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.



Nice article
What Kagarlitsky fails to explain is why Russian popular opinion should matter to the American left. Does he assume (does assume?) that left politics should just follow popular sentiment in whatever non-western country a crisis arises in? That, since this is the quaint, "native" view, it must be ok? If so...should we take the same attitude toward Russia's deeply entrenched racism, anti-semitism, sexism, and homophobia? They're all ok because they're so very... "Russian"? A lot of Americans probably do mistakenly think the "poor Russians" are under Putin's svengali-like sway. Ok. Most Russians don't understand America well either. So let's get it out on the table once and for all: for both historical and political reasons, Russian popular opinion favors the military excursion into Ukraine. Hooray. And so what???
You mean all the deeply entrenched stupidities you read/ hear about eeeeevery day all Russians are supposed to suffer from?

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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