30 October 2008

Economic Crisis and Plumes of Hot Air Still Can’t Fill Russian Opposition’s Sails

From the New Yorker’s David Remnick, in a September 2008 article on radio station Ekho Moskvy:

Despite the size of its audience, the station cannot pretend to have much sway over Russian society, which is, in the main, deeply apolitical and immensely more supportive of Putin than it ever was of Yeltsin or Gorbachev. Masha Lipman calls this Putin-era phenomenon the country’s “non-participation pact”: the public agrees not to meddle in politics in exchange for the chance to take part in the consumer benefits of the Russian energy boom.
I never quite bought Lipman’s theory.

And now that the market and petro-rubles are a-tumbling despite the cushion of Russia's surplus, how does the "non-participation pact" hold up? Are dissatisfied Russian masses hitting the streets?

The always convoluted and occasionally insightful Boris Kagarlitsky says "nope" in the Moscow Times, while stubbornly trying to find a silver lining:
Russians have been largely silent on the country's financial crisis. This is not so much tacit consent as it is concealed anger. Whatever it is, Russians haven't voiced their concerns. Attempts by opposition groups to rally the masses on Oct. 25 by organizing protests on the so-called Day of Outrage were a resounding failure. The event's organizers showed up on the appointed day, but the public stayed home…

When the flag-toting political activists show up at these protests, mainstream Russians felt uncomfortable in their presence.

But despite their attempts to avoid politics like the plague, leaders of these social groups repeatedly discover that they cannot fully escape it, however hard they try. Their challenge is not how to remain outside of politics, but how to formulate policies that can better promote their own interests in political and organizational circles. This kind of political savvy only comes with experience, however, and experience comes from making a long string of painful but edifying errors.

Now, all that is left is to hope that the crisis will offer useful, albeit painful, lessons. It will force society and the political system to initiate fundamental changes -- whether they want to or not.
But as Eric Hobsbawm recently reminded us on the BBC, the European Left certainly didn’t benefit from the Depression of the 1930s, despite the fact that Marxist analyses seemed more cogent than ever. And with Russia's entrenched and possibly-rising nationalistic mood, I don’t think we should imagine that the boat of imaginary post-Soviet opposition will be setting sail anytime soon. It's just as likely that something more ominous is on the horizon.


(Another hat tip to shirts vs. skins for bringing Hobsbawm’s interview to my attention.)


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Looks like during your year in Russia you read newspapers more than you talked to people. You lost a chance to understand Russian people, i.e. the country.

A different issue is, that your writings are no worse than 90% of Western journalism about Russia. But that speaks about the low condition of the Western journalism, rather than your talents.

I do not understand, why are you writing about Russia.


p.s. Don't get offended, please. I understand pretty well that you may be a good chap, and I value personal relationships more than political talks. But we (you) started a political conversation.

Sean Guillory said...

I thank you for bringing Hobsbawm's interview to my attention! :)

Anonymous said...

I re-read your post. It looks like you tend to believe newspapers, rather than people. And newspapers do not help you to understand people, vice versa.

You do not understand things that simple that crisis doesn't show up in Russia at the moment. People aren't losing their jobs, etc. The majority doesn't take credits as a way of living. So the hardening conditions of taking credits -- the only manifestation of the crisis so far (do not even concern stock market) -- doesn't affect people.

Lipman is simply an idiot. Where can I, an ordinary citizen, take my share of money from Russia's energy boom? We do not have socialism like Norway or Saudian Arabia. Oil feeds oil companies, and oil taxes contribute to the state budget. Stabilization fund smoothes effects of oil prices changes on the latter. The system works fine to the moment.


Buster said...

AE, Thanks for the WoE link. I think I only skimmed the piece before.

Sean, Always happy to advertise that EH is still ticking. It's amazing. I recently gave a talk and this older gentleman tells me, "You really should show this to Eric Hobsbawm. I was talking to him last month and I think he'd really take an interest." There's something about those British Marxists that lends them longevity, I think. Last year, I also got an answer to a query from V. Kiernan about his work in the Comintern b/w Britain and India in the 1930s...

Now Evgeny, I think we really are talking past each other. And I am failing to see your disagreements clearly. Perhaps you are mis-reading everything I quote as my opinion. Let's try something.

Evgeny: Lipman is simply an idiot. Where can I, an ordinary citizen, take my share of money from Russia's energy boom?

Buster: I never quite bought Lipman’s theory.

Evgeny: It looks like you tend to believe newspapers, rather than people.

Buster: Economic Crisis and Plumes of Hot Air Still Can’t Fill Russian Opposition’s Sails.

My point was to offer a criticism of some of the hot air circulating in English-language venues. I don't think we are as far apart on this matter as you imagine.

On the other hand, I am starting to understand why reading newspapers is so unfruitful for you.

Lastly, I won't bother with your criticism that I failed to get to know the Russian people as a whole. It's another trap and once again, I haven't yet found the appropriate ten-foot pole.

Anonymous said...

MTBE: 1) That's a problem on my side. Not all my criticism is that of you. Like, I agree with you that Lipman's point is weak. This wasn't explicitly said.

2) And yes, I didn't get your irony about plumes of hot air.

Well, I do not believe there's such thing as Russian people as a whole. There are individuals, like in any country. Yet knowing few individuals gives you an insight on the nation. And there's no contradiction so far.

I remember an article (NYT?) describing well-being of a single ordinary Russian family -- in 1990s, in 2000s.. But if Western journalists can so-so tell *how* do people live, they fail completely to answer *why* or *what for* do they. There's no reporting (at least I do not notice it) about Russian social thought (social journalism). There's an increasing culture gap.

How many Russian books were translated into English during the last years? Andrew Bromfield (a great translator) is simply uncapable to fill that gap alone. (Do not say it's bad; who said the West seeks to understand Russia after all?)

Incidentally, try a bit of Russian social journalism (no, it's not an ultimate answer to anything, just a good article):



Anonymous said...

I'm puzzled by Hobsbawm's assertion that the European Left "didn't do well" in the 30's, though I'm not eager to question his view, both because he's smarter and more learned than I am and because he was there and I wasn't. Maybe it depends what you mean by "doing well." Where the Left wasn't forcibly suppressed, it did fairly well--the French Popular Front, the Popular Front government in Spain (until overthrown by armed insurrection), Social-Democratic and Communist parties in Czechoslovakia and Sweden and Belgium et al. either entering governments or forming large, influential opposition blocs. When it came to a confrontation, as in Spain or Vienna 1934, the Left was pretty generally defeated, and Blum's government was succeeded by a series of feebler and feebler center-Right coalitions; outside Europe, on the other hand, there was the wave of industrial unionization in the US, fostered (and of course also étatisé by Roosevelt) and the sharp left turn taken by Mexico under Làzaro Càrdenas, etc. I think there was probably a point around 1934-35 when, despite Germany, a thoughtful supporter of the Left might have seen reason to hope; by 1938, we're warming up the bar stool in one of the dives on 52nd street for Auden's backside, but that's the trouble with decade periodization, it's usually too coarse-grained to capture the real development of events and consciousness.

Buster said...

Rootless, For sure the decade periodization is coarse. I think that Hobsbawm is simply elaborating on his vision from Age of Extremes, particularly the last section of the chapter "Into the Economic Abyss," pp. 102-108, for those who would like to sing along from the hymnal.

He basically points out that after the demise of 19th-century liberalism, three visions competed for "intellectual-political hegemony" in Europe: Marxist communism, Swedish-style social democracy and fascism. I think you're right that it comes down to what Hobsbawm might mean by "doing well" and I think he means achieving some hegemonic status. So even where fascism didn't take root, neither did Marxist communism, in part, as he admits, due to the blunders of the Comintern. This despite what all those lefties were dreaming of--an economic collapse to usher in socialism.

Anonymous said...

He basically points out that after the demise of 19th-century liberalism, three visions competed for "intellectual-political hegemony" in Europe: Marxist communism, Swedish-style social democracy and fascism. I think you're right that it comes down to what Hobsbawm might mean by "doing well" and I think he means achieving some hegemonic status.

Can't argue with him there. I was thinking about how the Spanish Republican slogan "Madrid sarà la tumba del fascismo"--a straight-up forecast--was turned, at least in the US, to "Make Madrid the tomb of fascism," an exhortation. I don't know if anybody took note of this at the time; in any case honest people, up to 1937 or so, still believed it was a realizable goal if not a solid prediction. A different matter from proletarian hegemony, of course. Still it's interesting that in official Marxist memory, in the US anyway, the 30's are a glamorized decade of heroic achievement, like another more recent decade that turns out to be (a) at least distinct periods and (b) nowhere near so glorious as a lot of my generation flatter themselves it was.
Yours for unblinking historiography, etc.

Anonymous said...

Make that "at least three distinct periods." Sgh.

Buster said...

Rootless, That certainly makes more sense now.

On the periodization question, a funny little moment from that conference in Albuquerque. At the panel on re-assessing radicalism during the early Cold War, the assigned commentator noted how the works presented made us question our notion of "waves" of radicalism or feminism. She then went on about all the current re-workings: the long civil rights movements, the long 1960s, the long Popular Front (this one was new to me), etc. To finish, she cited the work of another scholar who happened to be in the room, claiming that all of his accumulated works attest to the continuity of radicalism across the 20th century. Then he got up and said, "But I think there's something to those cycles." Conclusion they reached? It all depends on what you're looking for.

Stunning, huh?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry I missed that; if any of those papers are published, I'd like to read them.

I liked Philip Klinkner's "The Unsteady March," which I think puts the civil rights movement in Cold War context very convincingly. A narrower slice of the same phenomenon is Penny von Eschen's "Satchmo Blows up the World," about the State Department-sponsored jazz tours in the 50's and 60's