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13 October 2015

Will Russia revert to the idea of freedom?

Ideological orientations and ideologies in the country of ‘Putin’s majority’

The ideological spectrum in Russia is the subject of close attention and serious consideration on the part of the authorities, opposition, activists, experts, foreign observers and many others. However, attempts to comprehend the ideological portrait of Russia leave many gaps which are often filled with references to the dubious notion of ‘mentality’ or metaphysics of ‘historical heritage’.

Political ideology in general is the system of conceptual and axiological coordinates the subject is guided by whilst taking political action: (neo)liberalism, (neo)conservatism, all forms of socialism and religious political doctrines whereas ideological orientation is the dominant motivation of the subject of a political action. Ideological orientation is determined by a person’s social, economic and political status and can be conventionalist (not to be confused with conservatism), reformist or radical. And it is precisely ideological orientation which forms the basis for one’s choice of an ideology over another.

What is today’s Russia like from an ideological and political point of view?

Ideological orientations of Russian society

First things first: the famous 86% approval rate for the activity of Vladimir Putin. Such psychological mobilization is only possible under conditions of collective stress. A fear of change given the absence of a desired view of the future coupled with a strong feeling of insecurity, a high level of violence underpinning social relations and the incomprehensibility of the surrounding world and Russia’s place in it lie at the heart of the stress.

This fear spread in waves throughout Russian society from 1998-2013 before finally afflicting its overwhelming majority. From the several millions who suffered the most socially and economically from the collapse of the USSR to the dozens of millions of those who increased their wealth in the 2000’s through oil and gas. The latter also feel the fatal gap between the labor input and unjustifiably high rate of growth in income, but, at the same time, also observe huge social inequality, which exacerbates fear and the feeling of helplessness.

The constant collective psychological stress and the growing demoralization of Russian society have created sustainable social fundamentals for the authoritarian regime which have been constantly expanding all these years. Consequently, disapproval of the activity of he who impersonifies this regime raises a question – what can be done? And this only exacerbates the stress.

This is why the conventionalist orientation of the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens prevails – they want to preserve the current, albeit very modest, level of well-being, they want a stable and intelligible world, to end the constant fear and the stress it generates. Hence, ‘Putin’s sacred stability’ and the search for an anchorage in the mythologization of the Soviet era and even the pre-revolutionary past given the people’s reluctance to look ahead. 

The main danger lies in the fact that radicalization in the milieu of this conservatively-minded majority can be observed. Fears of the future ceased to be alleviated under the conditions of the deadlock of the Russian political-and-economic system and the incomprehension of the reality has aggravated. Therefore, a desire to break this reality has been born. That is why it should be associated with a specific enemy: the USA, the West in general, sexual, ethnic or religious minorities, Ukraine – you name it.

Radical ideological orientation grows rife from another direction, too – on the part of those who have failed to find their place in contemporary Russia but cannot emigrate, either. Here, alarming signals include the BORN’s trial (BORN – the Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists) and the bloody drama of ‘Primorsky Partisans. Their number had grown by 2014. The authorities, feeling threatened, encouraged such people’s departure to fight in Ukraine. The same authorities create an illusion of cooptation for survivors who return home: militants become members of all sorts of regional civic chambers, youth and veteran organizations. Radical youths in the Caucasus are also encouraged to join the ranks of the Islamic State, but this time with no chance of returning.

Under these circumstances, one should take the possibility of a series of local civil armed conflicts seriously. It takes only a few thousand individuals who change their conventionalist ideological orientation for a radical one and fail to see an alternative way of restoring justice save for killing those who they associate with an enemy at a given moment.

The most unstable group includes those citizens with the reformist ideological orientation. Some of them emigrate or become radicalized but their ranks are replenished by those who lose the ability to improve their economic or social statuses under the current system. It is tempting to determine the number of reformists as 14%. However, as few as 5% of the total number of registered voters voted for Mikhail Prokhorov – the only candidate with a program of market reforms – in the presidential elections in 2012. Approximately 11% of the total number of voters voted for Yevgeny Roizman in Yekaterinburg in 2013. And 8.72% voted for Aleksei Navalny in Moscow in 2013.

That being said, the majority of citizens of Russia do not associate the solution to their problems with election results. Hence, there might be more people with a reformist ideological orientation who do not identify with a reformist program, candidate or party. It is worth remembering that about 20 million people (18% of voters) work under the conditions of a completely free market (‘shadow economy’) and have shunned politics so far – these people constitute a potential pool for reformists but for radicals, too.

As for the Russian spectrum of ideologies, virtually all conservatively-minded citizens are adherents of socialism in the form of large-scale state regulation of the economy and social processes. Programs of ‘United Russia’, ‘A Just Russia’ and the Communist Party are socialist. Radicals (except for Islamists) are also attracted to different variations of this ideology: National Socialism, Stalinism etc. Socialists prevail even among reformists. Their exponents are the opposition party ‘Yabloko’ or, for example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Liberalism in Russia is simply in a political ghetto and perhaps this is why the market program of the opposition ‘People’s Freedom Party’ is hidden from the public eye. Not to mention that (neo)conservatism is not even considered beyond scholarly intellectual exercises.

Ideological orientations of the Russian authorities

The Russian political class exhibits conventionalist orientation, too. Their task is to maintain the existing model of power distribution, income from commodity exports and property, which is expressed in the formula: ‘No Putin, no Russia’. Even innovations are employed with this in mind. It should be understood that the character of the incumbent president fulfills the functions of the brand – the existing authoritarian system in the country and the beneficiaries of which will try to survive after Putin and, perhaps, because of him. We are, in fact, talking about the same fear which is also typical of the demoralized Russian society.

Against the backdrop of the deadlock brought about by the Russian political-and-economic model, a shift towards radicalism is also typical of the conservatively-minded ruling class that follows the trend of society. Hence, a series of laws that encroach on the freedoms of conscience and privacy which worsen the living conditions of orphans etc. Radical orientation is the basis for the unwavering faith of a major part of the Russian security forces that the ‘color revolutions’ in the post-Soviet space and the Arab spring were events planned by the West. The 2008 aggression against Georgia and the 2014 aggression against Ukraine are consequences of radicalism, just as the fanatical support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria is. Moreover, the annexation of Crimea, which became a test of loyalty for public officials, eliminated many barriers on the way towards further radicalization.

Radical ideological orientation is also fostered by the struggle for survival of individual political clans and personas which unfolds before our eyes. Here, there is practically no room at all for reformists; any apprehension of the rules of the game triggers immediate resistance at every level of the political hierarchy.

Different variations of socialism – from the prevailing state corporatism, near National Socialism, to Stalinism – also correspond most closely to the ideological orientations of the Russian power elite. This is true at least since the political regime in Russia is based squarely on the premise of bureaucratic regulation of the economy and social processes. No traces of liberalism, conservatism or rudiments of Christian political thought, despite the apparent influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, can be found in its agenda. And – let’s face it - such a coincidence of ideologies and ideological orientations of the government and the overwhelming majority of society surely means that the idea of freedom in Russia has little chance at this time. 

Epilogue: Quo vadis?

The conventionalist ideological orientation with a tendency towards radicalism that exists in Russia, typical of the overwhelming majority of citizens including government officials, leaves almost no room for those motivated towards transformation. Socialism in all its forms is the dominant ideology here.

To date, Russian liberalism does not have a contemporary language which could appeal to reformists or those who, due to objective changes, can no longer advocate stability. Nor does it have a language comprehensible to radicals although such examples exist in the 17th and 18th century histories of the UK and USA.

Not to mention conservatism in Russia. And a Christian political doctrine – if it emerges at all – will be brought about by Catholicism or Protestantism. On the other hand, supporters of radical political Islam are already present both in the Caucasus and in the Volga region.

There are no good scenarios when preservation at all costs or destruction of the status quo become the essence of political life while different versions of socialism constitute the basic choice. The collective fear only serves to bring about an urge to ‘escape from freedom’.

However, politicians who are able to become social psychotherapists, formulate a positive vision of the future and put it across to people with different ideological orientations via a comprehensible language will stand a chance of success. And it is only through these steps that the notion of freedom will make a full return to the Russian political agenda. 

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