“March 2018. Russian Presidential Election: We Elect a President, We Choose a Future!” || “March 2018. Russian Presidential Election: Nice Scenery, Bad Play!” Photo courtesy of the Russian Socialist Movement (RSD)
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March 19, 2018
What Has the “Election” Shown Us?
It has shown us that the system for mobilizing dependent Russians (employees, servicemen, etc.) by management at all levels still functions, and that the managers in question (governors, factory directors, and heads of state-sector institutions) are still loyal to the regime. Putin’s personal power rests on the vulnerability of workers, who in Russia have been deprived of the right to strike. It also rests on the loyalty of the bureaucratic caste and corrupted business world, apathy and conformism, and control of the media.
In managed democracy’s topsy-turvy world, voter turnout and Putin’s total share of the vote are indices of political indifference, while boycotting the spectacle is a manifestation of civic activism. Elections in Russia have finally transmogrified into something like an oath of allegiance to the so-called national leader, which has nothing to do with a democratic expression of the popular will.
Undoubtedly, along with the administrative resource, the conservatism of a generation traumatized by the chaotic 1990s, the post-Crimea syndrome, and the careful casting of Putin’s opponents played their role. The Kremlin did its all to divide the forces of protest. Strawberry king Pavel Grudinin served as a scarecrow for voters who did not want a return to the Soviet Union, while Ksenia Sobchak exacerbated the fears of pro-Soviet conservatives vis-à-vis Yeltsinite liberals.
Supporters of the boycott were targeted for assaults and crackdowns. Despite the fact the Voters Strike did not produce a drop in the turnout (too many powerful forces were put into play for that to happen), non-participation in ersatz democracy was the only viable stance, the best option among a host of bad choices. Serving as polling station monitors on election day, we saw what props up both “voluntary” and forced voting. We are glad we did not support this well-rehearsed stunt with our own votes. Russia faces another six years of disempowerment, poverty, lies, and wars—but not in our name.
Only those people who were hoping for a miracle could be disappointed today. Grudinin, whose fans predicted he would make it into the second round, returned worse results than Gennady Zyuganov did in 2012. Some analysts expected that the candidate of the patriotic leftist camp would steal votes from Putin’s conservative electorate, but that did not happen. Nor did Grudinin convince chronic non-voters to go to the polls, since he did not offer them anything new.
Presidential elections, obviously, are not a focal point of politics and an opportunity for change. They are a mode of manipulating public opinion meant to leave everything the way it was.
We need a new politics that undermines the power structures making it possible to manipulate the populace in the interests of the elite. We need a politics that takes on the power of management over employees, the power of the patriarchy over women and young people, and the power of the bureaucracy over local self-government. Since electoral politics has essentially been banned, the democratic leftist movement must rely on nonconformist communities opposed to Putinism in the workplace, education and culture, city and district councils, the media, and the streets.
Only in this way, not as the result of yet more heavy-handed maneuvering by the regime or the opposition to fill the ever more obvious void of popular democratic (i.e., leftist) politics, can a force emerge that is a real alternative to the system. We are going to keep working on shaping that force.
It is almost as funny to read that Putin and his fellow gangsters in the Ozero Dacha Co-op and its subsidiaries are “conservative” as it is to read that Putin is utterly powerless (“impotent”!) to reign in his underlings or do much of anything else.
Even in the frightening, undignified mess in which Russia now finds itself, people want to make more of the mess than saying that, when push comes to shove, it is a vast criminal conspiracy that can only be laid low by an equally vast popular resistance, if only because that might commit them to do something about it.
It sounds much more dignified to say the county’s elites, including two “former KGB officers,” President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, who were trained to lie through their teeth, gull the gullible every chance they got, and pretend to be “communists” and “internationalists” and “democrats” and “conservatives” and “Russian Orthodox” and “nationalists” as the situation demanded, have taken a “conservative turn,” than to say the country has been taken over by a band of greedy, unprincipled liars who will not balk at any trick or power play to increase their dominion and grab more money, land, oil companies, yachts, real estate, and other goodies.
It is the same thing with my favorite bugbear, Russia’s completely nonexistent “senate.” Russia’s upper house of parliament is called the Federation Council, and its members are sinecured rubber stampers, not “senators,” but that was what they took to calling themselves (or a spin doctor like Vladislav Surkov told them they should call themselves) a few years ago, and so nowadays almost everyone, including the entire domestic and foreign press corps, part of the leftist commentariat, and even some perfectly sensible, educated people call them that, too.
But they are not senators, if only because there is no senate in Russia. More to the point, Russia’s unsenators are well-connected, highly paid sock puppets who could no more act independently than I could fly to the moon under my own power.
Likewise, a perpetual, self-replicating mafia dictatorship has about as much to do with real conservatism as my dog has to do with the Shining Path. And that is the thing. Given its sovereign wastefulness, major league legal anarchy, hypercorruption, and sheer absurdity, the Putin regime is an exercise, mostly improvised, in a new kind of radical governance by “former KGB officers” and their gangster friends, not in conservatism.
The “conservatism” is a put-on, just as Putin’s public support of democracy was a put-on when he worked as Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s deputy in the early 1990s. Then he was the Smolny’s bag man. Nowadays, he has moved up in the world considerably, but he has basically not changed his profession. TRR
He advocates for serfdom and says that it was the main “staple” holding Russia together in the 19th century. He justifies his argument by saying that serfdom is beneficial for the serfs.
In the article he writes (translated from the original Russian by Business Insider):
Even with all of its shortcomings, serfdom was exactly the main staple holding the inner unity of the nation. It was no accident that the peasants, according to historians, told their former masters after the reforms: ‘We were yours, and you — ours.’
The roughly translated term “staple” (in Russian “скрепа”) is significant. It’s an older word that has become popular in recent years after Putin used it in a news conference in 2012.
Prior to the conference, that word was basically never used in speech.
In the news conference, Putin said there was a “lack of a spiritual staples” among Russians — meaning there was no spiritual unity. And he subsequently indicated that Russia needed a “spiritual cleanse.”
“Putin essentially used the term ‘скрепа’ to mean the ‘spiritual staples that unite the Russian society.’ He was saying that we need a spiritual unity amongst the whole Russian society,” a Moscovite [sic] told Business Insider.
Following Putin’s news conference, Russian politicians and citizens have started using the word all over the place.
And Zorkin is following suit by using the Putin terminology to indicate that serfdom is the “spiritual staple that unites the [Russian] society.”
In the current climate of cheap hysteria and mental laziness, it is easier to make headlines, literally, saying a top Russian official wants his country to return to serfdom than to read his long, mostly dry-as-dust, pseudo-scholarly article and figure out what he was really trying to say. The payoff, in fact, comes in the final three paragraphs of Zorkin’s article, in which there is no mention, much less “praise,” of serfdom (the emphasis, below, is mine):
Opinion polls and many conflicts in our courts show that the broad masses of our people only suffer as a given the style and type of social, economic, political, and cultural life that the era after the revolution of 1991 brought to Russia. But internally they do not regard them as just and proper.
Moreover, polls show that the greatest degree of aversion pertains to legislative innovations that attack the moral and ethical sphere of social life. [This aversion] is registered primarily among religious people, regardless of denominational affiliation. It is especially pronounced among the older and middle generations. In contrast to the results of opinion polls taken a decade ago, however, it has also begun to manifest itself quite clearly among completely atheistic young people. The new legislative “tolerance” in family, gender, behavioral, and educational relations has been met with growing and increasingly widespread protest.
In connection with the above considerations and historical analogies, I want to reiterate a thesis that I have repeatedly voiced before. Any attempt to overcome “in a single leap” the gap between the law (and law enforcement) and mass perceptions of welfare and justice are fraught with social stress, shock, the growth of all kinds of alienation within society, and between society and the authorities, and, finally, social chaos. Which, as a rule, has to be extinguished by means of counter-reforms and repression.
Zorkin’s article is thus an apology not for serfdom as such. After all, before it was abolished, serfdom really had been the glue that held the Russian political economy together, just as slavery had been in the southern American states, and Zorkin goes to great lengths in his article to show that the nineteenth-century Russian elites, even the nominal conservatives among them, mostly agreed that serfdom was an evil that had to be “extinguished”—eventually and ever so gradually. The article is, rather, a defense of the current reactionary regime, which has increasingly used a combination of funhouse mirrors (“pollocracy,” the relentless manufacture and promotion of moral panics, wildly manipulative and frantically suspicious media coverage of political and social conflicts abroad, “weaponized absurdity”), outright crackdowns on prominent political dissidents, and targetedultraviolence to persuade itself, the various Russian publics (whether liberal, leftist, conservative or indifferent), and western reporters, policymakers, and pundits that it is acting on behest of a “conservative” popular base dwelling in the heretofore unknown “Russian heartlands.” And even (by way of giving the talking classes more nonexistent fat to chew) that this newfound “traditionalism” has considerable appeal well beyond those heartlands, in the allegedly morally fatigued countries of the perpetually collapsing liberal West.
As a friend of mine wrote to me when we were discussing Zorkin’s article, “It is no longer enough to gang up on gays. We must also make women wear long skirts and headscarves. And forbid them from getting a higher education.” This new overwhelming necessity to de-modernize Russia, however, is not grounded in an actual conservative groundswell or the perennial aversion of the “broad Russian masses” to reform and (God forbid) revolution. Rather, it is meant to jam up brain cells so they cannot ponder (much less act against) sleights of hand like this:
Zorkin has not been the only top Russian official contemplating the lessons of Russian history in the past couple of weeks:
German Gref, head of Russia’s biggest lender Sberbank, on Friday castigated systemic inefficiencies in the Russian government that, he said, waste trillions of rubles and threaten to drag Russian society back into Soviet times.
“We have inconceivable social costs in the area of public administration,” Gref said in a speech to investors and top officials gathered at the VTB Russia Calling investment forum.
These costs increase government spending and render well-intended initiatives ineffectual, threatening Russia with a repeat of past mistakes, he said.
“[Soviet leaders] didn’t respect the laws of economic development. Even more, they didn’t know them, and in the end this caught up with them. It is very important for us to learn from our own history,” Gref said.
Actually, Gref’s speech was much more revolutionary (whatever you think of his neoliberal biases) than this mild account would suggest. If you listen to the whole thing (below, in Russian), you will realize it was a direct attack on the myth of Putin’s extreme competence as a manager of economic policy and the omniscient wizard behind Russian’s alleged newfound prosperity:
There is one point on which there is striking agreement among liberals, Putinists, and the “populist” segment of the Russian left. This is the idea that the majority of the Russian population adheres to leftist values, as opposed to the narrow strata of the middle class and intelligentsia in the big cities.
This simplified representation of societal processes, typical of both semi-official and opposition propaganda, is based on a juxtaposition of the so-called creative class with the notional workers of the Uralvagonzavod tank and railway car manufacturing plant, supposed wearers of quilted jackets with alleged hipsters. Discussion of such complicated topics as the Bolotnaya Square protests, Maidan, and Anti-Maidan revolves around this juxtaposition. The various ideological camps differ only in terms of where their likes and dislikes are directed.
Leaving aside left-nationalist figures like Sergei Kurginyan and Eduard Limonov, the most prominent proponent of the “populist” trend within the leftist movement is Boris Kagarlitsky. The whole thrust of his current affairs writing is to exalt the silent majority (the working people), who are organically hostile to the parasitic petty bourgeoisie that, allegedly, constituted the core of the anti-government protests in Russia in 2011–2012, and in Ukraine in 2013–2014.
Ukraine in the Mirror of Russian “Populism”
In an editorial published on the web site Rabkor.ru, entitled “Anti-Maidan and the Future of Protests,” Kagarlitsky (or his alter ego: unfortunately, the article has no byline) describes the events in Ukraine as follows: “Nothing testifies to the class character of the confrontation that has unfolded in Ukraine like the two crowds that gathered on April 7 in Kharkov. At one end of the square, the well-dressed, well-groomed and prosperous middle class, the intelligentsia, and students stood under yellow-and-blue Ukrainian national flags. Across the square from them had gathered poorly and badly dressed people, workers and youth from the city’s outskirts, bearing red banners, Russian tricolors, and St. George’s Ribbons.” According to Kagarlitsky, this is nothing more or less than a vision of the future of Russia, where only the “state apparatus despised by liberal intellectuals defends them from direct confrontation with those same masses they dub ‘white trash.’”
The fact that the venerable sociologist has been forced to resort to such demagogic methods as assessing the class makeup of protesters by reversing the proverb “It’s not the gay coat that makes the gentleman” indicates the conjectural nature of his scheme. (I wonder how much time Kagarlitsky spent poring over photos from Donetsk with a magnifying glass.) When discussing the social aspect of Maidan, most analysts have noted the dramatic changes that occurred as the protests were radicalized. “At the Euromaidan that existed before November 30–December 1,” notes political analyst Vasily Stoyakin, “it was Kyivans who dominated, and in many ways the ‘face’ of Maidan was made up by young people and the intelligentsia, albeit with a slight admixture of political activists. Many students, people with higher educations, and creative people attended it. […] After November 30, when the clashes began, […] a lot of blue-collar workers without higher educations arrived, in large part from the western regions.”
According to Vadim Karasev, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, as quoted in late January, “[T]he backbone of Euromaidan is men between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five, ‘angry young men,’ often unemployed. […] In my opinion, it would be mistaken to call Maidan a lower-class protest, just as it would be to call it a middle-class protest. It is a Maidan of all disaffected people who are able to get to Kyiv.” According to a study carried out in mid-December 2013 by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, every fifth activist at Maidan was a resident of Lviv, around a third had arrived from Ukraine’s central regions, every tenth activist was from the Kyiv region, and around twenty percent were from the country’s southeast.
Sixty-one (two thirds!) of the protesters killed at Maidan were from villages and small towns in Central and Western Ukraine. As political analyst Rinat Pateyev and Nikolai Protsenko, deputy editor of Ekspert Iug magazine, noted, “Among the victims, we see a large number of villagers, including young subproletarians. […] On the other hand, occupations favored by the intelligentsia are fairly well represented [in the list of the slain]: there is a programmer, a journalist, an artist, several school teachers and university lecturers, several theater people, as well as a number of students.” By “subproletarians” Pateyev and Protsenko primarily have in mind seasonal workers “who live on the money they earn abroad.” Isn’t this all fairly remote from the portrait of the “well-dressed, well-groomed and prosperous middle class” painted by Rabkor.ru’s leader writer? We should speak, rather, of the classical picture observed during revolutionary periods, when peaceful protests by students and the intelligentsia escalate into uprisings of the working class’s most disadvantaged members (who for some reason were not prevented from fighting by either liberals or hipsters).
As evidence of Anti-Maidan’s class character, Rabkor.ru’s editorialist adduces no other arguments except to point out the “short text of the declaration of the Donetsk Republic,” which “contains language about collective ownership, equality, and the public interest.” However, many observers have also noted the growth of anti-government and anti-oligarchic sentiments at Maidan. Journalist and leftist activist Igor Dmitriev quotes a manifesto issued by Maidan Self-Defense Force activists: “The new government of Ukraine, which came into office on Maidan’s shoulders, pretends it does not exist. We were not fighting for seats for Tymoshenko, Kolomoisky, Parubiy, Avakov, and their ilk. We fought so that all the country’s citizens would be its masters—each of us, not a few dozen ‘representatives.’ Maidan does not believe it has achieved the goal for which our brothers perished.”
Maidan and Anti-Maidan, which have a similar social makeup, employ the same methods, and suffer from identical nationalist diseases, look like twin brothers who have been divided and turned against each other by feuding elite clans and the intellectuals who serve them. There is absolutely no reason to force the facts, cramming them into a preconceived scheme drawn up on the basis of completely different events that have occurred in another country.
Is Russian Society Leftist?
But let’s return to Russia and see whether the “populist” scheme works here. Can we speak of a “leftist majority” that deliberately ignores protests by the petty bourgeoisie, who are protected from popular wrath by the authorities?
This belief is common within a certain section of the left, but there is no evidence at all to support this view. Poor Kagarlitsky is constantly forced to appeal to absences. For example, commenting on the outcome of the 2013 Moscow mayoral election, he declared a “victory” for the “boycott party” (that is, people who did not vote in the election), which by default is considered proof the electorate is leftist. It logically follows from this that the absence, say, of mass protests against fee-for-services medicine must testify to the triumph of neoliberal ideas within the broad masses of working people.
Sure, in today’s Russia statues of Lenin are not knocked down so often, and Kremlin mouthpieces eagerly borrow motifs from Soviet mythology. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is still the largest opposition party (but is it leftist?), and many people see the Soviet Union as the touchstone of state and economic power. But are all these things indicators of leftism in the sense the editorialist, who considers himself a Marxist, understands it?
To get closer to answering this question, we need to ask other questions, for example, about the prevalence of self-organization and collective action in the workplace. The statistics on labor disputes in Russia, regularly published by the Center for Social and Labor Rights, are not impressive. Even less impressive are the statistics for strikes. Independent trade union organizations are negligible in terms of their numbers and their resilience, and the rare instances of successful trade union growth are more common at enterprises owned by transnational corporations, where industrial relations approximate western standards. Activists in such trade unions as the Interregional Trade Union of Autoworkers (which rejects the paternalist ideology of the country’s traditional trade union associations) are forced to resort to translated textbooks on organizing and the know-how of foreign colleagues, not to native grassroots collectivism or the remnants of the Soviet mentality.
The above applies to all other forms of voluntary associations, which currently encompass a scant number of Russians. Whereas Russian Populists of the late nineteenth century could appeal to the peasant commune and to the cooperative trade and craft associations (artels) and fellow-countrymen networks (zemliachestva) that were common among the people, the “populists” of the early twenty-first century attempt to claim that a society united by nothing except state power and the nuclear family adheres to leftist values.
The standard explanation for the failure of the Bolotnaya Square protests is that they did not feature “social demands,” meaning slogans dealing with support for the poor, availability of public services, lower prices and utility rates, and increased pensions and salaries. But such demands are part of the standard fare offered by nearly all Russian political parties and politicians, from United Russia to Prokhorov and Navalny. These demands sounded at Bolotnaya Square as well. Successfully employed by the authorities and mainstream opposition parties, this social rhetoric has, however, absolutely no effect on the masses when voiced by radical leftists, strange as it might seem. We are constantly faced with a paradox: opinion polls show that the public is permanently concerned about poverty, economic equality, unemployment, high prices, and so on, but we do not see either significant protests or the growing influence of leftist forces and trade unions. Apparently, the explanation for this phenomenon is that a significant part of the population pins its hopes not on strategies of solidarity and collective action, but on the support of strong, fatherly state power. The Kremlin links implementation of its “obligations to society” with manifestations of loyalty: this is the essence of its policy of stability.
Leftists in a Right-Wing Society
Finally, should we consider ordinary people’s nostalgic memories of the Soviet Union during the stagnation period a manifestation of “leftism,” and rejection of western lifestyles and indifference to democratic freedoms indicators of an anti-bourgeois worldview? According to the twisted logic of the “populists,” who have declared most democratic demands irrelevant to the class struggle and therefore not worthy of attention, that is the way it is. Instead of accepting the obvious fact that proletarians need more democracy and more radical democracy than the middle class, and that protests by students and the intelligentsia can pave the way to revolt by the lower classes, theorists like Kagarlitsky try to paint ordinary conservatism red.
They tacitly or openly postulate that workers can somehow acquire class consciousness under a reactionary regime without breaking with its paternalist ideology and without supporting the fight for those basic political rights that workers in the west won at the cost of a long and bloody struggle.
It is time to recognize that we live in a society far more rightist than any of the Western European countries and even the United States. What European and American right-wing radicals can imagine only in their wildest fantasies has been realized in post-Soviet Russia in an unprecedentedly brief span of time and with extraordinary completeness. The Soviet legacy (or, rather, the reactionary aspects of the Soviet social model) proved not to be an antidote to bourgeois-mindedness, but rather an extremely favorable breeding ground for a strange capitalist society that is simultaneously atomized and anti-individualist, cynical and easily manipulated, traditionalist and bereft of genuine roots. And we leftists must learn to be revolutionaries in this society, rather than its willing or unwitting apologists.
Ivan Ovsyannikov, Russian Socialist Movement April 20, 2014