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One essential aspect of post-Soviet Russian politics is the manner in which the meaning of political terms has changed. ‘Democracy’ is no longer an indisputably honorable term; accusations of ‘fascism’ are being thrown around by MPs who in the West themselves would be considered as Right-wing extremists; Josef Stalin is lauded by prominent, mainstream politicians.
In the West, post-Soviet Russian politics was for a long time portrayed typically as a battle between Boris Yeltsin – the ‘democrat’ and ‘reformer’ – on the one hand and ‘anti-democratic’ and ‘anti-reform’ forces on the other. Another distinction that was made was between the Westernizer Yeltsin and the ‘Slavophile’-inspired opposition. This opposition was described as a ‘red-brown’ or ‘communist-nationalist’ alliance, and these terms pointed to the seeming contradiction inherent in this phenomenon.
For someone who is not accustomed to Russian political rhetoric, looking at it for the first time may occasion a bit of a shock. There is no holding back in the use of highly charged terms. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that some political actors make an effort to water out or alter the connotations of particular political terms, in order to target their opponents and make themselves less vulnerable. Furthermore, this linguistic radicalism can be assumed to feed back into politics: as the meaning of terms is stretched, so is the tolerance for radical policies.
For instance, by 1995 both Vladimir Zhirinovskiy’s LDPR and Sergey Baburin’s ROS had established their own ‘anti-fascist centers’. 2Vladimir Pribylovsky: ‘What Awaits Russia: Fascism or a Latin American-Style Dictatorship?’. Transition, vol.1, no.10, 23 June 1995. There already existed such centers in Russia, where both those leaders would probably themselves be seen as prime suspects of fascism. Similarly, during the (ultimately unsuccessful) impeachment proceedings in the spring of 1999, driven above all by the Communist Party (KPRF), one of the four charges against Yeltsin was of waging ’genocide’ against the Russian people through policies that impoverished the people. The radicalism inherent in this charge becomes evident when we consider that these forces would tend to talk of the russkiy rather than rossiyskiy people, > 3The English word ‘Russian’ may in the Russian language correspond to two different terms — russkiy and rossiyskiy. The first is defined by ethnic/cultural variables; the latter by statist/territorial ones. Accordingly, the first ‘R’ in RSFSR stood for rossiyskiy, since the RSFSR itself was a federate structure, and was not seen as the homeland of one ethnic group. In this article, I will use the word russkiy interchangeably with ‘ethnic Russian’. and that the term ’genocide’ did not figure in the charge linked to the instigation of the war in Chechnya. Neither is KPRF leader Gennadiy Zyuganov on record as referring to the mass killings under Stalin as ‘genocide’. On the contrary, in December 1999 Zyuganov took the opportunity of the 120th anniversary of Stalin’s birth to praise him as a ‘great man’ and the ‘greatest leader’ in Russian history. 4See Kramer, Mark: ‘Why Russian history still matters’.
Not only is the range of acceptability wide in terms of rhetoric. In terms of political alliances, too, there are fewer and smaller ‘no-go areas’. Politicians and parties find bedfellows in the most surprising nooks and crannies. Contrary to what most in the West would expect, a politician like Vladimir Zhirinovskiy is not a pariah in Russian politics due to his extreme policies. When he has no allies, it is mostly because of his erratic behavior and his personal ambitions. Among countless more or less surprising alliances over the last few years, we have seen Grigoriy Yavlinskiy, leader of the liberal party Yabloko, unite in a ‘Third Force’ with Aleksandr Lebed and Svyatoslav Fedorov prior to the 1996 presidential elections. We have seen the same Yavlinskiy include another surprise ally, former prime minister Sergey Stepashin, among the top three candidates on Yabloko’s list for the 1999 Duma elections. And we have seen Moscow Mayor Yuriy Luzhkov support every move by Boris Yeltsin, shift to be spoken of as a possible KPRF presidential candidate, become the Kremlin’s number one enemy, and – most recently – support Vladimir Putin as candidate for the presidency.
At the core of this muddled picture is linguistic confusion. This report is an attempt to clear up this confusion – that is, to systematize the way political terms are being employed and establish how such terms may be employed academically in order to describe political constellations in Russia. More specifically, the report aims to define the empirical relationship between different expressions of nationalism and other variables that may serve to describe political actors in today’s Russia.
Any attempt at such a task will also necessarily constitute an attempt to make sense, at a general level, of political life in Russia – to analyze the factors that, less than a decade after democratic euphoria tore Russia loose from the USSR, make the Russian case today so different from that of Western societies.
Firstly, the report will discuss typical meanings of spatial terms – such as ‘Left’, ‘Right’ and ‘centrist’ – in modern Russian politics. This section develops further three sub-sections, discussing: the weaknesses of political parties/blocs and the ethereal character of their programs; the so-called ‘party of power’; and the status of democracy as such in Russia today. Secondly, the report will present a model that distinguishes between different expressions of nationalism in Russia, and the two discussions will then be integrated, leading to conclusions on the relationship between nationalist ideology and ‘Left’/’Right’ placement. In the extension of this discussion, I will pay particular attention to the issue of the so-called ‘red–brown alliance’.