Либерализм и борьба с ним (Liberalism and the Fight against It)

Liberalism is a notoriously tricky word, and not just in Russian.[1] Depending on the context, it can refer to proponents of free markets, procedural democracy, or inclusive social policies designed to minimize discrimination on grounds that now include race, class, religion, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.  [2] Perhaps the only thing all of these forms of liberalism have in common is how despised they are by significant portions of a given population. 

The term has been effectively demonized in the United States since the Reagan Era, even as liberal social views have gained a stronger foothold throughout the culture. As is so often the case when we talk about late and post-Soviet culture, its late arrival as an everyday word creates new, quite specific contexts that might not be readily apparent to Westerners.  

What is quite clear is that in Russia, the term “liberal” is largely a term of abuse, linked to the excesses, failures, and privations of the Yeltsin era.   In the final form of this chapter, I will go into more detail about the fate of liberalism in post-Soviet Russia, but for now, what we really need to know is 1) what do people in Russia mean when they call someone a liberal? and 2) why liberals are so despised.

While much of the animus towards liberals is based on economic grounds (the Thatcherite economic liberalism of the 1990s, which in the West would be the work of “conservatives”), the discussion nearly always moves to issues of culture and national pride.  In right-wing tracts such as Mikhail Leont’ev’s Fortress Russia (Крепость России) and throughout  the collected works of the neofascist pseudo historian Nikolai Starikov, the liberal is understood to be the enemy of Russia.  

LIBF*G:  Have you licked obama's Ass yet?

LIBF*G:  Have you licked obama's Ass yet?

A simple Google search (“Почему в России не любят либералов”) leads to articles and blog posts that return to the same basic propositions:  liberals are Westernizers who don’t love Russia,  work on behalf of Western governments (either consciously or as dupes), and promote values that are inimical to Russian traditions.  Some of this is predictable and understandable: since late Soviet times, it is self-identified liberals who have been most willing (and perhaps eager) to point out the flaws of the Soviet system, the crimes of the past, and the inadequacy of the present.  Not only is it easy to present such views as unpatriotic, the absence of a positive, specifically Russian-based message makes liberal critics look like snobs at best, and Russophobes at worst.  [3]

With liberals out of power for over 15 years, antiliberalism has caught up with its Western counterpart:  in both the United States and the Russian Federation, those who hate liberals see themselves as defenders of “traditional” values.  In Russia, this has been a slow process.  For example, when homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, gays and lesbians gained an unprecedented visibility. By no means was this development met with universal acclaim, but anti-LGBT sentiment was relatively restrained.  As Lena Klimova points out in the book version of Children-404 (Дети-404), LGBT themes in mass culture used to be met with mild disdain or indifference, as opposed to the homophobic campaigns of recent years. 

There are many external factors to consider (not the least of them the proposition that, in the 1990s, people were too busy struggling to survive to care about social issues), but the conservative turn of the past three years has brought “values” to the forefront.  If Russian values are defined as traditional or conservative, then those (liberals) who disagree are inherently unRussian. Small wonder that an anti-liberal slur coined by Ilya Smirnov in 2000 has become such a popular meme; Smirnov called his book manuscript “Либерастия” (“Liberastia”), a combination of “liberal” and “pederasty” (which in Russian connotes male homosexuality rather than pedophilia).  From “Либерастия” comes “либераст” ("liberast”) ( or “либерас” ("liberas"), a term of abuse that I had hoped was untranslatable, but that Urban Dictionary tells me is not: “Libf*g.” [4]

Though the public campaign for traditional values is new, the framing of liberal values as an existential threat to Russia is the work of at least two decades.  It started as a derisive look at developments in American and Europe before turning into a clear and present danger for post-Soviet Russia.  If liberalism is the enemy, its main weapon is political correctness.   

Next: Politically Correct Scary Tales

 

Notes

[1] And don’t even get me started on Neoliberalism. 

[2] Alexander Dugin, who has made the fight against liberalism part of his life's mission, inadvertently highlights this confusion in his recent book, Ukraina: moia voina.  Geopoleticheskii dnevnik, when he demonstrates the unpopularity of liberalism by noting how few people in Russia read "Hayek, Popper, Ayn Rand and [Richard] Rorty." 

[3] There's an entire book called "Liberals about the People" ("Либералы о народе"), comprised entirely of quotes from Russian liberals about the backwardness of the Russian people.

[4] The original word has an "a" in it, in case you're wondering.