. It’s opinion, of course, but I found it extremely enlightening – as I’m sure it will be for Russia watchers who don’t actually live there and have a rudimentary knowledge of political parties operating in the country. This details the strengths and weaknesses of the various movements, together with a prognosis for their future, from the viewpoint of a citizen. I hope you guys are paying attention: take it away, Kovane!

“While reading the Western press, one never ceases to be amazed at how poorly real Russian political thought is represented. Journalistic laziness and, let’s be frank about it, ever-present anti-Russian bias take almost all news from Russia down the same beaten paths: the oppressive regime with imperial ambitions grinding down the opposition, even scarier nationalists striving for power with their legions of skinheads and lovable and enlightened liberals longing for prosperity and freedom; but denied by Putin’s propaganda. Needless to say, the actual situation is a far cry from these tropes, and their use makes an understanding of Russian politics much more difficult. And this is, in fact, the opposite of what the media is supposed to do.

Russia is a unique country in the sense that it was affected by the widest variety of political ideas, and most of them were implemented in the whole of Russia or in its parts during its turbulent history. That provides a source of inspiration for many political currents but also divides the people of the country, as different groups associate themselves with different periods of Russia’s history. The easiest possible way to describe these political groups is by finding out their position on a list of key issues, such as a preferable level of state interference in the economy, nationalism vs internationalism, territorial integrity, etc… It’s also interesting to see how they manifest themselves in the official political scene.

Soviet sympathizers

This is the largest and the most diverse group, I daresay. According to polls, 68% of Russians regret that the Soviet Union disintegrated. But don’t hurry to get out Lenin’s dusty bust, the Commies aren’t coming back yet. This survey shows that of the 62% of the respondents that support Putin, 37% also positively view the CPRF (The Communist Party of the Russian Federation). What does that mean? Do ordinary Russians miss repressions or lectures on Marxism-Leninism? Maybe, but a much more likely explanation is that these numbers represent a mix of nostalgia and their hope for a strong government capable of providing stability and order.

Let’s take a look at more radical people, those who don’t support the current government and vote for the CPRF (according to the latest election, 11.57% of the population). Unsurprisingly, there are not many pure Marxists or Trotskyites among them: years of Soviet rule burnt out any desire to build Communism or incite the world revolution. Even the CPRF forfeited the cornerstone of a socialist economy, state-ownership of all means of production. As they state in their program, their boldest dream is the Chinese model: renationalization of several key industries, a progressive tax scale and small business support. And then standard pre-election boilerplate begins: tripling of wages and pensions, and free education and healthcare. Unfortunately, CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov forgot to mention the sources of the riches required to do so, as well as many other interesting issues – like how the renationalization will be conducted, or how the CPRF is going to fight corruption. We just have to take his word for it. That demonstrates the main problem of the CPRF today – they don’t want any leadership, the present situation suits them fine: using traditional electorate support, they promote business interests of the same oligarchs whom they so fiercely criticize in public. Of course, this drives away many talented people with leftist views, and the CPRF’s support is slowly dwindling.

It’s also worth noting that there are a number of non-systemic left-wing ideologues, euro-socialists, like Kagarlitsky, or rethinkers of Russian socialism, like the recently-formed “Rodina: common sense” party led by Delyagin and Kalashnikov. Their political clout is practically non-existent so far, but this may change with time.

Government participation in the economy: high, of course.

National politics: internationalism, sometimes seasoned with mild anti-Semitism (some bad Jews are to blame for the Soviet Union’s dissolution)

Territorial integrity: reunion of Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia and Kazakhstan on a voluntary basis. No plans for forcible inclusion of any countries; Saakashvili can sleep easy, the same for the Baltic States and Eastern Europe.

Stance on foreign policy: suspicious of the West, and blame them for the woes of the 90s, It would be fair to say that the West gave plenty of causes for that suspicion. But almost nobody argues for a new Iron Curtain.

Weaknesses: lack of a critical eye for the Soviet Union; frail balance between openness in the economy and autarchy; the CPRF’s rigidity.

Prognosis: depends on Putin’s policies: if the current political system manages to solve major problems, like corruption and modernization, a portion of the left wing will switch allegiances. Otherwise, the leftist movement will be a source of real opposition, and their influence will only grow.

Liberals

The second-largest group. According to this poll, 10% of Russians support liberal values and 24% support democratic values. Setting aside any possible misinterpretations of the terms “democracy” and “liberalism”, I would estimate the liberal support base at 15% of Russians. Unfortunately, the history of Russian liberalism is a sad story indeed. The first time liberals got their hand on the helm was right after the February Revolution of 1917. Commanding a majority in the Provisional Government, Kadets (Constitutional democrats) had no clear-cut program and deferred any actions until the convening of the Constituent Assembly, while the country was slipping into anarchy. They predictably lost the elections to the Constituent Assembly, and that was it. The second coming happened right after the USSR’s collapse. New president Yeltsin favoured “young reformers” and trusted Yegor Gaidar with nearly full carte blanche on carrying out the reforms. In the 1993 Russian legislative election, liberal parties received more than 30% of the vote (more than 50%, counting the LDPR, nobody knew them well at the time and they do have the words “liberal democratic” in the name). True, liberals were in office during the toughest times; any party would have suffered a drop in popularity. Nevertheless, “young reformers” were complicit in the most outrageous and criminal reforms – devastating the living standards of much of the population, and selling a majority of Soviet assets for a meager 9.7 billion dollars. That alone seriously compromised the notion of “liberalism” in the eyes of ordinary Russians.

Liberals are represented in the political scene today by Yabloko, the oldest party, and countless socio-political unions; practically each opposition leader has one – Kasparov’s OGF, Milov’s “Democratic Choice”, Limonov’s “Other Russia” (although Limonov is a radical communist/anarchist, the liberal opposition is ready to collaborate even with the Devil if it brings more attention to them)  Ponomarev’s “For Human Rights” and even Novodvorskaya’s “Democratic Union”. There were attempts to unify some of them, and the “Solidarity” movement was created in 2008: led by Nemtsov, Milov, Yashin and Kasparov. One party stands out against the common background, noticeably pro-Kremlin, tame “Right Cause” led by Gozman. Maybe this is the Kremlin’s stake to consolidate liberal forces?

The problems confronting these movements are numerous: their leaders lost all credibility by constantly engaging in petty squabbles. Nemtsov, Kasparov and Milov are closely affiliated with some American politicians, which makes them “agents of the West” in the eyes of Russians; they often resort to blatant lies in their criticism of Putin. Even the “Solidarity” program is rife with doctored data. Moreover, the program is a compilation of hackneyed slogans, most of which can be reduced to “More freedom for everyone!” Speaking of Yabloko, it was notorious for being in opposition to every other party and refusing to take seats in the government: they even fired some members for accepting appointment. Although Yabloko is more inclined to social liberalism, its leaders always refused to join forces with other liberal parties; even now, when chances of election are non-existent, its Moscow council dismissed any possibility of cooperation with Solidarnost.

Another appalling trait common in Russian liberal circles is undisguised Russophobia coupled with groveling before a fictitious heavenly image of the West. That just highlights their self-righteousness: unable to assume that something is wrong with them, they confidently blame the Russian people’s “slavish mentality” because those churls don’t vote for them. How dare they? Results so far? A staggering 2.5% of the vote. That means no seats in the Duma for any liberal party in the next elections, and more Dissenter’s Marches.

Government participation in the economy: low, but liberals are trying to step back from market bolshevism.

National politics: internationalism and tolerance with a Russophobic slant: mythical Russian fascism is commonly used as a strawman to justify one’s own flagrantly undemocratic or even criminal actions.

Territorial integrity: Russia in its present borders.

Stance on foreign policy: the West is our savior and our best friend.

Sore points: many – unwillingness to admit the wrongs of the 90s’ liberal policies and to receive objective criticism; abject disunity among different opposition leaders; lack of new reasonable leaders with untarnished reputations.

Prognosis: hopefully, someone will manage to unite these scattered forces and form a new party capable of providing ideological competition to the “United Russia” colossus.

Marginal groups

Three groups which can be united under this category are radical nationalists, libertarians and anarchists. While their support base is miniscule, they try to make up this disadvantage by the activity of their members, especially chief ideologues.

Russia’s current national policy leaves much to be desired, thus giving nationalists the opportunity to gain popularity. Corruption in the police and the government’s unwillingness to deal with ethnic crime result in a bizarre situation, whereby members of ethnic crime groups can get away with almost anything, including even murders. Government officials usually try to ascribe sporadic outbursts of violent fights between different national groups to the activity of “omnipresent” Russian skinheads or label them as domestic crime. But it’s very hard to hush up these cases, and discontent among the people grows. One of the parties that try to capitalize on that is the DPNI, the movement against illegal immigration. Their goal is “protection of the indigenous population’s rights”: although they distance themselves from any fascist organizations, there is much controversy around them. Some liberal activists demand to prohibit the DPNI, but their actions have been mostly peaceful so far (save for the unsanctioned Russian March).

Another movement concerned with Russia’s national policy is National Democrats. They propose rather drastic measures: creation of a new Federation consisting of quasi-independent national republics, separation of the North Caucasus and minimal government participation in the economy. It’s unlikely that they will win much support with these ideas, but this movement is very young.

Anarchists and libertarians are in an absolute minority: Russia already had its fair share of anarchy, and the upper middle class – traditional support base for libertarians – isn’t sufficiently developed yet.

Conclusion

It seems that “stability at any price” is practically a commandment in the Kremlin, and the current political scene is designed to provide it. While the KPRF absorbs left-wing voters and pensioners and the LDPR soaks up protest and random votes (Zhirinovsky is a hell of a demagogue, many people vote for the LDPR because he is a “cool guy” or just for the heck of it), the rest of the pie goes to United Russia. Well, and to Mironov’s “Fair Russia”, of course, but who can spot the difference between them, right? Despite both KPRF and LDPR positioning themselves as opposition parties, they perfectly fit into the present political scene. Behold, a managed democracy in action! The United Russia tries to market itself as a conservative party, but it is too bloated: many join the party in hopes of advancing their careers, just like it was with the KPSS. The party seriously lacks any real competition, there were even talks about creating inside the party left and right wings, but they just died away. Considering the new 7% election threshold, The United Russia can bring down any other party, both LDPR and KPRF included, by diluting their votes as it did with liberal parties in the 2007 elections. This makes its rule virtually unchallengeable.

Stability is definitely something Russia needs, but that can’t be achieved by sustaining an artificial political system, the present national policy and corruption. The Kremlin has to face these problems, otherwise stability won’t last long.”

Kovane will take questions and comments – as always, comments in Russian are welcome, but on this occasion you can expect a prompt answer!

This entry was posted in Boris Nemtsov, Government, Law and Order, Russia, Vladimir Putin and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

57 Responses to A Short Overview of Russian Political Discourse

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  2. kovane says:

    First of all, I want to thank Mark for providing such a popular grandstand as “The Kremlin Stooge” for my “journalistic” debut. His help in correcting my numerous mistakes was also invaluable. My only hope is that I’ve managed to come up to the usual highest quality of the articles here.

    • Excellent round up, kovane!

      I’ve only got a few quibbles, all of them minor. For instance, the percentage of those supporting democracy, as per opinion polls that ask the question explicitly, is around 60%+ (conservatism isn’t necessarily opposed to democracy). Of course, the catch is that a similar majority believes that the current system is a democracy – which goes against the opinions of most Westerners (almost all political scientists) and Russian liberals.

      • kovane says:

        Thanks, Anatoly.

        Yes, while “liberal” value were well-defined, it is hard to clearly establish what respondents meant by “democratic” and “conservative” values, especially when they considered Medvedev and Putin to be the epitome of all three (according to the poll). Do they support democracy as a form of government or that kind of democracy preached by Nemtsov? And as you precisely noted, supporting conservative value doesn’t make you a fan of tyranny. Nevertheless, I think I correctly estimated Russia’s liberal base.

        • marknesop says:

          As to the question of what kind of democracy Russia has, here’s an excellent and well-defended opinion by Vladimir Belaeff, from San Francisco’s Global Society Institute:

          http://www.russiaprofile.org/page.php?pageid=Experts%27+Panel&articleid=a1284738119

          I had never heard of Vladimir Belaeff; I got the link from Mike Averko, who’s somewhat of an expert in the field of Russian politics himself. I thoroughly enjoyed Belaeff’s contribution (he’s the final panelist of four to weigh in), and especially his insights on Western democracy. Check it out, I think you’ll be impressed.

          • kovane says:

            Yes, I agree with him. Russia is certainly a democracy and only indigenous or ignorant people can question that. I can personally confirm that people in regions were very uninterested in the local elections. As long as the Kremlin takes into account the popularity of appointed officials, everything is fine.

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  6. kovane says:

    Also I have to say that I feel a little uneasy about emphasizing the fact that I’m “a Russian living in Russia”. In my opinion, it gives me no additional credibility: an Eskimo living in Zimbabwe can be right about Russia, while some Russian whose roots trace back to Ilya Muromets may not know what city is the capital of Russia. Let my facts and conclusions speak on my behalf.

    • marknesop says:

      Hey, Kovane; I can take that out if you like, but I think it gives you authenticity much more than you imagine. Whenever I go on a rant about American politics, I expect to be told to mind my own business because I don’t know what I’m talking about. In fact, I believe I’m as well-informed as reading can make you (on that particular subject), but it’s true that Americans see it from a different perspective. If people from outside Canada praise the Canadian government out of all proportion to its worth, I laugh to myself, because they don’t have to live with the Canadian government’s decisions. Perhaps you feel the same about those who say what a great leader Putin is. I happen to think so, too – but I don’t have to live with his decisions. You do.

      • kovane says:

        No, Mark, I’m not against mentioning that, I’m against stressing that. What you’re describing, I think, is a common reaction to any foreigner’s opinion; if you don’t agree with it, the first things that comes to mind is to dismiss it as meddling in local affairs. Reading comments at INOSMI provides an excellent example of that. Doesn’t have any bearing on whether it is right or wrong opinion though.

        From what I’ve heard, the Canadian government is the assembly of the wisest people on Earth who created a local department of Heaven – Canada.🙂

        • marknesop says:

          Ha, ha! You don’t have to live with their decisions, you foreigner! But journalism is a relatively safe profession here; more real-estate agents are murdered than journalists.

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  10. Igor, AU says:

    Very well written – I would say – professionally. Not much of the author’s personal biases (one may say agenda) is seen; the optimal level of “detail” & low context load content (this is a positive characteristics) while keeping the size compact should make the material suitable for wide audience with some interest in Russia. Why don’t you offer this to, say, FP ? (I would say it is good even for WP or NYT – they may want to dilute & balance their usual presentations without offending the traditional audience).

    Cheers

    • kovane says:

      Thank you, Igor, I’m very flattered.

      I don’t know how the Western media works, do they accept articles from random authors? I have to say, having read a fairly large number of articles in all these newspapers, I have certain reservations whether my article fits their editorial policy.

      Besides, would it be wrong to receive money both from the Kremlin and the corrupted Western media? My FSB handlers won’t approve.🙂

      • Igor, AU says:

        I did not say that you are going to receive money..this time.. even if – do your supervisors take small bribes? 🙂

        I actually, don’t know the finer details of the process in popular media (I can only guess from the experience with academic press). Talk to Peter Lavelle (or, maybe, Julia Ioffe🙂 . If I were David Johnson, I would print your text (but I am not him).

        The point was that IMHO it should of interest to a reasonable number of people who do not read this blog. Good work.

        • kovane says:

          “do your supervisors take small bribes?”

          A FSB officer taking bribes? That’s unheard of!🙂

          “or, maybe, Julia Ioffe”

          Of course, we’re fast friends, I’ll ask her about that over a cup of coffee.🙂

          “IMHO it should of interest to a reasonable number of people who do not read this blog”

          You see, I’m not discovering anything new here, most of the fact I’ve cited can be found by googling in less than a minute. Most Americans get information from newspapers and TV which keep hammering into their heads some Cold War nonsense. No number of honest bloggers can compete with the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post in terms of coverage. But people who are really interested in Russia can easily find all information and form their own opinion. There’s no need to look far for examples – Mark demonstrates excellent understanding of Russia’s politics and life.

        • Igor, AU says:

          ..of course, FSB – and some more examples from the links in my posts re. Browder & Medvedev’s case – but didn’t I say small bribes?
          (BTW – enjoy my blog while it is still there – I’ve got a new assignment🙂

          ..and Julia.. Russians of my generation and may I say, circle🙂 ? valued people for what they could do & their potential. For professionalism, if you want. Mutual respect & help were always there regardless of the differences of opinion on one or another subject .

  11. jesseheath says:

    really enjoyed the post. i see a vicious cycle in your overview – Soviet Union collapses, creating need for stability; stability accomplished through ‘party of power’ system; this system plus years of experience with KPSS discourages Russians from joining political parties, which precludes development of a genuine party system, requiring, once again, ‘stability’.

    • kovane says:

      Thank you.

      Yes, the whole situation reminds me of a pendulum. After the USSR’s strictness it swung to the anarchy of 90s, only to return to the present system of a managed democracy. All there is left is to hope that the pendulum will stop at some point providing the optimum balance between freedom and order.

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  13. Excellent, i wrote an essay on the thematic 2 years ago (in french😉, check the drawing on the middle of the page :
    http://alexandrelatsa.blogspot.com/2008/03/de-la-politique-en-russie_21.html

    • kovane says:

      Thank you.

      Unfortunately, my knowledge of French is limited to the phrase “monsieur, je ne mange pas six jours”, so I used Google Translate. Excellent essay and visual illustration, in my opinion. It seems that our conclusions mostly coincide.

      • Yalensis says:

        Kovane and Alex: I can read French, but more slowly than Russian or English. Let me know if anyone would like me to translate this essay into English; I estimate it would take me approximately 2 days, then I could post translation here. Anyone?

        • marknesop says:

          Alexandre Latsa appears perfectly fluent in both languages, and some of his articles (like the great one on the support received by Russia during the fires around Moscow, and a journalist’s attempt to steer him into anti-Putin commentary) appear in English as well. I can read French nearly as well as English. I’ll take a look at the material.

        • kovane says:

          Suddenly, I feel as if I’m illiterate, everybody seems to know at least three languages🙂

          I think that translating and posting here Alexandre’s article would be a great idea, as long as Alexandre doesn’t mind, of course. An alternative take on the same subject is always useful.

  14. carpenter117 says:

    Oh, kovane! Your english (and analysis) is perfect. I’d gladly sacrificed a score of pregnant virgins in the name of The Unspeakable Things From Beyond, just to have such a skill both in linguistics and political research.

    I’m, emm, well… The most strange thing’d happened to me this morning. I woke up, turn on my laptop and wrote down (in Russian) a couple of thoughts of my own – about American expats living in Russia, and why I despise them (I actually met a few of them). In a nutshell, I compared them to British colonial elite of 19-th century, indifferent, selfish or snobbish to the numerous subjects of their Empire. Well, I’ve that thought “Hey! Didn’t Mark “Kremlin Stooge” Ch. wrote something about |guest-starring| in his blog? Maybe I should…”.

    But after reading your piece, kovane, I changed my mind. Well, I don’t have your deep knowledge of things political, also, I’m not a man known for his, ahem, ‘calm and impartial analysis’ (as my ex-girlfriend pointed out, “It’s better to be notorious, than be completely unknown!”). I’m not a journalist, neither am I a “political analyst”. I did not monitor special Internet sites, devoted to such things. The only trait that I share with kovane is that I’m an ordinary Russian living in Russia.

    But kovane’s brave venture into blogosphere set an example for me, like to what kind of quality I must strive.

    Again, congrats kovane! Mother country will remember your heroism in this “invisible war”!

    • Mark says:

      You can certainly give it a shot if you like, Carpenter. Kovane’s post has proved extremely popular. Remember, though; probably about half and perhaps more of the people who read this blog are Americans. We’ve already established, at least to our own satisfaction, that gratuitously insulting Russians as La Russophobe does only hardens opinion against her – it does absolutely nothing to make Russia want to modify itself in her mold. Why, then, would we want to insult Americans with something that isn’t their fault and can’t be changed?

      We can certainly wrestle on the slippery floor of what constitutes a democracy and what does not; what suggests improvement and what does not. Your English is certainly equal to the task, and I could help you a bit if you need it. However, your audience will rip you to pieces if you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. Kovane’s piece has elicited comment from a couple who do, but their opinion was favourable – good for Kovane!

      I still think there’s no substitute for facts that either support or refute the narrative, from someone who lives in the disputed region and can stick to facts instead of crazy rhetoric. Russians who are politically aware, and dispassionate about it, as well as having a reasonably good idea how things actually work in the rest of the world, have an advantage over someone who writes about their region but doesn’t live there. Writers of history are on more even ground, because that’s purely a matter of studying events that happened before we were alive, and we’re all starting from the same line.

    • kovane says:

      carpenter117,

      thank you for your kind words. Please, don’t squander all your pregnant virgins on meaningless sacrifices, they are rare commodity or so I’ve heard.

      You grossly exaggerate my talents, it’s not like I can predict the Dow Jones index or something. As for your English, it’s very good for sure. You haven’t had any trouble articulating yourself so far.

      “kovane’s brave venture into blogosphere set an example for me”

      I’m glad somebody contrived to find a use for me, I have many problems with that myself. I wish you luck!

  15. Yalensis says:

    Hi, Mark: This is a comment on the Vladimir Belaeff link, thank you for bringing this to our attention. I had not heard of Belaeff before, and I read his presentation with great interest. It is refreshing to see him debunking a lot of the Russophobic myths about Russia being from time immemorial a hopelessly totalitarian nation in which people rubbed their knees raw every day kneeling to their despotic rulers. It is enlightening and surprising to learn that even under a tsar as autocratic as Ivan the Terrible, there were some representative institutions.
    The one thing that rubbed me the wrong way in Belaeff’s speech was his little slap at the commies in the final paragraph. In my socialistic view, the soviets (councils of workers, peasants, soldiers, etc.) were also a type of representative democracy. (Well, I know I’ll get a lot of flak from the anti-reds, so I better don my flak jacket in advance…) So, I don’t like Belaeff’s implication that the 70 years of Soviet power were all just a giant mistake and should be erased from memory like a bad dream. Obviously, I don’t see it that way!
    Having said that, I would be interested in reading more of Belaeff’s articles, if he has published any. I am particularly interested in the 17th century, because that’s when I think the true divergence began between Western and Eastern Europe. With the West going on to capitalism, enlightenment, secularism and also (on the negative side of the ledger, genocidal colonialism), whereas Russia and much of Eastern Europe miss out on the Industrial Revolution and plunge into a “second serfdom” and more political repression, but (on the positive side of the ledger) mostly leave the rest of the world alone. And the two phenomena are completely inter-related: It has to do with population increase in the West and the need for more, and cheaper, grain to feed them. Hence the growth of vast feudal latifundia in Ukraine and southern Russia, roping in free peasants and turning them into serfs, etc… Long story, but my basic point is this: Democracy is a function of economic systems.

    • Misha says:

      Belaeff touches on a valid point about how Russia’s pre-1917 past has been crapped on by out and out Russia haters (regardless of being on the left or right) and some on the left – the latter includes the oversight he brought up.

      He has regularly appeared at the Russia Profile Panel of Experts.

      In the past, Belaeff has noted how much of the propped Western expertise on Russia is from the Soviet era and not the pre-Soviet one.

      Of somewhat related and possible interest is this post and discussion:

      http://www.austereinsomniac.info/blog/2010/9/13/make-the-stars-fall-let-the-eagles-rise.html

    • Igor/Alex says:

      @yalensis
      Just a remark – there was an interesting detail in your comment “colonialism”. IMHO western (“efficient”) colonialism, including the modern form of it- exploitation of cheap labor of other nations (be they internal immigrants or eg. Chinese overseas), was (and still is) the key difference between Russia and “western” world. Perhaps, this was one of the major reasons why USSR was not able to “catch up” with USA (and more – why seemingly purified American model of capitalism does not work in Russia ). What I am saying is that perhaps, the “west” has been having higher living standards not because they worked well, but because they exploited others better than the Russians did and do.

  16. marknesop says:

    As I mentioned, I’d never heard of Vlaimir Belaeff, or (obviously) his previous works. Mike Averko has an excellent background in Russian politics and academic discussion of same, so he might know. Alternatively, you could look through archives of “Russia Profile” panel discussions, and see if he’s a regular contributor.

    While I’m grateful for Kovane’s kindness, my knowledge of Russian history is woefully deficient. I liked Belaeff, too and, while I’m sure there are examples of savagery in Russia’s past, I’m not interested in learning Russian history from somebody who has their hand over their mouth in horror most of the time (figuratively speaking). At the same time, a simple recitation of the facts is like reading a statistics textbook must be. I started writing about Russia because I hated the way Russophobes talk about it, not because I’m particularly knowledgeable. But I’m learning.

    I can’t speak for you, of course, but I’d heard that most of the rose-coloured memories of life under the Soviet system are based on a longing for law and order, and you could certainly say that for it. For some, also, it hearkens back to a time when Russia was feared and respected (as the heart of the Soviet Union) instead of mocked and tormented. But few of those people would like to have Stalin back as leader, if it were possible. And, while there could well have been democratic elements on a municipal level, I don’t know what democratic principles could function on a national level under a dictator.

    I remember remarking to my wife once that I’d seen an article (during the last year or so of the Bush presidency) that mentioned Dick Cheney was now less popular among Americans than Stalin among Russians (I think Cheney’s popularity was somewhere around 18%). She responded that almost every third household in Russia lost somebody or knew someone who was taken during Stalin’s purges or resulting from the climate of informing on relatives, friends and acquaintances that prevailed under his rule, including her grandmother’s father (on her father’s side). Babulya never knew, she said, what became of him – he was just gone, and he never returned. She’s obviously not a Stalin fan. She did say, incidentally, that the propaganda about youth organizations such as the Pioneers and Komsomol was nonsense and exaggeration. Whether that’s still true of organizations like Nashi, I couldn’t say.

    Anyway, I forget where I was going with that. Oh, yeah; how much of your contention that some of life under Soviet rule constituted representative democracy is informed by your general feeling that it was a time of law and order and progress? Remember, you know Russian history much better than I do – I’m just asking.

    • Misha says:

      Hi Mark

      Thanks for the reference and the great subjects your blog brings up.

      My initial set of comments at this thread came right after what you just posted.

      On Stalin’s popularity in Russia, keep in mind that in Italy, Il Duce (as I understand) has scored in the 10% range in popularity (could be wrong on this particular). Mind you that he was on the losing side during WW II.

      As one Russian media person who lived in the Soviet era noted to me, a good portion of the Stalin sympathizers wouldn’t be able to carry on like they do under Stalin’s rule. There’re others with a more balanced view of Stalin. Note the public and government pressure in Russia which prevented the proposed Stalin billboards from appearing in Moscow during the past May 9 Victory Day holiday.

      • kovane says:

        Oh, that’s an excellent idea for my next post. I’m already anticipating a lot of controversy, but it’s totally worth it.

      • Giuseppe Flavio says:

        That 10% range in popularity for Mussolini doesn’t surprise me, although I don’t know if it is correct. Keep in mind that the Italian neo-fascist party (MSI – Movimento Sociale Italiano) had about 5-7% of the votes until the ’80.
        As for the “Soviet nostalgia” in Russia, I think it shouldn’t be necessarily translated in a Stalin nostalgia. Most of the currently living Russians weren’t even born when Stalin was alive.

        • Misha says:

          I concur with what Belaeff suggests on Russians having reason to be proud of the achievements of their country prior to 1917.

          This point takes into consideration the shortcomings.

          • Yalensis says:

            Also, I agree with Misha. Russians should study ALL their history. They should be proud of what their ancestors achieved and not fall into Western “liberasti” trap of despising themselves. (For being insufficiently European.)

            • Misha says:

              For some, the definition of “European” has come to mean being in the EU and/or NATO.

              Consider the origin of the Magyars (Hungarians) among some others.

              “Eurasian” befits Russia with a greater emphasis (at least IMO) on Europe.

              In major athletic competitions (soccer, basketball…), Russia competes in the European zone.

              • Yalensis says:

                Hi, Misha, other clarification needed: I have nothing against Europe. I love Europe, they have built great civilization, especially after WWII. Russia can learn much from Europe. But Europe can also learn much from Russia. Neither civilization is superior to the other. Diversity is a wonderful thing and is what makes humans successful species. (Better than apes, IMHO…!) 🙂

              • I believe Russia should identify itself as an explicitly Eurasian civilization – and a future Arctic one.

                For Russia, identifying with Europe is a form of самоунижение and идолопоклонство перед Западом.

                • Misha says:

                  That notion is agreeable on the basis of a set way of seeing Russia and “Europe.”

                  On the Eurasian point, is Russia more Asian or European?

                  So-called globalization (in reality) further muddies the differential.

    • Yalensis says:

      Yike! Big clarification needed! I am no fan of Stalin. He was a liar and a butcher. It’s true that I’m somewhat nostalgic for Soviet times, but NOT because of Stalin! More because Soviet Russia was great power and launched man into space, yada yada.
      Also, when I mentioned the “soviets”, I was talking literally about the “councils” of workers, peasants and soldiers which formed spontaneously, at first during the 1905 revolution, and then again in 1917. These were turbulent times (war, military defeat, revolution, etc.), and these “soviets” formed the core of alternative government, seeking to come to power and replace the tsarist government. What was different about them was they represented people from the lower economic classes.
      My broader point is that concepts such as “democracy”, “freedom”, etc. are all very abstract and need to be anchored to specific economic class interests (Marxism 101). Here is a simple example from American politics: When Sarah Palin calls on “the American people” to “reclaim their freedom”, is she talking about the unemployed factory worker who wants the “freedom” to find a job and get some medical insurance; or is she talking about the Fortune 500 CEO who wants the “freedom” to recoup a bigger bonus and not be taxed for it? Like Einstein, says, “It’s all relative…”

      • marknesop says:

        Of course I did not mean to imply you are a Stalin fan or supporter. But to me, non-Russian as I am, Stalin rather than Lenin was always the face of Communism. Like many of my generation and society, I know nothing about councils of workers, peasants and soldiers that formed spontaneously. In the abstract, this is unsurprising as leaders will always emerge in any group, no matter its size, as long as the group remains a coherent entity and will likely remain more or less unchallenged as long as they are successful; which is to say, so long as their decisions and recommendations bring peace and prosperity. The hijacking of the democratic concept that persists in America today, for example, is due to the rise of negative advertising and outright lying that prevents the government from getting any kind of positive message out – they’re faced with the choice of going negative themselves, or shutting up. The country is in trouble, and nobody wants to believe it’s their own fault, so they’re all ears when a group wants to tell them it’s somebody else’s fault.

        The hijacking of whatever emerging democratic concepts there might have been in Russia in the early 20th century was likely for vastly different reasons – for one, because the technology for instantly spreading a message throughout the country didn’t exist then. But it sounds like you know enough about this subject to write a post on it.

        • Yalensis says:

          Mark: yeah, I totally understand why most westerners think “Stalin” when they think of Russia. Unfortunately that brutal man cannot be wished away. Must learn to live with that legacy. Best remedy is to study history, absorb facts, learn lessons from past, try to be unbiased (which is very difficult, because we all have our biases and wishes for how we want to see the past).
          Going back to the “soviets” of 1905 and 1917 in Petrograd: if you were a factory worker or demobilized peasant soldier participating in these councils, you would indeed feel that you are building “participatory democracy” from the bottom up. However, if you are a middle-class person watching from your balcony, you might feel very threatened at the sight of this “street rabble” raucously meeting (and brandishing guns too!) Just like French Revolution. Which goes to my point that everything is relative: one man’s “liberty” is another man’s “tyrrany of the mob”.
          And, like you say, a leader always emerges. That seems to be the human fate. Maybe would be better if we had evolved from cats instead of apes? Cats don’t seem to need a leader!

          • marknesop says:

            Ha! It reminds me of that old Soviet film – I forget the name – where a mistreated dog off the street is taken in and turned into a man by a doctor. In no time he evolves into a swaggering tough who falls in with the Party representatives for his block and is bustling about telling people how they must live, drunk on petty authority. It was intentionally satirical, of course – one had to be careful in those days.

  17. Giuseppe Flavio says:

    Thanks for this informative post, Kovane. What do you mean by Despite both KPRF and LDPR positioning themselves as opposition parties, they perfectly fit into the present political scene? An opposition party is part of the political scene by definition.
    I also find quite intriguing the failed left/right split of United Russia. Was the left part supposed to join “Fair Russia” or stand on its own?
    As for the lack of difference between “Fair Russia” and “United Russia” that’s something very western-style. In Western democracies it’s hard to find any meaningful difference between opposing parties, at least if you look at what they actually do, instead at what they say.

    • kovane says:

      “An opposition party is part of the political scene by definition.”

      You are quite right.

      “What do you mean by Despite both KPRF and LDPR positioning themselves as opposition parties, they perfectly fit into the present political scene?”

      I mean that they perfectly fit into the present artificial political scene. While these parties are allowed to demonstrate their opposition on the most general issues, the United Russia won’t allow any really sharp criticism of important laws. In other words, they are too cooperative.

      “I also find quite intriguing the failed left/right split of United Russia. Was the left part supposed to join “Fair Russia” or stand on its own?”

      No, the whole thing was far more cynical than that. The proposition was to create left and right wings inside the party, without splitting it. Some kind of parliament inside a parliament party. The UR’s skipper Boris Gryzlov dismissed these suggestions because quote: “we, bears, don’t need any wings, bears don’t fly”. Though discussion clubs were created, but it’s not clear what influence do they have.

      “As for the lack of difference between “Fair Russia” and “United Russia””

      “A Fair Russia” was intended as more leftist version of the United Russia, but the problem is that Mironov (the leader of “A Fair Russia”) has the charisma of a toaster, and any statement about his independence is drowned out by gales of laughter.

      • Giuseppe Flavio says:

        Thanks for the clarification. IMHO Gryzlov did the right thing in dismissing that idea. Parties within a party, called “correnti” (currents) in Italy, bring political instability.

  18. Pingback: Global Voices in English » Russia: Political Discourse Overview

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