Paul Mason (Guardian, UK)
Below the medieval citadel in Kazan, two vast frozen rivers turn the landscape white. On a Saturday afternoon there are a few hardy locals shuffling through the icy sludge to take selfies against the mosque, the Christmas lights and the Soviet-era statues.
It’s 25 years since I was last in Russia, trying and failing to revive the left during the chaotic first days of Boris Yeltsin’s economic reforms. Half a lifetime later I am here to address a room full of people who want to talk about replacing capitalism with something better – and suddenly we have something in common: now we both know what it’s like to see a system that once looked permanent collapsing.
Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in October, 2016. Photograph
Since I’ve been here, almost everyone who has chosen to come and hear me is involved in either contemporary arts or philosophy. The journalists who want to interview me – a public critic of Putin’s policy in Syria and Ukraine – mainly write for cultural magazines. These, if not exactly the new rock’n’roll, are the safest intellectual spaces in which critical thought can take place.
Since Putin stole the 2011 election, and the subsequent protest movement was suppressed, the young people who took part in it have retreated into an angry silence. It’s not exactly a new situation for Russian intellectuals. Lenin was arrested here in 1887 for leading a student protest and spent most of the next 30 years in exile or underground. Then the Bolsheviks suppressed free speech and political opposition for another 70 years and Russia’s capitalist oligarchs are doing their best to suppress it now.
In the face of this, why do Russian artists, philosophers and journalists persist in their belief in change? In short, because they have seen the moral and physical collapse of something that once seemed permanent: the Soviet Union.
Alexei Yurchak, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, decribes the event in a book whose title speaks for itself: Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More. Yurchak was fascinated by the fact that, while nobody predicted the fall, when it happened, many people realised that they had, in their hearts, expected it all along.
During the era of perestroika, under Gorbachev, many people experienced a sudden “break in consciousness”, as realisation dawned that the fall was imminent. But until then most people behaved, spoke and even thought as if the Soviet system was permanent. And despite their cynicism about its brutality, they went on parades, participated in meetings and performed the rituals demanded by the state.
Since Trump’s victory in November 2016, it has become possible to believe a similar collapse will happen in the west, to globalisation and liberal values.
The parallels are obvious. We too have lived for 30 years under an economic system that proclaimed its own permanence. Globalisation was an unstoppable natural process; free-market economics simply the natural state of things.
But when the country that designed globalisation, imposed it and benefited from it most votes against it, you have to consider the possibility that it is going to end, and suddenly. If so, you also have to consider a possibility that – if you are a liberal, humanist democrat – may be even more shocking: that oligarchic nationalism is the default form of failing economies.
When Yeltsin unleashed penury and collapse in the early 90s, I witnessed Russian society descend into chaos. We held our meetings in the abandoned facilities of Stalinist academia, amid discarded Soviet text books, busts of Lenin, minutes of central committees that no longer existed. There was violence on the streets and larceny in the boardrooms of Russia’s resource monopolies, where ownership fell to whichever kleptokrat could exert the most force.
Compared with the chaos of the 1990s, Putinism has felt like a redemption. Putin has, at the cost of diplomatic isolation and the suppression of democratic rights, restored growth, order and national pride. Now all over the world there are mini-Putins: the Hungarian PM, Viktor Orbán; the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; the would-be French fascist president, Marine Le Pen. If – as they desire – the west descends into economic nationalism, everybody under the age of 50 will go through the same kind of ideological shock the Russians went through in the late 80s.
In economics, political science and the study of international relations there has been, for about three decades, a general assumption that the current framework is permanent. Just as in Soviet academia, if globalisation turns out to have been just a temporary and reversible thing, textbooks once revered will have to lie abandoned.
But there’s one big difference. The dissidents of the late Soviet era fought for democracy and human rights under the general concept of “the west”. For us, if xenophobic populism triumphs, there will be no “west” to aspire to: if liberal, democratic societies begin to go the way of Orbán’s Hungary, there will be no external power to help us.
Our last great hope will be ourselves. And there are enough of us to stop this second great collapse towards oligarchy and nationalism. We are networked, aware, educated and – for now – psychologically resilient. As we link together and resist we can learn a lot from those who have been doing it, quietly, in Russia.
The young generation of Putin’s critics may wear an overcoat of cynicism, weariness and abstraction, but they possess a diamond-hard belief in change.