Is liberalism the right path for Russia?

Ever since Peter the Great, Russia has struggled with its identity. Should it follow the Western liberal model or look eastward? Or does the country possess specific traits that call for the creation of a special political system? Two authors discuss.

{***Why Russia's liberals are getting it wrong***}

Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Igor Demkovsky

Read Dmitry Gubin's opinion on the next page

Why Russia's liberals are getting it wrong

By Zakhar Prilepin

From the start of the 1990s, Russia broadly built an enlightened liberal society. The country was integrated as a partner into global political, financial and banking systems, and was no longer a center of power lined up against the rest of human civilization.

Today, Russians are indisputably availed of fundamental liberal freedoms; anyone with the requisite resources can move freely around the country and abroad; there are hundreds of sufficiently independent media; and with five minutes of Internet research, Russians can dig up a ton of dirt on pretty much any state official.

Residents and guests of the Russian Federation are able to open any business within the bounds of the law and freely dispose of revenues earned here, including send them out of the country, provided that its strictly for personal use.

People can access any literature and music, and there is an independent film scene and even freer theater.

Droves of private clinics sprang into existence along with private schools and universities, and hundreds of other firms and institutions now provide all manner of private services — competition is there before your eyes.

Upon close inspection, no one could seriously try to argue that Russia as a liberal country differs substantially in any way from others that chose the liberal course of development, such as Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Romania, Poland, Turkey, Ukraine and the Czech Republic.

Moreover, enlightened Russian liberals prefer to orient themselves toward such countries as Switzerland, although it is not so clear what we share in national, historical or geographical terms to allow us to inherit from the successes of this genuinely comfortable country.

If we are talking about models of liberal reforms, is it not more feasible to cite such countries as Greece, Italy or Spain, with their looming economic collapse and mass of intractable social problems?

True, we have a high level of corruption. But there are a whole lot more typically liberal countries that also have serious corruption issues.

True, we have political prisoners, including some of my own associates with antiliberal views. But surely no one believes that participants of antigovernment actions in other liberal countries would immediately find a place in parliament and not, for example, in jail.

True, we have specific problems with the media, and there are cases where journalists were forced to resign over their work. But in the liberal world there are also taboo themes and even journalists who sit in real bricks-and-mortar jails for failing to observe these taboos.

Our own president is surrounded by a liberal entourage and almost all of those close to him could hypothetically be a participant in antigovernment demonstrations, in the sense that they also espouse liberal values.

Russia has yet to divide its parliament into Republicans and Democrats, who after forging a mutual nonaggression pact, will bounce power back and forth between themselves.

The day will not be long in coming, but I for one do not want it to come to this. I do not want to live in your liberalism.

All of us, liberals and antiliberals, need honest courts and ramps for the disabled, a functioning electoral system and a normal police force, social protection and decent medical care. But who said that these are evidence of liberalism?

Liberals have genuinely convinced themselves of some peculiar things: that a country that lives off oil and gas (exploited incidentally as a result of the deeply un-liberal policies of the Russian state) does in fact owe this existence to the untiring work of liberals and should be duly grateful; that all the good things in the world (freedom, chewing gum, wine, elections, good novels, ice cream, flowers, miniskirts) are liberal, and all the bad things (war, prison, emigration, jingoist films) are antiliberal.

It would never occur to them that war, absence of disabled ramps, jingoistic films and prejudice on the grounds of nationality almost always take root in liberal countries, while China meanwhile is busy building up an enviable auto industry, and in Cuba they stage gay parades and shoot raunchy movies.

Freedom is not a synonym for liberalism. All too often freedom is seen as the antonym of liberalism. Economic independence is even less a synonym for liberalism. And, ultimately, state independence is not a synonym of liberalism either.

Zakhar Prilepin is an author and journalist. His opinion originally appeared in Svobodnaya Pressa.

{***Why I am a liberal***}

Why I am a liberal

Russians invariably choose order over freedom, without realizing that this is the wrong choice.

By Dmitry Gubin

There is absolutely no gain in being a liberal in modern Russia.

Liberals in Russia are derogatorily called “liberasts” (liberal + pederast).

To the layman whiling their hours in front of the TV (and television in Russia is much more a propaganda tool than a source of information), liberals are undoubtedly freaks, most likely homosexuals and agents of the West.

Another disadvantage of being a liberal in modern Russia is that you have no right to represent the interests of your own people. Survival is the people's main interest under an autocracy; the people believe it is not a good idea to antagonize the authorities, who (as the people are sincerely convinced), are feeding it.

When I tell people in Russia that liberalism gives man credit for being able to change for the better without external coercion, that the pursuit of freedom is intrinsic to humans, I get suspicious looks.

And when I say that a free person is perfectly able of feeding his or herselves, people look at me with open hatred. "We know what kind of freedom you mean, it's that freedom [brought by Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev, which led to [the U.S.S.R.] getting destroyed and plundered. We don't want any more of that!"

To many Russians, freedom implies rampant crime, disintegration and decay. Order, on the other hand, means submission to the authorities and the restriction of personal liberties for the sake of the state's grandeur - even though this means the omnipotence of the czar, who only happens to be known as president in this country.

As historian and Slavist Richard Pipes appositely put it, Russians invariably choose order over freedom, without realizing that this is the wrong choice.

In other words, Russians today hate liberals while knowing virtually nothing about liberalism. Most of my students at Moscow State University, where I teach a course on radio journalism, don't know who Pipes is.

They have also never heard of Noam Chomsky, whose paper "Government in the Future," written half a century ago, gives a detailed description of several government models, including the liberal one.

My current students are generally less educated than my friends were in my university days. Perhaps this was how the education-thirsty Soviet society nurtured and matured the liberal idea, which demanded an end to censorship and the authorization of private entrepreneurship; this idea eventually destroyed the U.S.S.R. But today, a convinced conservative in Russia is usually ignorant and takes myths for facts.

This is one more reason why am a liberal: it is too boring to side with those who do not want to know anything.

There is also a third reason: I do not believe that in this day and age, moral behavior can be based exclusively on intuition and emotions.

If you rush in to help a person injured in a road crash but have no medical knowledge you may actually kill them. Civilization is becoming more complicated, and survival increasingly depends on knowledge. Who would you prefer to operate on you: a sincere surgeon or one with proper qualifications?

It is perhaps this increasing complexity, matched by the acceleration of technical progress, that motivates many to embrace conservatism, even if that road is paved with myths (for example, people hold on to the idea of "historic family traditions," although they have no idea of the social history of family).

People escape into the "natural simplicity," the "Golden Age," the "childhood of humanity," although any anthropologist will tell you how unsavory that childhood was.

This grasping at contrived "foundations" would be just as sweet as the next eccentricity, but for ideological seducers who know how to turn the fears of the confused into formulas for salvation.

In Russia, as a rule, such formulas involve the destruction of enemies. An enemy is a geographic or religious alien, or someone who feels differently than yourself, or someone who lives a different life – in short, a liberal. It's liberals that are responsible for all our woes, so tally ho!

One of such sincere seducers is Zakhar Prilepin, a gifted writer (much of his giftedness is accounted for by his sincerity). Having had his share of adversity (he used to be a member of the banned National Bolshevik party, got arrested and experienced police cruelty), Prilepin started to sing praises to ordinary people who are led through life by fate, those who are always right on the mere strength of being in the majority, of being just like everyone else, of being Russian and having Russian roots.

Deep down, Prilepin's short stories and novellas are sincere (to the point of physiological sincerity) in praising the modern Russian chav.

Even intellectuals sometimes give in to this exalted admiration of the animal grace of young people not spoilt by education, culture, or reflection.

However, it is important to differentiate between the aesthetic pleasure at the sight of a peasant earning a crust by the sweat of his brow and the temptation to put that same peasant at the center of the universe, while labelling all the rest as enemies. Something of the kind happened in Cambodia under Pol Pot.

And this is the final reason why I am a liberal, even though it does not pay.

Dmitry Gubin is a Russian journalist and television host. He writes as a columnist for GQ and Ogoniok magazines, as well as contributing to “Kommersant” newspaper. Gubin runs the “New Russian Media” project for the Independent Radio Foundation.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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