Dimensions and Challenges of Russian Liberalism: Historical Drama and New Prospects
Liberalism in Russia is one of the most complex, multifaced and, indeed, controversial phenomena in the history of political thought. Values and practices traditionally associated with Western liberalism—such as individual freedom, property rights, or the rule of law—have often emerged ambiguously in the Russian historical experience through different dimensions and combinations. Economic and political liberalism have often appeared disjointed, and liberal projects have been shaped by local circumstances, evolved in response to secular challenges and developed within often rapidly-changing institutional and international settings.
This third volume of the Reset DOC “Russia Workshop” collects a selection of the Dimensions and Challenges of Russian Liberalism conference proceedings, providing a broad set of insights into the Russian liberal experience through a dialogue between past and present, and intellectual and empirical contextualization, involving historians, jurists, political scientists and theorists.
The first part focuses on the Imperial period, analyzing the political philosophy and peculiarities of pre-revolutionary Russian liberalism, its relations with the rule of law (Pravovoe Gosudarstvo), and its institutionalization within the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets). The second part focuses on Soviet times, when liberal undercurrents emerged under the surface of the official Marxist-Leninist ideology. After Stalin’s death, the “thaw intelligentsia” of Soviet dissidents and human rights defenders represented a new liberal dimension in late Soviet history, while the reforms of Gorbachev’s “New Thinking” became a substitute for liberalism in the final decade of the USSR.
The third part focuses on the “time of troubles” under the Yeltsin presidency, and assesses the impact of liberal values and ethics, the bureaucratic difficulties in adapting to change, and the paradoxes of liberal reforms during the transition to post-Soviet Russia. Despite Russian liberals having begun to draw lessons from previous failures, their project was severely challenged by the rise of Vladimir Putin. Hence, the fourth part focuses on the 2000s, when the liberal alternative in Russian politics confronted the ascendance of Putin, surviving in parts of Russian culture and in the mindset of technocrats and “system liberals”. Today, however, the Russian liberal project faces the limits of reform cycles of public administration, suffers from a lack of federalist attitude in politics and is externally challenged from an illiberal world order. All this asks us to consider: what is the likelihood of a “reboot” of Russian liberalism?
The subject of this chapter is the ethical and sociological aspects of events during perestroika and after. At that time, Russia reached the zenith of liberal ethical values, of romantic hopes and expectations and public demands for justice and the accountability of public authorities. Unfortunately, substantial underestimation of the importance of non-economic factors—especially moral ones—in the reform process resulted in a moral crisis, general disappointment in liberalism and other substantive negative consequences. Acquisition of intellectual and political liberties coincided with a catastrophic economic crisis and the imposition of urgent and necessary measures that were very hard on the population. These measures saved the country from economic collapse but for high political cost, because they were associated (wrongly, as it happens) in mass consciousness with the liberal concept as such. The borders of tolerance toward material impoverishment for the benefit of political freedom were crossed. Also, the paradox of double, contradictory treatment of liberalism in both Soviet intellectual and bureaucratic circles is analyzed in this context. The continuity of former Soviet administrative personnel engendered moral anomy, an identity crisis and alienation among them because inherited officials proved to be unprepared both morally and professionally for work under conditions of transition from socialism to a marketoriented system. This promoted the growth of systemic corruption. The public trust toward the state and public officials have been broken. Moreover, public trust in democratic institutions in general and even a very belief in the possibility of honest government have been undermined then. Despite this, we can find in the contemporary situation a certain ground for optimism. This is based on the revival of demands for social justice and unwillingness to tolerate its absence any longer. Public political protest is considered in this context as a natural and positive element of social activity and political participation, and as a pre-condition for the existence of civil society. In addition, the revival of liberal values in such a form, intuitively sometimes, such as the evolution of horizontal connections and parallel structures in different areas of social life, efforts of people to become maximally independent from state bureaucracy, is the subject of final pages of the chapter.