În cacofonia de voci locale care se exprimă (panicard) despre Rusia, este bine poate să mai ascultăm și alte voci. Colegul nostru Ilya Budraitkis are câteva observații la obiect.
Russia is also not the Russia we read about in the West’s corporate tabloids, its long-time leader, Vladimir Putin, cast as an irrational psychopath bent on eliminating all who oppose him, at home and in Eastern Europe and maybe even the United States too if he wakes up cranky. The truth, as is so rarely the case, lies somewhere in the middle: The truth is Russia is a nation-state and an imperial power that may not be any better than the United States, but also isn’t really any worse. When it comes to being terrible, the competition is actually pretty close: The only country that sells more arms to repressive regimes than Russia is the United States of America, though the former has actually been stealing some market share by capitalizing on the instability caused by the latter (they also frequently arm the same people). When it comes to imprisoning the highest percentage of its own population, the USA is still number one, but Russia is again number two.
The United States plays up its devotion to “liberty,” appealing to Russian liberals whose Skype conversations with Western NGOs are recorded by the NSA, while Russia appeals to Western leftists (and Eastern Ukrainians) by capitalizing on nostalgia for the Soviet Union and the idea, more propagandistic than realistic, that state capitalism is markedly superior to the liberal variety. Too often, however, this is what defines the debate: each state’s propaganda machine, with patriots believing their own country’s talking points and dissidents believing the other’s, obscuring what out to be the glaringly obvious fact that neither nation-state is motivated by any principle in domestic or global affairs more honorable than “what’s good for our oligarchs,” who even live in the same parts of Manhattan.
If there is to be a new Cold War, the left should reject the temptation of reducing evil in the world to the actions of one’s own government and recognize that imperialism, like capitalism, is a global phenomenon for which one can blame more than one villain. Are there differences between the powers? Sure, just as there are differences between Republicans and Democrats – and they are significantly less profound than the partisans of either faction would have us believe, having more to do with who has power than what one does with it. Russia sending billions of dollars worth of weapons to the Assad regime in Syria, for instance, is no less evil, nor fundamentally different, than the United States arming the brutal regimes of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We on the left can explain why imperialists do what they do and how it’s not irrational but makes total sense according to the logic of capitalist nation-sates, but we shouldn’t confuse an explanation with justification or accept that logic as our own. We should focus on the crimes of the empire we know best, perhaps, but we shouldn’t just dismiss the crimes of others or else we’ll find we lost our moral credibility and swapped mindless patriotism for useful idiocy. The left is at its best when it doesn’t allow skepticism and solidarity to stop at a national border – and just applying a cookie-cutter analysis to events abroad, it actually communicates with its comrades in other countries.
Ilya Budraitkis is an activist, writer and student at the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow who edits the socialist website, OpenLeft.ru, and serves as a spokesperson for the Russian Socialist Movement, which he described to me as a “Marxist, anti-establishment organization.” Founded in 2011, when Russia saw massive street protests over allegations of vote-rigging by the government – the largest demonstrations since the collapse of the Soviet Union – the group is deeply critical of both Putin and his liberal opposition, demanding the nationalization of major industry and worker control over the workplace while warning that anyone expecting serious change to come from establishment politicians through a corrupt electoral process is going to be sorely disappointed. “Now the streets must become the arena of political struggle,” the group said in a 2011 appeal, arguing that if the left wants to change Russia it must not sit back in the name of unity or pragmatism and cede the political arena to “the rich bastards who have commissioned the hideous farce known as Russian politics!”
I spoke with Ilya about the opposition to Putin – who’s leading it, as well as who’s going to these demonstrations and why – the effect the conflict in Ukraine has had on Russia’s political culture, who killed Boris Nemstov, and whether Russian imperialism is a necessary evil in a world that could use a check on the ambitions of the American empire.
Obviously the biggest story in Russia and here in the United State is the recent assassination of Boris Nemstov. Here in the West, Russia right now is portrayed as sort of a police state – people are afraid to express dissent. Is there any truth to that? Can you describe what the climate is like in the wake of this assassination? Is there fear among the opposition or is that overstated in the corporate media?
I will say that the fear in the opposition came much earlier. It came after we faced repression after the rise of the protest movement in 2011-2012. Maybe you hear about this 6th of May affair – it was a huge police provocation at the anti-Putin demonstration in 2012, just the day before his inauguration as president. So you can say this atmosphere of fear and the atmosphere of repression towards the opposition they were growing during these years. Of course, last year was very difficult and very crucial in this sense because it was the year when the war with Ukraine was started and the confrontation that had existed before in this society became much more harder.
You can say that from the beginning of last year the main fear in the internal politics for power, for the government, became the shadow of Maidan [Square, the Kiev center where protesters helped topple the Russian-backed Ukrainian government]; that something that happened in Ukraine could also be possible in Russia. So even if there is no real reasons exactly for the moment to have something… in Russia this shadow of Maidan became a paranoid idea for the government and also it became a very good instrument for criminalization of any kind of protest. So even now if you have some local protest or some strike or some kind of action which is not exactly political – it can be immediately identified as a kind of Maidan attempt.
So there is an atmosphere of paranoia which is very much distributed and of course which is very much in the interest of not only the president, but every local power on any level. So during all this era, from the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict, [we have been subjected to] extreme media propaganda. This propaganda was very much focused on the idea of the internal enemy: that we have this “fifth column.” And even the term, fifth column, came from a Vladimir Putin speech a year ago, a very famous speech, when he announced the annexation of Crimea, and he also [claimed] that we have a group of national traitors inside the country and we have a fifth column. So if you look at Boris Nemstov, he was one of the figures who were presented as this fifth column during the last year mostly. So you can see the logic that stands behind this murder.
I do not totally agree with people who blame Putin for this murder. I’m not sure he has an interest in it. I will say that he probably has no interest in this kind of murder. When it happened it was clear that the media or government, they were very much confused.
So you don’t think Putin would have ordered this himself because, obviously, this politician wasn’t really a threat to his power. But would you agree with the argument that this atmosphere, this talk of “fifth columns” and “traitors,” contributed to this murder? Or is this too much speculation at this point?
It was not in the clear interest of Putin because the picture of Russian life and Russian politics that he wants to create and his media wants to create is a picture of national unity and stability. And his fight against a possible Russian Maidan is a fight in the name of stability. When you have this kind of murder very openly, just a few hundred meters from the Kremlin, it totally contradicts the idea of stability. It’s a break with stability. And this break comes not from the opposition, but it seems like from their opposite – from people who call themselves ‘specialists.’ It’s quite clear that those who tried to destabilize the internal situation, they’re not part of the opposition, but they’re like enemies of the opposition. And that completely destroys this propaganda [that it’s the opposition destabilizing the country].
Second thing, of course it’s an open challenge to the Russian police and security service, because it clearly shows that they don’t control the situation; they even don’t control the most central, important part of the city and they’re also probably not interested in this kind of events for even the bureaucratic reaction [i.e., taking the blame for letting it happen].
The third thing is that all these . . . these organizers of the anti-Maidan movement [in Russia], all these ‘patriotic groups’ around the government, who are probably feted by the government, they are now very much discredited because what kind of reaction [their rhetoric] now should produce.
All the levels of this official Putin political machine, you have problems with this murder. To say that he wants to frighten opposition, well it’s real effect was the opposite: Because the demonstration which [followed], my impression was that it was one of the most massive demonstrations that you have in the last year and it was clear that this murder touched a lot of people who before were not politically active. You had a lot of very new people at this demonstration.
What kind of people are showing up to these demonstrations? And how would you describe the opposition in Russia? Is it mostly neoliberals like Nemstov or is it more diverse than that?
I can’t say that it’s just middle class because you have a lot of middle class who are totally loyal and you have a lot of people who do not belong to belong to the middle class who are on the side of the opposition. But it’s mostly cultural, educational markers – you can say that it’s some people who connect with the Soviet intelligentsia tradition. Maybe some of them are teachers or professors, some of them are small businessmen, but they have the same background, the same more or less level of education, and the same tradition of disagreement. And disagreement, more ethical than political disagreement. So these people, of course they’re very politicized, but at the same time their level of political consciousness is [rather] primitive.
I mean that, for example, with the poor, they don’t analyze their exact social interest or they don’t connect their social interest with their political expression. So that’s why for them, people like Nemstov, who as you said was openly neoliberal, as are a lot of people in the top of this opposition, who – despite the very just critiques of Vladimir Putin’s politics in Ukraine or lack of freedom of speech – openly say that hospitals should be privatized, that we should be more aggressive in austerity in Russia, and should privatize the state property and things like this. Their position is somehow not so much discussed among their supporters, because for them it’s something secondary, something not in their core of their nature of support, because the most important thing with them is ethical support – they see these people as the good people, the educated people, the people who talk to them using their language, but not people who have some exact social and economic program which confronts their own interest.