May 23, 2011

Dima, Volodya and Alice


What exactly is a Russian liberal? Has this species ever been seen in the wild (by which I mean the Kremlin)? In her spot-on analysis of Russia's ruling tandem in today's Washington Post, Liliya Shevtsova highlights this question brilliantly:

...the transformation of Medvedev into a symbol of reformist hopes has been Putin's best trick so far. Perhaps Medvedev's convictions are indeed more liberal than those of Putin, the senior colleague who brought him to power. And it is natural for their respective teams to each tug the rope its own way. The smoke screen of rivalry at the top lends authenticity to the campaign to keep Putin's tandem in power.

Shevtsova then asks the important question: just why is Medvedev seen to be more "liberal" than Putin? It turns out to be mainly a question of words, rather than deeds. Because when one looks at deeds, the record is clear:

As president, Medvedev has called for freedom and the rule of law. But he has also expanded the powers of law enforcement agencies; pushed through an extension of the president's term, to six years; passively watched the indictment and trial on trumped-up charges of Yukos oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky; permitted the violent dispersal of rallies in defense of the constitution and beatings of the opposition; and overseen the introduction of legislation expanding the state's ability to repress. Medvedev tirelessly speaks out against corruption, but during his presidency, corruption has become a way of life here and graft has reached an estimated $300 billion annually. He talks about improving the investment climate, but independent observers say that it was people close to Medvedev who launched the raid against Domodedovo, Russia's most profitable airport - an effort that has been likened to the state's takeover of Yukos. Yes, Medvedev has forced government officials and people close to Putin from the boards of state companies, but will state control of those businesses be weakened if their replacements are selected by the same Putin team?

It reminds me of the speculation in 1982, after the ailing Andropov (then KGB chief) rose to the top Politburo spot. Various analysts sought to portray him as a liberal because of his love for jazz, scotch and American detective novels. Or consider the lionized liberal Gorbachev, whose glasnost and perestroika brought about real civil reform within the Soviet Union. This same Gorbachev sent tanks into Tbilisi and the Baltics to crush demonstrations for national liberation from the Soviet imperial yoke. And the paragon of democracy, Boris Yeltsin, who is oft-touted as liberal for allowing a truly free press, send thousands of young Russians to fight and die in the horrific Chechen wars. The designation of a Russian leader as "liberal" seems to tell us more about the analyst making the designation than it does about the leader in question. If we take the definition of a "liberal" to mean someone who supports (through actions, not words):

  • a system that allows truly competitive, unfettered political parties;
  • transparent functioning of all three branches of government, which should check and balance one another;
  • the states protection of basic human rights and the eschewal of the use of violence on its citizens;
  • a foreign policy based on a reasonable reflection of the national interest, expressed indirectly through elections and real legislative oversight;
  • a free market economy not dominated by state-controlled enterprises.

Then Russia has never had a leader who is truly liberal. Speeches against corruption or use of an iPad does not a liberal make. And calling another a "conservative" because he is a bit more draconian or dictatorial than the norm is also misleading. Perhaps we simply need to stop trying to simplify Russia's internal politics by overlaying it with our own political labels, because they establish points of reference that just do not exist. Actually, the monikers Tweedledee and Tweedledum might be more useful as a starting point in explaining the current ruling tandem, mostly because they emanate from the fantastical world of Alice's Wonderland. But of course we don't live down a rabbit hole (though it does sometimes feel that way) and something rather more explanatory is required. Nominations anyone?

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955