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Condemning ‘the West’ and Redrawing the Realm of the Political in Russia / by Volha Biziukova

How can we understand the usage of civilizational rhetoric, which became ubiquitous in today’s public and political debate in Russia and in other places across the globe? Instead of thinking about it as a wieldy tool of propaganda or as a cover up for vested interests and profiteering, we can ask what implications this rhetoric has for redrawing the very realm of the political.

On February 10, 2021, the major independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a piece with an ambitious title: “The abduction of Europe 2.0. Manifesto.” The author, Konstantin Bogomolov, is a celebrated contemporary theater director and an icon of the culturally progressive local public. In a blunt and feverous tone, the article condemns the “West” for the “evils” of multiculturalism, feminism, Black Lives Matter, etc.—calling this emerging society no less than the “new ethical Reich” and discerning in progressive activists “new storm troopers.” Russia, in its current condition—though admittedly not an ethical or aesthetical ideal for Bogomolov—is likened to the “last car” in “the crazy train heading towards the Boschian hell, where it will be met by multicultural genderneutral demons.” Fortunately, Russia still retains a chance to unhook itself from the doomed locomotive and embark on a homegrown project nurtured by “a new right ideology anchored in a complex man.”

The piece sparked wide public debate. Commentators picked on the confusing style and sloppy argumentation, and the possible vested interest of its author. All this criticism might well be justified. Still, as the current husband of Ksenia Sobchak (a journalist and a liberal rival of Vladimir Putin in the last presidential election) and a representative of the broad public mainstream, Bogomolov is no fringe figure. Falling within the broader strand of the Russian public discourse, his text vividly exposes a general tendency of using civilizational language for redrawing the realm of the political in contemporary Russia. Rather than seeking to reconstruct a coherent political program from Bogomolov’s outburst, we can look at the function the civilizational rhetoric filled with dystopic prophecies serves in his text. In this respect, the timing of his piece is particularly instructive.

The article appeared a week after a Moscow court changed a suspended sentence into a jail term for Alexei Navalny, who was arrested immediately upon his return to Russia on January 19 after surviving the attempt on his life through poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok. Meanwhile, the Russian-speaking Internet space was exploding over the investigative documentary about “Putin’s palace” published by Navalny’s team, which exposed the astonishing scale of embezzlement and conspicuous extravagance of the lifestyles of the political elite, garnering more than a hundred million views. These events provoked several protests over two weeks, which led many domestic and foreign commentators to anticipate the possibility of countrywide mass mobilization.

Such expectations pointed to an accumulated potential for protest activity. Pressure was believed to have built up as a result of the combined effect of several factors: the coronavirus pandemic in which the state prioritized the preservation of reserve funds over aid to the population, voting on the amendments to the constitution that nullified Putin’s earlier presidential terms, targeted political repression and persecution, and the seventh year of declining or stagnating real incomes. Given that none of these developments had precipitated mass protests, there was a sense of a possible tipping point. But the scale of the eventual protests that rallied around Navalny, though significant, remained within the scope of major mass mobilizations of the past decade and did not demonstrate anything qualitatively new (except, arguably, for a wider national reach and the active involvement of regional urban centers). Facing excessive suppression by police forces, the protests soon waned, and life returned “back to normal.”

All of this, however, was conspicuously absent from Bogomolov’s essay. As he commented later, what he dwelled upon—the anticipated moral bankruptcy and oppressiveness of the West and Russia’s Sonderweg—represented the “real” issues of importance, while current events and “individual inadequacies of authorities” were of less interest for him. However, it was not only recent events that were left out but also the ongoing situation in Russia, with its entrenched inequalities, multiple injustices, and excesses of power at different levels.

This silence represents the key message of this piece, revealing a common feature of the uses of “civilizational” language. The latter serves to frame the substance of public discussion by supplying “valid” and meaningful categories, and by representing the reified “civilizational units” of Russia and the West as the actual subjects of history. Without necessarily offering or imposing a comprehensive ideological program, this rhetoric effectively displaces and substitutes the subject of sociopolitical and material realities. Referencing meta-entities and value-loaded meanings, these categories also provide a powerful framework for affective attachments and modes of identification, forging an important link to people’s existential experiences.

By this means, in Russia’s contemporary political context, the use of civilizational language redraws the realm of political debate by rendering the imagined scene of civilizational processes and interactions as its worthy and legitimate subject, and the corresponding categories as representing the supposed substance of the political. Simultaneously, it excludes from this scope—and thus facilitates depoliticizing—the sphere of socioeconomic development and state governance. Bogomolov’s manifesto makes this more general tendency intelligible by taking it to the extreme.

Recognizing the effects of redrawing the boundaries of the political provides another angle for thinking about the role of the ideological factor in today’s politics of the Russian state and popular compliance. This is usually described in terms of a “trade-off” between ideology and socioeconomic performance (that is, partially sacrificing material wellbeing “in exchange” for Russia’s “greatness”) or as the indoctrination by the propaganda media. Instead, the relations between these spheres are reconfigured by the pairing of politicization and depoliticization.

The appeal of this move should be understood within the current context of the effective disentanglement of individual lives from the situation in the country in the perception of Russian citizens. This leads to the disintegration of the notions of public good and public interest, and substituting them with nothing but state good and state interest. This tendency also reveals itself in the dynamics of the recent protest movement in large cities that emerged as instantaneous expressions of individualized moral indignation sparked by particular, isolated events (for example, Boris Nemtsov’s assassination in 2015). These protests remain sporadic and short-lived; they have not managed to sustain and acquire the character of goal-driven collective action as a mode of political participation.

Such tendencies of refashioning the political realm and politicizing culturalist and civilizational paradigms that, in turn, help to depoliticize the sphere of socioeconomic processes and governance are, of course, not unique to Russia, but their configurations are always specific to a place and time. They reemerge across many different localities and global political contexts, from the increasingly widespread talks about promoting and protecting “Europeanness” in the EU to rising nationalist authoritarian regimes in countries like Brazil, India, or Turkey. While investing in reactionary nationalist and civilizational rhetoric, these authoritarian regimes also largely embrace neoliberal economic arrangements and strategies of governance. In a way, we can also think about how such projects manage to tap into and exploit the ideas about multiple paths to modernity for their own purposes. Still, exploring the tendencies of redrawing the realm of political debate might shed further light on the political dynamics in different places, including Russia. ◁

Volha Biziukova is a PhD candidate in Cultural and Social Anthropology, University of Vienna, and a junior research fellow at the Central European University, Vienna. She works on the intersection of state, class, and consumption with a special focus on the post-Soviet space.