Russian dissident intellectual Boris Kagarlitsky says that the American understanding of Russia is simplistic and deeply flawed.
Kagarlitsky, who spent more than a year as a political prisoner under the Soviets, came to Madison recently to speak at the University of Wisconsin at the invitation of the Havens Center. I interviewed Kagarlitsky at the downtown hotel where he was staying.
The American media reporting on Russia and the Ukraine “reflects the weakness of the American left,” Kagarlitsky told me, “and the left’s lack of understanding of Russia in class and social terms.”
As a result, Kagarlitsky says, U.S. media coverage of Russians amounts to a collection of stereotypes.
“The whole of Russian society is seen as just one reactionary mass with a slave psychology,” he says. “In actuality, there is a shifting public opinion in Russia, most often moving in a direction opposite from the West.”
Kagarlitsky was imprisoned for a couple of days and endured beating under Boris Yeltsin’s regime in 1993 for opposing Yeltsin’s dissolution of the Russian Parliament. President Vladimir Putin hasn’t yet sent Kagarlitsky to jail. But Kagarlitsky’s house was searched a couple of years ago, possibly due to his links to protests that summer in Moscow. Contrary to Putin’s image in the United States, Kagarlitsky actually sees him as a weak leader.
“The illusion is that Putin is in charge, while he isn’t,” Kagarlitsky says. “Putin’s greatest strength is his weakness, because competing factions of the elite can influence him. He’s a manager of compromise.”
Kagarlitsky compares Putin to the kings of the early modern period in Europe, who stayed in power by playing off of disagreements between different factions.
“Whenever there is a crisis, Putin disappears for a few days,” Kagarlitsky adds. “He reappears three or four days later with a strong statement. The key stakeholders such as the oligarchic groups are able to tell him during that time what they want.”
And, Kagarlitsky adds, Putin has had to take into account what the silent Russian majority wants, too, which is why he hasn’t cut social welfare spending.
Kagarlitsky views Putin’s invasion of the Crimea through the same prism.
“Russian policy there changes every two weeks, since different power elites have different interests,” Kagarlitsky says. “What is well known is that the rebels have received arms and ammunition from Russia, but what is not so well known is that the Ukrainian military has also received almost as much military equipment from Russia. This is because different Russian elite groups have been supplying different sides.”
Kagarlitsky calls the conflict in the Ukraine “a Russian civil war being fought outside Russia.”
The other driving force in the Ukraine, Kagarlitsky says, is Russian public opinion.
“Support in Russia is really strong for the Eastern Ukraine separatists,” he says.
Kagarlitsky is pessimistic about the future of U.S.–Russia relations.
“There’s no way out right now if Ukraine is the major topic,” he says. “The Americans don’t want the conflict resolved, even though Angela Merkel is having second thoughts.”
“Ukraine is looking to Washington to make the Germans give them aid,” he adds. “The Europeans are fed up.”
And the situation is made worse, Kagarlitsky says, because of the imposition of austerity measures on Ukraine by institutions such as the IMF.
“The international community has to fix Ukraine,” he says. “Instead, IMF conditionalities are destroying it further.”
This, he adds, is part of a relentless expansion that is an inherent feature of free-market economics. Russian elites, distrustful of the West, see Russia’s move into the Ukraine as “a defensive move against Western expansion,” he says.
“This geographical expansion into new markets has happened in different phases,” he says. “First, it was Latin America, and then Asia, North Africa, and East Asia. Accompanying this is a project to take already existing markets and reshape them, such as in the ex-Soviet countries.”
Kagarlitsky has lived in both the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, and draws interesting comparisons between the two.
“Individual consumption is dramatically better under Putin than in the USSR,” he says. “The problem is with the lack of social services. Plus, upward mobility is decreasing, and the economy is structurally weaker than back then.”
Kagarlitsky’s memories of the Soviet Union include being imprisoned for thirteen months on charges of anti-Soviet activities for being the editor of an underground publication.
“It was not so bad,” Kagarlitsky recalls wryly. “I was young, and I educated myself by constantly reading. The prison had a good library consisting of books confiscated from Stalin’s victims.”
Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive.