What’s Wrong with the Russian Liberals Value Systems?
November 29, 2023
  • Leonid Ragozin

    Riga-based independent journalist

Based on his observations of the Russian-language debate about the Middle East conflict Leonid Ragozin concludes that it says more about Russian opposition and the future of Russia than about the conflict per se.
There has never been a question about whom the majority of anti-Putin Russians would side with in any conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Russian liberalism grew out of the Soviet-era dissident movement, which itself was inseparable from the refuseniks and all those who protested state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the USSR.

Besides that, the Palestinian cause was a tenet of Soviet propaganda which had profoundly discredited itself by the end of the 1980s, triggering a backlash that manifested itself in the rejection of pretty much every old-school foreign policy narrative.

But most importantly, there is a significant human connection to Israel spanning Russian society and transcending the political barricade between Putin’s regime and its pro-democracy opponents. Notwithstanding their political positions, Russia’s intellectual and political elites simply have infinitely more relatives and friends among Jews than the Arabs. Not only supporters of the opposition, but also important regime figures, such as TV anchor Vladimir Solovyev, firmly position themselves on the side of Israel. The Palestinians cannot possibly boast the same level of empathy, despite the decades of Soviet support.

Unsurprisingly, tragic events in Israel and Gaza caught people’s attention from distracting them the war in Ukraine.
In an October Levada Centre poll, 37% of Russians named the unrest in the Middle East as the most memorable event of the month, with the war in Ukraine lagging far behind at 13%.
Over 50,000 Russians repatriated to Israel from Russia from February 2022 until mid-2023. Source: Livejournal
Meanwhile, the opponents of Vladimir Putin, habitually called “Russian liberals” in the Western media, found themselves affected by the events in a more direct way.

New Home, New Identity

Russia’s full-on war against Ukraine, unleashed in February 2022, triggered massive population
flight. That year, Israel registered the highest influx of new arrivals in two decades claiming Jewish heritage. Seventy thousand people chose to repatriate to Israel from February 2022 until July 2023, versus only 27,000 in 2021. Of these latest arrivals, 51,000 arrived from Russia.

Many of them did not remain in Israel, but used their Jewish heritage to obtain Israeli travel passports, which makes it easier for them to settle in EU countries, where Russian passport-holders are less than welcome.

But whether they chose to live in Israel or not, the result was that people - and the liberal community as a whole – gained an even greater affinity for Israel, which provided refuge to a significant part of this new wave of Russian emigration, including major cultural figures and influencers. The shock and the emotional outburst caused by Hamas atrocities was therefore entirely predictable and understandable.

Putin’s war had prompted his opponents not only to flee, but also to search for new identities. It provided both ethical and practical reasons for distancing oneself from Russia or - in extreme cases - completely cutting ties with the country by renouncing one’s citizenship and/or embracing a radically anti-Russian position on every conceivable issue (for example, Israel-based fugitive ex-oligarch Leonid Nevzlin, did both in his activity on X, formerly known as Twitter).

Large Russian cities have been multiethnic melting pots for centuries, so it is fairly easy for many Russians to find foreign heritage in their family trees, including Polish, German, Baltic, Bulgarian and indeed Jewish, among the most common cases.

Russian civilizers

This is the background against which the debate over Israel’s response to the Hamas attack unfolded in the periphery of the Western political chatroom where the Russosphere belongs.

It proceeded along the same lines as the Western debate, but the peripheral nature of the Russophone information space added a grotesque element to it, with some of the anti-Palestinian views appearing way too extreme even by Israel’s own standards.
“A part of the ‘liberal’ milieu, notably the older generation, inevitably took to explaining the conflict in Gaza in the Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilizations’ terms.”
“This is an encounter of civilizations - one which celebrates the murder of babies and the one that does not”, satirist Viktor Shenderovich told Israel’s Channel 9.

Publicist Yulia Latynina wrote in Novaya Gazeta: “In the old times, all the flourishing civilizations would sooner or later fell in the face of raids by barbarians who had nothing to lose and the whole world to gain. It was their flourishing that became the main reason for their downfall”.

Picturing Israel as a “flourishing empire” and Palestinians as envious “barbarians” is of course problematic in itself, even putting aside racist undertones. It is Israel after all that vehemently denies the left-wing charge of its being a Western colonial project in which the Arabs would have to pay for the crime of the Holocaust and centuries of European anti-Semitism – those very centuries when Arabs lived side by side with Jews.

But it takes a totally new dimension coming from a Russian intellectual. For one, Russia is routinely accused by a multitude of Western and - especially - East European voices of waging an imperialist war in Ukraine. Though the Russia-Ukraine conflict is more about ethnic nation states emerging on the ruins of a multiethnic empire, there is an element of truth in this charge, especially if you take seriously the Eurasianist ramblings of Aleksandr Dugin, which may or may not have influenced the thinking in the Kremlin. If you oppose the war in Ukraine - as Shenderovich and Latynina clearly do - why would you employ these same imperialist narratives in another geopolitical context?

Secondly, Russians, in the context of the war in Ukraine, are being just as routinely derided by anti-Russian information war groups and Eastern European politicians as “barbarians” and “non-Europeans”, inherently unworthy of belonging to “Western civilization”. There is also quite a bit of dehumanization, with such terms as “Orcs”, JRR Tolkien’s monsters, used as a monicker for Russians, being widely normalized and mainstreamed, particularly in the Eastern European political discourse.

There is the sad irony that it was Shenderovich who came under an avalanche of xenophobic attacks from supporters of Ukraine when he tried to oppose these narratives in the context of Russo-Ukrainian war. In her writings, Latynina also appears to be quite sensitive to these issues, even though she doesn’t get as much bashing from pro-Ukrainian infowar industry.

Longing for Pinochet

These contradictions expose two issues that dog Russian intellectuals:
“The instability of their value systems and their longing for a new stable identity, a desire to lean on something powerful and reliable that was lost due to Russia’s political and moral deterioration.
Destruction in the so-called "Gaza envelope" in Israel after the surprise Hamas attack. October 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
This is especially true of the older generation of Russians “liberals”. First of all, many of them - Latynina is a good example - easily fit into the illiberal part of the Western political spectrum, given their views on a plethora of issues. These were shaped in the 1990s when Russian elites were strongly influenced by American neocons. Their heroes were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and - even more so - Augusto Pinochet (Latynina is a good example of the latter streak).

Their collective longing for a Russian Pinochet was realized in the ascent of Putin. It is no coincidence that many prominent figures who adopted an uncritical position towards Netanyahu’s Israel today – art manager Marat Gelman or economist Andrey Illarionov - were to varying extents involved in building the foundations of Putin’s regime during its early, softer period.

The reality with all of these people is hardly black and white today. They parted ways with Putin decades ago and their opposition to the regime is supposedly value-based - they clearly reject dictatorship and war. But when some of them position themselves next to or even to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel’s own political context, by justifying disproportionate killings and what is increasingly beginning to look like an unfolding ethnic cleansing, one cannot help but wonder whether their views are more situational and opportunistic than based on a stable set of values.

Subconsciously or not, they keep looking for a new Putin in their new geopolitical environment, and the likes of Netanyuahu perfectly fit the bill. It is like the Soviet joke about Mercedes building a plant in the Soviet Union and supplying all the top-quality spare parts, but no matter how hard they try what appears at the end of the conveyer belt is still the good old Lada.

One may wonder what to expect, should Russian liberals – improbably - come to power in Russia after the demise of Putin and if all hell breaks loose like it did in the 1990s. How would they deal with an outbreak of terrorism in Russia’s own Gaza – the Chechen republic? Would they empower extremists in order to undermine moderate and law-abiding secessionists in Tatarstan in the way Israel, especially Netanyahu, empowered Hamas at the expense of Palestinian Authority to prevent a two-state solution?

It should be said in their defense that genuinely adhering to universal values is scary business for an intellectual in the contemporary world, especially if you are a Russian national with flimsy status in a Western country.
Unlike the Soviet-era wave of emigrants, this current diaspora finds itself in the West experiencing a deep crisis of values.
Israeli soldiers near Badr-3 rockets at an outpost in northern Gaza. November 2023.
Source: Wiki Commons
It is way more like the 1930s than the 1970s, and the second coming of Donald Trump, should it happen, is bound to unleash a new surge of far-right politics, which may have already started in the recent days, with electoral victories of far-right populists in Argentina and the Netherlands.

Towards Universal Values

Yet, finding themselves between the rock of Putin’s blood-stained dictatorship and the hard place of a disoriented, crisis-stricken West that is perpetually shifting to the far right, the Russian liberals hardly have any other choice. Their experience in exile is best described as the loss of innocence, namely an extremely idealized and uninformed image of the West (and even more so of Ukraine).

Sanctions that badly hurt opposition Russians while sparing Putin’s henchmen; the pervasive narrative of collective guilt - troubling given the collective guilt narrative’s role in the history of the 20th century; incessant xenophobic attacks by anti-Russian information warriors on leading oppositional figures, especially Aleksey Navalny; the West turning a blind eye on “securitocratic” state capture, corruption and ultra-nationalism in modern Ukraine - all of this creates a strong feeling that the hawkish and illiberal part of the Western establishment is more interested in perpetuating the conflict than in helping to usher in democracy in either  Russia or Ukraine. Also, the feeling that Putin is for Western hawks what Hamas is for Netanyahu - a convenient frenemy who is helping to derail any democracy-based win-win solution for Russia and Ukraine.

No matter how much some  Russian exiles try to identify themselves with the Israelis, their real-life experiences will be inevitably more reminiscent to those of Palestinians, dispersed around the world as they are as a result of Israel’s expansionism over decades. This will hopefully usher in an element of nuance and balance in their judgement.

In fact, it does already. Despite being by far outnumbered by the “civilizers”, a surprising number of Russian academics, journalists and other thinkers, especially younger ones,  attempted to oppose the hardline majority view from universalist positions - downplaying neither Israeli tragedy, nor the decades-long suffering of the Palestinian people, while vehemently condemning violent extremism on both sides.

In my opinion, the current wave of exiled Russians will most likely assimilate into their new environments, which includes playing by their rules and accepting their unsavory aspects. There are zero chances in them building a new democratic Russia while the West shows little interest in the project.

But as Ukraine’s defeat in the war begins to loom, the logic of the Russian intellectuals’ sorry existence, as pariahs on both sides of the geopolitical rift, will lead them to question the wisdom of what the American-led West is doing – be it in the Middle East or closer to home. Has Ukraine been thrown under the bus for the benefit of the war industry and hawkish grifters? Have they been thrown under the same bus, alongside Ukraine? How to live with this and what is to be done?

If Russian liberals are to preserve themselves as a community with a shared identity and destiny, as well as a vision of a democratic Russia integrated with the West, the very logic of this inevitable soul-searching will likely prompt them to drift towards embracing universal values in a more non-conformist manner. This, at the end of the day, will prove beneficial to their own country, to Europe and to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, those who have embraced ethnonationalist narratives of their newly adopted homes will gradually drift away from the Russian political chatroom.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy