Dissidents Among Dissidents: Ideology, Politics and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia
by Ilya Budraitskis, trans. by Giuliano Vivaldi
Verso, 2022, 224 pp.
The shocking scope and brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have prompted legions of journalists, pundits, and academics to try to explain the conditions, rationale, and possible outcomes of Vladimir Putin’s war, often by drawing connections back to the Soviet and imperial periods. In this cluttered and uneven field of interpretation and polemic, Russian leftist activist, art critic, and historian Ilya Budraitskis’s new collection of essays, Dissidents Among Dissidents, comes as a much-needed intervention.
Published in English in a highly readable translation by Giuliano Vivaldi just prior to the invasion, Budraitskis’s book offers non-Russian speakers a trenchant analysis of the ideological underpinnings of Putin’s Russia and the domestic political groups that have opposed his government. Although written before speculation about a Russian invasion had begun in earnest, Budraitskis’s examinations of post-Soviet Russian politics help contextualize the conflict, including Ukraine’s centrality to Putin’s vision of Russian domestic and geopolitical interests, as well as the inability of the Russian opposition to either predict or prevent the scale of the invasion.
Budraitskis suggests that there is a fundamental paradox of Russian politics under Putin: the desire to be both inside and outside of the Western geopolitical order. This paradox was not obvious at the beginning of Putin’s tenure. In the early 2000s, he tried to follow Boris Yeltsin’s conciliatory diplomatic style, as Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar argued in All the Kremlin’s Men (2016). At the time, Putin appeared keen on bringing Russia closer to NATO and international organizations such as the UN, seemingly out of a desire to make Russia an equal partner of Western states. In pursuit of this goal, he had to accept what they framed as the correct model of world politics, including the expansion of NATO into the former Soviet bloc. But Putin ultimately felt he was being humiliated by a global hierarchy that continued to be dominated by Western norms and interests.
Putin had also inherited the democratic institutions—elections, separation of powers, and anticorruption policies—that were implemented in Russia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In his first decade in power, he did not object to democracy outright but added qualifications instead: in 2006, Vladislav Surkov, First Deputy Chief of Putin’s administration, developed the idea of Russia as a “sovereign democracy,” meaning that democratic forms had to be adjusted to Russia’s specific regional and geopolitical position, thus subordinating democracy to state sovereignty. No outside institutions or states should impose standards, democratic or otherwise, on Putin’s regime.
Budraitskis argues that 2012 marked a turning point for this vision of sovereign democracy. In December 2011, protests exploded in Moscow over accusations of electoral fraud during the country’s parliamentary elections, which included allegations of ballot stuffing. A few months later, the largest protest movement in over a decade emerged to call for fair presidential elections. Yet Putin celebrated victory in March with only about 30 percent of the vote counted. Observers said he had faced no real competition and unfairly benefited from lavish government spending on his own behalf, as well as from a change to the constitution implemented by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev that was designed to allow Putin to remain in power. He continued to claim that his political rule was democratic even as his government suppressed demonstrations and prosecuted protesters, who he claimed were Western agents.
By 2014, Budraitskis writes, “Russia had abandoned its doomed attempts to fit into” the Western-oriented model of international relations, and began to more forcefully claim a right to intervene in foreign countries and reshape international borders. Budraitskis argues that Putin modeled Russia’s international stance on Samuel P. Huntington’s idea of a clash of civilizations—distinct geohistorical regions whose cultural specificities place them in inevitable conflict with one another. Russia, Budraitskis writes, has positioned itself as the center of Russkiy Mir (the Russian world)—a union of territories bound together by a shared culture and historical mission, and whose conservative Orthodox values stand in opposition to the liberal West. In a recent speech, Putin argued that a clash between Russia and the “collective West” has been going on for decades. The West provoked Russia into starting the “special military operation” in Ukraine, he declared. Their victory in this operation would set up “the beginning of a radical breakdown of the U.S.-style world order.”
Ukraine has long been a key frontier for Putin’s ambitions. In November 2013, Ukrainians began protesting at Maidan in Kyiv over President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to abandon an agreement with the European Union in favor of closer integration with Russia. The uprising, which split public opinion in Ukraine, culminated in 2014 with Yanukovych being forced from office—and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. For Putin, the Euromaidan underscored how the goal of Ukrainian integration with Europe conflicted with Russia’s geopolitical interests in the former Soviet Union. The protests also seemed to mirror internal Russian discontent and the orientation of a large portion of the Russian population toward Europe—an inclination that the Russian government has actively suppressed since 2013 as part of what Budraitskis calls the country’s “conservative turn.”
To understand the ideology of this turn, Budraitskis turns to the early-twentieth-century Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, whom Putin has referenced in speeches on multiple occasions. An Orthodox and neo-Hegelian thinker, Ilyin believed that there were universal laws to which a nation must submit in order to fulfill its destiny. Human history is about the unfolding of each nation’s Spirit, which a political leader must be able to comprehend and follow. Violent and oppressive actions by the state can be justified if they follow the laws of this Spirit and counteract the forces of Evil (which, for Ilyin, was largely represented by the liberal decadence of the West). Putin’s government has invoked this sense of national destiny to justify the repressive features of the Russian state and the war in Ukraine.
Budraitskis also addresses the Putin regime’s notoriously complicated relation to the Soviet past. While the Stalinist period, especially during the Second World War (called the Great Patriotic War in official Russian discourse), has been taken as a model for the current Russian state, the dominant government narrative characterizes the Russian Revolution as a mistake. For Putin, the 1917 revolution showed the destructive power that can be unleashed in attempts to realize radical change. According to the former chairman of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, the memory of the revolution is why Russia “highly values stability” today. Putin embraces the conservative turn under Stalin’s rule, which demonstrated what Budraitskis calls “the triumph of the ‘reason of the state.’” In particular, the victory over the Nazis in 1945 serves as proof of the benefits of authoritarianism. For the Kremlin, the formal political characteristics of the Russian regime—whether it is monarchical, socialist, or liberal democratic—do not matter so long as the hierarchical “nature” of the state persists. The Ukrainian government is seen as illegitimate in part because it is a descendant of the 2014 Maidan revolution—and revolution deviates from the historical destiny of the Russian world.
Budraitskis also comments on how this authoritarian vision relates to Russia’s neoliberal economic model; writing prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, he did not anticipate the potential contradiction between Putin’s political and economic projects. The sanctions imposed in response to the war in Ukraine have devastated the Russian economy, with hundreds of companies abandoning the country along with thousands of educated Russians. Russia is now largely excluded from the global financial system and trade with Europe and North America. Russian political scholar Ilya Matveev has called the Kremlin a “Bonapartist regime” that supports the interests of oligarchic capitalists without giving them political power. The war has destroyed their economic networks and undermined the country’s potential for growth. If anything, it seems to signal that the health of the national economy is less important to the government than the strengthening of Putin’s political power—a sense of priorities with explosive potential in the longer term.
The leading force against Putin’s government and its vision for Russia has been the country’s liberal intelligentsia. Budraitskis argues that they have failed to counteract Putin’s regime (and, we might now add, to stop the current war) in large part because of their moral view of politics. For Budraitskis, the Russian intelligentsia is not a public with a clear and coherent agenda (let alone the political will to realize it). Rather, it is defined by a “style” of thinking in which those who oppose Putin and his government are “decent people”—in contrast to the majority of the Russian population, who avoid political engagement one way or the other.
The failure of the Russian majority to participate in opposition politics is often interpreted by the intelligentsia as a problem of the “homo sovieticus.” The pejorative term has been used to describe the Soviet Union’s conformist citizens, whose passivity in the face of state power (“inner slavery”) has persisted into the post-Soviet period. It is the homo sovieticus, rather than the organization of economic, political, and geopolitical power within which Russia is situated, that prevents Russia from moving toward a more liberal politics and civil society.
The same intelligentsia tends to see themselves as the direct successors of Soviet dissidents. Budraitskis complicates this view in an essay on the heterogeneity of Soviet opposition intellectuals. Rather than a monolith with uniformly liberal views, they were a diverse group with diverging political commitments. In addition to the well-known dissidents who wanted to move toward Western liberal values, there were left-wing dissidents who wanted to reform, rather than dismantle, the Soviet system and maintain a commitment to socialist values. Perestroika in the 1980s was an attempt at that sort of reform, but by then it was too late to repair a poorly functioning government riven with tensions between the conditions of life for most Soviet citizens and the ideological postulates of the state.
Instead of using the complex history of Soviet dissidents as a direct analogy to the present, Budraitskis seeks to explore the roots of a dynamic Russian oppositional political culture. But the experiences of Soviet dissidents have become relevant in unfortunate ways as well. In late 2017, a new law was introduced requiring that nongovernment and media organizations funded from abroad register as “foreign agents.” A more recent version of the law has added individuals and members of the broader public to the list. Once registered, organizations and individuals are subject to additional audits and are obliged to mark all their publications with a disclaimer saying that the materials are being distributed by a foreign agent. In April 2022, a new version of the law was proposed that would include people “influenced”—and not just with funding—to the list of potential agents. While the rhetoric of “foreign agents” invokes Cold War–era spies, the current laws mark anyone with views deviating from state propaganda in much the same way that dissidents were singled out during the Soviet era.
In a recent interview with Dissent, Budraitskis argued that, under this new repression, “politically, the Russian opposition is destroyed.” Among the broader Russian public, the dominant attitude remains indifference. Alexei Yurchak, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote a preface to the Russian edition of Dissidents Among Dissidents, has argued that only a small minority of the Russian public protested against the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and that many Crimean residents genuinely affirmed the takeover in a referendum allowing Russia to seize the peninsula with minimal force—an “occupation without occupation.” That same condition characterizes contemporary Russia as a whole: while it is often difficult to gauge the extent of domestic support for Putin’s war, the majority of the population appears to have at least accepted it with little visible protest after a small initial burst.
Dissidents Among Dissidents is a deeply personal book. Budraitskis writes not just as an observer of contemporary Russian politics but as an active participant in the opposition culture. He has suffered the consequences of openly critiquing Putin’s regime. In March 2022, Russian police began an investigation into Russian academics critical of the state; the Moscow School of Social and Economic Science, where Budraitskis had been teaching, received warnings about hiring people with such critical views. Under the constant threat of arrest, Budraitskis, following in the footsteps of previous generations of dissidents, decided to leave Russia.
Aleksandra Simonova is a PhD candidate in anthropology at UC Berkeley and a documentary filmmaker. Her current research deals with issues of identities, senses of national belonging, and contested memories in post-2014 Crimea.