No more defeatism: rebuilding Russia as a modern civic nation

Some say that the major political watershed in contemporary Russia is once again between Slavophiles and Westernizers, now known as Patriots and Liberals; and that our country must choose between the two, with no other options. But is this really the case?

Some say that the major political watershed in contemporary Russia is once again between Slavophiles and Westernizers, now known as Patriots and Liberals; that these two streams of thought dominate intellectual and political life alike; that they are irreconcilable antagonists; and that our country must choose between the two, with no other options. But is this really the case?

If Liberals and Patriots are really the dominant streams, in confrontation with each other, shouldn’t one of them be in power and the other in opposition? But that’s not true. There are a number of acknowledged Liberals holding prominent government posts: people like Herman Gref, Alexander Zhukov, Mikhail Zurabov, Alexei Kudrin. Yet working alongside them are confirmed Patriots: Viktor Ivanov, Sergei Ivanov, Nikolai Patrushev, Igor Sechin. What’s more, we also see some Liberals in the front ranks of the regime’s irreconcilable critics: Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Irina Khakamada, and many others. Yet we also have a Patriotic opposition, as represented by Sergei Baburin, Sergei Glazyev, Dmitri Rogozin, and so on – equally irreconcilable. And the situation becomes even more confusing when we look at politicians like Anatoly Chubais, an indisputable Liberal, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a recognized Patriot; they can’t be sorted entirely into the ruling camp or the opposition camp (to be more precise, they can be found in either, depending on the circumstances).

Perhaps we need to figure out what the present-day “Slavophiles” and “Westernizers” really are.

Those who are generally described as the Liberals do indeed like to talk of liberal values. But let’s try evaluating them by what they do, not what they say. In the present-day system of government, the “Liberals” (let’s use that label, for the time being) are fully in control of the state’s socio-economic policy. And if we believe the statements made by government strategists, that policy’s priority is institutional reforms aimed at reinforcing the free market system. In reality, however, institutional transformations usually remain a topic for discussion and lengthy policy programs that nobody actually implements.

The actual goal of socio-economic policy turns out to be “integration into the world economy,” interpreted as adapting the Russian economy to the demands made by the world’s leaders: Western countries. It means turning Russia into a loyal “province of the Fourth Rome,” as Samara columnist Andrei Perl puts it. Russia has fallen hopelessly far behind the West; therefore, it must agree to integration on any and all terms, accept the role of a global backwater, and follow the instructions of its “Elder Brother.”

It would seem to be obvious that in this aspect, the national interests of Western countries cannot be the same as Russia’s national interests. The West doesn’t want any new rivals, but it does want cheap access to resources; so economic growth in Russia doesn’t serve its purposes. But the “liberal reformers” don’t recognize “national interests” as a concept at all.

Obviously, with a policy course like that, there can be no question of “doubling GDP” or any real growth at all; that’s considered unnecessary, and even harmful. But what does all this have to do with liberalism? A policy aimed at adapting the national economy to the interests of others, curtailing manufacturing, exporting raw materials, reinforcing Russia’s subordinate position in the global division of labor – this kind of policy has a different name: it’s a comprador policy. And it’s already being implemented in the socio-economic sphere, which the compradors control; but it’s not restricted to the economy.

The political demands of the “liberalists” in the “democratic opposition” are based on the same kind of reasoning. Although they and the government’s compradors appear to be in different camps, the actions of one group are remarkably consistent with the words of the other! In economic matters, it’s hard for the non-specialist to tell the difference between Yevgeny Yasin and Alexei Kudrin, or Yegor Gaidar and Herman Gref: opposition theory sings in harmony with government practice. Yet the political course that corresponds to comprador economic strategy is not implemented in practice; it can only be detected in the opposition’s “discourse.”

In foreign policy, the democratic opposition wants Russia to cease all activity in other former Soviet countries and obediently follow the directives of Western (primarily American) “curators” in other areas. In domestic policy, the democratic opposition wants the West to have even greater control over the Russian regime than it had in the 1990s. And since the present regime seems unlikely to go in that direction, the compradors are attempting to promote the idea of an Orange Revolution according to the script used in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine.

This is not to say that absolutely all of the comprador activists are dishonest and hostile to their own country. It’s not a question of malice (or not entirely, at any rate); it’s just that their system of values is entirely lacking in such a thing as national sovereignty. Their beliefs are based on the historical and cultural concept of Russia as a hopelessly backward “millenium of slavery” country, a “global loser.” And if you believe that to be the case, then there’s nothing bad about seeking to turn your country into a protectorate (a province, a colony) of more successful and advanced countries. Let the rich, clever ladies and gentlemen take care of us, since we can’t think for ourselves.

But world history knows no precedent of any country being turned into a colony for its own benefit. More usually, talk of “the white man’s burden” has been a cover for rich and successful nations using poor and unfortunate ones in their own interests, with the poor and unfortunate nations only getting the crumbs.

The opponents of the compradors have a very good understanding of state sovereignty. Actually, that’s the one and only thing they do understand. To hear them talk, all the liberal trivia like civil liberties and the rule of law, let alone human rights, sound like terms of abuse. They say they want to see Russia become a Great Power, at any cost.

Just like the compradors, their ideological antagonists base all their thinking on their attitude to the West. And here they are indeed the opposite of the compradors – for them, the West is something entirely alien, hostile, and aggressive. It’s a monster that is putting all its effort into destroying Russia; it must be resisted, and the only way to resist it is by building Fortress Russia.

This group’s socio-political ideal is as follows: a strong state, successfully repelling and destroying its enemies at home and abroad; a society consolidated around the state it respects; and a state-regulated economy. In short, an authoritarian autarchy bristling with weapons and governed by “strongmen.” Plato described this type of polity as a timocracy: rule by strength – or, to use the modern-day expression, rule by the siloviki (the security and law enforcement people). Thus, we consider that proponents of the Fortress Russia ideology can be most accurately termed timocrats.

The timocratic political concept also has some historical and cultural roots: the theory that Russia and the West are historically incompatible. This is being promoted by all kinds of professional Eurasians such as Alexander Dugin. They refuse to consider the fact that there are no full-fledged autarchies in the modern world, or that refusing to participate in the global economy is equivalent to perpetuating an economy based on raw materials exports. In reality, success for the timocrats wouldn’t lead to Russia’s revival as a Great Power; it would mean Russia being left out of the global economy and international politics, while continuing to be a raw materials appendage for the West. In effect, victory for the timocrats would have the same end result as victory for the compradors.

And there you have it: these irreconcilable opponents, who seem to lack any common language at all and propose diametrically opposed solutions to our problems, are actually taking Russia toward the same outcome.

An unbiased look at the ideas of the compradors and the ideas of the timocrats makes it clear that they have a common feature which is far more important than all their insurmountable differences. Neither group believes that Russia is capable of being a modern nation. Both seek to avoid modernization in Russia; both see salvation in returning to the past. In reality, both streams of thought are two sides of the same coin, two faces of the same strategy: a strategy of national defeat.

The first group’s ideas are based on the assumption that Russia is hopelessly backward; the second group believes Russia is totally unique. But they draw what is essentially the same conclusion: rejecting modernization, the formation of a civic nation, real integration into international politics and the global economy. No matter which group wins, Russia can expect to slide into the Third World and become a backwater. And since these two groups certainly dominate Russia’s elite, there seems to be no one around to counter the defeatists.

The right-wing majority in Russia is almost entirely lacking in coherent articulation and representation in politics. While some analysts and journalists are attempting to articulate a right-wing ideology, the ideology of a civic nation, they are few in number, scattered, and facing powerful pressure from the compradors and the timocrats.

Right-wing politics is in even worse shape. Six years ago, a leader aiming to pursue a national modernization policy took power in Russia: Vladimir Putin. His energetic and resolute approach to solving the Chechnya question, his striving for independence in foreign policy, his resistance to the nomenklatura revanchists, his focus on economic growth and modernization of the political system – all this gave him a colossal credit of public confidence. But a president can’t pursue any policy without support from the elites. Thus, Putin has to try to implement his own policies by achieving a consensus between the compradors and the timocrats – two factions in the party of national defeat.

Obviously, this consensus strategy can’t be very productive, especially given the anti-modernization stance of the forces in question. Is there any alternative? Yes, in our view. It means forming (or rather, consolidating) a new national elite, non-defeatist, that aims to see Russia succeed as a civic nation. It has the potential – but how can potential energy be converted into kinetic energy?

To what do the timocrats and compradors owe their strength as the leading forces in Russian politics? Both are represented among the authorities, in the media, and among analysts. Most importantly, they have an economic foundation. The timocrats are supported by fully or partially state-owned companies; the compradors rely on raw materials exporters and importers of consumer goods. As for national policy, the national bourgeoisie should be its natural support base.

A private sector oriented at development of national economy, primarily industrial business, has taken shape in Russia in the last 15 years despite exceptionally unfavorable conditions of existence. This group should become the nucleus for consolidating the national elite and promoting national modernization. It has both an interest in this and the resources for it.

Not everything is easy for the national bourgeoisie. It is under constant pressure from both timocrats and compradors with no interest in Russia’s political self-determination. The national bourgeoisie is not skillful in politics, that is why it turns to extremities all the time from complete servility to radical opposition, from reckless Westernism to primeval isolationism, from absolute mistrust in its own forces to exceptional conceit. A politician trying to work with the national bourgeoisie needs a great deal of patience and persistence. These qualities have never been inherent to the Russian political class.

That is why the advocates of modernization within and outside the authorities prefer political machinations, complicated maneuvering between the compradors and timocrats and technical manipulation; they haven’t tried to rely on the public. This is definitely beneficial for the defeatist elite, and should not be continued. Russia needs a comprehensible modernization idea. It needs a strong national elite relying on the indisputable majority of citizens. Russia can and should become strong and free.