Staunton, November 5 – Russian liberals of the Yeltsin era have failed to recognize that their democratic impulses were not enough to prevent a return to autocracy and, instead of engaging in serious self-examination, are taking refuge in a mistaken “Russian fatalism” that suggests there was no chance for them to succeed, Aleksandr Tsipko says.
The senior Moscow commentator says that in this way, the liberal opposition is now making exactly the same argument as Vladimir Putin, albeit “in different words.” Putin says that things couldn’t have been different because democracy was an inappropriate Western import (mk.ru/politics/2020/11/05/v-rossii-vozrozhdayutsya-tradicii-samoderzhaviya-demokraticheskikh-instinktov-ne-khvatilo.html).
“But intellectuals from the opposition use scholarly language to say the same thing. They “insist that in all things, the Russian archetype and the specific features of the political culture of Russians are the guilty parties,” Tsipko says, acknowledging that he too on occasion has fallen into this form of pessimism about the prospects for democracy in his country.
But Putin’s words at the Valdai Forum have restored his sense of alienation from the ideas of the Kremlin leader who suggested that democracy is a kind of plant that can’t be shifted from one field to another. Such a notion, Tsipko continues, ignores what Russians themselves have tried to achieve at various points over the last century.
“How can one talk about the peculiar features of the Russian archetype without taking into consideration the changes which occurred in the consciousness of people during perestroika and also in the early 1990s?” Those changes in the minds of the people showed that they completely rejected the Soviet system’s top-down authoritarian rule.
Given that, Tsipko says, “it is difficult for [him] to understand why intelligent people who know the history of Russia continue to insist on the drama of the Russian archetype, which supposedly became the obstacle on the path to the transformation of the Soviet RSFSR into a democratic European country.”
And it is also difficult to understand why Russian liberals forgot what the Russian people achieved at the end of the 19th century with the zemtsvas and the early years of the 20th with the Duma and the Constituent Assembly and do not recognize that tsarist Russia after 1905 was in fact “much more democratic than Russia in the era of ‘Crimea is ours.’”
Instead of remembering all this and building on it with confidence that Russians achieved much and can do so again, Russian liberals today spend their time disputing whether democracy could ever be “imported into Russia from the West,” exactly the kind of debate that Putin is delighted they are engaged in.
“Our liberal elite has no model of the future because there is no past in its consciousness,” Tsipko continues. This is not just an ideological problem but a moral one, “a problem of the moral health of the nation.” If the past is forgotten or not assessed honestly, there is no place for the construction of a future.
“In order to create something new, it is necessary not simply to preserve something from the past but also to be able to combine the values of our future with the values of the past,” the Moscow commentator says. The intellectuals of Eastern Europe have been able to do that; those of Russia have not.
In Eastern Europe, they “knew that in order to escape from the communist past, they not only had to resolve the tasks of democracy but to think about the revival of national memory and about the return of all that they could restore in order to reform a democratic nation.” But in Russia, “not a single political force” tried to do that.
“Our liberal democrats” were too Sovietized. Most were “convinced atheists and therefore they experienced and experienced a purely instinctive alienation from the old Orthodox Russia.” But “they were not simply atheists but people for whom the ideals and values of the Reds were part of their own value system.”
Even Yegor Gaidar talked about his family being part of the world that defeated the Whites who had committed themselves to not making any final decisions without consulting the people. And there is the real problem: the liberals didn’t want to consult the people; they simply wanted to insist on their own views.
There is a reason for this, Tsipko argues. “We have never had a Russian nation, and therefore, the values of the Russian intelligentsia were always one thing and the values of the deep Russian people were quite another.”
“Democracy of perestroika times died also because the liberal elite was afraid of new free democratic elections which it lost. It is clear that in fact democracy which was given birth by perestroika died on October 4, 19093 and, as we now see, died for a long time.”
There is an additional reason: “for the liberals of the 1990s in fact the chief value was not the carrying out of democratic reforms but the shifting of state property into private hands, a process which from their point of view would broaden the social base for their own power,” Tsipko says.
(The senior Moscow analyst is too polite to add that Russian liberals were encouraged in this mistaken approach by Western leaders who immediately after 1991 proclaimed Russia and the other post-Soviet states democracies and then pressured them to ensure the triumph not of democratic institutions but of private property.)
“And now, he says, it is clear why our liberals lost the power which they had in the 1990s and why such a deep disappointment exists among ‘the deep Russian people’ concerning ‘liberals’ and those democratic values which they proclaimed.”
And now, in Russia, there is no political fore which is prepared to take on itself the burden of transforming Russia into a democratic country, to combine a love for the Russian people with a love for European humanism and to insist on the dignity of the people as such. Until such a force appears, autocracy is likely to remain in power.