Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Russian liberalism’s false dawn

Liberalism won’t gain power without finding some common ground with the Russian people, or at least of a sizeable section of it


Russian theatre director Konstantin Bogomolov. Photo by Gavriil Grigorov/TASS.

Theatre director Konstantin Bogomolov likes to shock. At the end of May, he was at it again, publishing an article denouncing his one-time ideological allies in Russia’s liberal intelligentsia for their attitude towards the Russian people and towards the war in Ukraine. Bogomolov was obviously out to provoke. Still, beneath its insulting rhetoric, his article contained a germ of truth about the prospects for Russia ever turning into a liberal democratic state.

Offending people on a regular basis has made Bogomolov famous, but whereas once he targeted conservatives, Putin, and the Russian state, more recently he’s been targeting the West and Russian liberals. Aggrieved by Western political correctness, in 2021 Bogomolov took up arms against it in an article entitled “The Rape of Europe 2.0.” In this, the director complained that Western Europe was constructing a “new ethical Reich” dominated by an “aggressive mix of queer activists, fem-fanatics, and eco-psychopaths.” Then in November 2022, the Financial Times described a play that Bogomolov directed as “clearly heralding the start of a new era in Russian culture, with new people and new authoritarian values centre stage.” “The uproarious laughter of the audience at jokes about blackface and homophobic slurs was nauseating,” said the FT.

In his latest article, Bogomolov writes that Russia contains a “society within a society” made up of people who perceive themselves as special. This is the intelligentsia, 90 percent of whom “call themselves Europeans and enlightened liberals. But in the depth of their souls, they despise their insufficiently successful, insufficiently advanced compatriots.” These “special people” would never agree to listen to the ordinary people, says Bogomolov, because if they did, ordinary people would tell them that “empire is good, and a whole lot of other things that are simply unacceptable in civilized European society.” Consequently, “the people must be silent.”

The war in Ukraine has horrified liberal intellectuals, writes Bogomolov, but not because they dislike the bloodshed. What really bothers them, he claims, is that it has deprived them of the opportunity to get subsidies from the state to produce works saying how terrible the state is. Russia’s intellectuals lament the loss of their former lives in which they could “sit on two stools, be progressive thieves, intelligent murderers, corrupt philanthropists, uneducated aristocrats, actors with conscience (an oxymoron), Europeanized racists … and so on and so forth.” The war has deprived them of the ability to “live in luxury” and sip “pumpkin lattes.”

The intelligentsia wants to go back to its good old life, says Bogomolov. But, he concludes: “In February 2022 [when Russian invaded Ukraine], the past died. … There is no turning back. … It’s necessary to stop viewing one’s country and one’s people with contempt and to listen to the hum of history and the voice of the people. Because their opinion matters.”

While exaggerated, Bogomolov’s complaints will ring true among many Russians. The sad fact is that the social gulf dividing the liberal intelligentsia and the mass of ordinary Russians is enormous, and the two parties do indeed often view each other with undisguised contempt.

Take, for instance, Moscow professor Sergei Medvedev, author of the Pushkin Prize-winning book The Return of the Russian Leviathan. Medvedev writes that the Russian “mass consciousness” is “embittered, alienated and provincial,” “undeveloped,” “archaic and superstitious.” In liberal discourse, the masses are often described as having the “morals of slaves,” and as such compared unfavourably with the enlightened intelligentsia, a contrast that is sometimes referred to as the “Two Russias Theory.” As one-time liberal icon Boris Nemtsov put it in his book, Testament of a Rebel, before his murder in 2015: “The Russian people, for the most part, is divided into two uneven groups. One part is the descendants of serfs, people with a slavish consciousness. There are very many of them and their leader is V.V. Putin. The other (smaller) part is born free, proud and independent. It does not have a leader but needs one.”

As for the idea that what liberals really hate about the war in Ukraine is the loss of their pumpkin lattes, that too contains a tiny bit of truth, although the point of complaint is more often cheese than coffee, good European cheeses having disappeared from Russian shops as a result of the sanctions and counter-sanctions that followed the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Medvedev again provides an example, writing that “Among the losses of recent years—the free press, fair elections, an independent court—what has hurt especially hard has been the disappearance of good cheese. … a piece of brie, a bottle of Italian chianti and a warm baguette … drew him [the Russian] close to Western values and were acts of social modernization. … Striking against cheese was equivalent to a strike against the quasi-Western idea of normality.”

Similarly, in a 2015 article Masha Gessen lamented the loss of Western cheeses in Russia due to sanctions, but found consolation in the fact that they could still be purchased at the Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar in a departure lounge at London’s Heathrow Airport. As she wrote:

“It’s my first time in Europe after all that’s happened,” the journalist and filmmaker Inna Denisova, a critic of the annexation of Crimea, wrote on her Facebook page …. “And of course it’s not seeing the historic churches and museums that has made me so emotional—it’s seeing cheese at the supermarket. My little Gorgonzola. My little mozzarella. My little Gruyère, chèvre and Brie. I held them all in my arms … and headed for the cash register.” There, Ms. Denisova wrote, she started crying.

Suffice it to say that the non-brie eating, non-Chianti sipping majority has a rather different perspective. While sentiments such as those above might not be the norm, their occasional expression has given Russian liberals a serious image problem.

Bogomolov’s article thus draws our attention to something quite important. Russian liberalism can never hope to gain power without finding some common ground with the Russian people, or at least of a sizeable section of it. But liberals and the rest of the population are so far removed from one another that this seems impossible. Doing what Bogomolov recommends—listening to the people—would mean accepting the unacceptable, including the war in Ukraine. Liberals don’t want to do this. Instead, they pin their hopes on the war going so badly for Russia that the Russian people changes its point of view. But that means wishing for their own country’s defeat in war, a stance that alienates them even further from the public. Frankly, it’s hard to see how they can escape from this conundrum. For now, all they can do is wait and pray for a miracle.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.


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