Friday, October 1, 2021

Russia Caught Between Imperial and Capitalist Madness, Iampolski Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Sept. 28 – The late French philosopher Gilles Deleuze argued that there are two kinds of madness in the world today, imperial and capitalist. The former has a center where a despot defines the nature of reality and seeks to extend it as far as possible and to as many spheres as possible.

            The latter in contrast, Mikhail Iampolski argues, is a kind of madness that resists that imperial one because there are so many chains of signifiers – including money, idea, possessions and so on – that move about in various directions without a single center to impose an order on them.

            The Russian Jewish scholar who has worked at New York University for most of the last three decades says that his homeland, Russia, is “an outlandish combination of these contradictory types of madness,” with a despotic center of the imperial kind competing with the dispersed world of the capitalist (

            That provides a framework for his suggestion that the label of “electoral authoritarianism” often applied to Putin’s Russia “explains the situation only in part.” One cannot understand the political system there “without an analysis of culture and tradition.” And that in turn points to the disappearance of the individual in Russian political discourse.

            “I do not think that the authorities in the Kremlin today are in a position to hold out exclusively on monarchistic and church symbolism, although in Russia, the symbolic importance of a faceless state is much higher than in other regions … It seems to me,” Iampolski continues, that “the basis of its power is almost universal corruption.”

            “Corruption occurs when people are afraid to lose that small state of well-being which they have achieved and in exchange for its maintenance are prepared to pay by giving up the power to make political choices.” That is easier for Russians to do because more than most other peoples, they see the political as alien and apart and not at the center of their lives.

            “In Soviet times,” Iampolski says, “the well-known kitchens formed a completely separate world from the world of the CPSU.” Such cultural traditions explain a lot in politics, he continues. For example, they explain “why elections in Russia and in Ukraine play are completely different and play different roles.”

            According to the NYU scholar, “it is no accident that a Maidan was possible in Ukraine and that even the Belarusians … came o9ut into the streets to protest against the falsification of elections while in Russia even in 2011 was incomparably less.”

            The reasons for this are rooted in the nature of the Russian imperial system. Serfdom in Russia was always stronger near the center and did not extend fully or even at all into regions further away such as Poland, Finland, the Caucasus and Siberia. Thus, “the cult of statehood and even more of the empire never was in the borderlands.”

            Instead, people there traditionally opposed themselves to the center and to the officials the center dispatched to their regions. That has made democratic competition far easier in the borderlands than it is at the core of the Russian state. This difference also explains why the Kremlin has reacted to intelligent voting as it has.

            Intelligent voting as Aleksey Navalny has devised it is not about electing this or that candidate but rather about challenging the powers that be over their claim to have the right to determine all outcomes. Consequently, for the Kremlin, what Navalny has done is an attack on the core rights of the ruler. Not surprisingly, it has reacted with horror.

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