Russia’s liberal intelligentsia and the post-Putin consensus

Despite the grievous decline in the intelligentsia’s social prestige and income, one segment of it – in fact, the one that harkens back to the traditions of dissidence…

Despite the grievous decline in the intelligentsia’s social prestige and income, one segment of it – in fact, the one that harkens back to the traditions of dissidence and the mild anti-Soviet opposition – has been a beneficiary of Putinist modernisation. The unspoken agreement that existed and still partly exists between it and the government enabled this segment of the intelligentsia to do their own thing nearly without interference from Putin’s regime. For many years, it was possible to criticise the authorities whilst only occasionally sending them signals of loyalty – obligatory, indirect and barely noticeable to the public. Over the past 12 years, this space has shrunk, of course, until today it has become quite tiny, a state of affairs facilitated by the ridiculous steps taken by the authorities, not the intelligentsia (as manifested, for example, the criminal case against the film and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov).

The process is, of course, objective: old systems like the Putin regime cannot avoid decline, however slow. Authoritarian power grows stiff and inflexible, forfeiting its sense of reality and losing touch with society. The Russian liberal intelligentsia has reacted quite painfully to this process. Until quite recently, in fact, the intelligentsia (especially those involved in science and the humanities, as during the late Soviet period) was quite satisfied with the overall situation, but not with the regime’s words and gestures. If there was one thing that the intelligentsia did not like, it was not what the authorities were doing, but how they were doing it. As would have been said in the late 19th century, the country’s “socio-political atmosphere” was not to their liking.

In recent years, the situation has taken a sudden turn for the worse. The logic of the Cold War has been resurrected in a completely different shape: by default, “the west” is right about everything by default, whilst “Putin” is wrong about everything. The problem, however, is that there is no longer any “west” as this segment of the Russian intelligentsia imagines it. Indeed, it had never existed.

The sacred stones of Europe

Since getting the opportunity to read, watch and go anywhere they like, Russian liberals have mentally stayed at home. Books, films, and especially TV series have shaped their notions of “the west” much more than immediate experience and direct interest in life abroad. Of course, images of other countries and regions generally take shape and function in a similar way, but this case is special, I think. You can imagine Japan as the country of geishas, samurai and tea ceremonies as much as you want, but travel to Japan is not accessible to everyone, not to mention the language barrier. However, aping the Soviet tendency, post-Soviet Russia has tended to see Britain as “England” – the England of Victorian estates, five o’clock tea, Harry Potter and the Beatles. This is surprising, given that you can get there in three hours from Moscow and Petersburg (despite the mischief made by British consulates in Russia when it comes to granting visas), and given the fact that English is our world’s new lingua franca. The intelligentsia have a similar picture of “America,” not to mention trickier cases like France, reduced by this group mindset to the cutesy-pie Paris on view in Amelie.

Suddenly, in recent years, it has transpired, however, that this is not how it works. The intellectual image of “the west” is in mortal danger. The danger comes not from villainous anti-democratic regimes in other parts of the world, but from within – from western leftists and anarchists, feminists, people of colour and those who profess “wrongheaded” religions. In Dostoyevsky’s novel A Raw Youth, one of the central characters, Versilov, coins a sacramental formula, usually referred to, in shorthand, as “the sacred stones of Europe.” After 1917, the formula seems to have been scrapped, but since the beginning of this millennium, especially in recent years, it has been resurrected and emblazoned on the banner of Russian liberals.

“To the Russian, Europe is as precious as Russia: every stone in her is cherished and dear. Europe is as much our fatherland as Russia. […] Oh, those old stones of foreign lands, those wonders of God’s ancient world, those fragments of holy marvels are dear to the Russian, and are even dearer to us than to the inhabitants of those lands themselves!”

That was written 135 years ago, by the way.

The sacred stones of “the west” have cracked and gradually turned to dust. Many things have contributed to this sense of the world, from 9/11 to Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and the influx of refugees in Europe. The new reality is so unpleasant to Russian liberals that they have surprisingly quickly turned into closet (or even open) racists, male chauvinists and reactionaries, enraged by the fact that they simply cannot understand what is happening in the world around them. However, they still see themselves as liberals and democrats fighting Putin’s anti-democratic regime. They have merely added another function to their portfolio – mourning the sacred stones of Europe, abandoned to their fate by the peoples of the west.

Ivan Karamazov’s argument in another of Dostoyevsky’s novels exactly mirrors the post-Soviet intelligentsia’s current mindset:

“I want to take a trip to Europe, Alyosha, and hence I shall take it; yet I mean, I know it’s a cemetery I shall be going to, but it’s the dearest, dearest of cemeteries, that’s all. Dear corpses lie there, each stone laid over them speaks of such ardently lived past life, such passionate faith in one’s achievements, the truth one has gained, one’s struggle and one’s learning, that I know in advance I shall fall to the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them – at the same time convinced with all my heart that all this has long been a cemetery and in no way any more than that.”

There are many Ivan Karamazovs amongst Russian liberals. In a text earlier this year, Viktor Shenderovich, a prominent contemporary comic writer and columnist, hurried to defend the “sacred stones” from the “Maoist Red Guards” of cancel culture. The text, which was more reminiscent of a stand-up routine, tries to persuade readers that the west’s current decline is a consequence of the thirst for equality and justice – after all, the same thing happened with the socialist idea in the Soviet Union! Who, Shenderovich hints, can detect cancel culture’s echoes of political meetings in Soviet schools or Party committee meetings, if not former Soviet citizens?

In another text published in the summer, Russian opinion journalist Yulia Latynina literally repeats Shenderovich’s arguments whilst also trying to buttress her emotions with historical facts wrenched out of context (Niall Ferguson would be proud). However, what matters here is not the content and logic of Latynina’s arguments, but the intention and gesture. Two circumstances are interesting in this respect. The first is that both essays were responses by Russian liberals to the now notorious “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” by western liberal cultural figures and academics. In that “western” letter against cancel culture, there was not a word, of course, about the usefulness of empires. In Russian responses to the letter, however, this was exactly what was presented to the Russian public. The second circumstance is that both essays were published in Russia’s most liberal publications: and Novaya Gazeta (in the latter, plenty of due obeisance was paid to readers whom Latynina might embarrass).

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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