Staunton, January 26 – The demonization of the very word “liberal” by Russian propagandists has had the unintended and unwelcome consequence of legitimating those so described and transforming them from a small group with little influence into a powerful force, according to Andrey Arkhangelsky.
Neither in the 1990s nor in the 2000s did anyone in Russia view liberalism as an alternative, the Moscow journalist says. It lost out “just like socialism and nationalism.” But now thanks to Russian propaganda, it has firmly “rooted itself” in the consciousness of the population precisely as an alternative to the current system (colta.ru/articles/society/988).
That is because he suggests “Russia is so constructed that connotations can shift from a minus to a plus almost instantly.” And “if one takes the negative connotation of ‘liberalism’ away, one thing remains: it is the only alternative” to what Russia is now and therefore powerful because of that.
“A word is stronger than a man, especially in Russia,” Arkhangelsky says. It can do good or harm and often has served as a call to action. But “the word ‘liberal’ was never that popular or widely used in Russia.” Even during perestroika,” he writes, “you didn’t encounter it” in major Russian media outlets.
Instead, it was something that only the intelligentsia used just as they had in the 19th century when they referred to “’journals of a liberal direction.’” Consequently, “in Russia it always mean freedom of thought, a certain freeness of morals, and a deviation from the official course. And that’s all.”
“It almost did not have a political connotation,” and regime propagandists didn’t use it, preferring instead terms like thief, enemy of the people, and rootless cosmopolitan. The fact that the word didn’t become popular in the 1980s or 1990s, Arkhangelsky says, “is a very important fact in and of itself.”
It should have become “super-popular” then “because it reflected the essence of the changes that were taking place.” But there turned out to be a gap between these economic and political changes and changes in public consciousness. Indeed, the word “liberal” only came into its own over the least three or four years when the country was going in a different direction.
“A liberal in its contemporary propagandistic meaning is above all the Other. That is simply his nature; he cannot be otherwise,” a perspective that informs much of what Ramzan Kadyrov and his supporters say. A liberal is thus a synonym for the enemy and for the fifth column.
But as Teodor Adorno pointed out, propagandists can sometimes fall victim to their own propaganda, elevating the enemies they have invented into a force far greater than they are in nature by making them appear to be the only alternative. That is what has happened with the term “liberal,” Arkkhangelsky says.
This transformation was neither expected nor desired by the propagandists. They discovered after the fact that they have legalized and legitimized the word and the concept liberal. And they found that they had spread it as a symbolic alternative to the current regime to the entire population.
Arkhangelsky says he is not writing this up to be cute but rather to call attention to “a certain law of development according to which any attempt at resistance to progress ends by promoting rather than retarding it.” Specifically, the Kremlin’s efforts to demonize liberals have possibly brought forward the day when liberals will matter more than anyone can imagine.