Monthly Archives: March 2015

On Russia and our political co-ordinates: morbid symptoms and the reign of absurdity.


After attempting to explain the historical co-ordinates of the Nemtsov murder in my previous post I came across this citation in my Facebook feed on how a Russian leftist, Ivan Ovsyannikov, would attempt to explain to a western leftist what exactly has been happening politically in Russia. Here is this comment:

How can one explain political reality in Russia to the western left? Something like this: someone like Le Pen’s National Front is in power and the servile parliament is divided between the “left” and the “right” fascists. The most radical opposition are the right-wing liberals, akin to the US Republican Party. They are persecuted by the State which considers them extremists. Public morality is moving towards to sharia law. Racism is at Alabama 1950s levels and sexism and homophobia recall those of Victorian England. The trade unions are similar to those in the Stalin era“.

Just as it’s frustratingly hard trying to find some historical co-ordinates to explain what is happening in Russia today, it is also difficult to find any political coordinates. Marching in memory of a politician who was essentially a Neo-Liberal figure may seem odd for any western Leftist but in Russia this had some sense even for groups of Trotskyist Leftists and for anarchists and other strands of the anti-authoritarian Left. All political co-ordinates that western Leftists may try to use about thinking of Russia often seem ultimately to make little sense.

In a discussion that followed this comment, Michael Dorfman compared Russia to exhibiting a Victorianism which had made a sudden jump into post-modernism. There is something constant about these paradoxical co-ordinates. For it is not that Russia can be described as historically backward but there is a kind of disconnect and this disconnect feels like it is getting more uncontrollable. Adam Curtis has made some interesting points about how Russia’s methods of political control could be a precursor to a future model in the UK (one could talk of a Surkov-based Osborne model):

However, the kinds of disconnect and misunderstandings that exist seem to be destined to get ever greater. It is, after all, a time when demonisation has been reaching disproportionate levels on both sides. Kiselev and co’s two minutes hate slots on ‘gayropa’ are reflected in a distorted way by some western journalist and commentators who find themselves repeating time and again the Hitler and Stalin metaphors without any real attempt at analysis.

Maybe one of the ways of thinking about what is happening is talking about Russia is thinking of the country as (in a recent title on Russian cinema by Andrey Plakhov) being on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The kind of initiatives that come from Russia’s politicians and elite surely show definite signs of congenital dementia. In the cultural sphere a campaign is initiated against a production in Novosibirsk of Tannhauser by church authorities in which the theatre director and producer Boris Mezdrich and Timofey Kulyabin are threatened with a year in prison. Not to be outdone it appears that another attempt is made to censor Kirill Serebrennikov’s theatrical adaptation of a novel by the socially conservative left patriotic writer Zakhar Prilepin for extremism and (wait for it) homosexual propaganda. This time it is a United Russia deputy of the State Duma and co-ordinator of a ‘National Liberation Movement’, Yevgeni Fyodorov, demanding this exemplary censorship. Large doses of black humour are surely required to get through the present moment in Russia in March 2015. In the meantime it appears that a new reign of the absurd has been established. A two-word phrase might be of use in making sense of the present interregnum in Russia: Маразм крепчает (the idiocy is gaining strength).

Perhaps one needs to remember one’s Gramsci these days when thinking about Russia:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Morbid symptoms certainly abound at the moment but it’s uncertain how long this will all last. In any case for the time being it seems that once more Putin (like Brezhnev) will be foreover, until he’s no more.

On the assassination of Nemtsov and historical coordinates.

Boris Nemtsov visiting the Occupy Abai camp in May 2012 just after it was set up

Boris Nemtsov visiting the Occupy Abai camp in May 2012 just after it was set up

Living in Russia for a large part of the early part of the twenty first century (I’d say about I’ve spent at least six or seven years since 2000) I’ve been here during a large number of the shocks that have affected this country. So while back in Britain during the Beslan massacre or in Italy during the Anna Politkovskaya murder, I recall a number of the bombings (the metro bombing at Lubyanka metro station or the bombing at Domodedovo airport), I was in Siberia during the Nord Ost hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theatre. The early years of 2000 saw a number of political assassinations which I was vaguely aware of. Perhaps the assassination that most affected me was the assassination of Stanislav Markelov and Nastya Baburova on January 19th 2009. I had just come back to Russia a few days before. Though I knew little of Markelov previously afterwards I realised how important a figure he had been for the Russian anti-authoritarian Left. His death attracted little notice in Russian society – demonstrations in his memory held every January 19th barely exceed 1,000 people. I doubt if I can forget the first gathering in his memory just after his death. Standing in a small crowd near the Griboyedov monument in Chistye Prudi in a temperature of minus twenty there was a sense of being amongst a small group of mourners at a historical watershed. Maybe it wasn’t the watershed it felt at the time- the relatively benign reign of Dmitry Medvedev meant that this was a crime whose truth would eventually be uncovered in a court of law. I remember the speech of Markelov’s friend Yaroslav Leontiev speaking of similar moments after political assassinations.

Boris Nemtsov’s death has equally been a shock. A right of centre liberal who had served in government while it would be hard for me to identify as much with Nemtsov as it was with Markelov, the dismissal of empathy from parts of the radical Russian left have seemed short-sighted. Nemtsov had proven from the early 2000s (and even before) to have exhibited a form of anti-authoritarian (and yes anti-fascist) politics from the right of centre. While his political career in the 1990s may deserve even harsh criticism from the Left it is necessary to be clear that the Nemtsov of the Putin years was not the Nemtsov of the 1990s. He was one of the first to distance himself from Putin (from the early years of Putin’s ascendancy) and would associate himself more deeply with the non-systemic opposition than most of the other SPS colleagues would ever dare. But even in 1996 he had been associated with a million signature petition calling for a halt to the war in Chechnya. So while the liberal martyrological approach needs to be adjusted leftists should also remember that Nemtsov was one of the few to occasionally turn up to the January 19th March in memory of Markelov and Baburova or was the most active opponent of the Crimean annexation and Putin’s Ukrainian adventure. He was also one of the few to show a modicum of solidarity with a quickly-stifled revolt in 2010 in Mezhdurechensk after tens of miners were killed in an explosion that happened due to the negligence of safety measures.

An image from March 1st march in memory of Boris Nemtsov.

An image from March 1st march in memory of Boris Nemtsov.

As with many other events in recent Russian recent Nemtsov’s murder, too, has thrown up many historical associations. Russia’s post-Soviet period has been rather full of political assassinations (or assassinations of others in the public sphere) though many of them happened during the Yeltsin era or in the early Putin years. Starovoitova, Listev, Yushenkov. The Putin era has seen at least one assassination taking place outside of Russia – that of Litvinenko. The murder of journalists and human rights activists has also continued (Politkovskaya, Estemirova) along with the assassination of political opponents by ultra nationalist groups (Markelov and Baburova and a whole number of anti-fa and other anti-fascist figures along with the murder of unnamed immigrants by Russian Neo-Nazis). So Nemtsov’s murder can not be seen as the only one. Yet it seems even more resonant in some symbolic way.

There was a feeling just after the assassination would have more resonant consequences. Perhaps because Nemtsov was once closer to power than most of the other figures though anyone with any sense would have to acknowledge his political marginality in Russia in the past decade or so. At the night of the assassination all kinds of historical precedents were going through in my mind. Yes in the forefront of my thoughts was the Kirov assassination in 1934 which paved the way for Stalin’s Great Terror. Then for some reason I started to remember my reading about the political assassinations which took place in the run up to the Spanish Civil War – but no, this seemed wrong. The victims of assassinations in today’s Russia may not have similar political positions but they nearly always be seen as opponents or enemies (in some significant way) of the ruling political elites (at least at the time of their assassinations). Then there was the Matteotti assassination- like Nemtsov, Matteotti too would collect proof of fraud and the violence of his political opponent/enemy in power and publicise them as much as was humanly possible. Historians don’t seem to have proved Mussolini’s direct involvement in the assassination of Matteotti (nor his clear guilt of being the organiser of it) but one can surely speak of his responsibility (just as Putin’s accusations against fifth columnists and national traitors have been seen as a sign of his indirect responsibility). Yet the assassination of Matteotti belonged to the early days of the fascist regime when there was still an opposition in parliament and in the country. This assassination in the mid-term of Putin’s third term with Putin in or circling power for almost two decades with no authentic parliamentary opposition remaining today which could even dream of retiring to some Aventine Mount.

What about the assassination of Nikolay Bauman in late 1905? Yet that was in the midst of the revolutionary year of 1905 (2015 doesn’t feel revolutionary at the moment). Probably no one will swear public vengeance against Putin at Nemtsov’s funeral today. So are there any other historical coordinates one can think of? The Italian 1970s were full of assassinations and bombings. Even Italy’s Prime Minister Aldo Moro was assassinated in 1978 but again the strife between the red and the black is absent.

The latest analogy occurred to me today reading another article by Mark Ames (a piece he wrote last year on Ukraine). If Putin isn’t Stalin could he be a kind of turbo-charged and vicious Richard Nixon? The campus revolts or the Black Panthers that existed in the late sixties and early seventies are not much in evidence (a few feminist or LGBT groups suggest that some of late sixties radicalism is not altogether non-existent in Russia though). Nonetheless, the Silent Majority certainly seems to be present: 80% side with Putin just as the US silent majority cheered on the massacre of campus students and 80% sided with Lt William Calley, the officer in charge at My Lai. Probably another mistaken historical analogy but one I hadn’t thought of until today.

Other historical models come and go: a hint of Pinochet (but no massive repression in the centre like after Chile’s September 11th) and another hint of Thatcher- her moral conservatism is more similar than many think of the conservative backlash underway today in Russia. Her willingness to let hunger strikers die in 1981 may find an echo soon in the next watershed moment of Putin’s leadership with Nadezhda Savchenko presently on her 80th day on hunger strike. Yet the present moment in Russia nonetheless feels somewhat more dramatic still. Ukraine is closer than Vietnam (and far more tied up to Russia’s sense of self), the trouble in the Caucasuses never seems to be far away, there seems little respite from a deepening economic crisis and everywhere there is a sense that doors to the outside world seem to be slowly closing (though whether this is true of links to the west alone or is more general is a question needs to be looked at).

Whatever the historical conjuncture is in Russia there is little doubt that it feels rather ominous, rather scary. A little more than it usually does.