The Elite in Russia Is Kept on a Leash by the Nation

An Interview with Zakhar Prilepin by Filip Memches

If Europeanism is preserved anywhere, it will be in Russia—says the Russian writer and National Bolshevik Party activist Zakhar Prilepin in conversation with Filip Memches.

Vladimir Putin is more and more often using hardline right-wing rhetoric and his words are followed by political decisions. For example, in 2013 the Kremlin host signed two laws which met with criticism of liberal opinion-making communities in the West: the first banned “promoting non-traditional sexual relations among minors,” and the second introduced punishments for offending religious feeling and desecration of churches. Are we witnessing a rejection of modernity in Russia and a conservative counterrevolution?

There is also such a term as “conservative revolution” and it is more to my liking. So if Russia really is going through a stage of a conservative revolution, this is all right, for the concept of “counterrevolution” has something degrading in it. But I think that in our country we are not dealing with a regression.

But the term “conservative revolution”— although it points back to the name of an intellectual movement in the Weimar Republic— sounds like an oxymoron.

Very many misunderstandings in the world are connected with the belief that humanity is evolving, that it is moving along a path of progress. Meanwhile you should note that in Russian literature this motif is completely absent, for the more we are removed in time from the cruci fixion of Christ, the less we are able to follow this road. I don’t think that the concept of progress is crucial in the Russian national awareness. So in Russia there is a revolution aimed at going back to tradition. And thus, paradoxically, Russia is moving forward.

Except that this is a different tradition than in the West…

Fortunately, Russia is not a European country, but in many areas it adopted the European tradition, originating in Byzantium, including the law. And Russia is preserving this heritage, preserving its Christian identity. We can also see how today’s Europe is convulsively parting with its heritage. Russia is different. If Europeanism is preserved anywhere, it will be in Russia.

But at the moment this “conservative revolution” is pushed through by people who started their careers as functionaries of the Communist regime and adapted themselves to the new circumstances after the breakup of the Soviet Empire. What do they have in common with the Russian tradition? Don’t you notice an irony of history in that?

The people who today are criticizing the former Communist Party members or KGB agents—Russian democrats and enlightened liberals—entered public life in the 1980s and 1990s by shouting about repressions against the Orthodox Church, about Orthodox values being forgotten, about the necessity of reinstating religion to its proper place. Today the same persons turned out to be the most aggressive and active critics of the presence of the Orthodox Church in public life. And the defenders of the Church are what they are, they can’t be different. Yes, they are people raised in the Soviet Union, but where would they come from? From Australia? My father was a member of the Communist Party, but it did not affect the fact that I was baptized as soon as I was born in 1975. In our house there were icons, religious books. And I do not recall that in those times the tradition was being damaged in any way. A Communist was not a man who demolished churches and shot priests down all day long.

You want to say that today’s Russian conservatives in power are sincere Christians? Perhaps they treat religion instrumentally—as an instrument of consolidating the society they rule over, the society to which they present, just like in the Soviet times, the “rotten”West as the main enemy?

Of course, there is a lot of hypocrisy and mendacity in the behavior of these people. But they are not the ones in charge of the return to tradition. Putin and the KGB have nothing to do with it. It is more than 90% of society who openly influence the course of events. There is a lingering myth that the Russian nation is characterized by a slave or serf mentality, passivity, lack of courage in fighting for their interests. It only appears to be so. For in fact the impact of the nation on the political elite is huge. It is not true that today the political elite is imposing conservative values on society. The reverse is true. The popular/national element is pulling the elite behind it, and the composition of this elite is to a large extent determined by negative selection. The elite is not ruling the nation, it is kept on a leash by it.

Was it also like that in the 1990s, when the Russian political establishment was implementing the transformation of the system and the economy, which was painful and brutal for many ordinary citizens?

Even Boris Yeltsin, still regarded as a pro-Western politician, was forced to make decisions characteristic for traditionalists or conservatives. It was Yeltsin who sent Russian troops to Transnistria and Chechnya, it was Yeltsin who pushed away liberals from the throne and introduced conservatives to the corridors of power, and finally it was Yeltsin who understood that there was huge social demand for the existence of nation. And with Putin this understanding is more organic. But his retinue is in 50% or 80% composed of liberals. These are not people with Communist Party background, but persons who entered adult life in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There is a generational change going on and people who do not have anything in common with communism find their way to the structures of power. They have been shaped by Western cultural patterns. Except that Putin will have to part with these people, for the nation will demand it from him. And thus it will lead to a renewal of the political elite. But this has nothing to do with the attitude to communism.

One gets an impression that you assumed the role of an advocate of communists, trying to reconcile fire with water. It can’t be denied that the ideology which constituted the founding myth and doctrine of the Soviet state, is for some reason perceived as hostile to religion and all kinds of tradition…

Certainly, besides the official ideology there was also real life. It was the greatest tyrant of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, who established relations with the Orthodox Church. People from the world of culture were friends with clergymen. Yes, it was a difficult, painful, and sometimes nightmarish coexistence. I am not an advocate of the Soviet regime, but nevertheless I want to remind you that not everything was so simple then. Events from the period of the Civil War in Russia, when the Bolsheviks persecuted the Orthodox Church, are illegitimately extended onto the 70 years of the existence of the Soviet Union. The Soviet era went through various stages.

As recently as the 1990s the communists led by Gennady Zyuganov played a significant role in Russian politics. In 1996 their leader was a serious rival to Yeltsin in the presidential elections. Now he heads a party which plays the role of a licensed opposition in the Duma. What has happened?

They have simply become part of the ruling establishment. They do put forward some ideas, but they are part of the system. In fact, it has to be said that in Russia the right-left division does not correspond to the right-left division in the West. Russian leftists are more traditionalist than One Russia, which economically is a liberal party. So its politicians are liberal conservatives. And politicians from Zyuganov’s party or other left-wing communities are more similar to such politicians as Marine le Pen or even American Republicans. Sergei Udaltsov, who was jailed for speaking out against the Putin regime, has voiced his support for the actions of the New Russia fighters in the Donbas. This shows that Russian leftists, in contrast to Western left, identify themselves with the nation and are remote from various marginal topics. In the field of fighting against oligarchy, promoting the issue of material redistribution, Russia will move to the left. And this will favor the emergence of some alternative for One Russia. So we are dealing with a clash of two tendencies: the country is still ruled by an oligarchy, but the nation aspires to hold power in its own hands.

But One Russia can adopt the slogans of anti-system parties.

It doesn’t seem to me that this grouping—this liberal party of billionaires and millionaires— can change its clothes and put on a new disguise. One Russia will be what Putin orders it is to be. This is an institution of the regime directed by the Kremlin. And what Russia needs is changes. Inflexible officials should be replaced with people who are capable of taking risks, of heroic actions, for example such as those who showed courage in the Crimea or in the Donbas.

From the moment when the political crisis in the Ukraine began, there grew tensions between Russia and the West. There is a widespread opinion that the differences of opinion between Russian and Western political classes simply came to the surface, but perhaps it is a question of different mentalities?

The elites are not homogeneous, and they are changing. Yesterday’s elites are different from today’s ones or those which will come tomorrow. Additionally, in Russia there is also the division of the elite into conservatives and liberals. And of course Russians are different from Westerners. Except that in today’s France, Italy or Germany there are many people who like what is happening in Russia. For they are very unhappy about Europe’s rejection of tradition, including Christianity.

It is impossible not to mention the impact of the events of 1968 on the development of left-wing thought. In the West it gradually started to move away from social issues to cultural ones. In Russia you cannot see that.

What survived in Russia is only the heavy, conservative current of the left, and today there are also organizations which are ideologically close to Western left, but they play a marginal role. This has been conditioned by Russian history. Peter the Great implemented Western patterns. Putin came to power thanks to a supporter of a pro-Western option, Boris Berezovsky. In opposition to such politicians Russian left is assuming traditionalist forms.

And it is more focused on the national community. For in the West individual freedoms are the priority.

When Russian left considers some problem, it starts from the assumption that the interests of the nation—the majority—are important. And Western left always acts on behalf of various minorities. Today it deals with problems of sexual minorities. Tomorrow it may take on something as politically irrelevant as plant breeding. Yet Europe is faced with huge economic problems. In Greece or in Italy there are people who cannot afford to buy bread. There is the serious issue of immigration. In this situation fighting for legalization of same-sex unions is completely absurd.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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