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Analysis

Russian Conservatism: Autocratic, Libertarian, Or Organic?

Vladivostok landscape
Image by Karamanskaya

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Guest post by James C. Pearce

Solzhenitsyn once said, “the severity of Russia’s laws is softened by the fact that following them is optional’’. For millions of Russians, the autocratic power structures and security services seem irrelevant in everyday life. The further one lives from the centers of power, money and high culture, the less it affects you. The less you get involved with politics or the state, the less you feel its presence. On an average day, millions of Russians question where it is when they need help.

Some regional governments are glorified administrative centers, which do little other than clean parks, collect the trash and pay its officials to prop up the administrative state. Others, like the The Republic of Chechnya, have illegalized alcohol and abortion – and might well be other countries.

All of this poses some curious questions: is the almighty Russian state not that powerful and intrusive? Is the autocratic conservative state actually more libertarian?

The state and culture in Russia have always had strong links. Too strong for some. Yet, passive acceptance is often confused with unwavering support for this system of government. The libertarian ‘live and let live’ spirit is definitely noticeable and has a peculiar Russian character. As are strands of economic conservatism.

What most Westerners fail to understand is that Russians do not behave as an oppressed people, see themselves as oppressors or as less free than their European counterparts. There is also plenty of data which suggests that many Russians never seek financial assistance from the state, often opting for private medical care and education. Gosuslugi, the state services website, is loathed and has a reputation for making basic problems overly complex. What is more, protests against socio-political restrictions aren’t actually that uncommon. Just before the pandemic, protests over attempts to ban the popular social media app Telegram saw some 12,000 turnout onto Moscow’s streets.

One of the main organizers of these protests was none other than The Russian Libertarian Party. Libertarianism in Russia has seen modest growth in recent years, particularly among the young. They are interested in the free market and an aversion to big government. Libertarianism has a niche following in Russia’s non-systemic opposition, once boasting members like Vera Kichanova, journalist at Republic and a former Moscow district council deputy. Russia also gave birth to Ayn Rand, who Russian libertarians call the ‘mother of the free market’.

Rand is an obscure figure in her native country. There is no museum named after her, no street name or plaque stating where she lived. Her philosophy of self-reliance and individualism meant she never made it onto Soviet bookshelves. By the time her books were translated into Russian in the late 1990s, much of the nation had become disillusioned with the painful transition to capitalism, which was seen as the primary cause of the decade’s inequality, hyperinflation and financial collapse. She has since failed to make a dent in Russian politics.

Contemporary libertarians have a major image problem, and pinning down what ‘libertarianism’ means in Russia is tricky. In 2019, the Russian authorities investigated the Libertarian Party’s leader, Mikhail Svetov, over online images of a minor – his ex-girlfriend. Though genuinely concerning allegations, the party considered it a politically motivated hit job. Yet, other groups in the liberal opposition are not keen on them, either. As one activist put it to me, “they are just plain fascists. Smug, uneducated, anime-loving techies with zero empathy.”

As for the ideology, few in Russia can define ‘libertarianism’ – let alone within a Russian context. Magician and libertarian Penn Jillette describes it as “taking your first left on sex and first right on money.” Fiscally responsible, socially liberal and want minimal government interference in the economy or people’s lives. In Russia, that is almost a fit – but not quite.

There is definitely an aversion and distrust of big government in people’s personal affairs. Yet, a great fear of unfettered and unregulated capitalism and more conservative social views work against this. Certainly, Russians have a much easier time understanding socially conservative ‘traditional’ values and have been known to support those positions. But even that is not cut and dry.

The other problem is the Soviet hangover of expecting the state to fix certain problems. Soviet citizens never worried about funding retirement, finding an apartment, paying off the mortgage or healthcare – it was all free. Russians still have fond memories of socialism and the quality of modern public services, education, healthcare and wellbeing has declined.

The fact is Russia’s transition into the free market in the 1990s caused huge inequality, hyperinflation and economic collapse. Today’s oligarchic capitalism is perceived by many as unjust because people pay more for underperforming services and products and get little support from the state. Few want to actively participate in bringing about social and economic change. Most want to be left alone to get on with life and make their own choices. Russians wait for changes to occur naturally and gradually.

Is there a term for this? The historian Paul Robinson called it ‘organic conservatism’, where socio-economic progress is neither forced, nor mandated, but happens somehow eventually. The market is not irrelevant, nor the guiding force. Perhaps it is nothing but pure fatalism.

Does it matter? Unquestionably. We should reassess our perceptions of Russia’s future. Whether Russia will be able to face up to its social, economic and demographic challenges, get better at accepting criticism from abroad, or have a genuine democracy depends entirely on its citizens. If they want to be left alone, choose to stay out of politics and let the chips fall where they may, that is their choice. And we would be better if we understood why.

Dr James Pearce is a historian and journalist based in Russia. He is the author of The Use of History in Putin’s Russia and is currently writing a history of Russia’s Golden Ring Cities.

He has previously worked at the University of Liverpool, College of the Marshall Islands and has written for several major news outlets.

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