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"Politics" is Not Politics in Russia

As one travels on one of the heavily trafficked highways that lead into Moscow, a simplistic historical scenario seems imprinted in the landscape. The unscrupulous and tacky mess of colors and letters screaming commercial messages are framed inside banners, billboards and enormous posters on the sides of buildings, all of which scatter across the daunting and dire landscape of concrete high-rises dropped in seas of overgrown fields and abandoned factory yards. The frivolous and carefree life of the free market appears scratched and etched onto the stark background of an ideology dead and entombed in the crumbling structures of the old planned economy. Downtown Moscow appears to be performing on the historical stage gracefully choreographed by similarly plain principles of social change; the underground mall next to Red Square features name brand stores, fashion outlets and internet cafes; BMWs and sport utility vehicles speed down avenues once trodden by Soviet tanks; the communist party holds demonstrations of dissent supervised by riot police in street scenes that resemble political events in the rest of Europe.

Communist Soviet Union has yielded to Capitalist Russia. Russia is a democracy. Its political system is that of a parliamentary republic. It has a president and a legislature. Politicians in office are accountable to a voting constituency. There is public opinion. Issues that are subject to legislation are debated in the media. There are demonstrations in the streets. We perceive that all these features of a so-called free market democracy exist in Russia, while recognizing their troubled implementation, impeded by corruption and economic difficulties.

One late night this summer I wandered upon a candle light vigil held in protest against nuclear weapons in front of the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square. Many people were somberly gathered around the hundreds of candles placed in a long line running parallel to the Kremlin Wall. Police officers patrolling the square glared at the gathering, not intervening and perhaps even, at least in the case of veterans from the Soviet era, resenting their inability to do so. There was a serenity about the event, conjured up by the youthful sincerity of the activists, the silent majesty of the Kremlin wall and the observer’s consciousness of the severity of Russia’s past as well as the uncertainty of her future.

A street cleaning truck began to advance from the far corner of the square toward the event, brandishing a powerful shaft of water that shot out thirty feet. The water ripped the candles in rapid succession off the pavement, flinging them into the air and spraying the fleeing people with water and droplets of wax that had coagulated in the air from the chill of the water. This expression of dissent was squelched not by the KGB, but by the need to keep the cobblestones of Red Square clean for the tourists.

As we attempt to interpret and communicate the complex historical processes of that place called Russia which has emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union, we engage and think with linguistic categories that have their etymological roots in historical experiences tied to the cultures embodying the language from which they derive. Obviously this will be true of any representation cast in words, but some words carry greater assumptions about the mechanisms underlying historical and socioeconomic developments than others, and consequently have greater potential for importing distorting and misconstruing conceptions into the context being represented. Terms like politician, democracy, election, voter, public opinion and so on, embody interdependent concepts that bespeak systems of institutionalized relationships and roles that function according to a culturally conditioned logic and according to fabrics of morality and expediency that do not necessarily exist in the context under analysis.

In Nizhni Novgorod elections were held for the office of provincial governor in July. Voting participation rates hovered around 34 percent. I joined one family to the polling place – a short stop on the way to the beach – and they smilingly told me that if I picked one of the gubernatorial candidates they would vote for him. When I declined, they opted for the protest vote, against all candidates. When questioned on the matter, their explanations revealed a conceptual space between life and politics that can only be characterized as an ideational vacuum.

Democracy exists only insofar as people imagine it as a moral reality. The belief that strangers in a distant place have an interest in serving your specific interests is a profound leap of the imagination that has been achieved to some extent in a few nations around the world. Far from testifying to some isomorphic relationship between constituencies’ desires and the outcomes of legislative activities, it at least shows, when democracy is to some degree successfully imagined, that there can be a functional relationship between voting and ruling. But this notion is peculiar to us, as conditioned by a particular sociocultural history, and serves as a poor lens for viewing contemporary developments in the Russian economy and Russian politics.

In many discourses that engage with developments in Russia the political and the economic are pivotal areas of interest. In political analysis, linguistic categories are applied as instruments of contrast. Political roles and processes are conceptualized as different versions of familiar ones. Putin is compared to Bush, the State Duma to the House, the Federation Council to the Senate. A Russian voter is considered a culturally different version of an American voter, only perhaps more cynical or disempowered, implying a whole slew of motivating factors and dispositions.

By defining the ideological and political shift that occurred in 1991 with linguistic and symbolic categories that place Russia on par with so-called Western free market democracies, we implicitly lend credence to the triumphant proclamations of Cold War victory of the West over the East: by applying these terms with the simultaneous recognition of their deficient and problematic implementation, we reinforce the perception of forced submission and inferior capacity of the nation that remained after the demise of the Soviet Union. In a sense, while the Cold War ended, the momentum of its discursive hegemony shot through our categories of representation until the present day.

“Democracy” implies certain kinds of legal structures, certain kinds of power distributions and certain kinds of social activities. One may argue that it poorly describes the actual dynamics of the American political system, but as an idea it nevertheless remains an organizing template for the moral imagination of Americans, regardless of to what degree various individuals act according to stated democratic principles. The moral imagination of Russians is very different from that Americans, in particular insofar as there exists no cohesive moral ideology that is national in scope. There is, of course, a Russian sense of identity that emerges when Chechnya is attacked or other salient events or issues emerge that are defined vis-à-vis Russia as a national entity, and there is obviously a Russian history with a richness of substance and a moral allegiance that more than rival American cultural sentiments. But to say that Russia is a democracy, albeit one with problems, is to qualify it as a nation with certain shared moral discourses and socioeconomic structures that simply do not exist.

When we start from these linguistic categories and look down, discovering people and their actions below, we make assumptions about how those people come to act and think they way they do given the linguistic platform from where we are watching. We become unable to make crucial linkages and draw salient conclusions regarding the legacy of morality from the Soviet Union, the consequences of individually situated moral agency, and the related interpersonal universes that actually conjure up the context we are trying to understand.

The ideological discourse of the Communist Party apparatus during the Soviet era forged a moral framework that was negative in its imperatives and disjointed from pragmatic individual reality in its positive messages. The coerced idea of collectivity undermined the possibility for individuals to situate themselves within a shared moral landscape. Rachel Walker argues that “this coercive ‘we’ not only repressed the society which it controlled but fundamentally disorganized it, rendering orderly and predictable institutional relationships extremely difficult if not impossible and, as a consequence, undermining not only the coherence of the state and state bureaucracies but, most crucially of all, disorganizing the activities of the party itself.”[1] As a consequence of the alienation of individuals both within and without the party structure, moral reasoning, which takes a relevant community as its imaginary jurisdiction, engaged only relationships directly pertinent to the circumstances within the scope of the individual’s world of reasonable management. Soviet subjects were thus “left literally to their own devices in their attempts to resolve the impossible situations that the Stalinist command system imposed on them.”[2] The moral imagination of Soviet people became a function of the necessity to organize personal life and identity in spite of society rather than as an inspiration of its imagined whole.

In America, a politician is oriented and motivated from the vantage point of an expedient position. But there is a moral framework associated with this role that is entangled with both action and discourse. It is specific, on one hand – there are ethical parameters for conducting oneself in legislative contexts, in public relations situations, in relations with non-officials, and so on – but it is also universal insofar as it ties into the much larger fabric of mainstream American morality. The so-called “political” is a legitimate and feasible area of study in America, as it constitutes a specific realm of action within a larger national action-framework of ideology and morality. A politician, properly understood, is linguistically defined according to these kinds of conceptualizations. In Russia, however, the “political” is to great degree merely epiphenomenal of a number of social and historical processes that are qualitatively different from those underlying the political in the U.S.

Local Russian officials become elected to a great extent according to the inner workings of hierarchical systems of power management, where President Vladimir Putin and others pull the strings. Even though top-down attempts to intimidate and coerce desired election outcomes to desired ends sometimes produce unanticipated flukes, they remain a certain kind of infrastructure for political appointments in Russia. And while Muscovite hegemony exerts its influence over the looks and flavors of the human makeup of Russia’s “political” landscape, “business”/”crime” are fundamental elements pervading the ecology and climate of Russian society. In short, intricate networks of allegiance and favoritism that are the legacies of an ideologically disordered Soviet society have continued to channel individuals into various positions of power. Business, organized crime and government can often not be conceived as separate spheres of interest, as the demands on particular actors overlap insofar as these categories are concerned.

To be clear, I am not concerned with terms like politics and democracy as words per se. It would be absurd to seize speaking of politics, democracy, constituencies, and so on. These remain important general frameworks for intelligible thought, and they are sufficiently open-ended in their interpretations not to inhibit alternative discourses. But as heuristics for interpreting the relationship between culture and the activities of people in power they make overly ambitious assumptions about structures of morality and meaning that find no basis in the life of Russians.

What is needed is a person-centered social science that recognizes the legacy of Soviet discourses embedded in individual conceptualizations functioning within moral frameworks attuned to the specific and positioned lives of persons. In America politics is a fabric of the various idiosyncratic interpretations of a national discourse of morality that becomes appropriated according to individual positions in a certain socioeconomic structure. In Russia, “politics” is, rather, a phenomenon, a discursive form that is disconnected from individual moral visions of society.

At Lenin Square in Nizhni Novgorod Lenin dramatically points in a direction for the toiling workers to follow, a direction of historical transformation of society, a mythological direction cast in ideology. Today, his outstretched hand directs the eye straight to the Diamond Casino located on the bottom floor of Hotel Russia. This is a country rife with historical ironies embedded in the landscape that irks the observer to jump to profound conclusions. And so do the linguistic categories we employ misdirect us toward conceptualizing the “political” in Russia as a socioeconomic organization of elected officials dressed in a different cultural garb.

Patrik Lundh, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Santa Cruz.


[1] Walker, Rachel. 1992. In Urban, Michael, ed. Ideology and System Change in the USSR and East Europe. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc. p.4

[2] Ibid.: p.5

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