Two targets of a leading Russian liberal’s contempt –Putin and the West
Lilia Sheftsova’s article “The end of the affair” was published in a recent issue of the American journal American interest. (Shevtsova is an editorial board member of the journal). In fact, it is a sort of manifesto supposedly on behalf of the Russian liberals written by one of the most respected Russian political analysts with a wide knowledge of Western literature. Shevtsova is not only a high ranking scholar but she is also a brave woman who, living mostly in Moscow, is not afraid to be one of the harshest critics of Putin’s regime— being well aware that she put her life in jeopardy as does anyone in Russia who does the same. I personally admire Lilia a lot and have to mobilize my devotion to the impartial analysis of her work in order to make judgments as “objective” as possible.
Not very often has the fate of the Russian democracy and of the world been approached with such a Spenglerian scale as it was by the author. Even the broad generalizations on world history typical for Neil Fergusson or Francis Fukuyama yield somewhat to the ambitions of the Muscovite author. In my view, Shevtsova entered too deeply into the art of generalizations. Operating regularly with the concept of “the West” as her major unit of analysis she paid no attention to the differences between various countries within the West; and she thought it possible to dismiss the differences between theUSAandFrance, orDenmarkandItalyas irrelevant for her analysis. It is a little amusing because the Soviet ideologues who also liked to talk about the “West” in general still paid a lot attention to the differences inside the Western world ever since Lenin with his famous law of the uneven economic and political development of capitalism.
Shevtsova involves herself in the dubious generalizations not only about the West but also about Russian history. She contends that Western politicians “regretfully … ignore Russian history, which proves thatRussia’s personalized power has been unable to reformRussia” and that they “continue to believe in the positive potential ofRussia’s personalized power”. Pointing to such blatant ignorance Shevtsova, speaking for herself as well as the readers, states, “is it naivety? Or typical Western wishful thinking? Or maybe this is a way of justifying the sweet deals made with the Russian regime?” For such an outstanding Russian intellectual to make such a categorical statement is more than strange. Are Western analysts so “naïve” to point to the role of “the agent”, or leader, in making changes inRussia, in several cases for the worse, like Lenin or Stalin, and in our times –Putin, or in some cases for good like Alexander the Second, Khrushchev and Gorbachev? It is Russian leaders and not the masses who, “from below”, initiated the radical changes inRussia? Of course, in no way we deny the impact of the various “objective realities” with its current political and economic structures and cultural traditions as well as the behavior of the masses on the origin of the specific Russian elites and its leaders.
I am also confused about Shevtsova’s use of the postmodernist way of thinking. Her beloved terms in this article are “invention and reinvention.” It is possible to say that the individual can “invent” his or her personal religion or even gender; what challenges common sense only moderately , as we see even in this case is the underestimation of the role of environment and social processes in shaping the mind of the individual. However, Shevtsova talks about “Western civilization” which “has to reinvent itself” in economic and social life as well as in foreign policy. It is indeed a very weird reminder of the anthropomorphic fallacy in which a scholar attributes human characteristics to organizations or nations. Shevtsova does this with the whole West. Is Shevtsova ready to answer questions about an “agent” who, representing the whole Western civilization even theoretically, is able to undertake “the reinvention” of any of its elements? Even the Soviet totalitarian society failed “to invent” the “new Soviet personality,” though its ideological and repressive apparatus had some chance to do it.
Shevtsova’s article entered the hot discussion among Russian liberals looking for an explanation as to why their country has not been able to join the club of Western nations during the last two centuries in their fight for liberalism and democracy. With Putin’s anti-democratic Perestroika this discussion resumed with new fervor. The most popular theory among liberals attributes the success of Putin’s authoritarian policy to the Russian masses which traditionally mistrust democracy, and see in it a threat to order and prefer it to “the iron hand.” The recent protests inMoscowagainst the dishonest parliamentary and presidential elections could shake this conviction only temporarily because, as many liberal pessimists have noted, only a tiny minority of theMoscowresidents declared its support of true democracy while the province remained indifferent or even hostile toward what happened in the capital.
Another theory which became particularly popular recently, made the West the major culprit for the failure of Russian democracy. (Communists and nationalists however, not least among the accusers of the West, find fault with them in the opposite actions –the imposing of Western democracy on the Russians against their will and their tradition). So far, liberals who like Andrei Piontkovsky support this theory fault the West , at least partially, for the longevity of Putin’s regime. They have pointed to the stubborn determination of the West to maintain good relations with Putin’s regime because it is necessary for the achievement of their egotistical and commercial goals.
Shevtsova paid some tribute to this theory. In her view the USA, instead of helping Russia create a democratic society, harbors very sinister and selfish intentions toward her country what usually suggest such champions of anti-Americanism in Russia like Mikhail Leontiev or Maxim Shevchenko. Meanwhile, without any caveat she writes that “some observers, acknowledging the predatory nature of the new Putin regime, suggest a U.S.-Russia condominium over the Post-Soviet space to prevent other actors (mainlyChinaandIran) from filling the vacuum left byRussia.” Citing this wild supposition Shevtsova adds that “such an idea leaves us with doubts as to the true nature ofAmerica’s role and American leadership.”
Indeed, citing American authors who give advice on how theUSAought to useRussiain the pursuit of their own interests, Shevtsova does not even muse about their role in the American establishment and about their impact on American official policy. Shevtsova who spent a lot of time in theUSAdefinitely knows how big the diversity of opinions in this country is and how many of them dissipate without affecting real development the day after their publication.
Generously admitting that “at least part of the Western political establishment understands the nature of the Russian regime,” Shevtsova insists that this knowledge be used for “the furtherance of its own interests.” Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder are her examples, as if these two gentlemen have given a vow to abandon their own interests for the sake of Russian democracy and would not follow the examples of the myriad of the most sophisticated Russian intellectuals who openly and cynically “sold themselves” to Putin’s regime.
However, not only these two politicians, but also many other members of the Western elite all together demonstrate, as Shevtsova asserts, “an attempt on the part of key Western players to forget about values in their dealings with the Kremlin.”
But these data do not stand alone for Shevtsova in showing how little the West with its own egotistical purposes is concerned about the development of Russian democracy. Several other actions demonstrate clearly in Shevtsova’s opinion how the West’s pursuit of these purposes directly sustains Putin’s regime. Accusing the contemporary West (of course, as a whole) of “hypocrisy,” Shevtsova points to “the annual participation of Western politicians, pundits and journalists in meetings with Kremlin leaders” which “has helped to make Russian authoritarianism appear more civilized and acceptable for the West.” Shevtsova is right that the meeting of a Western politician or a journalist with the head of a non-democratic regime somewhat helps him to legitimize his rule, although usually very insignificantly once you take into account his resources to keep his power. However, it is remarkable that in her verve of the accusations of the West for everything, Shevtsova ignores the importance of meeting with Russian leaders in the study of the Russian political system. Nobody blamed writers Emil Ludwig or Leon Feuchtwanger, or American publisher Roy Wilson Howard, or American politician Harold Stassen for their meetings with such a political monster as Stalin while Barbara Walters received public acclamations for her interviews with such leaders of authoritarian regimes as China’s Jiang Zemin, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
However, Shevtsova’s major contribution to anti-Western sentiment inRussiais not in the accusations of “the West” in its refusal to help Russian democracy and to make it a priority in its foreign agenda. She proudly declared that “we Russians don’t need any assistance from the West!” adding that “we don’t expect any help in democracy promotion!” and “indeed those words should be erased from political dictionaries.” But in this case what is the major offence of the West beforeRussia? The answer is indeed stupefying –“the bad behavior of the West” both domestically and internationally. It put Russian liberals in deep limbo because they lost the model for their own life and now for this reason are desperate regarding what to do in their country. Imagine Jews who, wandering from theEgyptunder the direction of Moses, suddenly discover some flaws in this leader, lose faith in him, and now feel totally lost in the desert. The title of the article indeed conveys its main idea —“the end of the affair,” the decision of the Russian liberals, if the author is to be believed, to cease the previous love affair with the West because they are now “disappointed” with “Western elites—political and intellectual” which left them without direction in this world full of vicissitudes. “The vitality of Western civilization” is now questionable exclaims the author who, citing a few American declinists, takes their conclusions at face value as if their theses have been empirically proven.
Shevtsova declared the West bankrupt in all possible ways: “failing economy, dysfunctional domestic political systems, entrenched interests, dwindling prosperity and populism.” While according to Shevtsova the domestic affairs in the West are bad, however, the international policy of “the West” is probably even much worse. “The way the West uses power,” writes Shevtsova, provokes mistrust even among societies that have traditionally been loyal to the West” and mostly because the West fails to use its liberal values in foreign policy.
In the beginning of her reflection on the subject “what’s wrong with the West,” Shevtsova plays with the thought about the temporary, cyclical character of the “the crisis of the West” and seemingly refuses to follow the patterns of the Soviet textbooks which talked about “the crisis of capitalism” for 70 years in row. But then she –and she supposes that other Russian liberals follow her— was inclined to consider the state of affairs in the West as almost hopeless. The Russian experience, meanwhile, demonstrates, as Shevtsova writes, that calm and stagnation are much worse omens—signs that a society (meaning the West—V.Sh) may soon lose its energy and drive.” Shevtsova who also made many suggestions to the Kremlin now proposes a program on how to “revitalize the West.” As one “cure” she suggests to “the West” that it “has to find ways to deal with entrenched interests and their own plutocracies while at the same time rewriting social contracts to make the welfare state economically effective again.” The reader can only guess as to the concrete substance of this advice. For instance, whose “entrenched interests” she has in mind, who the “plutocrats” in the West are, and whether she makes a distinction between “social contracts” in theNetherlands,Italyand theUSA.
Shevtsova’s second “cure” –how to improve the international behavior of “the West” is even vaguer. She votes for “a new model of “liberal internationalism”—to reconcile ideals and interests” without specifying whose ideals and whose interests she meant. She is even more pessimistic about “the resuscitation” of the “liberal internationalism” model, the respect of the rest of the world by the West (is it supposed that it worked in the 70s?), because the West’s “inability to think strategically” while “liberal democracies prefer to stop thinking about grand designs and principles.”
With rare intellectual courage Shevtsova proposes to us the theory which explains the decadence of the West in the beginning of the 21th century. The cause lies in the disappearance of the Soviet Union which, as a superpower, stimulated indeed not only the progress in the American space industry but as well as in some other spheres of Western life. However, to make theUSSRthe main motor of Western progress is at best a great exaggeration. Moreover, the existence of the Soviet system is behind the emergence of various bloody regimes in the world and the direct enslavement of many nations in the world. The money which the West spent during the Cold War in its confrontation with the “evil empire” could have been used for better purposes in theUSAand by its allies. Besides, Shevtsova left unclear the question of how the West made progress in the economy, politics, and social relations over several centuries of its history without the benign impact of the numerous authoritarian regimes which were always available in human history. In her abjection of the current state of affairs in the West Shevtsova goes so far as to declare her suspicion about the vitality of Western ideals in general and the Western model of democracy. She writes that “the West’s claim of a monopoly on morals and values at a time when it has become bogged down with its own domestic problems and is clearly demonstrating double standards in its foreign policy not only undermines its role in the world, but also increases suspicion with respect to its inclinations.”
It is unbelievable for such a consistent critique of the Putin regime to repeat one of its ugliest postulates about the Russian own road to democracy. Even Dmitry Medvedev mocked the idea of “sovereign democracy,” and about the Russian specific political order which advanced Vladislav Surkov’s Putin ideology in order to ward off the accusations about the dishonest Russian election and about the disregard of the freedom of assembly. Today, Shevtsova flirts with the idea that “liberal democracy could not appeal to the non-democratic world” and she condemns those that have “a condescending attitude toward nations supposedly unable to accept liberal democratic principles” suggesting, as one of the authors cited positively by her said, that “China, Russia and other capitalist autocracies, paternalistic cultures” can offer “an appealing alternative to the western model”.
Shevtsova’s article is an important source for understanding the debates about the future of Russian democracy in recent times. Of course, the West and American society are now going through a difficult period even if it is by no means the worst in their history. Nobody can deprive the right of such a prominent Russian intellectual as Shevtsova to join the camp of pessimists about the future of the West even if her analysis of the problems in theUSAand in other Western countries can hardly claim to be original. Not only the legion of American but also Russian detractors of Western liberalism use clichés like those used by Shevtsova with numerous mistakes about the real state of affairs in the West.
However, the fact that a prominent Russian liberal decided the see the flaws of the West as the key for understanding the longevity of the authoritarianism in Russiais indeed amazing and scary. At the same time she does not believe that it will, or that “the West can revitalize itself with its current crop of political leaders and intellectual elites.” The greatest theorist of war in 19th century Carl von Clausewitz called upon politicians and militaries to avoid war on two fronts as much as possible. While the Russian liberals are now in the worst situation since 1991 (Putin openly started a new offensive against the liberal movement, as shown by the events following his new inauguration in May 2012) Shevtsova proposes not only to fight Putin’s regime but to open another front, this time against the West. Russian liberals often complain about the passivity of the West in helping them in their desperate struggle with authoritarianism. However, practically not many among them see in the flaws of American political or economic systems a serious impediment for their struggle. Most of them continue to believe that with its numerous problems American and Western society are in general immensely superior to what is going on in Russianow. Look at Russian liberal newspapers such as Novaya Gazeta or New Times, listen liberal electronic outlets such as Ekho of Moscow or Rain. You will read and see numberless references on one or another side of the American or Western in general political system as examples for imitation. For instance, the delight with which liberal media described the recent Republican primaries in theUSA, or the presidential election inFrance. Ironically, even Putin who foments systematically anti-Western and anti-American sentiments in the country, in June, justified his draconian law against political opponents by referencing Western nations who offer the model for government maintaining order in society.
It is very difficult to find something in the writings of the Russian liberals that even remotely resembles Shevtsova’s condemnation of the existing liberal order in the West, even if nobody considers Western society to be perfect. Calling upon the West to “reinvent” itself and the Russian liberals to stop seeing as far as the Western political order as their ideal, Shevtsova is at odds with many Russians. The protest movement which emerged inRussia in December 2011 united all political movements in the country –from liberals to nationalists—essentially with only one demand – to carry out an honest election, a very democratic and very Western-like slogan. During the last big demonstration on June 12, as in the previous ones, there were practically no anti-Western or anti-American slogans. The educated class inRussia, which supplies most participants in the protest actions, clearly is not disappointed with democracy as it is functioning today in the West. Besides thousands of the best Russian minds living in the West show each year with their behavior what they think about the liberal mode of life. Of course, we should not forget that the average Russian under the direct impact of the official TV channels continues to see theUSA asRussia’s enemy. But at the same time only a minority of ordinary Russians condemns the American political and economic order directly even if many Russians do not believe that it fitsRussia and talk about “the Russian special road in history”.
It is Lilia Shevtsova who “ends the affair” and divorces the West as it is now; but the Russian liberal community indeed badly needs assistance from the West, contrary to Shevtsova’s categorical assertion to the opposite. At the same time, this community is well aware that even if the West is not helpful enough, they have no chance to find another paramour, another ally. Most Russian liberals as can be judged from oppositional media with all their respect for all existing cultures would reject with contempt such a deeply counterproductive Shevtsova statement that “the myth of the uniqueness of the West (has) been repudiated,” a suggestion so dear to Putin personally and to his myrmidons. The absolute majority of the Russian liberals would also refuse even to discuss “appealing alternatives” which offer “capitalist autocracies…paternalistic cultures” which “sharply contrast with the liberal tradition” such asChina.
The Russian liberals continue to love the Western model even if many of them are afraid that their chances to see inRussiaeven such an imperfect democracy as the Western one are for the next decades quite slim.
The interesting and provocative article of such a prominent author as Lily Shevtsova shed an additional light into the deep ideological conflicts insideRussia.