Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 6

by Mikhail Kochkin

Political life in Russia boasts many phenomena which are hard for the outsider to understand. One of these is the party system, which currently comprises three main forces: the communists (the left wing), United Russia (centrists and the pro-Kremlin “party of power”) and the right wing–currently in a lamentable state–consisting of Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS).

Russia is unique in that the terms “left” and “right” don’t work as definitions of a party’s political orientation. For example, the right-wing Yabloko party in fact espouses left-of-center, liberal values, and in this respect is close to Europe’s social democrats. Meanwhile, the communists on the “left” are fighting for the “glorious traditions of the past” and display all the hallmarks of real right-wing conservatives in public and cultural life.

The right wing, such as it is in Russia’s political system, is in a state of disarray. No convincing conservative party of the right has yet been established and there is no distinctive system of conservative ideas that is intelligible to the electorate.

United Russia, which the Kremlin had intended should take on this role, is patently not up to the task. This is due to a dearth of policy initiatives and a lack of charismatic leaders, particularly since the reorganization of the party leadership and the departure of Sergei Shoigu, Yury Luzhkov and Mintimer Shaimiev.

January saw an unexpected slump in public support for United Russia, from 27 percent in December to 14 percent in January, according to statistics from the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (those losses were, however, reversed in February). Many believe that the party needs a major overhaul if it is to succeed in the December 2003 State Duma elections. A party that simply relies on the support of the president (who still has not formally signed on as a member), like a picture that depends on the nail that fixes it to the wall, cannot be viable. Political elites may be confident that the current situation can be sustained over the next few years, while Putin remains in power, but they also have to start thinking about what happens when he goes.

So it is no accident that at the end of January we saw new signs of life from Russia’s conservatives. First, the respectable journal Vedomosti, and then the REGNUM information agency, published a most remarkable document entitled “The Serafim Club Memorandum.” Named after one of Russia’s most revered saints, Serafim of Sarov, this club has brought together a number of public figures who have in common a right-wing, conservative orientation. Almost none of them are in power. The nucleus of the new movement comprises three political commentators from the “Odnako” (“However”) program on the ORT TV channel, Mikhail Leontiev, Maksim Sokolov and Aleksandr Privalov. It also includes the chief editor of the influential economic weekly, Ekspert, Valery Fadeev, and another well-known producer, Aleksei Balabanov, creator of the chauvinist movie blockbusters “Brother-2” and “War.” With such heavyweights on board, the club should be taken seriously. These men have already had a significant impact on both public opinion and the policies of the authorities.

The content of the club’s first document is essentially an appeal to “abandon the politics of fear for the politics of growth.” Russia’s current political elite is accused of inertia and reluctance to make effective use of its existing capabilities, resources and opportunities to speed up economic development. With Russia’s new capitalist managers in place, with a huge internal market, and with a rather unexpected looming world crisis, Russia should be poised for takeoff. In the words of the appeal, “Russia can either accept her historical defeat and agree to take a back seat, or reclaim her rightful position among the world leaders.” Playing against Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History,” the appeal calls for the country to make a triumphant “return to history.” Otherwise, it warns, “the victors will show us our place in the backyard of the new world system.” The rhetoric of these “prophets of the new empire” is full of mysticism and religious allusion: the “return” must be achieved by means of an “unconditional faith that death can be overcome by a zeal for resurrection.” This “zeal for resurrection” is considered impossible without “ideological unity,” the absence of which is of great concern to the “Serafims.”

It is no surprise that the text does not once use the term “civil society” or devote a single word to the responsibilities and accountability of the authorities. For the Serafims, these words are like a red rag to a bull–a provocative invention of “Westernizers” and liberals. On the other hand, there are repeated references to the “will of the state” and “economic breakthrough.”

As noted by journalist Aleksei Chadaev in his response to the memorandum, “the main task of the state is not to stimulate growth by drawing up assorted strategic plans, but to create conditions that allow this growth to develop on its own.” But this is only possible if the country cultivates the rule of law and respect for the rights of the individual. Moreover, it is not clear what is supposed to happen suddenly to all the problems which produced the “politics of fear” in the 1990s. These problems stymied serious economic growth and scared off foreign and local investors. Given the current lawlessness in the country and the links between law enforcement agencies and the criminal world, it takes a very brave man to do business in Russia these days, unless he has powerful contacts among the authorities and within the mafia (which are often one and the same).

The slogans of the Serafims make use of stock geopolitical cliches about world confrontation as well as revanchist ideas of Russia as a world leader. They also make use of libertarian notions of economic processes that, they say, are subject to direct control–all that is needed is the will to do it. It would probably be fair to assume that the notorious phrase “the national idea” will soon be appearing in the club’s texts. Perhaps the only thing worse than the inertia of the political elite is the Serafim’s lack of grasp on reality, and their desire to build a superpower before the country even has a normal standard of living for its citizens.

The Serafims, as committed statists, are revolted by the prominence of “bourgeois” concerns regarding both the individual and standards of living (the manifesto speaks of these as “sinking quietly and rather pleasingly into the mires of history”). They dream of a vast new Russian empire that will emerge as a result of the current “global crisis.” Despite their frequent references to the need for modernization, the club members still think in the categories of Russian 19th century conservatives such as Konstantin Leontiev and Konstantin Pobedonostsev. The latter was an adviser to Alexander III and Nicholas II who fought for “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality.” Hence the club’s deliberate use of the language of the “old regime.” (For example, to describe the present government’s concern with running a budget surplus they use the neologism “budgetobesie,” which means budget-madness and is analogous to the term “mrakobesie” or obscurantism.)

There is nothing surprising about this cocktail of ideas–things have always been hard for Russian conservatism. While the conservative parties of Western Europe have relied on the propertied classes (especially landowners), with an appeal based on a defense of firmly entrenched traditions, in Russia it is hard to find any core of conservatism. The propertied classes were wiped out, and Russia’s way of life has changed so often in the last century that it is hard to define just what values and traditions the new conservatives should build on if they are to reunite today’s polarized society. So conservatism in Russia is built not on any objectively existing economic interests, but on ideological dogmas that have been espoused by the various repressive governments that this geographical area has known. This is why it so often resembles not conservatism as the rest of the world knows it, but banal chauvinism. They offer a melange of religious-mystical rhetoric, traditionalism, isolationism, and a conviction that the interests of the state should take priority over the interests of the individual.

What is to be the role of this new movement? The Serafims say that their task is the design of a new economic and political image for Russia. Such ambitious aims are normally the province of political parties, and there are grounds to believe that the club will become the intellectual and ideological center of the United Russia party, which one of the memorandum’s authors, the journalist Leontiev, recently joined. This possibility is indirectly supported by statements made by the current United Russia leader, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov: “In 2003 the party is going to change its image. We need to give it an ideological core, and then revitalize the intellectual life of the party and increase the influence of its thinking.”

The party of power is in severe need of an ideology that it can put forward at election time, and it is clear that it will not be the brainchild of any of the assorted bureaucrats and career politicians who form its leadership. So this task has been given to the “tribunes and intellectuals”–journalists with daily access to a TV audience of millions. (Just as in 1996 a group of intellectuals came up with the theme of anti-communism as the unifying principle for Boris Yeltsin’s surprising electoral comeback.)

It is not necessarily the case that the new concept of conservatism will be adopted by United Russia’s party structures. A post-modernist push from the “new conservatives” is capable of creating something much more brilliant and unconventional than the sluggish bureaucratic brontosaurus that is the “party of power” can ever assimilate or digest. In this case, the Serafims may serve merely as an intellectual facade for the party, rather than its nerve-center, along the lines of the second brain that the great dinosaurs had near the coccyx, controlling their tail movements. But if the “tail” were to learn how to “wag the dinosaur” and wield real influence over United Russia’s program and image, then we might witness a transformation of the party of power into Russia’s first genuinely strong and popular conservative party.

Where exactly the Serafims will end up by international standards is an open question. Whether it is more likely to gravitate, ideologically and aesthetically, to the extreme, chauvinistic parties of Jean Le Pen and Jorg Haider, or to Europe’s “conservative mainstream,” will in large part depend on a successful dialogue between Russia and the West.

Mikhail Kochkin is a postgraduate in linguistic studies and a volunteer with “Eurocontact” NGO in Volgograd.