For and against the Russian opposition
Since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war, a voice that has been strongly amplified in the West is that of the Russian liberal opposition. This is understandable, as many of its leaders are both admirable, relatable and intriguing. Many of these Russian liberals, both in the West and in Russia itself, are outspoken opponents of the Russian invasion. Unfortunately, no matter how sympathetic Americans may find these opposition figures, our interests diverge.
Russians of all persuasions see Ukrainians as brothers living in the cradle of Russian civilization, Kievan Rus. For Russian liberals, failure to help Ukrainians – to provide them with the weapons they demand or to support their failing economy – is a moral failing. Never mind that many other wars are unfortunately breaking out in the world right now; it’s the one that counts. The liberal opposition sees an opportunity and a promise in the Ukrainian experience, and they are ready to push the conflict very far. On a wide variety of issues, I tend to agree with them, but when it comes to this war, their reasoning for its prolongation must be met with skepticism, and their motives must be scrutinized.
Russian liberals are not like American progressives. Ideologically, many belong to a pro-Enlightenment and pro-Westernizing group. More importantly, they are not virtue signallers. They cling bitterly to their ideals and, like Alexei Navalny, who returned to the country after being poisoned by a mysterious chemical agent to be imprisoned shortly after his arrival, often show remarkable courage.
The Russian opposition is like any other opposition: it is in conflict with the regime, and its members have excellent reasons to despise Putin. They did not, however, meet with much success. Boris Nemtsov and his colleagues failed to implement their programs in the 1990s and lost touch with ordinary Russians. In desperation, the liberal opposition allied itself with the nationalists. During the 2007 wave of protests, former chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov joined forces with National Bolshevik co-founder Eduard Limonov, but the union was unable to achieve tangible results.
The inability to move the country forward in a liberal democratic direction generates a real sense of frustration among liberals in Russia, not only with the regime but with the character of the nation itself. In a widely circulated essay in 2010, Yuri Nesterenko argued that Russia is predestined to reproduce totalitarian regimes because of the servile character of its people. Like many others, he left the country.
Ten years later, Russian liberals are watching the war in Ukraine and harboring dreams of revolution. Along with other Ukrainian boosters, they are practically salivate the idea of a 2022 Bolshevik Revolution impersonator. But a minor force in the country’s politics, liberals remember the Bolsheviks were an extremely minority party that nevertheless managed to rise to the occasion as soldiers called up for World War I revolted and the Empire spun out of control . And so, like liberal policymakers in the West, they imagine that a combination external economic pressure and internal dissatisfaction with mobilization will lead to regime change.
The 2014 Maidan uprising came shortly after the unsuccessful 2011-2013 wave of anti-government protests in Russia. The Russian opposition saw the Ukrainians congregating in central Kyiv and quickly achieving their goals. “They turned out,” insisted Russian liberal media, because Ukrainians rejected the USSR and refuse be slaves. They are the good, freedom-loving Eastern Slavs, unlike, it is believed, the Putinist slaves of the East. Nevertheless, the thought goes on, if liberal democracy can happen in Ukraine, then it can also spread to Russia. After all, countries share a history, a culture, a mentality and, to a very large extent, a language.
For Russian liberals, a Ukrainian victory in the war with Russia is a prerequisite for a democratic Russia. Or, at the very least, it allows them to live vicariously through European Ukraine. The problems with this line of thinking are many. First, in recent memory, the Russian people have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of standing up for democracy if they wanted to. Above all, I am thinking of the spontaneous protests in Moscow when communist extremists tried to depose the last Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. Secondly, the success of the Ukrainian Maidan in 2014 can be attributed to the weakness of the then President, Viktor Yanukovych, who failed to contain the protests until it was too late, a luxury that the Russians don’t. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Ukraine’s success has been covered by fingerprintssuggesting that the liberal revolutionaries were not acting alone.
More importantly, a democratic society is not created by overthrowing a regime by force backed by roughly half the country. Democracy is nurtured by cultivating the basic institutions of civil society, which corrupt Ukraine notoriously lacks. For Russian liberals, the repressive nature of the Ukrainian regime is a huge blind spot. Ukraine operates, for example, with a semi-official kill list called Myrotvorets, on which it puts both foreigners and its own citizens. The list includes people who have expressed opinions outside the very narrowly defined approved range and who have acted in ways that Ukraine considers contrary to its interests. In 2015, shortly after being added to the database, dissident writer Oles Buzina and former parliamentarian Oleg Kalashnikov were murdered.
Ukraine is so vital to Russian interests that the threat of nuclear war may rightly enter into their calculations, just as we in America would feel for Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. This is why, for example, Kasparov recently fought with Elon Musk. Musk has offered, purely theoretically, a peace deal for Ukraine. The peace deal involved a territorial compromise that Musk said was inevitable and the only question was how many more lives will be lost before settlement. He also noted the prospect of nuclear weapons use, which for him was unthinkable.
Kasparov acknowledged the threat of nuclear war, but prioritized bringing Ukraine to war Goals and meet Ukrainian needs as defined by Ukraine:
The cost is enormous, but Ukraine pays this cost. So why are people sitting in the comfort of their Silicon Valley mansions telling Ukraine how to run its own business? This is moral idiocy and geopolitical blindness.
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It’s neither. Rather, Musk’s view is not informed by an internal necessity to oppose Putin at all times. Musk does not seem to believe that Russia is an all-powerful hegemon threatening the world or that its moral worth is defined by the unconditional support of kyiv’s Slavic brothers.
If I had been unable to leave the former Soviet Union, I would have moved to Moscow or St. Petersburg and joined the ranks of their liberals. I would vote for Kasparov, I would rally for the freedom of Navalny and I would oppose war with Ukraine. And, since the mobilization was announced, if I had any sons of conscription age, I would also send them out of the country, just in case.
But I am a citizen of the United States and I have to think about the future of my American children. My country has different objectives and interests in this conflict, the main one of which should be to avoid an escalation that could lead to a nuclear crisis. The dim prospect of democracy in Eastern Europe justifies neither the risks of such an escalation nor the coming Bolshevik revolution. On issues ranging from Stalin’s legacy to government corruption, I find Russian liberal opinion to be correct. On the war in Ukraine, however, I see only competing interests and wishful thinking that borders on apocalyptic psychosis.