Following up on my previous comments about the liberals in Russia, today is the anniversary of Lenin’s birth, which used to be a public holiday in the USSR and which this year has come directly after an important speech that Putin gave to the Russian parliament in which he discussed the country’s economic position and its progress in relation to the plan for its economic and social development up to 2020 that was announced in 2008. These two events and their response to them provide a good opportunity to assess the state of the liberals in Russia and where they stand in relation to their own society. In my opinion liberal discussion of these two events provides a good illustration of my earlier point that in Russia the liberals continue to misunderstand popular opinion and that this leads them down blind alleys and wrong turns.
To begin with the liberals have seriously misrepresented and/or misunderstood data on the subject of Lenin provided by recent opinion polls. They claim for example that a recent opinion poll in Russia said that 62% of Russians want Lenin’s body removed from the mausoleum in Red Square and reburied in a cemetery. Opinion polls in Russia are notoriously unreliable since they tend to be run by polling agencies, which were set up in the years of the liberal ascendancy of the 1990s and which continue to be closely affiliated to the liberals. They tend therefore to have a strong pro liberal bias, which inevitably affects their work and distorts their results. In any event in this case the opinion poll in question did not say what the liberals want to believe it said. On the contrary what it said was almost the exact opposite. It said that 44% (not 62%) of Russians support Lenin’s reburial and that the majority of Russians (over 50%) currently oppose it. The figure of 62% is only achieved by transferring from the column of those who oppose Lenin’s reburial to the column of those who support Lenin’s reburial the 18% of Russians who say that Lenin should only be reburied when all the people who admire him are dead. That of course could turn out to be never. Another opinion does in fact suggest that it that might actually turn out to be never (see below).
Whilst misrepresenting one opinion poll the liberals at least judging from their English language websites have preferred to ignore another opinion poll about Lenin that came out today details of which I found on the Russian Communist Party’s website and on the website of Levada Centre. This was produced by the Levada Centre, which of all the opinion poll agencies in Russia is known to be the one most closely associated with the liberals. This opinion poll shows that 58% of Russians assess Lenin positively as opposed to just 24% of Russians who assess him negatively. Only 5% agreed with the view that he was a brutal dictator.
The Levada Centre has been conducting similar opinion polls on a regular basis since 1995. The consistent trend in these polls is for positive views of Lenin to increase. Thus in 1995 the Levada Centre put the number of Russians with negative views of Lenin as high as 45% (as opposed to 24% now) whilst Lenin is now assessed positively by every Russian age group (including those under 25), whereas in 1995 Russians under 40 tended to assess him negatively.
It is undoubtedly true that as Lenin recedes into history Russians feel much less strongly about him than they once did. Certainly they feel far less strongly about him than they do about Stalin who remains a contemporary rather than a historical figure. This mirrors the way in the Nineteenth Century that the French tended to feel far more passionately about Napoleon than they did about say Robespierre. If the French example repeats itself then in time things will balance out. The point is that with the passage of time the number of Russians who share the liberals’ extreme hostility to Lenin and who by extension accept the liberal interpretation of Russian history is tending to get smaller not greater.
Meanwhile the liberals have reacted very negatively to Putin’s speech to the Russian parliament, which they claim somehow contradicts Medvedev’s “modernisation project”. Having read the speech carefully I cannot for the life of me see how it does. In saying this I should say that I do think Medvedev is making a serious mistake when he talks about Russia’s need for “modernisation”. This is a nebulous concept at best and one that has the disadvantage of lending force to the common claim that Russia is somehow a “backward” as opposed to a relatively poor country, which by most parameters it is not. However Putin was hardly opposed to “modernisation” as such (what politician ever is?) and his speech on the contrary discussed at length questions about how productivity and innovation in the economy and society should be increased. This has led some liberals to say that Putin is promoting a policy of “innovation” in rivalry to Medvedev’s policy of “modernisation”, which frankly I think is ridiculous.
The main liberal critique of Putin’s speech is that the programme he discussed is “paternalist”. Extreme believers in free markets such as the liberals in Russia always refer to government involvement in the economy as “paternalist” and always use that word to criticise welfare policies and social spending. Those of us who do not share these beliefs do not use this term or share in the criticism it implies. One liberal commentator has complained that in his speech Putin showed “no understanding of a post industrial society”. If so I say Amen to that! I would also say that if Putin does not not understand a “post industrial society” it is probably because no such thing exists. To my mind the single most bizarre criticism that some liberals have made of the speech is that Putin devoted too much time in the speech to a discussion of agricultural questions. I do not understand this criticism at all, which to my mind merely shows how detached from reality Putin’s liberal critics are.
In all of this criticism the liberals however miss the fundamental point, which that the things Putin said in his speech that he plans to do and which they most vehemently criticise him for are precisely those things that every opinion poll and election that has happened in Russia shows will make him more popular. Every survey of opinion shows that Russians strongly support generous social and welfare spending and take it as axiomatic that the state should provide it. Criticising Putin for saying he plans to increase social and welfare spending will make the liberals less popular not more. Calling for a return to the sort of unadulterated free market policies that in Putin in his speech expressly repudiated merely reminds Russians of the 1990s when precisely such policies were tried with disastrous results and gives Russians yet one more reason for not wanting the liberals back. One liberal critic complained bitterly that Putin’s policy had a real prospect of success because “half” (only half?) the population would support it. He did not explain why in that case he is the “democrat” and Putin is not.
In the meantime all liberal hopes in Russia seem to be pinned on a falling out between Putin and Medvedev. Some sections of the liberal media in Russia seem to be working flat out to try to provoke such a split. Often this involves seriously misrepresenting things Medvedev and Putin say about each other. For example certain totally innocuous words Medvedev said about Putin to a Chinese journalist were misrepresented by liberal commentators to suggest a serious disagreement between the two about which one of them would run for the Presidency in the election next year. I happened to have read this interview before I was aware of the liberal spin on it. Not only did I see nothing in the interview that supported the interpretation the liberals are trying to foist on it but I found the interview so uncontroversial as to be frankly uninteresting.
This tactic of trying to foment a split between Medvedev and Putin is of course no more than another example of the same tactic the liberals in Russia always follow, which is to try to gain power through the backdoor by pursuing intrigues and by manipulating those in power. In this case there is no possibility that this will work. Firstly it appears to be based on the assumption that Medvedev is somehow on their side. I see no evidence for this at all. Yet having convinced themselves that this is the case the liberals are now busy egging Medvedev on to stand in the Presidential elections next year on an anti Putin platform and even to run against Putin if Putin decides to stand himself.
As it happens I do not think that Putin is going to stand for the Presidency next year. I believe that the present arrangement of Medvedev as President and of Putin as Prime Minister and leader of the majority party in the Parliament will continue. It has worked well until now and I see no reason why either man would want to change it. Putin spoke in his speech about the overriding need to maintain political stability, which to my mind is the clearest possible indication that he wants things to stay as they are. Apart from a recent short spat over Libya, hardly a serious issue in Russian political terms and one where Medvedev anyway has since fallen into line with Putin, I see no difference on policy issues between the two men. Putin is more emotional and outspoken and makes no effort to conceal his contempt and dislike of the liberals and of certain politicians in the west whilst Medvedev tends to be more circumspect but that to my mind is as far as it goes. As for the social and welfare programmes that the liberals find so objectionable and which they condemn as “paternalist”, when Putin was President Medvedev was in charge of them and largely authored them so it is difficult to see why he would object to them now. Nor has Medvedev said anything that suggests a fanatical belief in free markets, which would anyway be odd coming from someone who was formerly the government’s representative on the board of Gazprom. As for the idea that Medvedev would want to stand for the Presidency on an anti Putin platform a glance at any opinion poll would show why that would be an act of political suicide. The idea is actually crazy and once again shows just how detached from reality the liberals have become.
Rather than speculate on a split between Medvedev and Putin that will almost certainly not happen the liberals would be far better advised to make a credible pitch to Russian voters on issues that Russians genuinely care about. That is the policy of the Russian Communist Party, the only opposition party in Russia that has shown an ability to win elections and to harvest millions of votes, which has shown no interest in the subject of the supposed split between Medvedev and Putin but which instead campaigns equally against both between whom it refuses to distinguish whilst promoting its own platform and policies. The result is that unlike the liberals the Communist Party remains a genuine political force in Russia and at local level is even in places a serious contender for power.
If the liberals were to re examine their stance and were to try to connect with Russian society as it genuinely is as opposed to how they want it to be they might with hard work find that they were achieving some positive results. Russia needs a strong liberal movement. Authoritarian (as opposed to “autocratic”) tendencies do exist in Russian society as they do in all societies everywhere. Russia however lacks a credible liberal movement to counter them. There is a strong need for example for a feminist movement that would address the difficult situations (including rampant domestic violence) that so many Russian women face in their everyday lives. There are serious questions about the brutal treatment of people who are regarded in Russian society as social deviants such as gay people and others who are in some way nonconformists. There are the dreadful conditions in Russian prisons and the way in which the Russian authorities routinely imprison people (especially young people) for trivial offences causing Russia to have a prison population proportionately as great as the one it had in the 1930s and second only in size to that of the United States. There is the growing and increasingly reactionary influence of the Orthodox Church, which is trying to impose its patriarchal notions on questions of social policy even though only a small minority of Russians actively identify with it. These and numerous other such issues would benefit from an effective and campaigning liberal movement prepared to take a stand. The liberals in Russia instead show almost no interest in these questions, which they neglected when they were in power in the 1990s. Instead they remain obsessed with questions of political power for themselves, which they combine with a rigid and even fanatical commitment to free market economic policies and pro western foreign policies that in Russia are unpopular and discredited.