Russian “conservatives” are generally hopeless

No matter who gets to occupy the New Shaab Palace and the White House, the Kremlin’s occupants will still have to admit that Russia, viewed as a country rather than merely a strutter on the global stage, is not getting anywhere. It cannot boast of American political liberties, Chinese technological dynamism or European social security, although one could say Russia is no stranger to American inequality, Chinese censorship and European stagnation.

On the other hand, as one well-informed Russian observer has remarked, the Kremlin may very well be comfortable with the long-term stagnation scenario precisely because it envisages nothing happening at all – no tectonic shifts, no upheavals, no dislocations. It might even work out OK if everybody else keeps stagnating or regressing – otherwise it’s a pretty fast slide to third-world irrelevance.

There’s something that the most misanthropic Putinist cynics share with the most incisive Western conservative skeptics: a lack of vision for the future. But to make matters worse, Russian “conservatives” are cheering at the prospect of stagnation (“stability”) at home and chaos elsewhere. This schadenfreude passes for strategic thinking.

Konstantin Pobedonostsev (1827-1907), the “Great Inquisitor,” the Russian arch-reactionary of the late 19th century, was praised for his analytical powers by his detractors and criticized for failing to come up with long-term solutions by his allies. He offered nothing, it seemed, but opposition to change, rooted in a deepening disappointment in humans in general and Russians in particular. Towards the end of his life, he asked (apocryphally): “But do you know what Russia is? An icy desert, where evil men roam.” He called the Russian people a “horde corralled in tents of stone” and eventually resigned himself to the inevitability of a revolution.

Pobedonostsev’s present-day Russian followers are seldom as well-educated as the old man but are often as contemptuous of the crowds and as apprehensive of social change beyond their control. They realize, deep down, that Russia is moribund and will not recover unless their ilk ease their hold on the nation’s politics and imagination. Theirs is a mindset radically different from that of the pro-Trump American right, which is essentially optimistic, as befits an American movement.


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