Friday, May 25, 2018

Navalny a Harbinger of Broader Left Turn by Russian Opposition, Savvin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 25 – Opposition leader Aleksey Navalny has disappointed some of his supporters but again demonstrated his political sense by elaborating a program having a distinctly social-democratic tilt, something that reflects trends in Russian society but “very soon may yield abundant but dangerous fruit,” according to Dmitry Savvin.

            The Russian émigré commentator says that for anyone interested in politics in Russia, “Navalny can serve as a kind of useful if not in every case accurate testing device by means of which one can figure out which ideas and methods will be accepted by Russian society” (

            That Navalny is now tilting to the left shows that he has picked up something in Russian society in a way that makes him “extremely similar” to the early Boris Yeltsin.  Like Yeltsin, Navalny has a remarkable political sense and shows “a readiness to sue almost any ideological constructs” when he thinks they will be useful.

            “Five to eight years ago,” when nationalism appeared to be the coming thing in the Russian Federation, Savvin says, “we saw that [Navalny] showed interest in Russian nationalism, attended Russian March events and in general sought to build bridges to the nationalist camp.” 

            But when it became obvious the nationalism was becoming less the coming thing, “Navalny decisively cooled his approach to the nationalists” and to the Church as an institution while making friends with openly left-liberal personalities.”  

            “What does all this mean?” Savvin asks rhetorically. “Only that Aleksey yet again has nosed out where the dog is buried” and that “there is every reason to suppose” that he is correct in his assessment of where Russia is now and even more where it is likely to be in the future after Putin.

            Despite his own preferences, the Russian émigré says, “the Russian Federation is an ideal space for a leftist project. But the place is already occupied.” At a superficial level, he continues, there are “all the objective conditions needed for leftist ideas and political forces to become influential or even a leading force.”

            Among them are: an apparently permanent economic crisis, the blocking of social lifts, the lack of any significant middle class, “the extremely insignificant real influence of religion” on national life, the absence of a peasantry given Stalin’s policies, and a large number of various kinds of “social marginals.”

            Indeed, it would seem, Savvin argues, “on many indicators, the Russian Federation is even a more suitable space both for new and old lefts than countries in Latin America where their position in many places is extraordinarily strong.” And it would be “logical to expect” that left of center groups would come to dominate Russia as well.

            But there is one major limiting factor: the Soviet experience and how many members of the intelligentsia retain an image of that time which is anything but favorable. For them, the Soviet past “is associated not with liberation and revolutionary romanticism but with deficits, prohibitions, and hypocrisy.”

            “A very great deal of what people in Western Europe or the US customarily connect with the left, Russians who experienced the 1990s on the contrary connect with anti-communism,” Savvin continues. “And this has created difficult image conditions for various kinds of ‘new lefts.’”

            In addition, he says, the KPRF and the Russian state itself have “successfully continued to occupy the leftist political niche,” the latter by establishing “a neo-Soviet state. Yeltsin’s neo-NEP of the 1990s did not touch the key positions of the old, Soviet quasi-elite.” But under Putin the restoration became obvious to everyone.

            “The authorities privatized communist symbols” and dominated the commanding heights of industry, Savvin argues, thus creating a situation in which it was “not so simple to engage in polemics with the regime from the left” given that much of the usual left of center agenda is already being carried out by the Kremlin.

            Indeed, “it is impossible to speak out from left-wing positions against this System.” The only thing one can do is to do what Navalny has done: select an issue where the question of social justice is central and hit that again and again.  Fighting corruption is precisely this kind of issue, but of course it is one that the powers that be also try to engage in.

            All this means, Savvin says, that “in the Russian Federation today exist powerful preconditions for the appearance of an opposition ‘leftist project.’ But for this project a new form is needed. To play on the field using classical left propaganda and aesthetic clichés is hardly realistic.”

            Socialist ideas draped in liberal phraseology, the message Navalny seems to be developing, “may become a most powerful weapon” in his hands. “Or course, not right now but at some point in the future.”  But to the extent that Navalny adopts this strategy, there is an even greater danger and that is this.

            If Navalny moves to the left, then “the political space in the Russian Federation could be monopolized by the left. “And all the struggle, even the harshest and bloodiest, will take place within the framework of the discourse of the left.”  In that case, national Bolsheviks will be “the right,” social democrats “the liberals,” and communists and anarchists “the real lefts.” 

            “All of this, unfortunately, is in large measure the objective result of what has taken place [in Russia] beginning in 1917,” Savvin says. And this shift to the left is even more likely because “today Russian nationalism is still suffering from the consequences of the Crimean collapse.” And thus right of center forces aren’t going to have a major influence on Navalny.

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