In the first two installments of this series on Russia and Islam we have seen that the reasons why neither the modern European civilizational model nor the traditional Orthodox faith can, at this point in time, provide a viable and positive source of ideological or spiritual inspiration for post-Soviet Russia. While in the past three hundred years the ideologically dominant philosophical and political paradigm has been the “Westernizing” one, the absolute disasters which inevitably resulted from any “liberals” coming to power in Russia (Kerensky, Eltsin), combined with the West’s betrayal of all its promises made to Gorbachev (NATO would not move East) has finally resulted in a collapse of this model. The vast majority of Russians today would agree on the following basic ideas:
a) The West is no friend to Russia, never was, never will be, and the only way to deal with it is from a position of strength.
b) Russia needs a strong government lead by a strong leader.
c) Russian “liberals” (in the modern Russian use of the word) are a small degenerate group of US-worshiping intellectuals who hate Russia.
d) Russia has to be a “social state” and the “pure” capitalist model is both morally wrong and fundamentally unsustainable, as shown by the current financial crisis.
e) The democratic system is a fraud used by the rich for their own interests.
So far so good, but what is the alternative?
Historically, there used to be a traditionalist model which said that Russia needed to be an Christian Orthodox country, where the highest secular power needed to be vested in a Tsar, whose power must be kept in check by a powerful and autonomous Church, and where the people’s will would be expressed in a Zemskii Sobor, a “Council of the Land”, something like a Parliament with a primarily consultative function. This idea was expressed by philosophers and writers such as Khomiakov, Tikhomirov, Rozanov, Solonevich, Iliin, Solzhenitsyn, Ogurtsov and many others.
With many caveats and disclaimers, I would say that this would be the Russian Orthodox version of the type of regime we see today in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Not a theocracy, of course, but a regime in which the fundamental structure, nature, function and goal of the state is to uphold spiritual values. A regime with a strong democratic component, but whose popular will can, when needed, be vetoed by the highest spiritual authorities. I would call such a system a “directed democracy”, in which the tactical decisions are left to the will of the majority of the people, but whose strategic direction is set and cannot be replaced by another one.
The big difference between Russia and Iran is that in Iran the Islamic model is clearly fully endorsed by a strong majority of the population. In contrast, in Russia even most nominally Orthodox Christians would have great reservations about attempting to establish such a “Orthodox Republic”. Its hard to come by any credible figure, but my personal gut feeling is that no more than 10% of Russians would feel comfortable with such a proposition. In other words, the idea of the establishment of an “Orthodox Republic” would probably be opposed by 90% of the people.
I personally deplore this state of affairs, if only because this is the model which I believe would be best for Russia, but politics being the science of the possible, it makes no sense to stubbornly latch on an impossibility.
Then what? What are the other options?
The currently “visible” choice of political parties is both reflective of the main currents in society and, at the same time, rather misleading. Let’s look at what these parties are:
1) “United Russia”. Putin’s party. I would describe it as moderately patriotic (but not nationalistic), definitely committed to a strong Russia, “social” in economic terms, “independent” in international relations.
2) The “Liberal Democratic Party of Russia”. Lead by Vladimir Zhironovski, it is vehemently anti-Communist and anti-Soviet, nationalistic in a buffoon-like manner, also “social” in economic terms, plain crazy in international relations.
3) The Communist Party of Russia. Lead by Gennadii Ziuganov, this is a pathetically reactionary party which openly claims to be the successor of the former CPSU, it is lead by a “boar” like politician who could be sitting right next to Brezhnev or Chernenko. It has no real vision, except for nostalgia for the USSR.
4) “Just Russia”. Lead by Sergei Mironov, a former paratrooper turned Social-Democrat, it is a moderately “left center” version of “United Russia”, its a ‘nice’ party which will never make any real difference.
5) All the pro-US parties which could no even make it into the Duma, and whose protests and demonstrations rapidly fizzled out. They are fundamentally irrelevant.
What does all this mean in reality?
There is only one party in Russia – the “United Russia” party of Putin and Medvedev. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Communists are just here to provide a safety valve function for the unhappy. While these parties do absorb a big chunk of the people who oppose Putin and United Russia, in the Duma these parties always end up voting with the Kremlin. This is also pretty much true for “Just Russia” which is so small anyway, that it does not really matter. The other useful function of the Liberal Democrats and the Communist, is that it keeps the “crazies” away from the Kremlin. The hysterical nationalists and the nostalgic Communists are absorbed by these two parties and that makes them instantly irrelevant.
I feel that it is important to stress here that there are smart, well educated and articulate nationalists and communists who do NOT belong to the Liberal Democratic or Communist parties. I am thinking of nationalists like Dmitri Rogozin (who is currently the Deputy Premier of Russian Government in charge of defense and space industry) or Stalinists such as Nikolai Starikov (the head of the Union of Citizens of Russia). Frankly, smart people say away from these two parties.
The reality is that there is only one game in town: United Russia and its non-party “All-Russia People’s Front”, created by Putin as a political movement for new ideas. Everything else is pretty much a way of making the system look “democratic” and legitimate.
Let’s sum it all up.
Russia is a multi-ethnic country which currently lack any kind of unifying ideology or spirituality, lead by a single group of people whose ideology can be summed up by mix or pragmatism, patriotism, modern socialism, and multilateralism in international relations. Most importantly,
Modern Russia is neither the Imperial Russia of pre-1917 nor is it the Soviet Union and it would be fundamentally wrong the seek parallels in the past to understand the current nature of the relationship of Russia and Islam.
This is a big temptation, into which the vast majority of western observers always falls: to seek parallels between current events and past events. While it is true that an understanding of the past if often the key to the understanding of the present, in the case of Russia and Islam this is not an appropriate approach. For example, to compare the wars in Chechnia under Eltsin and then Putin, to the way Stalin dealt with Chechens or to the way Russia invaded the Caucasus under Alexander I can only fundamentally mislead, bring to wholly inapplicable parallels, and result in deeply mistaken conclusions.
Modern Russia does not have a clear definition of itself. Lacking that type of definition, it is unable to articulate some kind of consensual view on what Islam means for Russia.
Some Russians see in Islam a very dangerous enemy, others see Islam as a natural ally. This is all made even more complicated by the fact that Islam itself is hardly a unified phenomenon and that each time we think of Islam we need to be specific on what type and even what aspect of Islam we are talking about.
For Russia, Islam represents a mix of risks and opportunities in many aspects, including spiritual, political, social, economic, historical and geostrategic aspects. To be fully understood, the topic of “Russia and Islam” needs to be looked at in each and every one of these aspects and what we will see then is that there are different “currents” inside Russia who very much disagree with each other on whether Islam is a risk or an opportunity in every single one of these aspects. So rather than to speak of “risks and opportunities”, I will refer to the spiritual, political, social, economic, historical and geostrategic “challenges” which Islam represents for Russia. This will be the topic of the next installment.
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