Ian Parker reviews Ilya Budraitskis’ Dissidents among Dissidents: Ideology, Politics and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia
Much information about Russia now is filtered through a right-wing press that is hostile to Putin because it is hostile to socialism, and here is a peculiar paradox; that dominant view of contemporary Russian capitalism actually mirrors Putin’s own hostility to the legacy of the revolution and the possibilities of radical change.
The sharp readable essays gathered together in this new book by the Moscow-based revolutionary Marxist Ilya Budraitskis are essential reading for anyone wanting to cut through the ideological mystification that permeates the Western press as well as the poisonous nonsense that is pumped out and funnelled into the left by a foolish campist left from Putinite media front organisations.
The essays are themed into three main sections which deal with the historical post-Cold War framing of the world that the West and Putin together operate in, the toxic cultural-ideological conditions that face Russians looking for an alternative, and alternative histories of resistance that pose problems and tasks for the left now. The essays have been reworked and streamed together so they now work as stand-alone pieces and as a coherent whole.
Budraitskis is a keen observer of the historical conditions for the disintegration of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the possibilities for change, and he weaves together many threads of argument. I will just mention three key themes that stood out for me.
The first is the way that cultural resistance intersects with direct political opposition to Stalin and the bureaucracy after his death, and now to Putin, and the way that traps are set for those who seek to reassert the progressive heritage of the Russian Revolution. The useful brief introduction to the book by Tony Wood points out that we now know less about what is happening inside Russia than during the Cold War because that world east of the old Iron Curtain is more effectively sealed off.
Western intelligence agency funding of research during the Cold War, for example, included funds specifically tagged for the translation of Russian texts into English – part of the globalisation of English and increasing dominance of the United States in academic work – and this enabled different interpretations of what was happening even while the information was used to attack and undermine the Soviet bloc.
The current cultural-ideological consensus, one shared by the Western right and by Putin’s entourage, is that there are, indeed, separate spheres of the world, domains of influence. This idea was voiced and crystallised in the argument by Samuel Huntington in his influential 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, which included the bizarre idea that there are eight civilizations in the world, and that there are fundamental irresolvable differences between them. The Huntingdon ‘clash’ book was mobilised, of course after 9/11 to make it seem as if the key contest was between the West as the real space for civilisation and the Islamic world which was not really civilized at all.
But this post Cold War world that is divided into separate spheres of influence is exactly the kind of world that Putin inhabits. Budraitskis points out that the ‘Slavic-Orthodox’ civilization that Huntingdon describes in negative terms is claimed and endorsed by Putin as a positive space, one in which terms like ‘democracy’ have a quite different meaning than in the West. This is not to say that either Huntingdon or Putin are right, they are not, but to show deep the cultural-ideological argument goes and what the consequences are. For the West it means working with leaders of separate inscrutable ‘cultures’ on their own terms, and for Putin it means conceiving of his own Slavic-Orthodox cultural domain as an organic unchanging entity.
That means, for example, that the October Revolution was, for Putin, an externally engineered threat to the continuity and stable functioning of Russian culture. Every dissident threat must, if this world-view is right, be a result of external interference, and this, of course, then spins into mystical Russian Orthodox Church fantasies about conspiracies to undermine the natural order of things and antisemitic conspiracy theories that search for the hidden hands responsible for causing dissent.
Budraitskis describes how the Putin regime hardened its nationalist stance and internal security measures following the ‘Maidan’ events in Ukraine in 2013, and how some of the well-meaning Western statements of ‘solidarity’ with the Maidan fell into the trap of making it seem, indeed, as if what was at stake was some local version of the clash of civilizations. An open letter by Western intellectuals at the time, for example, declared that this was a chance for re-founding the progressive heritage of Europe, and this played into the image of the Maidan revolt as only being what it was sometimes known as, first through a Twitter hashtag, ‘Euromaidan’.
What must be noticed, however, and Budraitskis is very clear about this in his account of internal oppositions in Ukraine before and after the Maidan events, is that the stakes for Putin were what was happening inside Russia, and the danger, for him, of an opposition movement developing there that would corrode his authority. There were protests inside Russia, and a harsh clampdown.
Once the separate spheres of influence in the world takes root and a corresponding nationalist atmosphere is generated to demonise anyone who speaks out, then violence becomes a legitimate, even necessary, means of social control. This is what the liberals and the left inside Russia face now. And here Budraitskis gives an alarming account of the role of avowed anti-communist theoreticians around Putin and the way in which those arguments are played out in practice.
One such is Ivan Ilyin, a White Russian émigré in Germany, whose work has been declared by the chancellor of Moscow State University as providing ‘the life giving water reviving the nation’. Ilyin’s 1925 book On Resistance to Evil by Force was written after he was expelled from Russia, and gives voice to the ‘white warriors’ and bearers of the ‘Orthodox knightly traditions’ that are now eagerly implemented by sections of the security forces.
One influential general in the Russian national police service, for example, gained her doctorate on Ilyin with the title ‘The Culture of Counteracting Evil in the Law Enforcement Agencies’, and she then became a state Duma deputy and, from 2016, commissioner for human rights in the Russian Federation.
For Ilyin, ‘Evil’ is unconscious, but is experienced by the individual as freedom from coercion and control, then it can only be recognised by others, and ‘Love’ as a ‘transcendental law of force’ is a powerful binding spiritual instrument that will bring that person back into the community again. This requires a moral struggle with those who are infected by Evil, and, as Ilyin puts it, fortifying ‘the walls of an individual Kremlin, whose construction comprises the spiritual formation of a person’.
What this does is at least two things. The first is, again, a version of a trap, a trap that those concerned simply with individual ‘human rights’ fall into when they make it seem as if the task of the opposition inside Russia is simply to defend the individual’s freedom of thought and speech against the monolithic power of the state. That argument, in fact, simply corresponds to what Ilyin’s supporters already believe, that individual human rights are what causes dissent; they believe that dissent is a sign of Evil.
The second effect, even more awful for the opposition, is what this argument warrants in terms of the crackdown on Evil. Any measures can be taken to bring individuals infected by Evil back into line, and Budraitsksis correlates the influence of this argument in the security forces with the increase in torture.
The longest essay in the book is a translation from Budraitskis’ prize-winning book in Russian, and gives the title to this present book now published by Verso ‘dissidents among dissidents’. We know well here in the West what immense support was given by intelligence agencies to opposition movements inside the Russian bloc during the Cold War, ideological political support that went alongside avidly scooping up and translating whatever became available. No surprise, of course, that most support was directed at right-wing movements, the heroic ‘dissidents’ who were fighting, we were told, for their ‘human rights’.
But what this obscures, and what Budraitskis makes visible for us now, is the socialist opposition. Much of the opposition, something that was recognised as such by the security forces, was not against the regime because it was socialist but precisely because it was not socialist. One of the touchstones for the many scattered opposition groups that emerged around the Soviet Union was Lenin’s 1917 book State and Revolution, in which the argument was quite explicit. The task of the Bolsheviks, Lenin writes, was not at all to reinforce the Tsarist state, but to ‘smash and break it’.
Lenin’s book was easily available, of course, and one popular initiative was to underline in red the sections of the book where Lenin talks about accountability of representatives and the pegging of pay to the level of that of a skilled worker. This argument unleashes arguments by the regime that masquerade as socialist, arguments that then unravel themselves if they are not held in place by brute force.
One finds, for example, hysterical uncomprehending reaction by the regime, something that continues to the present day, to extreme ‘internationalism’, something that is sometimes labelled and tinged with antisemitic anxiety as ‘cosmopolitanism’. An essay by Budraitskis which is not included in this book is on the obsession with the ‘perpetual Trotskyist conspiracy’ in which ‘permanent revolution’ is portrayed as being a state of permanent instability, something that prevents the natural order of things from being restored.
A dissident among dissidents
Budraitskis is one of the ‘dissidents among dissidents’, one of the left who articulates a Marxist analysis of Russia from within, and against the right-wing dissidents who are easily incorporated into the regime. This book gives lie to the campist claim that there is anything ‘red’ left in the quasi-fascist ‘red-brown’ Putinite movements that are being spawned inside Russia, and also outside it.
This political work is not geared to private individual dissent but to public collective action, and the argument in this book is linked to the emergence of new radical movements that include the Russian Socialist Movement which Budraitskis has been part of since it was founded. This is a beautifully written activist argument for understanding what Russia has become and what is to be done to rebuild an internationalist alternative.