Though everything under the sun in Russian politics is hours away from revolving solely and entirely around the (likely guilty) verdict handed down to Mikhail Khodorkovsky on the morning of December 27th, I’d like to take a moment to draw a bit of attention to the debate among liberal democrats about the question of Russian nationalism. The question itself can be phrased any number of ways — and even after centuries of rivalry and debate between Westernizers and Slavophiles, Russians are still finding new reasons to return to the issue and argue their case.
Roughly a week ago, DemVybory leader and potential Partiia Narodnoi Svobody presidential candidate Vladimir Milov published an op-ed in Gazeta.ru titled “Liberal-Nationalism versus Fascism.” In a nutshell, Milov claims that liberals, by rejecting the issue outright on moral grounds, have surrendered nationalism to the extremists. (He uses the word “natisonal’nyi” to describe good nationalism and “natsionalisticheskii” to describe the other kind.)
That the nationalist [natsional'naia] component was lost completely by the Russian liberal movement and substituted with “universal [values]” (and that liberals completely lost the national discourse to hawks and nationalists) has contributed greatly to the failure of the liberal project in Russia over the past twenty years. It has broadly helped form the false view of liberals as a “fifth column” that rejects national origins in Russian politics.
This paragraph appears a little past the midpoint of Milov’s article. The first half addresses the rising numbers of (largely Caucasian) migrant workers, whose immigration to Moscow has risen “twenty times” since the 1990s, he says. This gives way to a discussion about the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe (and even the orange revolutions of the previous decade), which Milov says had a “strong nationalist [natsionalisticheskii] undertone.”
After declaring that liberals shot themselves in the foot by ditching the nuts and bolts of nationalism in order to pursue some fruity ideal of “universal values” (which he describes as a “fig leaf”), Milov attacks “Eurasianists” (taking special aim at Aleksandr Dugin, who runs the nationalist “International Eurasian Movement”), arguing that Russia must turn to Western, not Eastern, values and political structures. This latter half of Milov’s op-ed is undoubtedly more frustrating for Russian liberals, who inevitably are committed Westernizers, but are equally committed to a rhetoric of tolerance and cultural respect.
Two days later in an article for Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal, Aleksandr Podrabinek decided to take on the concept of “Liberal-Nationalism,” calling Milov’s idea a “nonviable” attempt to simultaneously ingratiate himself to liberals and nationalists. Podrabinek’s language does not pull punches. He accuses Milov of lecturing “us stupid liberals” with his “wise life experiences.” (Podrabinek is roughly twenty years older than Milov.) He implies that Milov is tacitly endorsing the “Russia for Russians” slogan in the Gazeta.ru article, where he attacks Luzhkov and Moscow municipal authorities for not better regulating the flow of migrant workers from the Caucasus. Podrabinek goes on to accuse Milov of defending Soviet imperialism, inciting cultural animosity, and blaming migrant workers for their own poverty and abuse. Of Europe and Eurasia, Podrabinek has this to say:
But Europe isn’t just a piece of territory, it’s the European way of life and European values — not least of which is a culture of tolerance. […] We can kiss Europe goodbye if we solve the ethnic problem as Vladimir Milov advises. “Russia needs a coherent policy for the North Caucasus to limit the export of [its] lawless culture and cults of power and total corruption to the rest of Russia,” affirms Milov. I’d like to know in greater detail how he imagines this playing out. You can only counter one culture with another. Total corruption and a cult of power can only be countered with law. […] What exactly is an “export” if we’re talking about Russian domestic issues? And what kind of awful hangover does it take to convince someone that total corruption was exported to us from the North Caucasus? I refer Vladimir Stanislavovich to a paper titled “Luzhkov. Itogi,” written by a certain Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov!
The same day that Milov’s piece hit the web (still before Podrabinek’s response), Forbes.ru published (what I would describe to be) a snotty little piece by Vadim Novikov. Titled “Russian Nationalists Split the Liberals,” the article addresses many of the sore points around which people like Milov and Podrabinek have their disagreements. Novikov’s proudest zinger seems to be that liberals are caught between the impossible choices of tolerance and promoting Western culture:
The argument about principles turns into a clash of tastes between those who feel xenophobia toward other peoples and those who feel exactly the same thing against people who hold different ideas. The problem can be put another way: the success of the slogan “Fascists are a lower race” (or “Fascists are second-class citizens”) would hardly qualify as a real victory of liberalism over fascism. Liberalism has become just another lifestyle demanding that the government be purged of foreign cultural elements.
Novikov may be correct that a culture of tolerance is inherently challenged when confronted by a culture of intolerance (as any Frenchman who’s quarreled over headscarves can tell you), but this Forbes.ru piece is thoroughly idiotic in its approach to the problem. For starters, let’s highlight the fact that the phrase “Fascists are a lower race” is found exactly once on all of the Internet: exclusively in Mr. Novikov’s December 20th article. The reason it surfaces nowhere else is undoubtedly because the statement makes absolutely zero sense. Categorically demoting an entire class of people (based on some immutable identifying characteristic) is not in any way comparable — morally, rhetorically, or logically — to disagreeing with and stigmatizing adherents to a hateful ideology. Fascists can’t be a lower race precisely because they’re not a race at all — they’re just a psychotic collective of misled, paranoid morons, who are entirely capable of becoming less (or more) stupid at some other stage of life.
It’s worth noting, however, that Podrabinek does struggle some with defending tolerance and “universal values” in the face of Milov’s arguments. But to better appreciate the real competition to Podrabinek’s open-arms liberalism, one needs to cast aside Milov’s wishy-washy “liberal-nationalism” and take in Yulia Latynina’s balls-to-the-wall frontal assault on “Caucasian fascism”:
“The problem,” Latynina explains, “is that nazism is the unrestrained philosophy of the traditional society, specially designed in opposition to open civilization. “I am a Somalian (or a Chechen, or an Arab, or a Kikuiu); I have a family and honor; I am lord of my women; and I kill my own daughter if she acts out. Therefore, I am better than these cowardly swine [from the West] who have neither family nor honor.”
This is the side of cultural animosity that liberals like Podrabinek wish to ignore. When Russian fascists demonstrate this kind of racism, they are guilty of compromising the country’s European image. A Caucasian who frowns on women’s rights in Moscow (to the degree that they exist) is rather embarrassing to someone who just chastised his own people for expressing intolerance. Indeed — on the subject of one’s “own people” — there is admittedly something awkward about Podrabinek’s attempt to shame Milov for accusing the North Caucasus of exporting corruption. “But it was OUR authorities who created migrants’ social conditions and OUR authorities who exploited their slave labor and OUR authorities who were nurtured by the corruption,” Podrabinek repeats in an effort to claim that all Russian citizens are members of the same country. Throughout his writing, the possessive pronouns reveal a point of view that is distinctly Muscovite and clearly not Caucasian.
One suspects that Milov is hyperbolic to argue that Russian corruption is imported from the south. It is equally likely that people like Latynina misrepresent the Caucasus by spreading fears about its “fascist threat,” as though the majority of its residents support some kind of expansive terrorism. And yet the liberals’ defense (or sometimes ignorance) of their antithesis outside Moscow seems doomed to discredit their tolerance-peddling aims at home, as average ethnic Russians — from nationalists to political misanthropes — will inevitably interpret this apparent double-standard to be unfair, disloyal, and unpatriotic. How Podrabinek and company are supposed to get around this without adopting various nationalist sympathies, I don’t know. Perhaps that is why the ambitious Mr. Milov set out to set himself apart. This was presumably in the interests of “political realism,” given the unpalatability of going against one’s own nationality in the ethnic conflict. The question now is this: does a stunt like Milov’s gain him more supporters outside the liberal establishment than it loses him inside?
Update (December 28, 2010): Vladimir Milov has published a follow-up article that partly responds to Podrabinek’s critique. It is primarily directed at the recent “Moscow for All” anti-fascist rally organized by Viktor Shenderovich. Milov’s piece was published in Ekho Moskvy’s blogs and is titled “Так для всех или не для всех?“