During my trip to Russia, a delegation from the United Russia ruling party came by my university to give a talk about their platform. Seeing as we were a â€œliberal arts collegeâ€ they didnâ€™t get a warm reception. But to those who were willing to listen, one could learn a lot. Let’s start from the top.
Is United Russia Conservative?
Most people, if prompted to answer where they believe United Russia fits on the political spectrum would say that the group is conservative. But according to Huntingtonâ€™s definition of conservatism, United Russia cannot be considered conservative. Huntingtonâ€™s thesis is that conservatism can only be a purely situational rather than ideational ideologyâ€”a defense of any existing institutions against fundamental challenge. In other words, conservatism is a knee-jerk reaction to whatever trend of progressivism is alive and well at the time, without an all-encompassing idea at its core. The United Russia party openly agrees with Huntingtonâ€™s analysis and instead considers itself traditional as opposed to â€œconservativeâ€.
However, can it be said that UR is even traditionalist? According to the party ideology, and the presentation by the representatives, UR is firmly wedded to many key concepts of modernity and the liberal project. In fact, UR considers itself the only force that can save classical liberalism from itself, a strange claim for a party that considers itself â€œtraditional.â€
They claim the title of defenders of real liberal values which they claim are now dead. From a conceptual point of view, this seems to be a either a convenient escape from logic or perhaps a different understanding of the term â€œtraditional.â€ Perhaps there is a new understanding of traditionalism that is defined by UR as being â€œdiet liberalismâ€ or â€œliberalism liteâ€ that makes it more palatable to the Russian public.
The Individual vs â€œThe Personaâ€
One of the more interesting ideas advanced by UR is the concept of a â€œpersona,â€ not an individual. They make the point that a â€œperson is realized only in the context of society not as a disembodied individual. Mass culture is creating a culture of individual consumers,â€ United Russia says, and here they have a point. At least in the West, the United States has embarked on a project following the end of the Second World War and arguably even earlier, to transform the American citizen into the American consumer. United Russia asks the hypothetical about what the future will look like, â€œwhen we are all interchangeable consumers, when all identity is relative, when we can sell everything that we own as a culture to transnationals. Whether this is the future of disembodied individualism that we wantâ€¦â€
Their criticism of modern consumer culture extends to the ideas of modern liberalism as well. Neoliberalism as a model they say, is one that is not needed in Russia, and that we have to learn from the cultural suicide of the West. They came out swinging against neo-liberalism saying that, â€œneoliberals say you will win if you sell out, and they to convince you to be willing to sell everything, all in favor of economics. Replace everyone with Vietnamese if you want efficiency. This is the end goal of the neo-liberal model, and we believe that it is an insane experiment; rather all social experiments must be grounded in history.â€
Surprisingly enough, they made an argument about the need for multiculturalism, but not in the way that most progressives would consider. If a country has a right to self-determinism, then what can we say about neo-liberalism, â€œwhen it is involved in the colonization of traditional cultures?â€
A Case against Democracy
It would seem that United Russia does not believe in democracy as the highest governing principle of a state. They did not come right out and say it, but I believe the interpretation is correct, if one is wililing to read between the lines of the rhetoric. For example, one of the representatives of United Russia said that, â€œdemocracy can be manipulated, like a retard; special interest groups can derail the entire project, what is more important is the narod.â€ This draws obvious parallels with the German idea of the volk. They continue: â€œDemocracies can become easily manipulated by transnational corporations, foreign NGOs, or corrosive ideals.â€ United Russia makes the point, (take it as you will) that they are not against the idea of democracy categorically, rather, â€œwhat United Russia is against, is the manipulation of identityâ€¦ in the name of any ideology that is alien to that people.â€ A criticism of democracy is hard to find in the modern world, where the idea of popular government has trumped all others in debates about the nature of government, but it seems that United Russia is making the case for a national project not necessarily based on democratic values.
Religion and Tradition
When asked how many people in attendance actually were practicing Orthodox Christians, only a smattering of people actually raised their hands. This is fairly typical among the youth of most developed countries, and it seems to be a valid criticism to point out that among the population at large, religiosity is not that common. Therefor a party that is basing its appeal on â€œtraditional values rooted in Orthodoxy,â€ seems to be only appealing to the minority of faithful in an otherwise post-communist country. The counter to this point, that I personally found convincing, is that the question is not necessarily one of religious practice (going to church every Sunday) or even faith (blasphemy I know), but rather self-identity. They make the comparison to China, still ostensibly Communist, but which has people who have the Chinese and Confucian values and realize the value of traditional religion to their self-identity-like. No one could say that the average Chinese does not realize that he is Chinese first and communist second. This is not a unique phenomenon, and Russians, just like the Chinese, need a self-identity grounded in history and tradition.
A Unique Take on the Recent History of Russia
People thought synergy between countries would continue, but this was not the case as the United States decided to pursue hegemony and rifts developed between the SCO countries. To put in perspective the loss incurred by Russia, Ukraine took 60% of the industry with it during the breakup of the Soviet Union, as well as 50 million citizens. The rift between Ukraine and Russia has in fact been called a â€œtragic developmentâ€ by both Putin and his party on several occasions.
Interestingly enough, they seemed very well read on Huntingtonâ€™s â€œClash of Civilizations,â€ making the point that the split in Ukraine has been predicted for a while now and that this entire crisis is about deciding what Russia is in the post-soviet world. However, on the important questions, such as what Russia’s future looks like in the 21st century, their stance is unclear. Almost as opaque are the answers of United Russia about the border question.
When I asked about Russiaâ€™s boundaries, the answer was not what I expected.
The representatives said, â€œFor now, Russiaâ€™s boundaries, but boundaries change. It is not to say that we want to fight for new ones, but further integration is possible. Take Kazakhstan as an example. We cannot wage wars to expand markets, but further synchronization with Kazakhstan and the other ‘stans’ is possible.”
When pressed about Ukraine, however, there was a lot of dodging, and roundabout answers. It was only when they were pressed further by the audience that they finally gave out the party line. â€œWe support federalization of Ukraine with greater independence for the Lughansk and Donetsk oblasts.â€ No mention of Novorossiya, of independence, of possible integration with Russia, nothing. Here they toed the party line very carefully, but that does not mean that they may not have other convictions privately.
A student stood up and asked a long and impassioned question about economic opportunity. She mentioned how she did not feel that she could have a career here as a student of politics and with opinions that run contrary to the ruling regime. She said that she was planning to leave for the West soon, and seek self-realization there. I will let the United Russia answer stand on its own here. Their appeal to the idea of the narod and the common folk is clear here, and so is their refusal to backpedal.
â€œConservatism needs a structure of realization, just like liberalism, and if you want to immigrate away and realize yourself in another country, you are in a minority. Most people canâ€™t do that, it is only people with a certain level of prosperity and income independence that have that option available to them. We need to care about the people that donâ€™t have that option first and foremost.â€
This quote more than any other I believe, highlights who United Russiaâ€™s voter base is, and who it tries to focus its appeal to. Needless to say, it is not the liberal intelligentsia of the university crowd.