Alexander Skobov: The Myth of “Good” Liberals in Power

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Alexander Skobov
Facebook
August 18, 2019

I have to reiterate my fundamental disagreement with mainstream liberal political analysts. Stated briefly, their big idea is that the Russian political elite consists of two parties, so-called civic liberals, who support bourgeois modernization, and the security forces, who support the restoration of the Soviet Union in both its manifestations—as a totalitarian political regime and as an economy totally subordinated to the state. All recent events are thus interpreted in the light of the alleged struggle between the two parties, i.e., the party of the security forces has gone on a decisive offensive.

This is a liberal myth. The Russian liberal crowd, who are mainly right-wing liberals, concocted the story that increasing crackdowns and the Putin mafia state’s transition from a soft-core authoritarian imitation democracy to a hard-core authoritarian regime has been opposed by a party of court (systemic) liberals, a party informally led by former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin.

Can anyone produce even a single bit of evidence corroborating the so-called Kudrin party’s opposition to the policy of increasing crackdowns? Right-wing liberals would tell me the Kudrinistas are forced to act out of the public eye and play by the rules governing infighting among courtiers (apparatchiks). The fact this infighting has no outward manifestations is no proof that there is no showdown between the two parties, they would argue.

Let’s assume this is true. Where, however, did Russia liberals get the idea there is even one cause for such a showdown? Kudrin and other systemic right-wing liberals have always advocated an authoritarian modernization in which a “progressive” elite imposes unpopular social and economic reforms on the unwashed masses with an iron hand. By and large, their ideal is shared by the so-called Russian fascists, i.e., the “patriots” and statists. The occupation regime running mainland China carried out the very same economic reforms after crushing dissenters on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Has Mr. Kudrin ever said publicly that he is a principled opponent of such methods of strangling the opposition? He has not. Then why have Russian liberals decided he opposes the mass detention of peaceful citizens for protesting in public at certain times?

Liberals should stop imagining they have intercessors in the top ranks of the Putin organized crime group. There are no such intercessors.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

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Alexei Tsvetcoff: The Myth of Moscow’s “Bourgeois Liberal” Protesters

vadim f. lurie-10 august-fuck off-2.jpg“Fuck Off, Putin!” Protesters at the August 10 fair elections rally in Moscow. Photo by Vadim F. Lurie

Alexei Tsvetcoff
Facebook
August 14, 2019

I have to say something about the extremely tenacious, contagious myth that bourgeois liberals are the only people protesting at present. They are strangers to regular folks, so the myth goes, and thus the cops, who come from the common people, take such pleasure in beating them black and blue.

The myth is not borne out by the facts. Among the most malicious “street extremists,” the people who have had criminal charges filed against them, there are an unemployed man, a construction foreman, and several students from a variety of colleges, some of which are not so posh.

There are, of course, also a couple of programmers and a manager in the group of people who have been arrested and charged, meaning it is a cross-section of the Moscow populace, with no class dominating one way or another. If you have been to the protest rallies you will have seen that members of nearly all social groups were in attendance except for oligarchs, officials of the current regime, and the cops, who are on the other side.

When you present this simple empirical evidence to proponents of the “elite protest” myth, they have one last argument, also fallacious, up their sleeves.

Okay, they say, maybe Muscovites of all stripes really have taken to the streets, but their leaders, the people who encouraged them to come out, who led them onto the streets, are definitely bourgeois liberals who are strangers to simple blokes.

There is no evidence of this, either. Among those who spoke at the rallies and somehow represent the protesters, there were people who espouse completely different political views and come from all walks of life. It would be hard to pigeonhole municipal district council member and independent candidate Sergei Tsukasov as a bourgeois and liberal, wouldn’t it? And what about Alexei Polikhovich?  I could go on but I would have to list nearly all the speakers.

To see “liberals” and “agents of the west” in this extremely diverse group of people, who share only one demand (the same rules for everyone: the universal right to nominate candidates for public office, vote for them, and run for public office themselves) you have to be willing to see the world the way the Putinist TV channels paint it.

As for the cops, they retire at a completely different age, earlier than ordinary folks. The current oligarchic regime provides them with apartments and tons of other perks. So, there is no way they could be classified as ordinary people.

They have such great fun waving their billy clubs at any and all dissenters because they have a very specific material interest. The thievish regime need only toss them scraps from its table for them to have an excuse to be really cruel to anyone who threatens the regime’s privileges.

Meaning, simply, that the cops are in on the take. They do a good job of guarding their master, who keeps them well fed. They could not care less who this master is. In this sense, it is completely pointless to reason with them, shame them, and appeal to their conscience.

Returning to the popularity of the myth that it is snobby liberals raising a ruckus on the streets nowadays, I should point that, first, although the myth is at odds with the obvious facts, it is so persistent because it is propped up by two crutches, not one. And, second, it relies on the regime’s ubiquitous propaganda. In this case, the oligarchic regime has no argument but that everyone who opposes it is an enemy of ordinary people.

So, the choir of Solovyovs, Kiselyovs, and hundreds of other agitprop yes men sing this song at a deafening volume, competing with each other in the process, because how loud they sing probably has something to do with how close they will get, in the end, to the feeding trough and, thus, with being able to be as far from the selfsame hoi polloi as they can. There is no way people like them want to get mixed up with the broad popular masses, to sink to their level. They want to keep on living the good life of propagandists with all the foreign real estate, offshore bank accounts, and other perks that working as professional fans of the Motherland entails.

But that was the second reason the myth of anti-populist liberals is so persistent. The first reason is completely different. It is the perfect excuse for the political passivity and political fear experienced by people in our atomized society with its extreme shortage of solidarity and self-respect.

The Russian man in the street says something like this to himself.

Of course, I see what has been going down. I see how the haves have divvied everything up among themselves and where things are going. Why don’t I go out and take my stand against them? Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a chicken?

But that hurts and I don’t want to think about it. I need another, more flattering argument . . . Right, that’s it.  I don’t go to protest rallies and avoid getting messed up in politics because all the people who do go out and protest are—

(He reaches for a lifesaver in the shape of his TV set’s remote control or a Kremlin-funded website.)

—all liberals and agents of the west. (Thanks for the prompt!) Employees of the US State Department and enemies of the common folk, they want to bring back the nineties. Elections are only a cover.

I am no fool. I would never go anywhere with these people and demand anything. I am smart and discerning, and now I have an alibi for when I look at myself in the mirror. And since I want to stay this way forever, I am going write the treasured mantra on the inside of my door: “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up. Photo courtesy of Vadim F. Lurie. Translated by the Russian Reader

P.S. You are probably wondering why a pro-common people myth-buster such as Mr. Tsvetcoff would resort, in the end, to trotting out the sock puppet of the Russian “man in the street” (obyvatel’) who, allegedly, believes everything he sees on Kremlin-controlled Russian TV. This is because, whether liberal, leftist (like Mr. Tsvetcoff), nationalist or none of the above, almost no one in the country’s self-styled opposition has figured out that you oppose a terrifying, destructive, criminal regime like the Putin regime with superior political organization, not with a sense of your own moral and intellectual superiority.

Since the Russian opposition is inordinately fond of protest rallies and marches, you would think it would pull out all the stops to get as many people to them as possible and, thus, scare the hell out of the regime. But if there is anything the Russian opposition hates more than the Putin regime, it is grassroots political organizing, meaning knocking on doors, stopping strangers on the street, buttonholing friends, neighbors, and workmates, and persuading them to do something most of them will not want to do at first: protest publicly against the regime. As nearly no one does the dirty work of getting people to rallies, almost no one goes to them.

Rather than blame themselves for their unwillingness to mobilize people and thus organize a movement that could, eventually, be capable of confronting the regime and perhaps defeating it, the opposition is fond of blaming the unwashed masses and “men in the street” for their passivity and timidity. When opposition liberals play this blame game, they usually target public sector employees, the lumpenproletariat, and residents of Russia’s far-flung hinterlands, who, allegedly, constitute Putin’s electoral base.

I would have thought opposition leftists would know better than to make what amounts to the same argument, but I was wrong. // TRR

Exodus

DSCN3281Human capital is fleeing Russia. Since President Vladimir Putin’s ascent to the presidency, between 1.6 and 2 million Russians—out of a total population of 145 million—have left for Western democracies and some new destinations where they can be freer with their skills put to better use. This emigration sped up with Putin’s return as president in 2012, followed by a weakening economy and growing repressions. It soon began to look like a politically driven brain drain, causing increasing concern among Russian and international observers.

In this report, the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center offers a comprehensive analysis of what we are calling the Putin Exodus and its implications for Russia and the West. It is supported by a pioneering sociological study of new Russian émigrés now living in four key locations in the United States and Europe, through a 100-question survey and a series of focus groups.

[…]

There are two particularly important findings. On the one hand, the new Russian émigrés living in different locations are very similar in the way they use their high cultural capital to adapt to new life and employment in a postindustrial society. At the same time, there is a distinct disparity between those who emigrated before 2012 and those who left later: among other things, the latter demonstrate a growing pro-Western and liberal orientation and greater politicization in general, including stronger support for the anti-Putin “non-systemic” opposition.

John Herbst and Sergei Erofeev, The Putin Exodus: The New Russian Brain Drain (Atlantic Council, Eurasia Center, 2019), p. IX

Although I am the last person who thinks you can find out what people really think using opinion polls, questionnaires, and focus groups, this new report from the Atlantic Council does, at least, deal with something real that has been underreported and little discussed in Russia and elsewhere. Since I have had lots of conversations with many different Russian immigrants over the years, I am also skeptical about the report’s optimistic conclusions about their alleged “liberalism.” Nevertheless, it is worth reading. Thanks to the invaluable Mark Teeter for the heads-up. Photo by the Russian Reader//TRR

When We Were Ten

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Leonid Volkov
Facebook
August 10, 2019

I was ten years old but I remember August 1991 well. And I remember how many people asked, after that unique celebration of unity and freedom, what would have happened had the coup emerged victorious.

Russia 2019 is the answer to this question. It is a country in which the coup has emerged victorious, [a country ruled by] a dozen paranoid old men, their hands trembling in fear.

Yes, the new coup has lasted longer than three days, but not much longer. The first chords of Swan Lake have already sounded.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of 123RF

_______________________________________________

A friend of mine asked me the other day what I thought about the new fair elections protests in Moscow. First, I feel solidarity with the protesters. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to translate and edit eleven posts (so far) about the protests and their ugly aftermath.

But I don’t understand the point made by Alexei Navalny’s comrade Leonid Volkov, an otherwise sensible person, in the Facebook post, as quoted above.

I could very well be wrong, and, actually, I do hope I am wrong, but I see very little difference between the mostly lacksadaisical fair elections protests of 2011–2012 and the relatively fierce but tiny fair elections protests of 2019.

The numbers are, in fact, the main problem. Despite the strange argument made by a talking head from the Carnegie Center Moscow, as quoted in the Moscow Times, that fifty thousand is a number of protesters the Russian authorities cannot ignore, there is no question of their ignoring anything. The Putin regime did not ignore the protests of 2011–2012. It waited until Putin had secured a new term as president before cracking down hard on protesters and quickly adopting a whole raft of laws designed to make public protests and dissent much more dangerous.

In 2019, the crackdown has begun almost immediately, but there is no sign the regime will cave and force the Moscow City Elections Commission to reinstate the candidates it barred in July from running in the September elections to the Moscow City Duma, much less collapse altogether.

Since it is the world’s largest country, it seems funny to say it, but Russia is one of the most insular, isolated places on earth. International news is a genre that barely exists in the country’s mainstream or alternative press nor does it usually make much of an impression on the chatocrats who set the tone in Russia’s remarkably hysterical, dispiriting, troll-infested social media.

It also does not help that places mainly or completely populated by what many Russian liberals regard as subhumans almost never figure in the news in Russia at all. Otherwise, political and media activists like Volkov would think twice before seeing the demise of Putin’s twenty-year-old “putsch” in yet another series of relatively minuscule gatherings of righteous Muscovites brandishing clever placards and getting their pictures taken for Instagram.

If there were real international news in the Russian press, the Russian fair elections movement and its would-be leaders and strategists, like Volkov, would think about the recent, incomparably more numerous, and demonstrably more effective protests in Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, for example. When half a million people protest against the powers that be on an island populated by 3.5 million people, the authorities really cannot ignore them, just as Beijing could not pretend all was well in Hong Kong, a city of 7.3 million people, when two million people there took to the streets to protest the former enclave’s shrinking autonomy and the PRC’s attacks on its laws and democratic institutions.

Puerto Rican officials have already seen the writing on the wall and surrendered to the demands of the fierce, fearless, relentless protest movement there. The Hong Kong protest movement faces a much stronger enemy, of course, but I think there is a far greater chance we will witness democracy emerging all over China in our lifetimes than we will see the reemergence of democracy in Russia.

Despite the fact the Russian intelligentsia likes to hypnotize itself with dubious theories about history and regime change—namely, that great historical turnabouts have always been powered by tiny but energetic minorities—real democratic change in Russia will only happen when many more people join a movement that, in fact, exists only as a notion, not as a real grassroots movement.

A real grassroots movement, after all, would be capable of mobilizing considerably more than fifty thousand people in a city of twelve million people.

The second big problem with the Russian protest non-movement is that, like many of the Russians who make usually brief appearances in its ranks, it is wildly impatient. Liberal, educated Russians regard themselves as the most “European” and “western” people on the planet, hindered from realizing their true destiny as saviors and leading lights of the nonexistent west only by a thousand years of unrelenting, savage tyranny, an endless dark stormy night punctuated only here and there by occasional, short-lived bursts of sunlight.

Since they are essentially not practically “Europeans” and “westerners” (unlike most actual Europeans and westerners, who, in their view, have given up the west’s civilizing mission by letting their countries be overrun by Puerto Ricans, Chinese, and Muslims, among other miserables), many Russians think they deserve to live in a democratic country right now without doing most if any of the things other societies do to establish and fortify democracy and the rule of law at home.

The flip side of this blatantly anti-western “westernism” is that droves (or, at least, very large dribbles) of Russians have been leaving or semi-leaving Russia in recent years, knowing nothing can change for the better under Putin and despairing that the post-Putin era will not dawn anytime soon. Like most of the really important things going in Russia, this story has been underreported, although anyone who has hundreds of Russian acquaintances or who lives in one of the handful of cities on earth that liberal Russians consider civilized (Berlin, Paris, and New York, e.g.) will know what I mean.

In yet another “only in Russia” twist, many people in this new wave of émigrés and exiles are not battle-hardened veterans of the amorphous protest non-movement, but the most politically apathetic people you could ever hope to meet.

This is not to say there are not lots of good eggs among them. Likewise, this blog’s mission has been to reiterate constantly the well-missed point that there are other Russians besides Putin and other Russias besides “Putin’s Russia,” whatever that is. But since I am not a politician and, thus, a sophist, like Leonid Volkov and his friend Alexei Navalny (the first, a well-informed commentator whose reflections I have shared on several occasions with my reader; the second, a smart cookie who might also be nearly the only person in the ragtag Russian opposition who really understands politics and has an inkling of how to build grassroots political movements), I am under no obligation to paint a pretty picture of “democracy in Russia” when what is called for is a horrorshow.

Lastly, fifty thousand people protested in downtown Moscow for the right to vote for their own candidates to a Russian regional parliament in a country where all that parliaments, city councils, municipal district councils, and village councils ever do is rubber-stamp the executive branch’s decisions. At exactly the same time, Russian warplanes were trying hard to finish off the last stronghold of a genuinely popular revolution in what they hoped would be the final chapter in a four-year-long military intervention in a majority Muslim country. And yet Putin’s criminal entanglement of his country’s well-equipped armed forces in Syria has been so uninteresting to liberal Russians that they have never protested in numbers greater than three or four at a time, and you can count those times on one hand.

The irony of this non-coincidence will be lost on Leonid Volkov and his comrades in the Russian protest non-movement, a non-movement that imitates the civil disobedience of the Indian independence movement and the US civil rights movement, for example, while blithely ignoring their superior political, strategic, and organizational aspects. Like the overall ignorance among Russians about today’s protest movements and popular revolutions in Syria, Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico, this might be because they were movements led and sustained by people of color. // TRR

Mikola Dziadok: When You Are Scared, It Is Better to Remain Silent

vera zasulich street, 46-permVera Zasulich Street, 46, in Perm, hardly seems a fitting monument to the fearless Russian revolutionary, but the street is, apparently, the only Vera Zasulich Street in Russia. Photo courtesy of perm.vsedomarossii.ru

Mikola Dziadok
Facebook
November 3, 2018

When You Are Scared, It Is Better to Remain Silent

Ever since the events in Arkhangelsk, I have been waiting for the decent Russian media to publish a sensible portrait-cum-analysis of the new would-be member of the People’s Will, Mikhail Zhlobitsky, who blew himself up at the local FSB office. My wait is over. Novaya Gazeta has published an article about him. It is a vile, shameful article, which I might have expected from anyone else, but not from Novaya Gazeta. Every quotation you can pull from the article, not to mention the conclusion, is a specimen of feeblemindeness compounded by fear.

“Unfortunately, now many people could come to regard [Zhlobitsky] as an icon, a martyr, a hero.”

That “unfortunately” tipped me off to the fact that nothing good lay ahead.

“Perovskaya and Zasulich: their forgotten names still grace street signs marking alleys.* Strictly speaking, nearly every municipality [in Russia] is thus guilty of excusing terrorism. Their ‘heroic deeds’ have never been duly judged. So, they have returned: a second-year student at a vocational college assembles a bomb at home in the evenings from available materials.”

Thanks to Sophia Perovskaya, Vera Zasulich, and people like them, people whom Novaya Gazeta‘s reporter [Tatyana Britskaya] considers reprehensible, Russia overthrew the tsarist autocracy, a realm in which the reporter’s great-grandfathers were whipped for not doffing their hats in the presence of their masters and were dispatched as cannon fodder to distant lands for the Empire’s glory. That was only a small fraction of the woes visited upon the heads of the common folk. The reporter, however, is still sad that streets are named after these heroines and heroes, and she brackets their heroic deeds in quotation marks.

“However, the three Arkhangelsk Chekists [sic] wounded by shrapnel were unlikely to be directly involved in the torture about which Mikhail Zh. wrote [in his farewell message on Telegram].”

This is really a masterpiece. According to the reporter, only a tiny group of FSB officers, a group that exists only in her head, has been involved in torture. All other FSB officers wear white gloves, compose poems, dance at balls, and have preventive discussions with schoolchildren, urging them not to become “extremists.” They also catch drug barons and ISIS fighters, interrogating them solely by looking at them sternly. Apparently, the reporter has forgotten about “repeat interrogations using an electrical memory aid” and the complaints by cops (!) accused of corruption that they were tortured by FSB officers.  The reporter must think that Zhlobitsky should have first approached [the three FSB officers he wounded] and asked them, “Do you torture people by any chance? No? Well, okay, then, I’ll go blow up somebody else.”

“Apparently, we never were able to assess or correct mistakes, and now history is taking us back for another go-round. This is facilitated quite readily by the fact that adults notice unhappy, confused children only when the latter perish while activating homemade infernal machines.”

What mistakes is she talking about? She is not condemning the butchers of the NKVD or the enslavement of entire nations, first by Imperial Russia, then by the Soviet empire. No, the “mistakes” were the members of the nobility who were among the organizers of the People’s Will and the members of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, people who died martyrs’ deaths to liberate their own people from bondage.

Because reading it only provokes disgust, there is not pointing in parsing this libel any further. I would only note that the reporter is Novaya Gazeta‘s [Arctic Circle] correspondent, meaning she is a local reporter. This, apparently, is the reason for her condescending, judgmental tone and her attempt to turn a hero into a “confused child.” If you write too bluntly, you have unexploded FSB officers to deal with, as well as their colleagues and relatives. But she has keep working and get comments from the security service when she needs them. So, she will continuing putting a good face on a bad game, denouncing “violence of any kind.” My ass.

It is true what they say: scratch a Russian liberal and, deep down, you will find a statist and conservative. You want to live in a just society, but you think it can be achieved by pickets and petitions. You want the regime to respect you, but you condemn people who force it to respect them. You want freedom, but you are afraid to take it. You condemn the bravest people, thus projecting an image of victims, not fighters. In today’s stinking Russia, ninety-nine percent of you will end up hightailing it abroad. But not everyone has the opportunity, you know?

So, if you are scared, it is better to remain silent than to yap encouragingly at the butchers, who, for a change, suffered for their crimes.

I would like to emphasize I do not consider individual insurgency an acceptable or proper means of political militancy, nor would I advise anyone to engage in it. I believe everyone has the right to live, even a fucking FSB officer. But not everyone can adhere to the same beliefs I do while living amidst a terrorist dictatorship. I understand such people perfectly well, too.

* Translator’s Note. While there are a couple of dozen Sophia Perovskaya Streets extant in post-Soviet Russia, there seems to be only one Vera Zasulich Street—in Perm.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Special thanks to Mikola Dziadok for his kind permission to translate and publish his comments on this website.

Igor Averkiev: Elections That Kill Democracy

photoIgor Averkiev

There Are Elections That Build Democracy, and Elections That Kill It: The Tricks Is Not to Confuse Them
Igor Averkiev
igor-averkiev.com
March 13, 2018

1. If you relate to elections solely as a value, you will never grasp their essence. You will never tame them.

2. In the modern world, the presence of elections per se in a particular country is neither an achievement nor a value, except for liberal democratic fundamentalists. In the modern world, it is the political outcome of elections that is an achievement and value. In some countries, elections build democracy, while in other countries they kill democracy. In Russia, they kill democracy.

3. There are about two hundred countries in the modern world. The vast majority of them (around one hundred and eighty) hold elections more or less regularly. Around fifty countries in this vast majority are more or less classic democracies. There are another forty countries that hold elections and are more or less classic authoritarian regimes. The other hundredsome countries that hold elections are ruled by a variety of transitional, semi-authoritarian, and hybrid regimes. Meaning that elections per se do not vouchsafe democracy at all. Morever, in most of the world’s countries, people voting in elections does not produce democracy.

4. Elections are merely a social know-how that can be used by anyone for any purpose.  Know-how is a simple thing: if you wield it, you can profit from it in keeping with your interests. An axe is similar in this respect. It matters who wields it: a carpenter or a killer. In the hands of some people, elections produce a democratic regime, while in the hands of others they produce an authoritarian regime. Democracy is not programmed into electoral know-how itself. Democratic elections thus coexist on our planet with authoritarian elections: everything is decided by the person who presides over the elections. If you want elections in Russia to produce democracy, first you have to gain control of them. Elections serve democracy only when they are monitored at all phases by political forces with a stake in democracy. Nor is it only a matter of monitoring the tallying of votes.

5. Elections serve democracy only when the question of power has already been resolved to the benefit of pro-democratic forces or during an unstable transition period in which an authoritarian regime is still in power, but can longer dismiss pro-democratic forces out of hand. Therefore, in order to use elections to advance democratic interests, they must first be taken away from the old authoritarian boss. Or he must be so scared he has to take the interests of pro-democratic forces into account when elections are held. There is no other way. This is how things are done the world over, but millions of freedom-loving Russians for some reason still believe that regularly going to vote in elections presided over by someone else will in itself hasten democracy’s victory in Russia.

6. What is democracy? I won’t go into high-flown arguments, but the democracy that freedom-loving Russians like so much gels only when the country is run by politicians who have no desire to restrict political competition. They are willing, if push comes to shove, to lose elections; moreover, they are willing to accept defeat until the next elections. That’s all there is to it. That is why there is no democracy in Russia: because the people in power restrict political competition and have no intention of losing elections under any circumstances, much less accepting defeat. They are assisted in their restriction of political competition by the selfsame democratic know-how and institutions. It is just that without democratic politicians inhabiting them, this know-how and these institutions are only formally democratic, not democratic in fact.

7. The pro-democratic forces include not only the liberal democratic parties but also all political and civic organizations—leftist, nationalist, imperialist, religious, environmentalist, alternative leftist, alternative rightist, etc.—whose political interests are not bound up with Vladimir Putin’s personalist regime, who have no plans to limit political competition in Russia, and are willing, depending on the outcomes of elections, not only to come to power but also to cede power. Putin’s authoritarian regime can be opposed only by a broad pro-democracy coalition, without necessarily becoming a formal coalition. The trial version of this broad pro-democracy coalition presented itself to the country during the nationwide protest movement that kicked off in December 2011. We should not expect extremely well-coordinated joint actions from a broad pro-democracy coalition. (The “Decembrists” overplayed their hand in this respect.) It is enough to head in the same direction along more or less parallel routes, coordinating actions at certain critical points.

8. An electoral authoritarian regime, such as Russia’s, is organized quite simply. All the democratic know-how a modern country is supposed to have—elections, representation, separation of powers—functions smoothly, but not all comers have access to it. It is even simpler than that. An authoritarian regime simply does not allow potential competitors, that is, leaders and organizations, to get on their feet politically and grow organizationally to the extent they would be able to surpass the two- or three-percent minimumthreshold of votes needed for admission to the political arena. It does this by refusing to register parties, intimidating leaders, limiting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in a pinpoint fashion, etc. If, despite everything, they nevertheless grow and thrive, they are simply not admitted to elections, as I have mentioned. In Russia, therefore, democratic procedures do not serve democracy. The soul of democracy is not know-how, procedures, and institutions, but people willing to use them in a particular way. In Russia, politicians interested in democracy simply do not make it into formal democratic politics. Thanks to the political regime built by Vladimir Putin, year after year only pro-authoritarian political forces make it into Russia’s formally democratic politics, and year after year they limit the involvement of pro-democratic forces in democratic procedures. It is a vicious circle. There is democracy, and there is no democracy at the same. Putin’s authoritarian regime is even elegant after a fashion.

9. Elections in authoritarian countries do not increase the supply of democracy, nor do they prepare the way for it, since they do not facilitate competition, do not put the opposition through its paces, and do not put rank-and-file voters in circumstances where the country’s fortunes depend on the choices they make. In authoritarian countries, elections function as a full-fledged authoritarian institution for legitimizing the regime. In authoritarian countries, elections are required only as a source of power, nothing more. Everyone involved in these elections is involved solely in legitimizing the regime. They are doing nothing else.

10. In authoritarian and hybrid countries, including modern Russia, elections have another vital political function. Elections are also an outlet for the liberal public, a valve, installed by the regime, for releasing oppositional steam and keeping opposition politicians busy somehow. The Putin regime has used elections to satisfy the need many freedom-loving Russians have to “fight for democracy” in a safe, comfortable way, a way that lets them feel like decent dissidents honestly doing their duty. Everyone comes out on top. The liberal public engages in self-actualization, and the regime does not find it frightening.

11. If the liberal democratic opposition’s sole aim is symbolic involvement in election campaigns within the authoritarian regime, but year after year the regime does not permit it to grow politically and organizationally, and does not allow it to run in elections, the opposition will gradually wither and become marginalized. This, in fact, is the kind of opposition we have nowadays. If we realize, however, that elections serve democracy only after the question of power has been decided to the benefit of pro-democratic forces, it means we need a different opposition altogether, one radically different from the opposition that has filled the niche the past fifteen years. We need a liberal democratic opposition that is not hung up on being involved in meaningless elections governed by someone else’s hostile rules. We need an opposition focused on vigorous, direct political action and a propaganda duel (a fight over values) with the regime in order to command the attention and respect of the so-called Putinist majority, those very same “ordinary people” who, when a window of opportunity opens, would at least not oppose the new, free-minded political alternative. There is a big problem with the word “new,” however.

12. The creation of a new, free-minded opposition is encumbered by the liberal democratic fundamentalism that holds sway in the minds of Russia’s freedom-loving public. One manifestation of this fundamentalism is, in fact, the irrational cult of elections: all elections are good, regardless of their political essence and their consequences. Two other burdens are the extreme political impracticality and even archaicism of today’s liberal democratic platform. Currently, we have nothing to offer people from the standpoint of a future regime. Here is a simple question. What can we offer the average Russian family, something they would really need and value, that the Putin regime either cannot give them or promise them? The keywords in this case are “really need and value.” Moreover, in the obviously adverse conditions of a post-Putin Russia, the current liberal democratic prescriptions would necessarily lead the country into new crises the very first year they were implemented and, consequently, to new outbursts of the conservative revolution. It is ridiculous to discuss this with educated people, but thinking outside the box is now more important than doing things. At very least, it is more important than running off to vote in Putin’s elections.

13. For free-minded Russians and Russian politicians, the issue today is not how to win Putin’s authoritarian elections, but how to behave and build a reputation in society today in order to win future democratic elections in which the former so-called Putinist majority would be among the voters. If you want to facilitate the collapse of the Putin regime, you need to work less with the Putinist state and more with the Putinist majority.

14. The main problem freedom-loving Russians face in the impending presidential election is not what choice to make, whether to vote or not, and certainly not who they should vote for. The main problem is that whatever choice each of us makes—to vote or not vote, to vote for Yavlinsky or Sobchak—it will have no impact whatsoever on the fortunes of Vladimir Putin and his political regime. Any electoral action we take will change nothing about the election or the regime. Judging by various opinion polls [sic], there are between ten and fifteen million of us in Russia. Even if we assume the incredible—that all of us would act in concert in this election, and thanks to our monitoring the elections themselves would be extraordinarily fair—we cannot have a significant impact on the outcome of the election, even if each of us to the last man boycotted it or we all voted for Ksenia Sobchak or Grigory Yavlinsky.

15. Everything is seemingly quite simple. In Putin’s Russia, elections have nothing to do with building democracy and vanquishing the Putin regime. Why, however, does something so evident not get through to many advocates of liberty and diversity in Russia? How did the perverted cult of mandatory involvement in all elections take hold among such a considerable segment of the Russian liberal public? There are explanations. First, many opposition politicians, speakers, opinion leader, and experts have a professional stake in Putin’s elections. Some of them try and run in these elections (the simplest way of being an opposition politician in an authoritarian regimes), while others assist the elections professionally, serve as polling station monitors, analyze the whole megillah or write about it. This entire mob would simply be out of a job, in the broad sense of the word, if the opposition-minded public did not vote in authoritarian elections. Thus, in the opposition milieu, they are the principal propagandists and agitators for the idea of voting in these demonstrative non-elections. Since, as a rule, they are the most intelligent, energetic, and authoritative people in opposition-minded communities, their opinion is quite important. Second, as I have mentioned, above, involvement in authoritarian elections (“but they are elections all the same”) has served a considerable segment of the liberal public as a safe, comfortable way to “fight for democracy,” a way that lets them feel like decent dissidents honestly doing their duty. The notion that it is foolish and nasty for an advocate of democracy to vote in authoritarian elections immediately nullifies the opposition’s semantic space, the space of election enthusiasts, plunging them into the “desert of the real.” Everything is so painful and disturbing in that desert. You have to acquire a new civic faithfulness to yourself, redefine yourself in terms of the meanings and tools of your opposition, what normal risks are, who your supporters and opponents are within the opposition, and so on. “No, it’s better to vote in Putin’s elections.”

16. On the other hand, if nothing really depends on us in Putin’s elections, is it worth persuading our allies not to vote in them? Why hassle people? Why prevent them from doing what they deem important? Because things won’t get any worse for us if they do vote in the election anyway, right? I think it is still worth pestering them. Politics, after all, depends on political sentiments and emotions, and thoughts are tangible things even when they are not true. If millions of people who hunger so much for freedom and diversity in Russia think, “How can I vote in authoritarian elections the right way, so that it benefits the opposition’s cause?” that is one kind of opposition. But if millions of people who hunger so much for freedom and diversity in Russia think, “What else, besides voting in authoritarian elections, can I do to dismantle the Putin regime and bring about the victory of freedom and democracy in Russia?” that is a completely different opposition.

Igor Averkiev is the chair of the Perm Civic Chamber. Photo courtesy of Igor Averkiev. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Three Years Later: Suicide by Crimea

Suicide by Crimea
Nikolay Klimenyuk
oDR
March 17, 2017

As long as Russia maintains its grip on the Ukrainian peninsula, significant changes for the better at home are impossible.

In the three years that have passed since the annexation of Crimea, a consensus has taken shape in Russia. Everything having to do with the Ukrainian peninsula is Russia’s internal affair, and far from the most important one.

The “accession” of Crimea has even quite succesfully happened in the heads of the regime’s opponents. In November 2016, while arguing on Facebook with Crimean Tatar journalist Ayder Muzhdabaev, Mikhail Khodorkovsky expressed a stance then supported by many publicly prominent liberals, including activists and intellectuals. Russian society, he argued, wants to deal with other problems. The opposition’s biggest task is regime change, but returning Crimea to Ukrainian jurisdiction by democratic means would be impossible because public opinion would be opposed. Crimea is not mentioned at all in Alexei Navalny’s 2018 presidential campaign platform.

Russian media outlets generally considered “liberal” (these media usually eschew the word “opposition”) havealso swallowed the annexation and most of the rhetoric surrounding it without a peep. TV Rain, RBC (even before its top editors were replaced), and the online Meduza, which operates out of Latvia and is not not subject to Russian laws, have all long routinely called and depicted Crimea as part of Russia. The standard explanation—it is required by Russian law, and insubordination is fraught with penalties—sounds like an excuse. The law does not require that questions about Crimea be included in a quiz on knowledge of Russian cities (which was amended after public criticism) or that reporters term the annexation a “reunification” (Meduza edited the latter term to “absorption.”)

At the same time, Russian reporters usually have no problem demonstratively violating Ukrainian laws (which require them to enter the occupied territory through the checkpoint at Perekop) and flying to Crimea from Russia (as Deutsche Welle reporter Yuri Resheto did), because it’s cheaper, faster, and simpler, and because Ukraine’s rules are cumbersome, inconvenient, and nonbinding.

After that, you can write critical reports on human rights violations in Crimea till the cows come home, but it won’t change what matters. The voluntary observance of inconvenient Ukrainian rules is tantamount to acknowledging Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea, and hardly anyone in Russia wants to do that.

In fact, the seizure of Crimea has been the cause of many pressing problems in Russia that have been on the Russian opposition’s agenda. It has laid bare peculiarities of Russian society that existed longer before the attack on Ukraine.

For example, not only did the extent of imperialist moods become clear but also Crimea’s place in how Russians see themselves as a society and a nation. The imperial myth, still alive and well in Russia, was concocted during Catherine the Great’s reign. From the moment they were implemented, Peter the Great’s reforms had provoked a mixed response. They smacked of “sycophancy,” and modeling the country on Holland seemed somehow petty.

Catherine, on the contrary, conceived a great European power, rooted in antiquity, Byzantine’s direct heir, the Third Rome, a Europe larger than Europe itself. Her ambitious Southern Project, which involved defeating Turkey, uniting all the Orthodox countries in a single empire, and installing her grandson the Grand Duke Constantine on the throne in Constantinople, was brought low by political reality. The only one of her great fantasies she made come true was seizing the Crimean Khanate, in 1783.

The conquest was extremely atypical of Russia. A troublesome neighbor was not subjugated. Rather, the annexed lands were completely reimagined and rewritten. The rewriting was attended by the first mass expulsion of the Crimean Tatars. They did not fit at all into the pictures of the radiant past that Grigory Potemkin was painting in reality on the annexed lands. Crimea was resettled with Plato and Aristotle’s Orthodox descendants: Pontic Greeks, Great Russians, and Little Russians (i.e., Ukrainians). Naturally, all these particulars have been forgotten long since. What has not been forgotten is Crimea’s central place in the self-consciousness of a “great European nation,” as manifest, for example, in the absurd, endlessly repeated expression, “Crimea has always been Russian.”

The saying perfectly illustrates the peculiarities of historical memory in Russia. Crimea’s current “Russianness” is the outcome of over two hundred years of the uninterrupted genocide and displacement of the “non-Russian popuation,” which culminated during the Second World War. After the two Soviet deportations of 1941 and 1944 (ethnic Germans, Greeks, Bulgarians, Italians, Armenians, Karaites, and Crimean Tatatrs were deported), losses during battles, and the Nazi extermination of Jews and Crimeans, only a third of Crimea’s pre-war inhabitants were left. It was resettled with people from Russia and Ukraine, especially by military officers and veterans of the Party and the secret services.

Naturally, few people in Russia today regard Crimea as a conquered and ravaged country, in which a full-fledged state existed until relatively recently, an indigenous culture was long maintained, and Russians were never the ethnic majority even during the lifetimes of the present elder generation.

Regarding Crimea as a territory, not a society, and treating Crimeans as an annoying inconvenience, was a habit in Catherine’s times and has survived into the present. The formal excuse for the Russian incursion was the “defense of Crimea’s Russophone population,” and yet the “Crimea is ours” attitude of Russians to the peninsula’s residents has been quite skeptical from the get-go. They imagine the main business of Crimeans is leaching off tourists, and the only thing that attracts them about Russia is high wages.

Moreover, this opinion is common across the entire political spectrum. Sergei Parkhomenko, a liberal journalist and public figure, expressed it in a very telling way.

“If first you take five days to explain to the population of Crimea that if they return to Ukraine’s jurisdiction, their wages and pensions will be increased, and they’ll also be permitted to build even more chicken coops for holidaymakers in the coastal zone, and only then you ask them to vote in a referendum, 95% will vote for going back. […]  These people have proved they could not care less what country they belong to. And if there is anyone for whom I now feel not an ounce of sympathy as I read about how they are being fooled, robbed, milked, and put under the rule of gangsters pretending to be officials and bosses, it is the population of Crimea.”

The massive support of Russians for the annexation has much more serious and immediate consequences than a display of deeply rooted chauvinism. Having signed off on “Crimea is ours,” Russians have deemed their own power above the law and sanctioned its use in violating all laws and treaties for the sake of higher interests or “justice.” The Russian authorities had behaved this same way previously, but now they have obtained the relevant mandate from society. Quite naturally, the crackdown following the seizure of Crimea has been chockablock with spectacular acts of lawlessness.

One such act was the demolition of commercial kiosks and pavilions in Moscow, which happened despite legalized property rights and court rulings. There was nothing accidental about the fact the Moscow authorities justified their actions by citing the law adopted for settling real estate disputes in Crimea. And the twenty-year-sentence handed down to Oleg Sentsov set a new ceiling for verdicts in political trials. Before Crimea, activists would get a dvushechka (two years) for especially vigorous protests. After Crimea, the Russian authorities have been sentencing people for reposts on VK and holding solo pickets.

Actually, any regime that tasks itself with establishing the rule of law in Russia will first have to annul this “mandate to lawlessness.” The Russian opposition’s attitude to Crimea shows the rule of law is not among its priorities at all. Bewitched by the figure of Putin, the opposition does not regard regime change as a product of the rule of law. The fact that it cannot offer a realistic scenario for regime change is not a problem in itself. Russia’s currrent regime does not presuppose a peaceful change of power. Systemic change might happen as it did in the Soviet Union, at the behest of the bigwigs and under the impact of external circumstances: the state of the economy, public sentiment, foreign policy factors.

The opposition’s most serious problem is that it doesn’t have a meaningful outline of what would come next.

If we believe the alternative to Putin is neither Navalny, Khodorkovsky nor anyone else, but a democratic state based on the rule of law, there are two obstacles in our way: Crimea and Chechnya. The opposition has no vision of how to establish control over Chechnya and incorporate it into Russia’s legal system, but it is possible in theory, at least. There is no such possibility with Crimea. It is impossible to hope for international recognition of the peninsula as part of Russia, and if we keep regarding it as part of Russia, it will thus remain a legal anomaly. Moreover, no rule rule of law is even formally possible without observance of international law.

When discussing Crimea, the Russian opposition evinces a notion of democracy that differs little from Putin’s, although it is consonant with the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the European populists: that democracy is rule based on majority support and not burdened by the observance of laws, procedures, and international obligations. Khodorkovsky, for example, considers “democratic procedure” not the restoration of law, but the adoption of a decision on Crimea based on the opinion of the majority, which, allegedly, is against giving Crimea back to Ukraine. Navalny has suggested holding a new, “normal” referendum.

Yet what the majority really thinks, whether there is such a thing as public opinion on any issue and how to measure it, obviously means nothing at all either to Khodorkovsky, Navalny or many other members of the opposition. By the same token, since Putin is supported by the majority of the Russian population, there is nothing for the opposition to do at all. All these contradictions can be eliminated only by unconditionally recognizing both the illegality of Crimea’s annexation and the total impossibility of keeping it in the Russian Federation on any grounds.

With Crimea in tow, Russia has no positive alternative to the current regime. And as long as the Russian opposition is concerned only about regime change and avoids discussing Crimea, the only thing it can offer is a Putinist Russia sans Putin. Whoever ends up in his place, however, the changes won’t be too noticeable.

Nikolay Klimenyuk writes about politics and culture in Germany and Russia. He was an editor at Forbes Russia, Bolshoi Gorod, and other periodicals. He has lived in Berlin since 2014 and writes for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other German mass media. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader