Ideology and Dissent in Russia

Nedanstående text skrev jag i mars i fjol för rita en politisk karta över Ryssland inför parlamentsvalet i september 2021. Det är en omtolkning av Sovjetdissidenten Andrej Amalriks legendariska ideologihjul från 70-talet. Jag tycker att hjulet rätt väl beskriver dynamiken i rysk politik – och kanske inte bara i rysk. Modellen har två dimensioner: hjulet beskriver relationen mellan stat, individ och identitet och x/y-axeln relationen till de rådande makthavarna och till synen på väst.

In exactly six months, Russia will hold parliamentary elections. A model, outlined in the 1970s, for mapping the ideology of the Soviet Union can be used to describe modern Russia’s political landscape and how the political forces relate to each other.

In his 1976 book Ideologies in the Soviet Society, Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik designed a model for describing the ideological setting of Soviet Russia. The Model holds the shape of a wheel, and demonstrates how various groups within the Soviet public discourse related to each other. Amalrik used three over-arching ideologies: Marxism, Liberalism and Nationalism as a starting-point, identifying the three from the perspective of the relationship between the individual and the collective.

Collective and Individual

Marxism, argues Amalrik, prioritises class before individual. Nationalism – nation before individual and Liberalism supports the priority of the individual before the collective, be that class or nation. All the three should be viewed as continua, where elements of Nationalism blurs into Marxism and Liberalism.

One can discuss to what level “Marxism” ever was a fundament in Soviet ideology. The founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin, emphasised submission to the party hierarchy, rather than to a set of ideological concepts. The Soviet system exploited Marxist terminology as decorative elements, but not as a canon for its actions. Rather than Marxist thinking, loyalty to the Politburo was paramount. The Soviet leadership was not fighting for the rights of the oppressed classes, neither domestically, nor internationally.

Serbian dissident Svetozar Stojanović has, in his work Kritik und Zukunft des Sozialismus (1970), suggested the term “Etatism”, of the French word for state – État – for the type of society established in Soviet Russia: The primacy of state authority before the individual citizen.

Changing the label “Marxism” to “Etatism” in Amalrik’s wheel allows us to keep the concept of the relation between individual citizens and the collective, and it provides us with an illustration, allowing us to demonstrate the continuity of Russian ideology and dissent.

The current Russian leadership frequently refers to itself as “conservative”, and thus, at least on the surface, cardinally different from the Soviet leaders. But using the term “Etatism” shows the similarity between the current leadership and the Soviet one. It helps understand the priority for concepts, based on “greatness”, was fundamental in both the USSR and the Russian Federation.

“Etatism” is, just as it was in Soviet Russia, the dominating Kremlin ideology. All concepts on domestic and foreign policy boil down to the protection of the State, its leadership and bureaucracy. The followers of this ideology consider themselves matter-of-fact, pragmatic and realist. Criticism towards an individual, holding office, is perceived, not as political dissent, but as an attack on the fundaments of the State, probably even as a mental deviation. The Etatist segment of the ideology wheel ranges from officials within the trade and economy sectors, voicing demands for reforms in legislation on economy and advocates of the Rule of Law, to military hard-liners, praetorians, demanding resources for defence and internal security.

“Nationalism” in this context differs from Etatism in the ethnical regard, in this case the role of Russia and the Russian people. Both Soviet and current Russian Etatists emphasise the State’s multi-ethnic composition. The Nationalist segment ranges from a sentiment of strong support of the current Kremlin leadership, to perceptions of Kremlin “being soft” on the West, migrants, insufficiently supportive towards Russians abroad etc. The Nationalist segment is, arguable, the most diverse part of the ideology wheel. Within this segment, there are strong supporters of the Kremlin, just as vocal voices of staunch dissent.

The “Liberal” segment of the wheel contains sentiments, ranging from classic, Western Liberalism, advocates for personal integrity, individual rights, feminism, LBGT etc, to vague Anti-Etatist sentiments. Parts of the Liberal segment can join forces with certain elements of the Nationalist segment, viewing the Kremlin leadership as a common enemy; while other parts seek alliances with reformist members of the Etatist segment against chauvinist tendencies among Etatist hard-liners and pro-Kremlin Nationalists.

Loyalist and Dissent

The modified Amalrik wheel can be divided along an X/Y diagram; vertically along the traditional Russian “Zapadnik” / “Slavophile” lines, and horizontally along a “Loyalist” / “Dissent” divide. This explains, for instance, the alliance between disparate figures like Nationalist Eduard Limonov and Liberal Garri Kasparov in the Other Russia campaign 2006 – 2010. All could join in under an “Anti-Etatist” ballot.

Alexei Navalny has attempted to cater both to a Liberal segment of the circle and to the Nationalist. Currently he campaigns under the concept of Smart Voting, for supporting any political candidate or movement that can challenge the power monopoly of the Kremlin party. This approach has met serious criticism from parts of the Liberal segment, focusing on reform, rather than regime change.

The Amalrik Wheel is mirrored in the disinformation ecosystem: Kremlin-controlled, state-funded media outlets – RT, Sputnik, RIA Novosti etc function usually as loyal mouthpieces for State information efforts. Occasionally, representatives of the state media drift out of bounds, as recently Margarita Simonyan, RT/Sputnik’s editor-in-chief, calling for a Russian annexation of Ukrainian Donbas. Ms. Simonyan was immediately reprimanded by representatives of the Russian state. The Nationalist segment of the disinformation ecosystem is less impeded by the Kremlin ties, as long as they don’t drift below the “Protest” line on our schedule.

It is, of course, important to note that the Wheel does not represent a quantitative distribution of outlets in the Russian political discourse. The “Loyalist” half-circle of the Wheel is dominating the media market almost entirely. Deviation from a loyalist perspective is not acceptable; the Kremlin equals protest with either mental disorder or foreign-funded schemes against order and decency.

Reformists and hard-liners

The modified wheel shows a certain continuity in Soviet and Russian disinformation efforts. The state was, and remains, entirely identified with the Kremlin leadership and bureaucracy. In the domestic public discourse, a certain pluralism exists. The Etatist “party” have room for reform-minded economists like Alexei Kudrin and German Gref; and at the same time, fire-breathers like Dmitry Rogozin and Aleksandr Bastrykin. The former measure Russia’s success in economic growth, budgetary balance and long-term trade perspectives; the latter – in the level of deterrence and geopolitical achievements. The Kremlin leans strongly towards the hard-liners. None of the twelve permanent members of the powerful Security Council belongs to the “reform-party”.

The Etatist concept is not limited to Russian politics. The term can be applied to various movements with a strong focus on charismatic leaders, promising to “clean up the mess”, “drain the swamp” etc. The Etatist credo allows leaders to utter the words of Louis XIV of France: “L’Etat – c’est moi” – I myself am the State.

With six months to Russia’s parliamentary elections, we can expect a mobilisation of primarily the Loyalist-Slavophile-Etatist-Nationalist upper-right quadrant of the Ideology Wheel: Nationalist-inclined Etatists and Etatist-inclined Nationalists. All the parties in the current parliament can be found in this part of the wheel, and it is unlikely that much will change in this regard. The distribution between the different Nationalist/Etatist parties in the Duma will change, but it is unlikely that any voice of dissent will enter the parliament.

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