poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

February 22, 2010

LQD: “The eternal weakness of Russian liberalism” by Mark Adomanis.

Filed under: Lazy Quote Diary,Politics: Russia — poemless @ 6:09 PM
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Adomanis is a contributor at True Slant. What is True Slant – besides where Taibbi is writing now which just makes me grieve uncontrollably for the eXile? I know nothing about True Slant or Adomanis, but he has been making a lot of the same observations as bloggers like Sublime Oblivion, A Good Treaty, SRB and … myself. Demographics doom debunking? Check. Masha Lipman having a point but being unjustifiably hysterical? Check. Criticism of Russian liberals based on their assumption that the 90’s were something worth returning to, their apparent disdain for the poor, their lack of strategy/interest in the hard work that is governance? Check, check, check…

Tolya thinks Mark must been reading his blog. A long time ago when I was young I jokingly suggested that someone who wrote an article entitled, “Russia will kick your ass,” contemporaneous with a post I’d written declaring the same thing, had plagiarized me. I said it in absolute jest – as if it were inconceivable two unique individuals could have this reaction upon seeing Russia throw her weight around the international stage for the first time in decades. (If anyone ever copyrights “Russia will kick your ass” they’ll probably make some cash.) Lo, I was issuing apologies left and right. I almost got some poor shmuck fired! That was no fun. No, I think Mark is telepathic. That’s because I subscribe to the theory that the most interesting explanation is the best explanation. I refuse to live in a boring world. However, if I thought the best explanation were the real explanation, I’d say we are simply witnessing a renaissance of common sense with a dash of Internet meme thrown in to taste.

The bad news is this makes me feel less special. I want my niche back! The good news is the, “Hold on now, let’s think about this,” bloggeratti may actually be gaining ground against the hysterical Russia fear-mongering media noise machine foaming at the mouth with Schadenfreude. The other good news is I don’t have to write as much; I can just re-post other people’s hard work here. So here goes, a dandy of an article:

The eternal weakness of Russian liberalism.

Reprinted in full with author’s permission.

In a self-parodic article, noted Russian liberal Georgy Satarov does quite a lot to show why Russian liberals and Russian liberalism remain so utterly inconsequential and unpopular. I make an effort to remain as emotionally detached as possible from discussions of politics, but I can almost make an exception when talking about Russian liberals – a group characterized by such overpowering mediocrity, stupidity, and petty self-centeredness that they are virtually impossible to not loathe.

Satarov’s target is Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov’s recent interview with Vedemosti, an exercise in the sort of banal defense of government power that exist completely independently of time or place: if he was an American, Surkov would undoubtedly have a high-profile chair at the Brookings Institutions or AEI from which he would sagely spout all sorts of justifications for cutting taxes, invading Iraq, occupying Afghanistan, and torturing “terrorists.” Surkov’s words, which Satarov tries to imbue with some magic and profound significance, are almost entirely without meaning since they are the words of the government apologist and (by design) are so vacuous that they can be use to defend any course of action be it republican, democratic, authoritarian, monarchical, totalitarian, or some combination of all of these.

What interests me is the shocking and barely believable degree of tone deafness that Satarov displays when discussing the 1990’s. To put it mildly, the 1990’s were a catostrophic and near fatal disaster for Russian society. Historian Stephen Kotkin has persuasively argued that the best way to understand Soviet/Russian history from the late 1970’s until the early 2000’s is not as a period of “transition” or “transformation” but as one of utter collapse: the extended death throes of the bankrupt and broken communist system. It should go without saying that societal collapses are not particularly pleasant experiences and are not typically remembered fondly by those who lived through them.

As can be expected in an environment of complete societal collapse most Russians suffered horrifically during the 1990’s, and it is virtually impossible to overstate how blood-curdlingly awful they were for the average citizen. To take just a small sample of what happened: personal savings, which in many cases had been built up over decades, were completely wiped out by hyperinflation, the price of all but the most basic goods exploded (the always-stoic Russians made light of this absurd situation by noting “Under communism we had money but the stores had no goods. Under capitalism it is much better: now the stores have goods but we have no money!”), unemployment went from being illegal to being commonplace, real wages plummeted and, if they were paid at all, were often payed 5-6 months late and in-kind (i.e. if you worked in a mine every few months you’d be given a big bag full of coal, which you would then have to barter, laboriously working out how many lumps of coal would buy a chicken breast, a bottle of aspirin, a jacket etc.), healthcare and educational spending fell by 30-35% from already manifestly inadequate levels, and, to sum things up, the economy, measured in constant dollar prices, contracted by over 60%. That’s right, the Russian economy shrank by over 60%. Russia’s macroeconomic performance during the 1990’s was thus significantly worse than America’s during the Great Depression. Things got so bad that reasonable people predicted that Russia would turn into Yugoslavia, only on a far grander scale and with thousands of nuclear weapons thrown in for good measure.

So when Satarov say the following, you can understand why I can barely repress my sense of revulsion:

During the 1990s, independent universities and independently educated people began to emerge. There is a reason why those universities have been suppressed. Independent courts began to appear and people began to use them independently. There is a reason why this independence has been destroyed over the last 10 years. And independent and (which is more important) effective business began to emerge. From furniture factories that were able to export their products to Italy to Yukos, which was looted and destroyed by the authoritarian modernizers. After the August 1998 crisis it was precisely independent business that lifted the country off its rear end in record time. And all it took was not getting in its way. There is no longer any free business in Russia. And all that was the very energy that we so sorely lack now.

So, in Satarov’s telling, despite the unfortunate fact that Russians were dying on the streets en-masse, because a few factories shipped furniture to Italy(did this actually happen? has anyone ever seen Russian furniture on sale anywhere in the West?) and because Yukos waged a good PR campaign, shock therapy was a success! Neoliberal economics triumphed! Рынок победил!

This is equal parts laughable and contemptible. Laughable because every social and macroeconomic indicator, literally every single one of them, declined rapidly during the 1990’s and has gotten significantly better since Putin came to power. Satarov’s pablum is contemptible, and deeply so, because the 1990’s in Russia were a humanitarian tragedy on a grand scale. Millions upon millions (somewhere between 5-6 million) of Russians died earlier than expected, and while such “excess deaths” are not directly comparable to genocide or murder they should, at the absolute least, give great pause to someone who is extolling the manifest virtues of the time period during which they took place. Yet Satarov couldn’t care less that heaps of his countrymen were dying like flies, in his telling it was all worthwhile because “independently educated people began to emerge.” One can see why people like Satarov and his ilk may accurately be called “market Bolsheviks,” as their “break some eggs to make an omelet” philosophy is thoroughly Soviet. Indeed the only change from such a worldview’s rotten Leninist predecessor is the metamorphosis of “the market” from the source of all evil in the world to the source of all good.

I can understand, and even conjure some sympathy for, an argument of the sort proffered by Anders Aslund: that Yeltsin and his advisers did all of the unpopular heavy lifting and structural reorganization and Putin, through no particular effort of his own, inherited an economy that had bottomed out and was ready to blossom. But that is not what Satarov is claiming. Satarov is not claiming that Russian liberals laid the groundwork for the economic success of the 2000’s (which has the virtue of being at least partially true), but is instead making the patently false and truly insane claim that the 1990’s in Russia were better than the 2000’s. To understand how preposterous and absurd this is, imagine the public response if candidate Michael Dukakis solemnly pledged to do everything in his power to “weaken the dollar and bring back stagflation” or, perhaps as an even better illustration, imagine if Thomas E. Dewey’s campaign had not accommodated itself to the New Deal but instead openly promised to “eliminate social security, encourage deflation, and spark mass unemployment!” What would happen to politicians with strategies so totally removed from reality? Well, probably, they would extremely unpopular. Shockingly, when Russian liberals defend and embrace a period during which Russia collapsed it does nothing to help their popularity

As I’ve said before, democracy is not a panacea: democratic governments actually have to govern and not, as Satarov seems to suggest, “get out of the way” and then occupy their time by issuing vague platitudes regarding “freedom.” Russian liberals have rarely had any interest in the difficult and boring business of running a large and complicated country and, when they have actually seized the reigns of the state, the results have been so disastrous as to discredit them for a generation. What Russian liberals need to do seems quite obvious: first, they need to apologize for ruining the country the last time they were in power (recognizing that Yeltsin is one of the least popular figures of the past several decades would also be a good start). Next, they need to show that they have some sort of connection (even if a tenuous and insincere one) to the real-world problems experienced by average Russians, the great majority of whom are positively disposed towards the current regime. Finally, Russian liberals should develop some vaguely plausible plan for addressing the concerns of average citizens. As of now, their thinking seems to mirror that of South Park’s famous underpants gnomes:

Russian liberalism’s strategic plan:

1. Get rid of Vladimir Putin
2. ?????????????????????
3. Freedom and prosperity!

Indeed after reading Satarov’s article it was immediately clear that nothing the Kremlin does or says could possibly stigmatize Russian liberals more effectively than their own rhetoric. All of the politicians associated with the 1990’s are toxic figures, the targets of vicious scorn, ridicule, and even outright hatred. And yet, rather than distancing themselves from the manifest and epic failures of those years, Russian liberals still draw ever-closer to totally discredited policies and shout themselves horse defending Yeltsin. No one has apparently told them how utterly foolish this makes them look.

Towards the end of his piece, Satarov snidely remarks:

Russia has been undergoing “authoritarian modernization” for 10 years now. We see the results.

Yes we see the results, and so do Russian citizens. Since 2000 real wages have more than doubled and the economy grew by 7% a year. Social spending has exploded and is now substantially more generous than it ever was in the Soviet period. Russian business, while still technologically backward and inefficient compared to leading Western countries, is gradually, is slowly, converging with world standards. More than at any point in their history Russians are free to travel abroad, and Russia has never been more open to foreigners. The ruble’s buying power has increased substantially, and foreign goods are more available than at any time in Russia’s often-painful economic history. This is an incipient catastrophe? In such a situation, why would anyone expect that the peasants would be storming the Bastille? If Russians didn’t revolt when they were being robbed blind by the oligarchs and forced to watch their parents sell their old war medals in order to avoid starving, why would they revolt now? One can very easily exaggerate the success of Putin’s regime, and underestimate the size of the problems still confronting Russia, but it takes a deeply sick and unbalanced psyche to see the past 10 years of Russian history as nothing but an uninterrupted series of catastrophes.

Unless and until Russian liberals take responsibility for the 1990’s and develop a platform that is able to explain not only the difficulties and problems of everyday life but practical methods for redressing them, they will be nothing more than a totally marginal force in society and a crude parody of an effective political opposition. And deservedly so. Any political grouping which views 1990’s Russia as model to be emulated should be kept as far away from the levers of power as humanly possible.


I don’t expect anyone else to share my perverse affinity for Surkov. In fact, it might be best he doesn’t get too much encouragement. Or my visceral disgust for the policies of the 90’s. I have horrific images burned into my psyche for life, but that’s not your problem. But Adomanis is able to rebut liberal rhetoric without glorifying the current regime or even questioning Yeltsin’s legacy as well-meaning reformer. Criticism of contemporary Russian liberals is not, then, implicitly an endorsement of Putin or anti-capitalist. I think that’s the strawman. Much easier to present oneself as the preferable alternative to Putin by invoking the bad old days of the Soviet Union than to recreate one’s own tarnished image and win back the people with responsible policy that benefits the common good.

Adomanis makes an astute remark that “democratic governments actually have to govern and not, as Satarov seems to suggest, ‘get out of the way’ and then occupy their time by issuing vague platitudes regarding ‘freedom.'” I am thinking that this choice between authoritarianism and freedom is just as much of a strawman. I hope we can eventually overcome our dependence on catchphrases and scare-tactics, on sounds bites that make us feel and labels so overused they’ve lost all meaning. Freedom is not a form of government, and any effective government must have some degree of authority. I’ll take Adomanis’s advice for the liberals one step further: actually identify problems facing your country (there’s lots to choose from, and not just your own personal ones!) and come up with possible long term solutions.

Like, for example, Medvedev and Putin are attempting to do…


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