I noticed my recent op-ed got a lot of flak from
dipshits people who assumed I am a liberal and want Russia to become a Western liberal democracy. Of course anyone who reads this blog and particularly the FAQ would know the truth. Aside from not being a liberal, I do not consider Western liberal democracy to be democratic by my personal standards. Why then would I present liberal democracy as a positive thing? Read on.
From my earliest encounters with Russian liberals, whether it was via the writings of the late Anna Politkovskaya or a personal acquaintance, I was always struck by a sense of naivety in their words. It really is easy to get the impression that these people really do think everything in the West is better, that democracy equals US, Canada, and Western Europe, and if only Russia would somehow become that, everything would be fine. You don’t hear them speaking too much about economic issues, it’s why Russian liberals are often very elitist or at least don’t see anything wrong with supporting Michael Prokhorov as a candidate, nor do you hear them criticizing the US or Europe for their policies, whether foreign or domestic.
I used to find this infuriating, and the gut reaction, which I have only learned to suppress in recent years, is to basically pull what will inevitably sound like a Tim Kirby. “You think America is a democracy? You think we don’t have problems in America? Let me tell you…” This reaction has some merit. When we’re born and raised in a particular country, we are familiar with all its problems. When it comes to America, I’ve personally witnesses the warts and blotches on our society, from religious fanaticism, to poverty, racism, militarism, and our shitty, immature worldviews based on identity politics and the just world fallacy. And as for decay, well I once had to take Amtrak across the Southern half of the country, starting in Jacksonville, Florida. I’ve seen some shit, man. So obviously when I hear someone talking about America like it’s the be-all, end-all ideal for their country, I want to tell them that they are really aiming low, especially when Russia actually possesses, at least in theory, the resources and necessary economic levers to build a better system than what we currently have in the US. But I learned to suppress this reaction because I came to understand why they act that way. They don’t see what I see.
The Russian with enough money to afford visits to the US doesn’t see the poverty or economic hopelessness I experienced growing up. They come to a major city like New York, Boston, or Los Angeles. They stay in respectable accommodation. They turn on the TV and see bitter controversy between our two political parties. They see the White House and Congress changing hands. The 2013 government shutdown, which to informed Americans was basically an unnecessary circus over the issue of the debt ceiling, must have seem incredible to Russian observers who are used to seeing the Duma pass legislation almost unanimously every time. You want to tell them about militarism and kids getting sent home in body bags? The Russian will just remind you that at least your sons have a choice. Our military is voluntary and you don’t have to bribe someone to avoid service as many do in Russia. Shit every time some Russian who served in the army asks me about the pay I got as a soldier in the US Army I feel straight up guilty. I mean it’s not just the money or the ability to spend it like rock stars after their first record deal. We had crab legs in the dining facility. Crab legs.
Surely they must notice negative things, right? I agree, but you know I think back to the story of this sixteen year old boy who visited Russia back in 1999. He lived with a family and didn’t have to work. The family was well off by local standards. For weeks he had no responsibilities, no homework, not a care in the world. Sure he could see signs of decay and poverty around him, but he rationalized this with the standard narrative about Russia needing time to rise from the ashes of Communism. Besides, everything had a kind of quaint charm to it. It seemed so simple, far less complicated than life in America at the edge of the 21st century. These young people all seemed happy enough. His social awkwardness that had made him a bit of a wallflower in high school didn’t exist here. He could say anything and it would be greeted with, at worst, giggling. That default the previous year? What was that? He didn’t notice the signs. He didn’t know about women trafficking, election rigging, strange disappearances or all the other things which came to be associated with post-Soviet Russia. In fact, Russia looked pretty damned good. Maybe the alienation he felt at home was only because he was incompatible with American society, and Russian society appealed to him more. It never occurred to him that he might have had the same feelings had he visited Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Germany, or any of a dozen more countries. Based on these misconceptions, he later decided to dedicate his life toward the goal of moving to Russia on a permanent basis.
The lesson of that story is that when you observe a country as an outsider, it is very easy to create a romantic image of it. Whereas the negative conditions in the story were personal and individual, for Russians it’s societal and national. That is to say Russia appealed to that teenager because he personally had a hard life and a not-so-stellar experience in high school up to that point, whereas America appeals to Russians because they see all these problems with their society. In either case, the grass always appears greener on the other side.
Getting back to the issue of democracy, when we compare America’s form of democracy to that of other countries, America is almost on the bottom. Perhaps you could argue that we have one of the best constitutions, but our actual system of politics is rigged and literally controlled by two political parties. Lack of other options means that Democrats and Republicans don’t need to make concessions for their constituencies; they can count on the expectation that their regular voters will come to the polls for them mainly out of fear of the other party winning. In fact Russia’s system, which has more parties and a form of proportional representation, could actually be a more democratic system than that of the US, were it not for the fact that the Russian constitution is basically ignored, the president doesn’t really change and will most likely be in power for life, and the major parties all vote the same way and espouse the same nationalist bullshit all the time. Recently at a conference in Crimea, “opposition” candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky happily praised Putin and seriously suggested that elections be eliminated in favor of renaming the office of the president the “Supreme Leader.” Now that was just Zhirinovsky being Zhirinovsky, but unless he was making some kind of passive-aggressive dig, he basically proved that Russia’s political system doesn’t contain opposition. Could you imagine a Republican presidential hopeful publicly stating that elections should be canceled so that Obama could be made president for life? For this reason even America’s primitive, outdated system manages to look superior to a system where courts are not independent and the entire parliament body can almost unanimously approve any legislation almost on a whim.
Does this still sound to you like I’m endorsing liberal democracy as being true democracy? Well if I’m complaining about Russia, it’s only natural that someone would ask for my proposed solution. To simply say “socialist revolution” and leave it at that is petty and moral cowardice in my opinion. Transforming Russia into a function liberal democracy, even simply by preserving the existing system but without the corruption that makes it a farce, is a practical goal for most people. It is extremely easy to envision because there are several dozen countries already functioning under similar systems. The problem with socialism has always been the struggle to properly organize a socialist society after a successful revolution. Furthermore, taking this weaselly way out and saying “socialism” or nothing would change the whole debate to the issue of socialism vs. capitalism, which inevitably leads to all kinds of red herring historical debates, and pretty soon this blog would not only become a platform for my personal political beliefs, but a site of endless historical discussion which would force me to carefully copy and translate Russian language texts from archival documents and publications. Trust me, I’m not going to go down that road.
Just like Karl Marx and countless socialists since his era, I too accept that liberal democracy is a progressive system in comparison to the older feudal, absolute monarchist systems. In the modern world, even the most backward democracy is superior to a system where two friendly people switch positions indefinitely and party conflict is virtually non-existent. The leading countries in the world in terms of standards of living and virtually all other indicators all happen to be functioning liberal democracies. People talk about how Putin is popular for doing this or that, but they miss the fact that people have no choice. Putin can do whatever he wants. People were holding rallies urging him to openly invade Eastern Ukraine last month and of course he did not. What are they going to do, vote for someone else?
Sometimes those of us from the West, especially Americans, see our right to vote and choose candidates as a meaningless freedom, a choice between paper or plastic. The paradox is that this is true, until you don’t have that meaningless freedom anymore. It’s amazing how much of a difference that little change makes. Imagine what George W. Bush’s administration would have been like if he knew he would be allowed to remain in office virtually indefinitely with no opposition from Congress or the Supreme Court. Goodbye abortion. Hello invasion of Syria or Iran. What? Not enough troops? We’ll pass a law on universal conscription which will go into force immediately thereafter. Problem solved! Oh I’m sorry, am I still sounding too much like a liberal? Imagine Obama with the same power. Goodbye AR-15. Hello, Sharia Kenyan law! Whatever. The point is that American politics is still competitive and confrontational and thus we don’t have to worry about that. If this weren’t the case, candidates wouldn’t need to spend millions on their campaigns, hiring all manner of consultants and PR managers in the process.
What is more, establishing basic, functioning liberal democracy is a prerequisite to more radical politics and revolution. The reason why the West is full of molotov cocktail throwing radical leftists while Ukrainians go ape-shit over signing an EU trade deal and electing milquetoast liberal candidates is because we in the West have had liberal democracy so we actually know its limitations. This, by the way, was one of the crucial aspects of Marxist theory. Marx was not anti-liberal; what he saw was an irreconcilable contradiction between liberalism’s ideals, which he supported, and the needs of the bourgeois class which championed the ideology. If the class struggle could be resolved, the liberal ideas of liberty, equality, and brotherhood could actually be realized. This is why Marx praised bourgeois liberal uprisings against absolute monarchies and reactionary systems, his Communist Manifesto being written against a backdrop of liberal, republican revolutions which were breaking out all over Europe in 1848. Once a liberal, capitalist republic was established, the working class would then become conscious of the limitations of that system, and realize the need to organize in favor of their own class interests. Even if you are a staunch anti-Marxist, the idea still holds that people aren’t going to envision a more radical system with more radical solutions unless they are given choices and political participation and then realize these are inadequate for their needs or desires. If you are offered the same meal every single day for a year, the idea of having a choice between that and one other option will seem like radical progress, whereas the idea of choosing a different meal every night is so much utopian dreaming.
This is not to excuse Russian liberals for their incompetence and boneheaded mistakes such as waxing nostalgically for the 1990’s. Sure, they still engage in idiotic alliance politics which causes them to endorse anyone and anything they see as opposed to the Kremlin. They also put far too much stock in the idea that the only thing holding Russia back is Putin and thus categorically write off any attempt at engaging with him. The point is that you have to understand where these people are coming from, and realize that they can’t see the shortcomings of liberal democracy because they’ve never actually had it. We’ve long since crested the hill, where we can see all the problems in our respective societies. But they are behind us, and all they can see is the rays of sunshine peeking out over the top. When they stand where we are, they will see the defects in the system. They will start debating issues like neo-liberal politics vs. welfare states, Keynesianism, and even more radical ideas like Marxism.
Thus while we should correct overly naive ideas that some Russians have about America and the West, as well as liberal democracy in general, it is best to suppress the urge to unload broadsides of what about on them. For one thing, every single problem you can think of in the United States has zero bearing on the problems that Russians face. Yes, there is corruption in American society. No it is nowhere near equal to that which plagues Russia. None of it has any effect on Russian society, and bringing this up helps no one, American or Russian. The best thing that Westerners can do is help Russians get up to the top of the hill, intellectually, and make them see that the struggle for a successful, healthy Russian state and society is a whole lot more than simply replacing Putin with someone else. If liberal democracy comes in the form of someone hawking neo-liberal politics and recommending that Russia privatize all its state assets, it should be flatly rejected and new candidates must be called for. Norway, Finland, and Sweden are three functioning liberal democracies which are not known for the idiotic free market fundamentalism which has deluded American politics. Norway, with the highest standards of living in the world and some of its most profitable enterprises are entirely state-owned. If Russia ends up like contemporary Norway, it would be the greatest accomplishment in history. If it ends up like the US, that would be favorable only compared to where Russia is now, but it would also mean falling far short of its potential.
So in conclusion- Don’t tolerate naive bullshit from Russian liberals or oppositionists, but do resist the urge to go full Tim Kirby on them. Experience has taught me that the best way to convince people is with empathy. Walking a mile in their shoes is an inappropriate idiom. It’s not about their shoes but their eyes. You have to see what they see, then give them your perspective. That’s how you build understanding.