Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Navalny Team’s ‘Traitors’ Affecting Russian Opposition Much as Khrushchev’s 1956 Secret Speech Affected Communists, Zharkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 14 – The new film, Traitors, prepared by Navalny’s Foundation for the Struggle with Corruption, is having an impact on the Russian opposition comparable to that which Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 had on communists both in the USSR and around the world, according to Vasily Zharkov.

            In both cases, the Russian activist who is now at the European University of the Humanities in Vilnius says, they attacked an earlier leader, Yeltsin in the film and Stalin in the speech, for betraying the principles in which he supposedly acted and opened the way for the recovery of those principles (

            Just as Khrushchev’s attack on Stalin gave “the children of the 20th congress” the opportunity to seek to restore Leninism so now the film is giving “a new generation of Russian politicians, the generation of the children of Aleksey Navalny” the opportunity to propose “their version of a democratic future and a path to a more just, equal and free society.”

            “In the eyes of most Russians, the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ were seriously discredited by the policy of Yeltsin and his team.” If they are to be revived, they must be freed of that burden, something that requires “an analysis of the mistakes of previous political generations” and a rejection of their discredited approaches.

            Comparing the new film with the 1956 congress is “of course, a metaphor.” There are many differences, but these two events are “turning points for the history of ideologies and the political history of Russia.” The 20th congress began “the long process of revising ideas of socialism;” the new film, the ideology of liberalism and democracy.

            “In criticizing Stalin, Khrushchev called for returning to ‘Leninist principles’ but not to tsarist times.” In criticizing Yeltsin, the new film is doing something similar, not calling for a return to Soviet times but to fulfilling the promises of democracy and freedom that Yeltsin failed to keep.

            That demolishes what had been a long-standing consensus in the liberal opposition: say nothing about Yeltsin or speak only good about him.” Now what the first Russian president did to subvert democracy and freedom can be openly discussed by a new generation of opposition figures without any suggestion that the alternative is a return to Sovietism a la Putin.

            For the opposition, criticism of Yeltsin has been “finally legalized,” and that has triggered a fight between the older generation of opposition figures who backed his “good tsar” approach to introducing the ideology but not the substance of freedom and democracy and those who want those values in forms that allow them to be pursued.

            What happened under Yeltsin was the establishment of “freedom exclusively in a negative sense, freedom from government oversight but not freedom for participation in the affairs of the state and society. The state and the people for a time turned out to be free from one another, but a decade later, the state retook what it had lost,” Zharkov says.

            Most of the earlier opposition leaders have fled abroad but there they lost social capital and “committed a fatal mistake,” he continues. That mistake, which consists of “a fear of the people alongside the absolutization of the role of the market,” remains for them what it was for Russian liberal dogmatists of the 1990s, the only way forward.

            Their attitude can be summed up in the following way: In addressing the people, they say “you are rabble so you don’t deserve anything good in your life. You will never have democracy but must instead recognize our privileges and power over you in Russia because we are your intellectual elite.”

            “Such a message,” Zharkov points out, “does not make democratic ideas more popular across society.” Instead, by taking that position, “Russian liberals have driven themselves into a ghetto from they can escape only by returning to empathy for their fellow citizens,” something a younger generation of the opposition is willing to do.

            “Unlike the heirs of the old Soviet pop nobility who flourished in the 1990s,” the commentator says, “these people do not consider themselves ‘an elite’ and are much closer to understanding the needs and aspirations of the mass population.” They don’t view their fellow countrymen “as a rabble but rather as people worthy of living in an equal and free society.”

            The new film will speed this process as it is “high time” for “the Russian opposition to leave the pseudo-elite ghetto” it has been in and instead “learn to speak with the people in a respectful way and in clearly understandable language,” Zharkov concludes.


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