Thursday, July 12, 2018

‘Russian Democratic Opposition Ever More Becoming Like a Totalitarian Sect,’ Pastukhov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 11 – Vladimir Pastukhov says that “the Russian and in words liberal and democratic opposition is becoming ever more like a totalitarian sect for which all who do not share its ‘symbols of faith’ are irredeemable enemies and heretics,” a dangerous development that threatens the future both of democracy in Russia and of its intellectual elite.

            What the UK-based Russian historian is referring to is the increasing tendency of Russian liberals and democrats to take pride in or show support for any outstanding Russians be they in the arts or in sports if the latter show themselves in any way to be linked with or supportive of Vladimir Putin (

            All too often, Pastukhov says, the democratic opposition “does not see gradations of evil, does not distinguish cause and effect … but expects from everyone” the application of political judgments on all things according to its own views, something that has the effect of “condemning it to loneliness and isolation” and precludes any political victory.

            But of course, he continues, the opposition “does not need any victory in fact: its raison d’etre consists in the existential suffering of its status as the liberal elect” that has assumed the right to judge everything even those things far from politics according to a single political standard – is the person close to or supportive of Putin or not?

            “Part of the Russian intelligentsia, in response to the Putinist counterrevolutionary ‘ours-ism’ is opposing a revolutionary ‘not ours-ism,’ an extremely problematic intellectual attraction which includes as ‘enemies of democracy’ all those who do not stand openly in opposition to the regime and even more all those who continue to cooperate with it,” Pastukhov says. 

            This not only leads such intellectuals into a political blind alley but undermines the principles of intellectual life which they proclaim. One simply must not “equate the authorities, the regime, and the Russian cultural class.” These are different things, but they are none of them homogeneous or entirely mutually exclusive.

            Sometimes, as in the case of the arguments over whether to support the Russian team in the World Cup, this “principledness” reaches the point of absurdity. Indeed, one can say that this is an example of the Hegelian principle that everything that starts as a tragedy is repeated as a kind of farce.

            Over a century ago, Lenin took great pride in the achievements of his country and carefully kept them separate from his hostility to the regime. As a result, he came to power and imposed a regime that was in many ways far worse than his predecessor. But he did come to power.

            Those who today in the name of ideological purity decide to root against the Russian team in the World Cup not only “do not recognize and are even ashamed of their own ‘nationalism,’” but also put themselves in a position where we will never know what they will do because “they will never come to power.”

            Pastukhov continues: “Although the Russian cultural class is not consistence in the defense of its principles and is not prepared openly to struggle for its ideals, it as before in general is oriented toward individual freedom, including political, to tolerance and humanism and is foreign to foreign and arbitrariness” and thus has little in common with Putin’s regime.

            “Unfortunately,” he continues, “one can hardly say the same thing about the Russian political class, including its very active fraction which has made as its slogan the struggle ‘for a European choice by Russia.’”  It truly is cutting a window to Europe but in what can only be described as a “truly Asiatic” manner.

            And consequently, “in this, unfortunately, it doesn’t go far from its antagonist, the Russian powers that be.”  Both are promoting the idea that who is not with us is against us, something that contributes to the temporary strengthening of the regime but undermines the most fundamental nature of the intelligentsia.

            “One of the main problems of the regime, which over the longer term will inevitably lead to its collapse,” Pastukhov says, “is that it is in a stat of cognitive dissonance with a quite powerful and broad cultural class of Russia. But in a paradoxical way, the main opponent of the regime – the liberally inclined Russian political class – manifests a problem which can have for it analogous consequences.”

            According to the Russian historian, “the prospects of real democratization of Russia will appear only when the Russian cultural class convinces the Russian political class that it is the latter’s ally and not its opponent.” 

            “In contrast to other European peoples,” Pastukhov says, “the Russian political class does not have the same borders as the educated class and instead forms a small subset of it. In Russia even those for whom politics is their daily work – the bureaucracy, the oligarchs and the top managers of state corporations – are apolitical.”

            According to the historian, “the behavior of the Russian political class and the Russian cultural class, especially in periods of crisis, gets out of synch.  As the crisis deepends, the Russian cultural class becomes ever more demonstratively apolitical, grotesquely loyal to the authorities … [while] the Russian political class” isolates itself by denouncing all and sundry.

            The political class increasingly adopts “black-white thinking,” one that allows for no shades or gradations.  But “happily,” Pastukhov continues, “real life is more complicated and various and more interesting” than that.  People are seldom all one thing or another: they are a mixture of many things.

            To respond effectively to that situation, he says, the Russian political class must stop asking only whether something is “good or bad for Putin” and concentrate instead on what is “good or bad for Russia.”

            “The war in Ukraine and Syria are bad for Russia, and against this war, one must fight,” Pastukhov says. “A victory in the match with Spain and a good came with the Croatian squad is good for Russia, and one can be proud of that. The construction of stadiums for the World cup is good for Russia, but the theft and excessive spending is bad.”

            “Therefore, one must struggle with the showiness and the corruption but be at the same time proud of the stadiums.” 

            “Not everything that Putin does is bad for Russia.” One must oppose those things he does that are bad for the country but not denounce any good just because he is somehow associated with it.  The Russian political opposition must remember that and remember he isn’t going to be around forever. It needs to begin to see the world as complicated as it really is.

            Not surprisingly, Pastukhov’s words have infuriated some in the Russian political class who see them as a call to cooperate rather than oppose Putin – see for example Igor Yakovenko’s attack at – but that is to misread the historian’s call for the opposition to adopt a sophisticated strategy rather than one that will ensure its continued defeat.

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