Russia in Global Competition
How Capitalism Stifles Democracy in Russia (and everywhere else)
May 17, 2023
There is perhaps no stronger ideology in Washington than “American exceptionalism,” sustained in large part through carefully constructed images of what the non-exceptional world is like. We’ve seen a number of these images over the centuries and even witnessed in our lifetimes the emergence of the “Islamist” bugbear. But none has had the staying power of the image of a backwards, despotic Russia. Indeed, we might say that this image of Russia the Terrible is the exact obverse of American exceptionalism. According to this image, where the U.S. is a “melting pot,” Russia remains distinct from its nationalities and at the top of a frozen caste system; where the U.S. is a young nation, Russia is a medieval state cosplaying as a modern nation; democracy is written in the hearts of Americans, the craving to submit to a master is written in the hearts of Russians.
This ideology began in Europe, with the old Western powers portraying Russia in this fashion or, at best, portraying it as a country whose leaders were bravely trying to rid it of this medieval baggage through liberal reforms and capitalist investment. As this story would have it, Russian recalcitrance to change led it to reject liberalism altogether and invent a novel form of medieval barbarism: the Soviet system. We know this history well, how the USSR is supposedly just the Russian Empire, and how the Russian Federation is simply the USSR continued under a new name. It’s an incoherent, ahistorical ideology with no basis in reality, but it serves its purpose.
Today, this image of Russia has been given new life and animates not just the politics of Washington, but all the capitals of Europe. NATO has a new lease on life, with ostensibly “neutral” Finland having joined the North Atlantic Protection Racket in April 2023 and Sweden’s Riksdag approving that country’s entry into NATO in a March 22 vote. At the heart of this ideology is a victory of forgetting over historical memory—a forgetting of the tragedy for which the West is culpable.
The story goes that in the 1990s the Russian people finally tried to give up their deep-seated cultural (perhaps, as the story would have it, even biological) need to submit to an autarch and embraced capitalism and democracy. But it didn’t take: according to this narrative, Russian hardware simply could not run the software of Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham. Instead of democracy, Russia embraced Putin; instead of equality, Russia embraced oligarchy; instead of property, Russia embraced State Owned Enterprises; and instead of Bentham, it embraced Aleksandr Dugin (eventually).
This tale conceals the fact that the situation we are in today is precisely the consequence of the post-Soviet contradiction of liberalism. Russia was meant to embrace both democracy and market reforms. Where the former came into conflict with the latter, it was met with tanks. Putin did not shell the Russian parliament in 1993. Boris Yeltsin did, with enthusiastic cheers from the western powers. Putin did not break from the politics of the Yeltsin period. He preserved, maintained, and expanded them. The situation was made palatable by high energy prices on the world market combined with effective scapegoating of Muslim terrorists, Jewish oligarchs, and ominous gay pride parades. The lauded State Owned Enterprises were not nationalizations of the commanding heights of the economy but rather, run-of-the-mill public-private neoliberal reforms common to most oil- and gas-rich states.
It was not a deep-seated flaw in the Russian soul that brought this about; it was the Russian ruling class who, with support from the Western powers, drowned in blood the democratic dreams of the Russian masses. In 2001, the ever-eloquent literary master Thomas Friedman exhorted readers in the New York Times to “keep rootin’ for Putin” and extolled Putin’s “meek” acceptance of a series of slaps to Moscow’s face. This list included NATO expansion, the lack of debt relief, and a refusal to continue the process of mutual nuclear disarmament. Thus, the writers and readers of the paper of record for the U.S. ruling class seemed perfectly aware that Washington was engaging in an abusive relationship with its former rival, but remained confident that enough McDonald’s franchises could be opened to make the cruelties of authoritarian capitalism palatable. Young Russians, Friedman insisted, “wanted to get rich the Chinese way, by making things, not the old Russian way, by taking things….”
Friedman’s slogan really lays bare how we got here. The “West” was never interested in Russian democracy and actively supported efforts to suppress it. When Yeltsin unleashed tanks on parliament, the West cheered. When Yeltsin and Putin turned Chechnya into a smoking ruin, the West cheered. Democracy and capitalism are incompatible in Russia for the same reasons they are incompatible anywhere: capitalist market reforms are wildly unpopular.
So then the Putin government tried to thread this needle and find new ways to bring people onboard with the capitalist project. There was “Sovereign Democracy,” there was the attempt to create a faux opposition with Medvedev, but ultimately something sinister was brewing in the interstices of capitalism’s failure to capture the hearts and minds of the Russian population. Liberalism “lite” was not going to cut it. Lurking in the shadows was the old vision of the Czar not as liberal reformer, but as the Emperor of the Third Rome, the successor to Byzantium and the Orthodox Christian redeemer of humanity against the evils of modernity. Aleksandr Dugin’s fascistic philosophy has now answered these needs, migrating from the intellectual circles at the top of Russia’s military to the halls of the Kremlin itself. The heroic stand of “Tradition” and “Orthodoxy” against the liberal, modern, “cancelling” West finds its audience among fascists in the West as well, but it is as empty and cynical as all its predecessors. After all, Poland’s government is at the forefront of the global far right, and it is the leading cheerleader among the NATO nations for turning the heat up on Moscow.
In a press conference shortly after the invasion of Ukraine began, Dugin described the situation by relating it to Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard. Relaying a conversation he claims to have had with Brzezinksi, Dugin asked, “Is chess not a game for two?” Brzezinski’s responded no, in fact, it was a solitary game. The message, he said, was clear: Russia was not a player of the game but a piece of the board. A mere pawn. Dugin then dramatically painted a picture of Putin rising from behind the board, looking on in envy, asking, “Can I play the game, too?” This is the reality of Putin’s rise: Moscow is not in conflict with the imperial powers of the West because it represents an alternative, but because it wants to play the game, too.