“We Live Without Feeling the Country Beneath Us”


The Russian economic community was struck last week with the news that New School of Economics rectorSergei Guriev had fled the country under fear of political persecution. Since then, countless voices in both the Russian and Western press have come out praising Guriev for his progressive views and lamenting the lossthat his emigration means for the country.

Quite the contrary, Garry Kasparov argues that Guriev, as one of the so-called “systemic liberals” who look to modernize Russia and had hoped that Medvedev would run for a second presidential term, is an intrinsic part of the corrupt regime that he himself helped to create. Now that the system has begun to devour its own, Kasparov argues, events are shaping up more and more as they were during Stalin’s bloody terror in the 1930s, when certain Bolsheviks, like Nikolai Bukharin, defended the dictator until the very day they were shot. The title of his article comes from a famous poem by Osip Mandelstam, who died in a Stalinist prison camp in 1938.

“We Live Without Feeling the Country Beneath Us”
By Garry Kasparov
June 4, 2013

Well-known publicist Yevgeny Ikhlov, who usually writes very substantive, strategic articles, did something astonishing with his recent column “Piontkovsky’s Ultimatum.”

The author criticizes the actions of the radical Russian “republicans” who “simply decry the regime and the fellow travelers of the protests that are too timid, and nebulously praise some undefined explosion of protest,” and, most importantly, who ” throw themselves at the systemic liberals with such fury, and not a tenth of that pathos reaches the Black Hundreds wing of the party of power.” However, in Ikhlov’s opinion, the success of revolutionary protest “requires a union between moderate revolutionaries and the liberal opposition that exists within the government.” Therefore, the Russian revolutionary opposition should “show the flexibility needed to attract fellow travelers.”

To strengthen his position, Ikhlov refers to Vasily Aksenov’s renowned fantasy novel, “The Island of Crimea,” in which Crimea turns out to be a prosperous (and super liberal) Russian version of Taiwan. In the novel, an intelligentsia movement called the “Union of Common Destiny” gradually comes to power and calls for reunification with the Great Motherland – gloomy Sovietdom. According to the socialists, Soviet Russia could swing either towards neo-Stalinism or democratic reforms, and a free Crimea must shift the balance of history to the side of liberalism. In the novel, everything ends badly, with insidious Soviet intervention…

“But the whole irony of the story is that real life has vindicated the genius of Luch’s calculation – referring to socialist leader and ‘Crimean Messenger’ editor-in-chief Andrei Luchnikov,” writes Ikhlov. “Just a few years had gone by after the release of the novel when the very same latent ‘systemic’ liberals that Aksenov had so cruelly ridiculed…helped to shift the USSR onto the path of democratic reform. Except that the role of the ‘Free Crimea’ that overcame Stalinist inertia twenty-five years ago was played by the ‘corrupt’ high-profile intelligentsia – and even by the low-profile intelligentsia – which chose to live with a market economy and a multi-party system, and see what it was like to live under capitalism.”

“It is important to preserve the ‘Island of Crimea’ – a hearth of Europeanism in Russia… for the intelligent Russian European, any scenario of change needs first and foremost to guarantee the preservation of the ‘Island of Crimea.’ Preservation at any cost!” The author’s irrefutable thesis, alas, demonstrates a cheap, incorrect comparison between the current political situation in Russia and the plot of “The Island of Crimea.”

For the first time in my recent memory, Ikhlov has made (whether on purpose or accidentally, I do not know) a terribly crude semantic substitution, which actually equates today’s Russian systemic liberals with the intelligentsia from “The Island of Crimea” without noting the fundamental differences between them: from the very beginning, the systemic liberals were an intrinsic part of the Yeltsin-Putin regime and actively helped to create it! They exist within the system, while Aksenov’s mythical intelligentsia, suffering from a historical guilt complex, exists outside of it.

When your logical structure is based on an incorrect premise, all the arguments that follow, rational though they may seem, can be thrown out into the trash…

It is strange that Ikhlov resorts to dubious comparisons between Russian socio-political reality and literary concoctions instead of looking for relevant historical analogies. The most obvious one that suggests itself is Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1920s-1930s. Russia is going down the exact same path on the spiral of historical development. Of course, the ways that dictatorships are formed are always more or less universal – it was the same way under Ivan the Terrible as it is under Putin. But in this case, the congruencies are so similar that they seem to have been copied out on tracing paper.

It is true that, before making historical parallels, we need to avoid one principle mistake. For a long time, the systemic liberals have been seen only as “bourgeois specialists under the Bolsheviks.” In fact, this is an illusion: the systemic liberals were never bourgeois specialists – they were always part of the ruling elite, its right wing.

This same wing existed in the Bolshevik party in the form of the Bukharinist wing. It is reminiscent of the trial against the Socialist Revolutionaries in 1922, which provoked a terrible battle among the Bolsheviks about whether or not the defendants should be executed. Behind the scenes, Bukharin was strongly against execution, but nevertheless submitted to party discipline and made several speeches sharply attacking the Socialist Revolutionaries. He later participated in the persecution of the Mensheviks, who were very close to him ideologically, in principle. But, as opposed to the “enemy” Mensheviks, the Bukharinites were a part of the system and belonged to the “corporation” for many years before it lost its need for them.

Right now, Russia is “in the ’30s,” so to speak – the final stage of the transition from single-party dictatorship to single-person dictatorship. This is an important historical moment. The formation of Putin’s personal dictatorship is in full force, exactly as it was in the post-Lenin USSR, when the single-party Bolshevik dictatorship turned, in the end, into the dictatorship of a single person: Stalin.

Therefore, the story of Sergei Guriev’s interrogations and forced emigration, and the story of the systemic liberals on the whole, most closely resembles the story of the party and military elites during the Stalin era. The systemic liberals, just like the Bolshevik bureaucrats, genuinely believed that repression was something used only against one’s enemies, and never against one’s own. They saw themselves as in charge of life, as members of the ruling “corporation,” and were always sure that the laws of history were not written for them, that the cup of fatal historical inevitability would pass from them.

But… “the order of events is set, and the end is inescapable.” The process of transferring from a single-party dictatorship to the dictatorship of one person is always accompanied by changes in personnel. And, like always, instead of the intellectuals that are in demand at the beginning stage of the establishment of a dictatorship, the ones who come to power in the end are butchers and dogs in chains. Nobody has nixed this historical rule.

We know that repression today has a different character and exists on a different scale than under Stalin. Today’s information era is more, one could say, vegetarian. Unjust courts, house arrest, and forced emigration are certainly different than execution by shooting squad. But the vector of development itself is, undoubtedly, the same.

The change in the ruling elite is proceeding at a rapid pace, and there is no guarantee that anyone who has already gotten out is going to be able to avoid persecution. Today, we can courts instead of troikas – the judicial system’s decorative nature is obvious. Everybody understands the true nature of the trials against Navalny, Khodorkovsky, Lebedev, Pussy Riot, and many, many others… Just as we had Stalin’s decorative constitution of 1936, now we have Yeltsin’s decorative constitution of 1993. All the instruments of the government are decorative, except for the personal dictatorship itself.

Naturally, in the era of open societies and the Internet, getting the cases against the accused to stick requires much more sophistication than before. But there is a general understanding that the guilty verdicts are ordered from on high and are hastily concocted, making the situation even more revolting.

It is remarkable how much the behavior of prominent economists who have been serving Putin’s mafia for years is reminiscent of the behavior of Stalin’s military leaders at the end of the 1930s. Guriev, called to an interrogation, says that he has no qualms with Putin or Medvedev. When Vasily Blyukher and other army and division commanders were arrested (like Kotov from the film “Burnt by the Sun”), they also repeated the same incantation: “I have nothing to fear, I have done nothing wrong. Comrade Stalin will fix this…”

This is easy to explain, because they were, and considered themselves to be, part of the system. They built it energetically, and built it for themselves, destroying numerous enemies in the process. But then, on a different turn in the development of this dictatorship, they themselves became expendable.

And this is how Guriev fits into the construction of this system, because he, as always, is ready to cooperate with it – for example, by testifying on the Khodorkovsky case. And it was ten years ago that the Russian oligarchs and systemic liberals headed by Chubais cold-bloodedly threw Khodorkovsky to Putin’s personal police. He went too far, seriously threatening not only Putin personally, but the entire thoroughly corrupt system, by trying to make Yukos a transparent, Westernized company. The oligarchs and systemic liberals felt evident relief after the liquidation of this threat: it was simply not useful for them to change the system.

It is true that, during Medvedev’s presidency (which, as it turned out, was also decorative), Guriev and his expert commission made the indiscretion of saying that the second case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev was baseless, and that he doubted the legality and fairness of the verdict that he was served with. That is when the internal games in the government began: some of the systemic liberals “opposed execution” and placed their bets on Medvedev. In the very same way, Bukharin and his supporters hoped to remove Stalin. The similarities of the characters are striking: all are typical rightist dodgers! They share a similar philosophy (“line your pockets!”), one that has nothing to do with democratic freedoms. The only things that distinguish them from the security part of the ruling elite are an outward semblance of intellectualism and a lack of first-hand experience with the executioner’s craft.

But betting on Medvedev turned out to be a mistake. The personal dictatorship of his elder comrade has continued to gather strength, in complete concurrence with irrevocable historical logic.

As a result, Ikhlov now tells the opponents of Putinism not to throw themselves at the systemic liberals with such fury, but to be flexible and find fellow travelers among them. But any fellow travelers had a historical chance at the end of 2011 through the beginning of 2012, and they did not take it – it had no place on their agenda. And even now, when the government’s personnel shakeup is in full force, the systemic liberals will whine mournfully but not decide to speak out against the system that they themselves built and which their fortunes are entirely indebted to.

Translation by Kasparov.com


Garry’s Timeline

Follow Garry's extraordinary path through years of relentless activism.

View the full Biography