No left turn

Long-range commentary on Russian history often amounts to an endless rerun of the nineteenth-century debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers. Either Russia is defined by its Muscovite destiny as an autocratic empire nation with its own distinctively collectivist forms of social organization or it is on a long road to convergence with more or less liberal nation-states. The first of these interpretations might seem to have been having the better of the argument in the new era following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Whichever way, all Russia-watchers are currently haunted by the question: how did we end up here?

In this volume of essays – drawn in part from a prizewinning book that was published in Russia in 2017 and here translated by Giuliano Vivaldi, with a useful preface by Tony Wood – Ilya Budraitskis presents a sharp analysis of how Russia’s current political order came to be , commendably focusing our attention on short- and medium-term factors rather than the longue durée. His underlying preoccupation is to account for the inability of the left to mount an effective opposition to the rise of post-Soviet free-market authoritarianism, an ideology whose incongruities and weaknesses have been easier to identify than to challenge. Although the essays predate February’s invasion, they were written after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, in full knowledge of the imperial-chauvinist turn in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This is very much a book for our times.

Part of the problem for the post-Soviet left was that socialism was damaged ideological goods: as Budraitskis recounts, to be a Marxist was “an unmistakeable sign of bad taste” in dissident circles of the 1970s. But the main difficulty was that the putative left-wing alternative to Yeltsinism was such a loose and baggy ideological entity. The leftist opposition in the early 1990s brought together two wildly different constituencies: “popular Stalinists”, who now stood for state patriotism and the rejection of western-inspired liberalization; and “anti-authoritarian” leftists, who might have found a home on the left wing of a Czech or German socialist party. Before long, in a newly formed Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the popular Stalinists formed a strategic alliance with the right-wing opposition of Russian nationalists and Orthodox imperialists, realizing that what divided them was trivial compared to their common ground.

As Budraitskis explains, the failure of an effective socialist opposition to cohere in the 1990s was not just a consequence of political tactics – it had deeper ideological and intellectual causes. Much of the critical thinking that went on the Khrushchev era came from an impeccably Marxist standpoint. But leftist critiques were overshadowed by more radical rejections of the Soviet order in the dissident movement of the 1970s, then came close to being drowned out in the political cacophony from 1989 onwards. Gorbachev’s perestroika initially seemed to offer a promising platform for socialist renovation, but soon fell apart under the political and economic forces that it had unleashed. As the author memorably concludes, the post-Soviet left had “an inheritance without a testament”: it turned out that the legacy of the world’s most powerful Marxist state was no help at all in the new era of political entrepreneurship.

Both in the 1990s and earlier, the battle of political ideas in Russia also had an important international dimension. The Cold War tended to flatten debate into a simple binary conflict, and to make sense in this context, the leading dissidents needed to offer some more eye-catching alternative to Soviet reality than Marxist revisionism. Elsewhere in his volume Budraitskis provides examples of the ways in which Russians and Americans alike have been trapped since 1991 by a frame of reference inherited from the 1970s, such as the perennial loose talk of a “New Cold War”. Indeed, he suggests that Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), rather than merely prophesying the illiberal turn of the early twenty-first century, played its part in bringing it about. It gave influence expression to the pessimistic rejection of western universalism, providing part of the ideological toolkit for Putin and other early-millennium authoritarians. Each of Huntington’s civilizations required, in Budraitskis’s phrase, a “geopolitical big brother” as guarantor, and Putin’s Russia was happy to take the mantle of Orthodox hegemon.

Budraitskis is right to draw attention to the international context of political ideas and ideological constructs, but what is most striking in early post-Soviet Russia is the fluidity of political labels and the scope for ideological agency that political leaders enjoyed. In his first two terms (2000-08), was a flexible political operator who could sound at different moments like a gangster, a technocrat, an apparatchik or a nationalist. After the election protests of 2011-12, however, he made his choice: anti-western neo-imperialism. Putin and his entourage had evidently understood the political capital to be earned by conspiracy theories, culture wars and appeals to “traditional values” and a collectivist Russian heritage that was to be contrasted with meretricious and individualistic western liberalism. Ideological tropes of this kind were impervious to the reality that, whatever its cultural overlay, Russian society in the 2000s was cut-throat and individualistic like few other places. In 2014 the new ideological line was made permanent with the annexation of Crimea. Ever since, the power of the Russian police state has increased, but Putin has become a prisoner of his own rhetoric and mythmaking.

The mythmaking has also shrunk the horizons and life chances of tens of millions of Russians, killed thousands in Ukraine and displaced millions more. Budraitskis’s book offers us a cogent account of who (or what) is to blame for the current catastrophe, but another classic question hovers over its pages: what is to be done? In search of an effective way of challenging the hegemonic order, Budraitskis takes up in his final essay another protean concept: the intelligentsia. Originally conceived of as a collection of independent-thinking, socially engaged intellectuals in the Russian empire, the intelligentsia was reinvented in the Stalin era as a loyal technocratic class. In the post-Stalin period, many intellectuals again began to subscribe to the idea that membership of the intelligentsia implied alienation from the state and ethical independence from the ruling ruling. This Soviet-era intelligentsia has fallen apart and dispersed over the past thirty years, many of its members taking their place as well-paid professionals in the market economy. But at certain moments – notably during the protests of 2011-12 – they show an urge to reconstitute themselves through collective gestures or actions.

Writing primarily with reference to the early 2010s, Budraitskis attributes much of the weakness of the anti-Putin opposition to the intelligentsia “style” of political action: individuals may take a courageous stand, but their ethical gestures serve primarily as a sign of solidarity with like-minded metropolitan and educated types. He calls on the descendants of the Soviet intelligentsia to turn themselves into “organic intellectuals” – to make a more concerted effort to speak to and mobilize the majority of Russians who have benefited less than they from Russia’s neoliberal order. Rather than reverting to its traditional style, the intelligentsia should see itself as “a political power capable of constantly creating new hotbeds of conflict and solidarity”.

Budraitskis is not the first commentator to use the intelligentsia as a foil or to long for a means of transcending the divide between the metropolitan elite and the rest; nor is it clear how an alternative political power might constitute itself in current Russian conditions, when the clampdown on public protest and expression has been taken to new extremes. In the post-February climate of mandatory “patriotism”, contributors to anti-war chat rooms may face persecution and schoolchildren may inform their teachers, while to hold up a placard outside a metro station is an act of courage that ancestral citizens of western liberal states never need to contemplate. Tens of thousands of mostly well-educated Russians have fled to visa-free locations such as Tbilisi, Yerevan and Istanbul. The political actor who has most obviously departed from the intelligentsia playbook in recent years is Alexei Navalny, whose anti-corruption campaign promised greater leverage over popular opinion than appeals to the democratic principle. As Budraitskis recounts, many leftists looked askance at Navalny as “a pro-market populist with no clear agenda”, though they lent some support to his campaign. Ultimately, however, no stable coalition came about, and in January 2021 Navalny took the intelligentsia path of martyrdom, returning to certain arrests in Russia.

Is there any hope for political revival in Russia? The signs are dismal, but it is worth keeping in mind Budraitskis’s insight that political opposition, especially under an authoritarian regime, needs to be alert and responsive, constantly seeking means of bridging social divides and drawing in new constituencies. Take, for example, the fact that Russia remains a digitally networked country, and that millions of Russians have recently been migrating from proscribed western platforms to other channels. Many of them, no doubt, will immediately re-enter the same echo chambers, but some may drift into new communities. Nor, for all the agenda-setting of the state-controlled Channel One, is authoritarian patriotism ever as monolithic as it appears – a fact that was well understood by the chameleon-like Putin of the 2000s. To the Huntingtonian clash of civilizations we can counterpose the cut and thrust of contingency and opportunism.

Stephen Lovell is Professor of Modern History at King’s College London. His most recent book is How Russia Learned to Talk: A history of public speaking in the stenographic age, 1860–19302020

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