Rejecting the ‘isms’ of ideology

When the congress of United Russia declared that Russian conservatism will be the party’s ideology, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is entirely proper for a political party to have an ideology. Until recently, United Russia didn’t even try to choose one. But, on the other hand, we Russians seem to have an abiding dislike of any “-isms.” It may be the legacy of too much ideology in Soviet times, when Marxism-Leninism was mandatory in the media, universities and public speeches. Now, when people hate something or someone, they just tend to add an “-ism” to a person’s name.
Many of the “-isms” that can be perfectly acceptable in English have a strongly negative connotation in Russian. Take individualism, for example. The word has several meanings, including individual character and the leading of one’s life in one’s own way without conforming to prevailing patterns.

And what can be better than rugged individualism, a belief in the importance of the individual and the virtue of self-reliance and personal independence? True, dictionaries also note a more negative meaning: the doctrine that self-interest is the proper goal of all human action and even egoism, but that is rather marginal compared to the positive meanings.

And yet, in Russian, it is this derogatory meaning of the word that is practically the only one. And I suspect that it’s not just a matter of our presumed cultural preference for all things common and collective, but that the “-ism” in the word has something to do with it, too. As soon as it is taken out, the core concept seems to become much more acceptable. For example, the adjective individualny is at least neutral and can sometimes be a word of praise, while individualnost (individuality) is much prized.

And, while in English opportunism and the derivatives opportunist and opportunistic can describe both the admirable ability to seize every opportunity and the less commendable tendency to act without regard for principle or consequences, in Russian similar words are always strongly negative.

A word that reflects this “-ism” fatigue in at least two ways is the Russian word pofigism. It can be rendered as an “I-couldn’t-care-less attitude” and some people believe that this is the true philosophy of many Russians, concerned, particularly after the hardships they went through in the 1990s, mostly with their private life. Of course, no political party could propose this as an ideology. But for many people “conservatism—if it means “we don’t want too much change”—may be just what the doctor ordered.

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